Antiracism in the UK’s Contemporary Dance Sector in Times of Covid-19 (Part 1)

We have been silent on this blog for a couple of months. We were busy wrapping up our ‘Contemporary Dance and Whiteness’  project, the official close to which coincided with the end of 2019. But work on antiracism does not, and cannot, end just because the clock and the money ran out. If anything our real work starts now:

  • How do we keep open, sustain and fuel the conversations we started with artists and organisations in the sector?
  • How do we encourage other white majority dance organisations and education/training providers in the UK to do the work of first recognising, and then moving on to dismantle, their own whiteness?
  • How do we continue to advocate for the redistribution of resources to centre the visions and compensate the labour of Black artists and artists of colour? 
  • What work needs to be done, and by whom, for organisations and education providers to commit to shifting conversations in the sector from white supremacist ‘diversity initiatives’ to power-dismantling antiracism?
  • What work needs to be done, and by whom, for the sector to recognise, accept and own that antiracist work will require everything to burn, if power is to be dismantled?

While the research project wrapped up, we allowed these tough questions to come to the surface, to signal its future. And then a series of events took place that graphically illustrated the force of white supremacy as a grounding reality of our fields and our lives; events which called us to regroup and reconfigure our response to the phenomenon we’d been trying to explore together for the past year. 

We feel these events must be looked at together, because they are not separate, and so we have brought our reflections on them together into this, two-part blog post:

Part 1: ‘The Desires of Whiteness: Institutions Ensure their Own People Aren’t Hurting While Continuing to Hurt Others’ 

Part 2: ‘Antiracism in the Arts During and After a Pandemic’ 

Part 1, which you can read below, concerns two incidents disclosing the role of white supremacy in the UK’s creative arts sector: the announcement in February 2020 of the awardees of this year’s Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund (BBCF); and in March 2020, Equity’s issue of a public apology to actor Laurence Fox. 

Part 2, which will be published next week, is concerned of course with the British government’s response to Covid-19 and its subsequent approach to bailing out the UK creative arts sector in the face of a global pandemic.

On the surface, these two groups of events may not seem to be connected beyond their sharing of a time and place in post-Brexit Britain. Indeed, where the first affects the lives of artists, producers and audiences in the performing arts industries, the second affects all those whose lives are conditioned by the authority of the British state. However, both these groups of events are deeply caught up in – are shaped by and expose – the way that white supremacy organises and is naturalised in British public life.

Here we are inclined to understand ‘white supremacy’ in the way advised by critical race theorist Cheryl Harris in her brilliant essay ‘Whiteness as Property’ (1993). Harris refers us to a definition by legal scholar Frances L. Ansley, where white supremacy is to be understood not simply as “the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups”, but more comprehensively as “a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and un-conscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings” (1989, 1024). 

In the blog posts that follow, we reflect on how crises in the contemporary arts and crises in public health are fundamentally political crises embedded in the same devastating system: one where relations of ‘white dominance’ are ‘daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings’. We write these posts not only to reflect on those processes of systemic devastation, but also to acknowledge the vital political practice of those who act against white supremacy. We are inspired here by the work of activists and artists, and attempt to think hopefully with them about the possibilities and responsibilities of antiracism as the work of agitation and repair.

Part 1

The Desires of Whiteness: Institutions Ensure their Own People Aren’t Hurting While Continuing to Hurt Others


With this word we signal beyond skin colour, identities and actions of white people where ‘white people’ are understood as a uniform group of oppressors. Instead we want to emphasise the deeper, structural and more slippery ways racism functions as a guarantor of capitalism, ableism, queerphobias and patriarchy. Through this word whiteness, we then point to a set of power relationships in society that uphold the conditions of white supremacy as Ansley defines it above, and which ensure that those who are racialized as white are disproportionately enabled to survive, if not thrive, through these conditions. These power relationships play out at the interstices of personal prejudice, cultural norms and the vastly differential, globally lived conditions of precarity. Whiteness, as a set of power relationships structuring social life, is often not noticed by white people.

i. In February, the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund (BBCF) announced its 2020 award winners, revealing a list of white-only recipients, adjudicated by a white-only panel of judges. 

Amongst the many Black dance artists and dance-artists of colour who publicly spoke out on social media platforms against the racism of this particular incident, Malik Nashad Sharpe, Zinzi Minott, Jamila Johnson-Small, Claricia Parinuasa and Alexandrina Hemsley led the call, powerfully contextualising and historicising this instance within larger, systemic and institutionalised racist injustices of the contemporary dance sector. Hemsley punctuated the precarity involved in such public calling-out by those who are already marginalised in the sector, and urged the powers-that-be to ‘acknowledge that the first person taking the risk to speak out will often be the one most marginalised and using a huge amount of energy in speaking up against a system that is invested in our silencing’.

On 16 February, two awardees of the BBCF 2020, Janine Harrington and Grace Nicol, published a public statement calling out the whiteness of this year’s awardees and its panel of judges. 

The joint statement from Harrington and Nicol was subsequently shared widely on social media, yet accompanied by a distinct lack of self-reflection by many who shared it regarding their own complicities in the structural racisms of the field. It was as though the act of sharing the statement in itself absolved those who shared it of their own participation in and being beneficiaries of the sector’s dominant, structural whiteness. This statement by two white artists, then, was elevated as the response to the all-white awards, an elevation that obscured the relentless labour of Black artists and artists of colour who have long been engaged in antiracist struggles in the field, all the while being mobilised as an alibi for a broader lack of collective reckoning.

Always a risk when political work takes place on social media, the gesture of re-sharing this political statement came to act as a stand-in both for an accelerated, genuine public conversation, and for forms of concrete and active responsibility on the part of the UK’s contemporary dance community. Commenting on a thread on Harrington’s Facebook post about their statement, Malik Nashad Sharpe wrote about these very forms of self-perpetuating dead-end in liberal online activism: ‘I like 100% regret speaking up against this because in this racist system, I should’ve known better that the rewards for speaking up are always given to White people when it was actually the labour of Black and Brown people to speak up first and risk so much in order to do that. […]  I just don’t think any of these statements would’ve been possible had it not been for the courage and to be honest (and I speak for myself here) resignation of the Black artists who spoke publicly about it on social media because speaking to the fund directly wouldn’t return any real, substantial change.’

In response to these public agitations, the Trustees of the BBCF issued their own statement on 21 February and in doing so, deepened the wounds the Fund had already inflicted upon a significant portion of the dance sector. Hiding behind industry buzzwords like ‘representative’, ‘inclusive’, ‘diverse’, the statement could not even name structural racism as the key problem in the award’s shortcomings. Moreover, it emphasised that the artists who were awarded grants deserved celebration, and that the Trustees did not want ‘to allow this matter to detract from celebrating their artistic achievements’.

By expressing concern over a lack of celebration of those artists who had already been awarded the material resources to make their work, the BBCF Trustees’ statement reinforced the habits of white entitlement. The subject of regret signalled here was that the awardees could now not fully enjoy the funds and forms of status that had come into their possession as beneficiaries of the BBCF. To put it another way, this statement articulated the desires of whiteness: to protect white people from the emotional loss they might well experience as a necessary outcome of antiracist critique, and from the economic loss white people would certainly experience as an outcome of a meaningful, antiracist redistribution of the field’s resources. 

ii. On 13 March 2020, Equity, UK’s actors and entertainment industry union, issued an apology via Twitter to actor Laurence Fox. Equity was apologising for a tweet, posted from its Minority Ethnic Members (MEM) Committee’s Twitter account, which criticised Fox’s behaviour on BBC’s Question Time on 16 January. ‘As far as we’re concerned’, the tweet read, Fox is ‘a disgrace to our industry’. During the show in question, Fox had flippantly shut down Rachel Boyle, a researcher on race and ethnicity in education at Edge Hill University and a woman of colour, when she claimed that the treatment of Meghan Markle in the British media had been racist. Fox retorted by rolling his eyes and declaring that it was in fact not racism, that England was in fact the ‘most tolerant country’, and that throwing the accusation of racism at everything was getting ‘boring.’ Boyle continued with remarkable patience to explain to Fox why his charge of reverse-racism held no weight, while Fox talked over her until applause for his position, and a swift change of subject from host Fiona Bruce, led to the close of the conversation and the silencing of Boyle. A further silencing subsequently took place, as Chair of Equity MEM Daniel York Loh explained in a tweet from his personal account on 18 January: ‘Equity have deleted all the tweets mentioned here and locked down our @EquityMEM account which only goes to show that for all the bleating about “no platforming” the only people who actually get shut down are activist people of colour’. 

Equity’s apology for (and erasure of) its own members’ critique of Fox’s behaviour cost it all the members of its Race Equality Committee (the renamed MEM), who on 13 March resigned. That public, collective resignation on this matter of principle stood as a strong rebuttal to the public image presented by Equity, who had also attempted to absolve itself and Fox of racist thinking and actions by claiming in their original apology that ‘Equity and Laurence Fox condemn prejudice unequivocally in all its forms.’ Equity’s efforts to swiftly contain the crisis rather than stand by the antiracist critique offered by some of its own members, are further suggested by reports that the union ‘reached an out-of-court settlement with [Fox] after he threatened to sue them for libel’.

Taken together, these two incidents prompt some reflections and raise a series of questions.

It is telling that both BBCF and Equity responded to these respective incidents by signalling their existing distance from racism, re-stating either a commitment to ‘diversity’ (BBCF) or a condemnation of ‘prejudice’ (Equity) — and then fell publicly silent on these matters, taking the conversation ‘in house’. There will no doubt be much work taking place behind the scenes in both cases to understand what went wrong, and to determine courses of action in response to these public scandals. But why was this work not immediately undertaken in the public eye, as the online outcry in each case has demanded? One reason, benign on the surface of things, is that both these bodies will be required to work within strict institutional and legal remits which prioritise their own survival. All things institutional have a due process. As an artists’ fund and workers’ union respectively, BBCF and Equity will recognise their primary obligation is to secure their future capacity to operate on behalf of artists and workers.

If the exposing work of antiracist reflection is happening within these bodies, then, it is happening behind closed doors in the first instance (if indeed this work is ever to be opened to public scrutiny) in part because of each entity’s duty to self-preservation, and so to shielding itself from the material damages of public disrepute. This form of bureaucratic duty to self-preservation is a commonplace feature of institutional culture more broadly. It also undoubtedly represents a legal enshrinement of the protective shields of whiteness. The preservation of a fund or union in the same configuration as that which has facilitated its graphic forms of institutional racism, cannot be made a priority if the people running that fund or union are invested in the destabilising, even world-shaking, work of antiracism. 

The above critical reflections are but small starting-places that necessarily raise important questions for ourselves and the sector, and that we hope can serve as a basis for formulating courses of collective responsibility and action:

  • What would it have taken, and what would it take now, for BBCF and Equity to recognise the racism in their own respective actions and statements?
  • If BBCF and Equity are interested in self-preservation so that they can continue on with the work they hope to do on behalf of artists and workers, then what is that work actually worth if it perpetuates and continues to mute the effects of structural injustice?
  • How can public bodies possibly begin to recognise their own racist actions and their specific forms of complicity in structural racisms, when their official response to critique consists of the exact opposite of self-recognition: attempts to distance themselves from, and to denounce, racist actions in general? 
  • What actions need to be taken for public bodies to shift their energies away from fostering diversity, avoiding prejudice and signalling their investment in equality, and instead towards the serious and difficult work of publicly acknowledging, seeking to understand and working to dismantle their own racism?
  • What responsibilities do those involved in artistic communities have during public incidents such as these? How do we – artists, producers, audiences, academics – reach a place where we each are committed to identifying our own complicity in racist structures rather than distancing ourselves and reaching towards gestures of self-absolution?
  • And finally: how can we as researchers invested in antiracism in the UK’s creative industries mobilise our positions of privilege and security in urging institutions (including our own) to own and dismantle their own systematically racist habits, practices and thinking?

by Royona Mitra & Arabella Stanger, April 2020

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