A number of Enlightenment thinkers, including influential German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, defined humanity without really having much of an idea how most of humanity lived or what it looked like. “A universal understanding of human origins was actually created at the time by white men in Europe who only had indirect access to information about other people in the world through the lens of colonialism,” explains Porr. So when they went out into the real world and encountered people who didn’t look like them, who lived in ways they didn’t choose to live, the first question they were forced to ask themselves was: Are they the same as us? The problem was that, because of the narrow parameters they established of what constituted a human being, setting themselves as the benchmark, other cultures were almost guaranteed not to fit. In universalizing humanity by seeing themselves as the paradigm, they had laid the foundations for dividing it.– Angela Saini. Superior: The Return of Race Science
I trained as a dancer in Melbourne in a conservatoire called the Victorian College of the Arts. The studios at the VCA are huge, and a key part of learning to be a dancer in those spaces was how to take up that space, how to consume that space. We were encouraged to ‘dance big’ and to develop the strength in our legs to fill these spaces; perhaps even to ‘own’ the space.
Part of my identity as a dancer is about taking up space.
Part of my role and work as a white person in anti-racist practices is making space, or more accurately giving up space, for people of colour.
Royona sent Arabella and me an article the other day called Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People. The author, Kelsey Blackwell, writes that “I believe that in most circumstances, doing race work in an integrated setting is harmful.” She demands that “white people step aside to support spaces in which PoC members of the community are invited to feel, to be, and to touch our humanity on our terms, in a way that feels not like colonization but like coming home.”
Stepping aside. It’s a different kind of dancing, but it’s a dance I am practising.
Royona, Simon and I talk often about ally-ship. That issue’s been on my mind a lot lately and especially since Royona’s blog post – ‘Anti-Racist Research’ – on 25 August. In this post, she wrote:
Anti-Racism research teams should take care to ensure they are comprised of more than one person of colour (PoC) when working with white collaborators. The burden I have felt as the only PoC on this project, and how this burden has at times debilitated me from actually moving forward with the work, is difficult to put into words.
As Royona’s collaborator and also her friend, I felt a tight feeling in my chest when I read these words. Her burden was something we had spoken slowly and haltingly about through our work together, in team meetings and in private conversations. And I think my chest’s tight feeling came from my knowing that I couldn’t fathom this burden my friend was carrying until she told me about it – and even then only barely. (Not to mention that the act of telling, and having to tell all the time, is a heavy burden itself.)
In this kind of work done by people of colour and white people together, I’m learning that being an ally, someone who offers solidarity and support and who has their friend’s back, is not enough.
Accomplices, not allies, is the message delivered in a call to arms published in 2014 by Indigenous Action Media. I cite from this text below and then follow up with some questions for those who wonder about white allies in contemporary dance.
1. a person who helps another commit a crime
The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different from that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices. […]
Understand that it is not our responsibility to hold your hand through a process to be an accomplice. […]
Accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs, they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism. […]
Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn.
Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.
— Indigenous Action Media, ‘Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex’, Version 2 – (2014), http://www.indigenousaction.org/accomplices-not-allies-abolishing-the-ally-industrial-complex/
Some questions for contemporary dance:
If an accomplice in anti-racist struggle is a white person who helps people of colour commit crimes so they can survive and transform the racist spaces they’re forced to live in, then what do we do about contemporary dance as one of those racist spaces? Some more pointed questions below.
- what kinds of actions and attitudes have been ‘criminalised’ by the white liberal cultures of contemporary dance?
- which of these actions and attitudes are ‘criminalised’ implicitly so as to fortify white dominance in the field?
- what work have people of colour been doing that transgresses contemporary dance’s laws of operation, that agitates the field’s whiteness?
- how can white people be accomplice to those transgressions and agitations, even and especially if they are vilified or punished as a result? (the latter because people of colour are subject to punishment for such transgressions but cannot exist in the context of whiteness without transgressing, and so white people cannot hesitate at those same risks without operating on a double standard. “We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.”)
- how can, and how should the transgression of contemporary dance’s racist (soft) laws work in alliance with the transgression of the racist (hard) laws that legitimise state violence in the UK? The crimes to which Indigenous Action Media refer when they write about decolonial struggle are defined as such by white settler/white supremacist legislation and policed by the very real consequences of the criminal justice system.
- how can we white people who work in the field of contemporary dance act as accomplices to those who confront and face the consequences of racist criminalisation? Here are some places to start when looking for answers in the British context…
There was a long read in the Guardian recently about fear of migrants in the West: theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/27/immigration-panic-how-the-west-fell-for-manufactured-rage. It got me thinking about anti-black violence more generally and the systems in place for stoking and building this violence. Here’s an extract about Facebook’s role in anti-refugee/black violence:
But the greatest facilitator of race-hatred against refugees isn’t a tabloid; it’s Facebook. Researchers at the University of Warwick recently studied every anti-refugee attack – 3,335, over two years – in Germany. They found that among the strongest predictors of the attacks was whether the attackers are on Facebook. The social network aids the dissemination of rumours, such as that all refugees are welfare cheats or rapists; and, unmediated by gatekeepers or editors, the rumours spread, and ordinary people are roused to violence. Wherever Facebook usage rose to one standard deviation above normal, the researchers found, attacks on refugees increased by 50%. When there were internet outages in areas with high Facebook usage, the attacks dropped significantly.
Obviously this doesn’t directly relate to the way racism functions in contemporary dance, but how our thinking and imaginations are infiltrated by media is profoundly related to the construction of our individual and collective identities in whatever groups or “tribes” we work in and for.