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.
I’ve been driving people mad recently by constantly sharing ideas from a book called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen — a book first suggested to me by Colin Poole many years ago. There’s a lot in the book about what lies beneath all of our conversations, but these can be summarised by what the authors describe as three different conversations: 1) the ‘what happened’ conversation about interpretation: “difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values … They are not about what is true, they are about what is important” (p.10); 2) the ‘feeling’ conversation to do with how each of us feels about what is being discussed: “difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings” (p.13); and 3) the ‘identity’ conversation to do with who we are and how we see ourselves.
When I think about talking about race I think about difficult conversations — about values, feelings and identities.
Towards the end of the book the authors ask us to consider how we see others with differing opinions about things that are important to us:
Consider this assertion: The more passionate we are about the issues that matter most to us, the more likely we are to have a cartoonish view of those who see things differently. That statement may infuriate you. You may find yourself chafing against such a ridiculous generalization. But flip it around: When others think your view is self-interested or shallow, base, and maybe even evil, do you think they see you clearly? Is what they’ve heard and read an accurate portrayal of what you see and feel? No. They’ve turned you into a cartoon they can dismiss without having to confront the fact that you care as much as they do, that you are a person of principle and conviction, that you’re working hard to do what’s right in the face of the very same human limitations and frailties we all confront.— Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S., 2003. Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss what Matters Most. Penguin Books, New York, pp.243-44
And they are too.
You might have noticed that we cite people of colour on this blog. This is because citation politics matter. Sara Ahmed describes citation “as a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies“.
But I’m going to make an exception in this post because I’ve been thinking about what is at stake for white people like me in anti-racist thinking and practises. Here’s the quote:
It is difficult to get white people to understand racism when their salaries depend upon them not understanding it.
OK, so that’s not quite what Upton Sinclair wrote in 1934 but my corruption of his idea points to two things that are important: 1) racism and white supremacy are about money and power; 2) white people like me do not really want to understand racism because to understand it would feel like a terrible risk to our hegemonic status.
This is what Sinclair actually wrote in his book I, Candidate for Governor (1934):
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
In 2008 Angela Davis presented the Vice Chancellor’s Oration on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. The speech was called Recognizing Racism in the Era of Neoliberalism (published at https://truthout.org/articles/recognizing-racism-in-the-era-of-neoliberalism), and is about the prison-industrial complex as an institution of racism. As part of her thinking she makes a case that “individual eruptions of racism” are “connected to the persistence and further entrenchment of institutional and structural racism that hides behind the curtain of neoliberalism.” Davis says that racist incidents (and she uses the example of how some golf journalists suggested that Tiger Woods was so good that his competitors would have to “lynch him in a back alley”) are loudly “treated as individual and private irregularities” whereas the “contemporary persistence of racisms within institutions and other social structures” are “mute”.
Here are some excerpts:
The path toward the complete elimination of racism is represented in the neoliberalist discourse of “color-blindness” and the assertion that equality can only be achieved when the law, as well as individual subjects, become blind to race. This approach, however, fails to apprehend the material and ideological work that race continues to do.
While laws have had the effect of privatizing racist attitudes and eliminating the explicitly racist practices of institutions, these laws are unable to apprehend the deep structural life of racism and therefore allow it to continue to thrive.
This invisible work of racism not only influences the life chances of millions of people, it helps to nourish a psychic reservoir of racism that often erupts through the utterances and actions of individuals, as in the cases previously mentioned. The frequent retort made by such individuals who are caught in the act—”I’m not a racist. I don’t even know where that came from”—can only be answered if we are able to recognize this deep structural life of racism.— Angela Davis, 2008
The three of us (Royona, Arabella and I) have been thinking about how our conditioning as academics constructs the way we know things; that knowing something about, for example, white supremacy is filtered by being bound to academia, and how academia expects ideas to be understood, translated and communicated.
Here’s Azeezat Johnson:
One example of these imperial histories can be seen through the distance assumed between the (majority white and middle-class) academic knower and the (majority non-white and working-class) academic known. Through this distance, the academic ‘knower’ is able to position themselves as separate and above the ‘field’ that is being studied. The academic knower ‘becomes the backdrop of nature itself, the omnipotent position of the gaze’. This objectifies those bodies that are positioned as outside the role of The Academic. This is particularly pernicious given the over-representation of white bodies within academia: there has to be a sustained critique of the way such knowledge is created through the neutrality of whiteness.— Azeezat Johnson 
Such objectification is inevitably going on in this research: I am that academic knower, gazing through the neutrality of whiteness. But the objectification in my case is also complicated by the sense that when it comes to contemporary dance, I associate myself with the field or ‘tribe’ of contemporary dance. It is a collection of people to which I belong. I am on the inside, while at the same time on the outside looking in.
: Johnson, A., 2018. ‘An Academic Witness: White Supremacy Within And Beyond Academia’, in: Johnson, A., Joseph-Salisbury, R., Kamunge, B. (Eds.), The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship In Times Of Explicit Racial Violence. Zed Books, London, Chapter 2 (no page number).
We have been asking ourselves: what title could have best captured our project’s anti-racist aims and intended outcomes? We are also reflecting on initial conversations with a project participant who invited us to consider: What does the conjunctional relationship between ‘whiteness’ and ‘contemporary dance’ imply? How might it be different had we positioned instead a prepositional ‘of’ between the categories?
We’ve just officially finished week one of our project and we have already questioned the appropriateness of its title, our proposed research methodologies and what power structures they assert, the hierarchies always already embedded within the research design and the varied privileges afforded amongst the project team members, and how these impact the varied stakes we each hold in the project.
As the only person of colour on the project team, the pressure I feel to not mess this up is indescribable. Yet, I am conscious also, that racism within contemporary dance and beyond is not a problem of my making.
At the end of week one I am left wondering then: how to get beyond the racialisation of my emotional labour in these circumstances?