In my previous post I ended on this note ‘But, more importantly, making space on the part of us people of colour, has to also simultaneously be about sabotaging processes by which (white) spaces are and have been historically produced, such that we can start ‘taking up space’ (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi; 2019) and upending power.’ In this post I want to specifically develop the idea of sabotage as a mode of dismantling whiteness (and other hegemonies) in contemporary dance.
Last month my colleague Broderick Chow and I co-presented our The UCLA Letters: On Dismantling Whiteness in the Academy at a seminar for graduate students in University of California, LA’s Department of World Arts and Culture / Dance. Taking the form of six letters (three each) that we wrote to each other over a period of two months (September to November 2019), our dialogue navigated personal experiences, critical theories, and embodied realities as scholars of colour living and working in the UK to create a matrix of protest in and through which to approach dismantling the whiteness of our fields. During our presentation, we incorporated an additional performative gesture by reading out the letters we had received, as opposed to the letters we had written. There was something in that complex layering of my voice reading out Broderick’s letters, and Broderick reading out mine that punctuated the dialectical verve of our dialogue further, while allowing us to vocalise and process the other’s thoughts, experiences and interventions. We are planning to publish the piece for anyone interested in encountering the full exchange. But in this post I want to journey through the sections of our letters that got me to the point to advocate for antiracism in our fields as acts of sabotage to systems and performances of whiteness.
Through our letters we dwelled on whether being a problem is indeed a problem, that is, ‘a bad thing’. Broderick began with problematising the pejorative associations with ‘being a problem’ and through the course of our letters, we journeyed to the conclusion with me advocating for sabotage to systems of whiteness. I trace our thinking below through citing key points in our line of thinking:
Letter 2 from Royona to Broderick signalling how PoC are framed as problems within institutions:
‘[Sara] Ahmed has further noted that taking on institutions through complaints work and pointing out problems on the grounds of social justice invariably positions us undertaking this work as the problems.’.
Letter 3 from Broderick to Royona claiming back the word problem:
‘But is being a problem such a bad thing? Maybe it is, in terms of how decolonization has been smoothed over and gentrified in the academy. When universities use the term “decolonize” today, it is in service of a fantasy that we could ever really remove coloniality. Decolonizing sounds too much like de-scaling to me—you descale your shower every two weeks, but it keeps coming back. I wonder if decolonizing evacuates the political from coloniality, the political project of assertion of your self-hood and interests against those who want to deny you these, a political project that is fundamentally antagonistic. Perhaps this is why I prefer “anti-colonialism” as a term, because it still holds that the process is one of contestation. Is this anti-colonial work then? Not to point out problems, or what’s “problematic”, but to be a problem?’
‘At the start of this letter I used the term problem interchangeably with obstacle. But they are very different. An obstacle resists the volition of another. But a problem reshapes the world around it to accommodate its own desires, if only to make that transformation for herself.’
Letter 4 from Royona to Broderick on problems as blockages that stall systems:
‘So I hope that in our call for overcoming the stuckness that grips us scholars of colour through more movement, we can consider the resistive power in stillness. Could we also imagine stillnesses as proactive blockages that stop whiteness from functioning as a system? In this perhaps I want to invert Sara Ahmed’s evocation of social justice workers as plumbers who locate and ease blockages in systems. What if we are not plumbers but indeed the blockages themselves?’
‘To be still in this mode then might mean to stay put, to claim, to own, to create blocks, to become obstacles, to cause spanners, to take up space, to become the problem as you say.’
Letter 5 from Broderick to Royona on problematising / complicating ‘making space’ on white terms :
‘Making space, turned around: how is space made? Not just space, but what Henri Lefebvre called the production of space, the consideration of space in all its dialectical relations: ideological, architectural, lived and embodied. What forces, for example, lead the British university to decide there is only room for six things a year, and only three years? (I can hazard a guess). What forces produce our endless movement as academics—our international travel to places like UCLA, to Hawaii, our productivity, our disseminations of ideas across the world—while still limiting our potentiality?’
Letter 6 from Royona to Broderick on antiracism as sabotage to white systems:
‘Might […] sabotage include the mere presence of black people and people of colour, within the relational context of the white academy? Might we be able to extend recent Cambridge University graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi’s provocation, that for black bodies to exist within white institutions is in itself an act of resistance, in order to reimagine black people and people of colour in the academy as saboteurs? To resist is to object to the operation of a system. But to sabotage is to disable it.’
‘In her article ‘Dramaturgy and Sabotage’ Arabella Stanger reminds us that dramaturgy is a set of relational acts and that ‘sabotage resides […] in acts that disrupt production or slow it down’. She argues for dramaturgy as a potential act of sabotage that upends artistic power asymmetries by ‘transforming the relational capacity of those involved’. Following this line of thinking, I am pondering whether, within the relational nexus of the white academy, might you and I and scholars of colour carrying out antiracist and anticolonial work, function as saboteurs practising disruptive dramaturgies to dismantle the performance of whiteness?’
‘In refusing to move on the terms of coloniality, in rejecting smoothening over dialectics in favour of civility, in dwelling in tense stillnesses, and in ‘taking up space’, I end then on the potentialities of antiracist and anticolonial thinking and doing as a dramaturgical sabotage to systems of whiteness.’
What then can sabotaging the whiteness of contemporary dance and dance studies look like? How might us artists and scholars of colour reimagine ourselves as saboteurs in these fields?