Reflections on a Burning World, by Royona Mitra

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece for our college newsletter at Brunel, urging our academic communities to shift focus from the operational dimensions of covid-19 crisis management to start to centre issues, experiences and concerns pertaining to in/equalities in the university’s handling of the pandemic. Those local-level concerns have since been amplified as the world around us burns. 

On 20 May Bangladesh and my home state of West Bengal in India are destroyed by Cyclone Amphan. Lives and homes, already endangered by and vulnerable from the virus, are devastated. Sundarbans, a biosphere reserve and a UNESCO world heritage site of mangrove forestations, is obliterated. The aftermath of this disaster has exposed the region’s socio-economic and health inequalities in uncompromising ways, and has been overwhelming to stomach from thousands of miles away. I witness with sheer admiration the incredible efforts and relentless rescue operations and fundraising that are being mobilised by friends and colleagues at local and transnational levels. I speak to my family who is safe but left speechless by the scale of the destruction around their own homes, let alone in distant rural areas in West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh. I look at haunting images of Kolkata’s College Street, boi para (the book neighbourhood), flooded for miles and scattered with millions of floating pages of now decimated books; these small businesses ruined beyond recognition. 

My heart aches. But there is more to come.

On 25 May social media witnesses the horrific footage of the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white Minneapolis policeman. In response to this white supremacist act, #BlackLivesMatter protests erupt across the US and are met with state sanctioned violence and horrifying police brutality against civilians demanding racial justice and against journalists trying to do their jobs. Similar protests are now happening across the UK, Europe and indeed the world; and here it is important to note that the UK is protesting not just George Floyd’s death, but also this country’s own track record of institutional racism against Black British people. And in its most recent manifestation, the night of 30 May marks the violent arrest of Kamyimsola Olatunjoye, an unarmed 28-year-old Black woman, in Lewisham by six police officers. 

I recall in this moment the words of Warsan Shire, the Black British poet and winner of the inaugural 2013 Brunel University African Poetry Prize:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered

                                                               Warsan Shire, What They Did Yesterday Afternoon (2015)

Yes. The world is hurting everywhere. But some people in this world are hurting more than others right now. And they always were. And they will continue to until we take a stand. 

What does it mean for us to take on the enormous task of educating future generations in this very particular moment? Why is it important to reflect on the relationship between global capitalism, white supremacy and its combined devastating impacts on climate change in the global South? What does it mean to work alongside our students and colleagues whose lives, families and communities are terrorised and dehumanised by racial violence? What can anti-racist and anti-oppressive solidarity and commitment look like in the academy in real actionable terms? How can we re-emerge from this catastrophic state of affairs if we don’t acknowledge that the current systems, driven by neoliberal market logics, are not only not working but in fact, they are fundamentally unjust? What are our individual and collective responsibilities right now as people and as educators to engage with this moment we find ourselves in, and all the challenges it presents to us? Despite all our personal and institutional precarities in this moment, how can we rise to bear the responsibilities of working with empathy, ethics and justice at the very core of everything we do? How can arts organisations and higher education institutions move beyond their performed commitment to ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ by admitting how they are responsible for upholding and benefitting from white supremacist structures? When will universities and, specific to this research project website, UK’s contemporary dance industry acknowledge that anti-Blackness is foundational to their operations? What will it take for the empty gestures of solidarity statements to turn into commitment to anti-racist actions through redistribution of power and resources? What will it take for white people in positions of power in arts organisations and institutions to own up to the inequalities they perpetrate on a daily basis in their policies, practices and communications, and the violence of their actions on Black and brown people? 

Some of us may have been considering these questions for a long time; for others they might be particularly heightened right now. I am continuing to learn, unlearn, witness and listen hard during conversations with students, friends and colleagues, and through my social media networks right now. My friend and digital rights activist Padmini Ray Murray alerts me to the need to exercise caution when acting in solidarity: to support, donate to and amplify the voices of local rescue operations who have dedicated their lives to regional activisms in the Sundarbans and are working tirelessly in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, over initiatives that have been generated by individuals who are travelling to the region to fundraise, without links to it. I watch as WhatsApp threads erupt on my phone with white parents, suddenly awakened into a state of hopefully irrevocable awareness, acknowledging that race and racism education must start at home. They are seeking resources on how to get started. What will it take for these parents to realise that it is their complicity in white supremacist silence over racism in their children’s upbringings that is responsible for the violence Black and brown people face daily? I weep watching videos of Black parents in the US speaking to their eight, nine, ten, eleven-year olds for the first time about how to behave in the presence of police officers. I am overwhelmed by the footage of a young white woman at a protest in the US, protectively standing in front of her Black companion, refusing to budge as the police in riot gear try to separate them. I witness rightful anger aimed at tweets of performed anti-racist solidarity put out by countless universities, corporate and arts organisations, whose founding principles are fundamentally white supremacist. I witness South Asian Twitter explode defensively at a powerful thread by the wonderful spoken-word poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, where she asks our communities to own up to our own anti-Black prejudices. She follows up with an incisive article titled Why disinvesting from White Supremacy and ending our complicity in structures that dehumanise Black people is the only way to freedom for ANY person of colour. I process its powerful  call, and I think, there is so, so much more work to do.

Privilege is a powerful thing. If you possess it, you do not see it. If someone points it out to you, your fragility and the unequal systems in your favour ensure you continue to not see it. Nothing changes. The system remains in place. 

What will it take for us to acknowledge that the system is broken? That the system is deeply unjust? That the system kills? 

Because #BlackLivesMatter and as the Black British dance-artist Alexandrina Hemsley writes:

With rage, fury and heart,
We pull on deep, tidal pleas to be
heard; to have whtie supremacy’s
systemic oppression halted.
Scared, within this double virus
-white supremacy as sickness-
The world is burning up, while we
are burning out

Alexandrina Hemsley

post by Royona Mitra, 5 June 2020

If you would like to donate to local initiatives and rescue operations in the Sunderbans in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, please see this thread.

Resources for anti-racist action during rebellion and pandemic

(compiled by Arabella Stanger)

In her piece above, Royona asks: ‘What will it take for the empty gestures of solidarity statements to turn into commitment to anti-racist actions through redistribution of power and resources?’ The resources below are designed as starting places for responding to that call. 

This short list draws on work others have already done in bringing together resources for antiracism and anti-criminalisation in and beyond the arts. It is focussed on UK and US initiatives and analysis, and is for this reason and others, selective and partial. If you’re reading this and want to share other useful resources, please provide them by comment to this blog post. And to any white people reading (including myself as I write this): let us not waste time making statements, chastising each other, or connecting to ourselves, and let’s instead find concrete ways to take collective action.

First, take a look at Migrants in Culture’s excellent quick resource list:

and their invitation to contribute to a ‘cultural new deal’: “What could a Culture New Deal centring communities of colour, migrants, disabled, queer folx and the working class look like?”



Fund Racial Justice: Where to Donate (six anti-racist, community-led funds)

The Free Black University “The Free Black University is a hub for radical and transformative knowledge production.” Donate here

And anti-criminalisation and anti-hostile environment funds through the pandemic

UKQTIBIPOC Emergency Relief & Hardship Fund

SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement)

Covid-19 Prisoner Emergency Fund


Black Lives Matter UK twitter feed for info on: protest dates; safety, training, and advice on arrest.

Black Lives Matter Allyship resources, including advice for protestors

Resource list on how to support Black lives in the UK

Melz for gal-dem, ‘What To Do if you Can’t Protest on the Streets for Black Lives Matter’  (2 June 2020)


Zoé Samudzi on prison and police abolition (4 June 2020): “The idea that any one or any group of people need to die in order for a system to be sustained, which is the nature of racial capitalism in the United States and around the world.”

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Geographies of Racial Capitalism (1 June 2020): “We can’t undo racism without undoing capitalism”

Cornell West on CNN (29 May 2020): “We are witnessing America as a failed experiment”

Dance Town Hall for Collective Action (USA, 1 June 2020): “This Town Hall’s intention is to hold a space for our dance community to express our righteous anger, to witness our grief in our community, and to synthesise this information into action.”

With, For About (UK online ‘slow conference’, ongoing through June 2020): “We wilfully ask in facing this crisis, another ten years of austerity, ecological collapse, harsher borders, more racism and deeper ableism within deeply divided societies – how can artists, activists and organisations make vital change within our communities and beyond?”


This reading list on racism and anti-blackness

Priyamvada Gopal, ‘Britain’s Record on Racism is No Less Bloody Than America’s’ (1 June 2020): “state violence and civic racism are endemic in contemporary Britain too.”

Janine Francois, ‘When White Women Get Caught: Victimhood as Racialised Violence’ (3 June 2020): “This history runs deep from Audre Lorde critiquing second wave white feminists right back to Sojourner Truths “Ain’t I a Woman” speech to the white suffragettes. There has never been any “sisterhood” between Black and white women”

Nana Chinara, ‘Open Letter to Arts Organisations Rampant with White Supremacy’: “It is this ocean of everyday unchecked white violence that actively drowns Black life, from microaggressions to modern day lynchings.”

Some advice for white people

And on collective action during and after the pandemic:

Collective authors: ‘“The state will not save us, only we can save us,” a collective response to covid-19’ : “The causes of the current crisis lie deeper than the outbreak of disease itself: it is rooted in the very way our economy is organised, how our society is gendered and racialised. See our open letter, which details what we must do in the face of this crisis.”

Finally, on the perils of resource lists like this one:

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

On Race and Racism in UK’s Contemporary Dance by Jane Chan

I am Jane Chan, a choreographer and dance artist of East Asian heritage who works within the intersections of choreography, storytelling, performance, teaching, producing, project management and change instigation. 

As a person of colour, first-generation immigrant in the UK and a dance artist with a diverse training portfolio, intersectionality is no stranger. I know I cannot possibly fight every single battle that is thrown my way so instead, I choose the battles that I cannot put aside. With the battles I do choose to fight, I always remind myself that they are meant to be long, time-consuming, labourious, uncomfortable and messy all at once. That said, I know that if I want to make things right, I have to start by making changes within myself today and be able to carry this on into the next few decades; and this includes creating a presence for myself at events. I hope I can contribute to the arts and culture sector by leaving a legacy for our next generations through my being, presence and practices aimed at dismantling, re-distributing and reconstructing the hierarchy of power alongside other people of colour and marginalised communities.

I am an avid instigator of change within organisations. As bodies of colour, we often find ourselves in situations where we feel it is our responsibility to raise awareness regarding racial issues and right the wrong. However, in my opinion, issues regarding race is only one facet of a much bigger issue, that is, white middle-class cis males and sometimes white cis females, continue to be regarded as the default whilst anyone who is not, is excluded from this whiteness. 

It is also important to acknowledge the intersectionality that many people embody. The many layers of hurdles that a person of colour, non cis-gendered body is required to go through in order to make a presence, hold space, raise concerns and make their voice heard entails great amount of emotional and mental labour which are often unaccounted for. It is taxing and causes fatigue.

Promises and words are all well and good but sadly, speaking from experience, I am often left feeling suspicious of the underlying intentions of various organisations. Actions, as we know speak much louder than words. Buzz words mean nothing and they will certainly not fool the laser-sharp senses of people of colour. We see through the fluff. Unless arts and cultural institutions and organisations are truly committed to being at the forefront of change for the better, nothing will really change, particularly those have unrivalled reputation for platforming and uplifting global arts for its selected artists, companies and audiences and therefore hold the power to change the conversation surrounding orientalism, fetishisation and othering in the arts. Let’s not forget that the arts are for everyone, regardless of age, gender, religion or socio-economic background. These institutions should be held accountable for their cultural responsibilities to respectfully represent all cultures.   

I appreciate a lot of work has been done by independent artists, but their time and resources are relatively scarce compared to that of an institution. I am by no means demeaning any of the work that individual artists do, in fact I applaud them, however, without the institutions owning up to their responsibilities, we as communities of the arts and culture sector will not be able to move forward as a whole. We will be left behind and soon become irrelevant. 

For allies who wish to support people of colour, may I urge you to do a tally of people of colour in every room or space you walk into. Keep a record of this and you will soon realise how white spaces are, especially spaces linked to power. This is of course the first step of raising awareness of the status quo. I would also suggest as a general rule that arts organisations have their artistic director and CEO as two separate roles. When these roles are combined, the ultimate power of an organisation would be held by one person which in my opinion upholds the status quo than disrupt it. These roles should be mutually exclusive with fixed terms where applications take the form of open call, not by appointment nor invitation. Moreover, conversations regarding equality, diversity and inclusion needs to be conducted and maintained at all levels of an organisation on an on-going basis, with people of colour forming an integral part of the dialogue. There are of course many other things that allies, organisations and institutes can do, but this would be very specific consultation work that this article will not be able to cover.

We all need to join forces in doing and being better regardless of whether you are an independent artist or an employee of an organisation. Let us all celebrate small steps.  However small a step, it is still a step forward. 

To conclude, I want to take this time to share a thought from Zhou’s article: 

we hear diversity and inclusion a lot but being inclusive, the power still lies within the person or organisation who is being inclusive, for example, I invite you to dance, I decide the music, venue, genres, context, rules. 

In another words, those with privilege and power needs to actively give up some of the power and make space for those who hold less. And if this statement makes you uncomfortable, ‘then it’s clear your interest in this idea of diversity and inclusion is only when it serves you, not for the benefit of others’. (Zhou, 2019) (accessed 15 Jan, 2020) 

Jane Chan is a choreographer and dance artist trained in Chinese classical, Chinese folk, contemporary, ballet, wing chun and kathak who works in the intersections of choreography, dance, performance, teaching and change instigation. Also, a member of Amina Khayyam Dance Company since 2014, one of the artists of colour steering group at Chisenhale Dance Space, the London Correspondent for dancejournal/hk, one of the Overture 2019/20 cohort for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, a mentor for Arts Emergency and the founder of Passion Project, a teaching initiative that aims to share the joy and benefits of movement and dance to non-dance professionals, immigrant women group, older adults with and without dementia.

Problems, Obstacles, Saboteurs

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?

Giving Up Space / Taking Up Space

Over the last few years I have spoken widely with colleagues and students about ‘making space’ for perspectives, peoples, epistemologies and practices that both academia and contemporary dance world have historically ignored. I have advocated for people in dominant positions to ‘make space’ for marginalised narratives and practices to actively decentre our disciplines. ‘Making space’, I have said, is about recognising that space is finite, that occupation of space is power and that the production of space is a political act. Working on this anti-racist contemporary dance project over the last six months, and through conversations with my colleague Broderick Chow at Brunel University London while writing our joint presentation for UCLA earlier this month (The UCLA Letters: On Dismantling Whiteness in the Academy), however has led me to think in more nuanced ways.

Making space relies, naively, on our white institutions, colleagues and peers to take on the task of producing space while we wait. In reality though they are likely to ignore, even blame, the finiteness of space itself by foregoing nothing (or very little) of their own, while squeezing in some cursory references to other knowledge-systems in trite and tick-box ways. Within university curricula, space-making manifests in optional modules for hitherto marginalised practices, while dominant narratives retain core slots. Within the dance industry the diversity agenda abounds as ways of making space, fraught with Orientalisms and power asymmetries. Nothing changes. We continue to wait.

Making space has no purpose and certainly no bite if nothing gives on the part of the status quo. Things have to go. Content has to be displaced. People have to be replaced. Perspectives have to be erased. Making space has to be fundamentally and necessarily about ‘giving up space’ on part of our white colleagues. 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.

Anti-Racist work in dance studies and the contemporary dance field has to be about redistribution of this power from those who are in current possession of it. On our own terms.

from the classroom

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks. One of the reasons for our radio silence is the somehow-always-a-surprise lack of time ushered in by the intensity of the university teaching term.

There’s an upside to this intensity: the great pleasure of being in sustained, weekly dialogue about challenging ideas with undergraduate students, groups of people who are mostly in their late teens and early twenties, and who (in our case as dance and performance university lecturers) are making art, reading about art, talking about art and its place in the world. Being part of these dialogues is where the job of being an academic is its most challenging, invigorating, and world-shaking. It’s in these classroom discussions that I usually learn the most.

Over the past few months, one group of students and I have been having a kind of on again / off again conversation about all the ‘NOes’ in Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto (1965).

(Read the manifesto, in its 2008 revisited form, in an interview with Rainer here.)

In the context of a tangled conversation about the politics of saying ‘yes’ or saying ‘no’ to things as an artist, one of the students proposed the following neat idea: “you have to have already been awarded many ‘YESses’ in your life, for your ‘NOes’ to get listened to“. (Let me know if you’d like to cite this particular comment and I’ll ask the author/speaker in question for her permission and if she would like to share her name.) This student was inspired to formulate that thought especially by having read passages of Miguel Gutierrez’s brilliant article ‘Does Abstraction Belong to White People’ (2018). I’ll share a brief part of that article here, in partnership with the YEses/NOes insight, as a kind of a dispatch from the classroom:

Who has the right not to explain themselves? The people who don’t have to. The ones whose subjectivities have been naturalized. It enrages me. No, it confuses me. I’m all for being confused, for searching, for having to do a bit of work. But the absence of explanation is somehow … somehow … somehow what? 

— Gutierrez, Miguel. ‘Does Abstraction Belong to White People?’, Bomb Magazine. 2018.


I spent a long time yesterday reading and re-reading a text shared by choreographer and dancer Malik Nashad Sharpe on their webpage. They write about (their) dance as a practice that slides across the place where hope has been foreclosed but where possible futures still appear. That radical slide between hopelessness and possibility is at play also in Saidiya Hartman’s new book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), a work about intimate acts of rebellion performed by young black women in U.S. cities at the turn of the twentieth century.

I wondered what it would be like to read back-and-forth between these two texts. Here…

dance is a belief system and choreography is space. these things do not make dreams come true but they are where dreams are made into material texture. performance is fodder for hope and the positing of something else. in defense of marginal and radial practices, choreography that is coy and dysfunctional, a moment where things are not always what they seem. dancing and making it mean something to me, asking something of it. asking it to give me a future if only fleetingly. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Wayward, related to the family of words: errant, fugitive, recalcitrant, anarchic, willful, reckless, troublesome, riotous, tumultuous, rebellious and wild. To inhabit the world in ways inimical to those deemed proper and respectable, to be deeply aware of the gulf between where you stayed and how you might live. (Saidiya Hartman, 227)

i’m favouring the complex, the tug and spiral, the working with what is known now and before hierarchies of importance were forged under the influence of others. working with being a faggot, not woman not man, unruly. ordered differently. against an unspoken genocide. working where things are built and fallen, trying to build and falling. giving rise to another possibility, again. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities. It is unrepentant. It traffics in occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life. Waywardness is an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move. It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive. (Saidiya Hartman, 228)

willing futurity, the body as a repository for memory. desire. the history lessons that refused to be learnt. Imagination. possibility. maintenance. relief. there is an assumption that those make us powerless and i don’t believe that. do you know what its like to not be made human? i will ensure subjectivity and remake it again and again. that is all. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Malik Nashad Sharpe (2019)

Saidiya V. Hartman (2019) Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

Dance must fall

Last month, our colleague and friend Sita Balani wrote about her experiences of attending Literature Must Fall, a literary festival held in Birmingham on 28 September 2019. Aimed not at celebrating literature but ‘challenging it head-on’, the festival as Balani describes it has me dreaming about similar gatherings in the field of contemporary dance.

Balani writes:

I took the train to Birmingham for Literature Must Fall, [small in scale] but conceptually ambitious, aiming to dismantle literature rather than hold it up for admiration. […] As co-founder Imandeep Kaur wryly explained, they just get on with doing things, like providing childcare and prayer space, that other people like to theorise about but rarely put into practice.


The festival itself was unlike any mainstream literary event I’ve ever encountered. There was little distinction between speaker and audience, and the majority of participants were women of colour. Looking at the programme, it seemed to be for people who were critical about the white publishing industry, but just as skeptical about the diversity initiatives that sought to include us. If the implicit rationale of most literature festival turns on the civilizing potential of art, Literature Must Fall asked how writing could help to bring down what passes for civilization. The conversations were expansive and ballsy. There was no grandstanding, no celebrity-worship. Some of the familiar tropes got an airing (the white gaze, exoticisation etc) but even these ideas were given new life in an atmosphere that allowed for genuine disagreement without rancor.


The day pushed back on the identity talk that characterises much of the diversity discourse, including its intersectional offshoots. Instead, people hunted for new paradigms and thought collectively about the limitations of postcolonial theory, confessional literature, folk stories, narrating our experiences, trauma, and the written word itself.

Sita Balani, ‘Gather’, 26 September 2019,

Two questions are on my mind:

1. Where in our daily work as artists, producers, scholars, workers in the field of contemporary dance could we take more chances to dismantle dance rather than hold it up for admiration?

2. What kind of festival formats are necessary for swerving the moribund work of diversity initiatives but instead creating the conditions for people to reflect collectively on the limitations of dance as a mode of anti-racist action but also to ask: ‘how dance could help bring down what passes for civilisation’?

Accomplices, not allies

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),

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.

  1. what kinds of actions and attitudes have been ‘criminalised’ by the white liberal cultures of contemporary dance?
  2. which of these actions and attitudes are ‘criminalised’ implicitly so as to fortify white dominance in the field?
  3. what work have people of colour been doing that transgresses contemporary dance’s laws of operation, that agitates the field’s whiteness?
  4. 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.”)
  5. 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.
  6. 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…

Migrants in Culture

AAA Radio Live: A Series of Uncomfortable Conversations #4 Art and Activism

performing borders

Anti-Racist Research

In How to be an Anti-Racist Ibram X. Kendi puts forward five tips to become an anti-racist: 1) acknowledge your own racism; 2) confess your racist ideas; 3) define racism and anti-racism ; 4) identify racist systems; and finally 5) work to change racist systems.

When we designed this research project for our grant application, we really did not think through the implications, in embodied terms, of what we were taking on. We did not think through the extent to which every aspect of our proposed research methods are tied into colonial / racist power asymmetries. We saw ourselves as anti-racist, but did not acknowledge to what extent our scholarly and artistic practices perpetuate the systems we are critiquing. We did not think through the implications of centring whiteness within a project that commits itself to anti-racist work. We did not consider that, in fact, it is contemporary dance’s anti-blackness that we should have signalled more forcefully through our project title.

Now, half-way through our project, we are encountering all kinds of resistances from within and without that we have been digging deeper to learn from. Here are some of the thinking that has been occupying my thoughts lately:

  1. 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.
  2. The requirements of research grants by way of acceptable modes of dissemination, research methods etc are fundamentally bound up in colonial modalities and structurally racist mechanisms. Doing anti-racist work through racist research mechanisms is counter-productive. We urgently need to re-invent our own tools.
  3. Contemporary dance in the UK is a dance of white fragility. An industry and a sector that attempts to address its exclusionary guilt by purporting to diversity and inclusion, without addressing the structural racism that is foundational to its operations. Including artists of colour into a sector that is defined by white ideologies does not address its inherent racism. It masks it by wielding its power through a performance of fragility
  4. Addressing racism in the dance sector is intrinsically linked to addressing racism in the dance academy. One feeds and upholds the other in a permanent sealed dance of white power. Our project has not even scratched the surface of the role of dance studies and university/conservatoire based dance training in perpetuating racism in the dance sector.

Despite challenging circumstances, our collaborative research dynamic continues to be generative, caring and brutally honest. This is truly meaningful because, despite the very different stakes the three of us have in the project, what remains constant is our commitment to learning, relearning and unlearning together.