what to give up

In her blog post last week, Arabella asked, “What sorts of disintegrations of our field are necessary for its institutions to move beyond diversity agendas …?”. I like the word disintegration and how it tears at the notion of integration — integration on whose terms? The word seems to underline the power of difference: to be ‘against integration’.

But Arabella’s question also reminds me of one of the starting points for this work. It was Royona, presenting at the Dance Studies Conference in Malta in July 2018, who asked quite directly what white people are prepared to give up in order to build and do anti-racist work. And so, as a white person continuously benefiting from the pleasures and possibilities afforded by the colour of my skin, I ask myself (again) what am I prepared to give up?

Integrity and disintegrations

During our conversations over the past five months, we often find ourselves returning to two interrelated problems. The first is the need to understand racism as an economic formation dependent on an unequal distribution of financial wealth and material resources. The second is the issue of widespread and often well-meaning institutional agendas that pursue racial diversity and inclusion without attempting to undo the unequal distribution of wealth on which the integrity of that institution basically depends.

The thing, I think, that is at stake when these two problems are taken together in the case of the topic of our research project, goes like this:

how to make changes to fields and institutions structured through whiteness (like contemporary dance) without engaging in surface-deep inclusion exercises that merely dress the windows of a structure still dependent on and securing its racist foundations?

A brilliant formulation of this issue, and one that deepens the window-dressing metaphor, is shared by Gargi Bhattacharyya in her book Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival (2018).

What follows is a long excerpt worth reading.

Imagine a house with many storeys—an attic and a cellar, several annexes that have no direct connections, main rooms filled with comfort and a maze of unmappable corridors leading to all sorts of barely remembered wings, snugs and the occasional route outside to a seemingly isolated out-house. There are people in each part of the house and sometimes some of them meet. But mostly their movements are shaped by the place in which they find themselves, and who they see and who they can be is delimited by the strange geography of the house. Racial capitalism is this kind of story. It is a story about imagining economic formations as demarcating the relations and walls between different groups of human beings. It is also a story about imaging who enters which rooms and how. One kind of narrative suggests that everyone will get into the living room eventually—they may take different journeys and come at different paces, but all the convoluted routes will lead to the living room in the end.

Others might suggest that the house will grow other new and different living rooms—separate from the original geography of the house but providing a similar experience of comfort and safety for the populations in those wings of the building.

Both accounts—and I would say that these have been the dominant accounts for some time—assume that occupation of the/a living room is achievable by all and is a marker of progress and enhanced material wellbeing.

This work begins from the belief that much of the world has never and will never enter that particular form of living room comfort and that this exclusion or expulsion is no accident. The integrity of the building demands that different groups remain in their separate wings and such differentiations are important for the maintenance of the building and its lovely main living room.


Gargi Bhattacharyya. Rethinking Racial Capitalism : Questions of Reproduction and Survival (New York and London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), pp. 1-2.

What if the ‘building’ (with its structural integrity) to which Bhattacharyya refers were re-conceived as the field of contemporary dance? What sorts of disintegrations of our field are necessary for its institutions to move beyond diversity agendas that leave ‘its lovely main living room’, with all its exclusions and expulsions, intact?

allyship

There’s a blog post over at africascountry by Arvin Alaigh called Black Skin, white ally in which Alaigh discusses the “complicated relationship” between Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Alaigh uses this history to think through the traps and possibilities of allyship today. Here are the last four paragraphs:

What does allyship look like today? In its popular usage in left-activist circles, it primarily comprises the performative, self-congratulatory, curated, and largely commodified gestures of actors who ostensibly hope to uplift marginalized communities. With allyship comes a certain social currency, which at a given moment, may happen to be in vogue (consider the infamous ‘safety pin’ as a prototypical example of allyship in this sense)—its usage in such circles usually engenders some degree of repulsion.

Typically, those who would self-identify as allies to racial justice would push for more diverse representation on corporate boards, in lieu of any meaningful restructuring of Black political economy. They would protest the construction of a border wall with Mexico, while turning a blind eye to the unlawful detention of immigrants that has been carried out for decades. They protest the over-policing of Black communities, but don’t challenge the very premises of a carceral system that cages millions of people every day.

In his preface of Wretched, Sartre writes, “Stuffed with wealth, Europe granted humanity de jure to all its inhabitants: for us, a man means an accomplice, for we have all profited from colonial exploitation.” Proper allyship necessitates the recognition and ownership of these inconvenient realities. Then, it requires a commitment to a course of action beyond the milquetoast, and past the conciliatory: it must seek the annihilation of these structures.

For all of his shortcomings and bumbling mishaps, Sartre indisputably claimed this colonial truth, and remained genuinely committed to upending the power structures that oppressed, pillaged and plundered peoples across the Global South—his relationship with Fanon provides a fascinating case study of the contours of allyship and, furthermore, a model to salvage allyship from its present, denigrated condition.

— Alvin Alaigh

understanding and dependence

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.

naming black and white

In the opening notes of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility she talks about identity politics and how “all progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics”. She then uses the example of women’s suffrage to make it very clear that we need to name who has access and who does not:

Take women’s suffrage. If being a woman denies you the right to vote, you ipso facto cannot grant it to yourself. And you certainly cannot vote for your right to vote. If men control all the mechanisms that exclude women from voting as well as the mechanisms that can reverse that exclusion, women must call on men for justice. You could not have had a conversation about women’s right to vote and men’s need to grant it without naming women and men. Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal. For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it. Not until the 1960s, through the Voting Rights Act, were all women—regardless of race—granted full access to suffrage. Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice.

— Robin DiAngelo

The politics of our identities is pivotal in the anti-racist fight for justice.

Sticking points: on the meanings of ‘race’

Our research for this project has in no small part consisted of encounters with sticking points and stickiness of various kinds: methodological, conceptual, political, ethical.

One of those areas in which we keep getting helpfully stuck, as a project team and in the many rich conversations we’ve been having with our research participants, is the vexed terrain of terminology. How to define ideas such as ‘race’, ‘racism’ and ‘whiteness’ across and between terminological cultures so that necessary and difficult conversations about those ideas can begin? The concepts and social formations central to our research have been defined over and again (by activists, artists and researchers) in conflicting ways that stake out positions, declare allegiances, (re)configure power relations and that make certain kinds of thought/action (im)possible.  

The definitions we’ve been thinking through are too numerous to list within this blog post. But here’s one reflection on the problems of defining ‘race’ that has been on our minds lately. Academic and poet Chris Chen includes this Addendum on Terminology in his 2013 article ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality’.

ADDENDUM: ON TERMINOLOGY

“Race” has been variously described as an illusion, a social construction, a cultural identity, a biological fiction but social fact, and an evolving complex of social meanings. Throughout this article, “race” appears in quotation marks in order to avoid attributing independent causal properties to objects defined by ascriptive processes. Simply put, “race” is the consequence and not the cause of racial ascription or racialisation processes which justify historically asymmetrical power relationships through reference to phenotypical characteristics and ancestry: “Substituted for racism, race transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object.”5

I have also enclosed “race” in quotation marks in order to suggest three overlapping dimensions of the term: as an index of varieties of material inequality, as a bundle of ideologies and processes which create a racially stratified social order, and as an evolving history of struggle against racism and racial domination — a history which has often risked reifying “race” by revaluing imposed identities, or reifying “racelessness” by affirming liberal fictions of atomistically isolated individuality. The intertwining of racial domination with the class relation holds out the hope of systematically dismantling “race” as an indicator of unequal structural relations of power. “Race” can thus be imagined as an emancipatory category not from the point of view of its affirmation, but through its abolition.

Footnote (5): Barbara J. Fields, ‘Whiteness, racism, and identity’, International Labor and Working Class History 60 (Fall 2001), 48-56.

(emphases in the original)

To read the full essay:

Chris Chen, ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality: Notes Towards an Abolitionist Antiracism’, endnotes 3 (September 2013), https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality

workshop

On 15 September 2019 we will host an anti-racist dance practices workshop at Siobhan Davies Studios in London from 10am to 5pm. The day is free and lunch is also provided.

The workshop will explore racism in contemporary dance, and will include activities, discussions and reflections to grapple with complex issues about the role of dance in racism, white supremacy, solidarity and justice.

Further details, including sign-up, information are at:

www.independentdance.co.uk/anti-racist-dance-practices

well-meaning intentions

In the book chapter ‘Beware the Northern Fox: Keeping a Focus on Systematic Racism Post Trump and Brexit’, Kehinde Andrews discusses some of Malcolm X’s thinking:

[X] was also vehemently opposed to seeking white allies for Black movements. One of the reasons he was so critical of the March on Washington was because he questioned ‘who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I Have a Dream’ speeches?’. Malcolm did not distinguish between well-meaning and racist white people. He indicted whiteness as a system that all of those who benefit from it are part of, well-meaning intentions or not.

— Kehinde Andrews

I’m white. My anti-racist intentions are well-meaning. I have benefited from systemic racism throughout my life. I would appear to be the non-American version of a “northern fox”.

Full citation: Andrews, K., 2018. ‘Beware the Northern Fox: Keeping a Focus on Systematic Racism Post Trump and Brexit’, 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 11 (e-book, no page number)

Ruby Sales – “a spiritual crisis in white America”

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s brilliant show Séancers (2017) summons the words of several ‘sacred texts’: the work of Black feminist thinkers, artists and activists with whom Olawale Kosoko performs a political-paranormal communion. One such text is a radio interview with theologian and social activist Ruby Sales, who speaks about whiteness in terms of spiritual crisis.

Ruby Sales, 2016:

And we’ve got a — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning. And I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them, rather than call upon them — the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European-American; that’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.

And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk, if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.

You can listen to and a read a transcript of the full interview here.

You can follow Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s work in performance and education here.

Sisters of Resistance, Left of Brown and Jenny Rodriguez on Whiteness, Self-Accountability and Vulnerability

In their incisive piece of writing ‘Is Decolonizing the New Black?‘ the Sisters of Resistance, Left of Brown and Jenny Rodriguez write: “Decolonising has entered consumers’ imaginations, and with it, a new kind of consumer has emerged: one that is politically astute and critical of Whiteness, but also firmly entrenched in conservative market forces that reproduce value through competitive means.”

If as project members we are to imagine ourselves at this new consumer, endevouring to critique the predominant Whiteness of contemporary dance, we need to be really mindful of our potential to be ‘firmly entrenched in conservative market forces’. How do we ensure that we wield our critique of contemporary dance’s Whiteness without perpetuating the market forces that (re)produce the powers that drive the industry?

The piece warns us of the appropriative and cooptive pitfalls of such projects, by providing clear guidance on the ethics of what needs prioritising in our enquires:

Engaging with Whiteness with a sense of responsibility and self-accountability while acknowledging that for centuries people of colour have been denied their role in producing and shaping intellectual ideas and knowledge, even about themselves. […]

Re-narrating institutional histories so that narratives of racism and imperialism are not forgotten and are instead used in ongoing work that looks to reform universities, in ways that significantly make them antiracist, anti-imperialist spaces. […]

Developing, applying and regularly reviewing organizing principles as a way of translating anti-racist and decolonizing ethics into applied and measurable methodologies.  […]

Working against intersectional racist structures so young people of colour can step into positions of power.  […]

Organising within their own institutions to challenge racist practices and processes, including stepping back and giving up privileges, earned or unearned, as well as not continuing to hurt, violate or reduce the participation of people of colour in institutional spaces and processes  […]

Making oneself vulnerable in the act of political struggle with White capitalist patriarchy. Decolonising ethics involve a consistent de-centering of the self as well as encountering Whiteness in structures, arrangements and relationships, where personal desire, intentions and underlying assumptions should be brought under sustained scrutiny.  […]

Embracing solidarity as a radical act of self-effacement, where the Other determines the strength and quality of a relation […]

What an enormous responsibility we have taken on! The question that remains for me key to ask constantly of ourselves is : how vulnerable are we willing to make ourselves in this act of political struggle for the field?