For the last five years the dance world, and specifically the ballet world, has been enrolled in the mission to understand and implement diversity, equity and inclusion into the field at all levels. A great deal of funding has been allocated towards efforts of education and training, consultants have been hired, conferences and seminars attended.
I myself am a part of a three-year initiative, The Equity Project, which is a learning cohort of 21 ballet companies to increase the presence of Blacks in ballet. And in many ways there has been progress made. With raised awareness, core values and mission statements have been amended to reflect these aspirations; recruitment has made pipelines browner; there are more brown dancers on stages. We are not there yet, but certainly there has been progress.
And then something like the global pandemic of COVID-19 comes along and in an instant distills all of it down to a few simple choices and actions or lack thereof. What COVID has wrought upon the dance world in many ways is irreparable. The rolling effect of lockdowns resulted in unrecoverable loss of revenue for dance organizations that will undoubtedly change the landscape forever. But few could predict that this global health crisis would create the unprecedented opportunity for dance organizations who profess to be authentically committed to the work of DEI to have the veracity of their progress tested. Unfortunately right now to the Black dance community, they are failing.
Setting the Stage
Some might not have been expectant of the almost unavoidable social side effects that would result from the COVID-19 pandemic. However for the Black community, when we knew it would not be long because there were tell-tale signs...
First there were reports that the Black community was being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Then states decided to open certain businesses. The racial implications of the choice of establishments (barbershops, hair and nail salons, bowling alleys) betrayed the nefarious racist plot brewing. So while nursing the ill both at home and on the front lines, while burying and mourning loved ones that succumbed, Black Americans watched pockets of white people all over the country decide to exercise their civil right to protest the "unlawful" confinement that prohibited them from their right to haircuts and pedicures, while openly carrying assault weapons, aggressively facing off with stoic and amazingly self-restrained police officers and doing so with impunity.
Then there was Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and video of Amy (#Karen) Cooper using the most insidious and dangerous form of white privilege—that of the female—bequeathed to her by her foremother Carolyn Bryant, who falsely accused Emmett Till.
Then, there was George Floyd.
Mr. Floyd's murder was the final straw on this particular camel's back. Because as Derek Chauvin squelched the life out of him, the posture mockingly mimicked that of (former) football player and activist Colin Kaepernick and his peaceful protest of passive knee during the singing of the national anthem to bring awareness to the killing of unarmed Black people. While looking directly into the eye of a camera, it appeared that Chauvin was taking a knee for white supremacy.
Black dancers, artists, are Black people who live Black lives. When Chauvin was looking into that camera, he was looking at us. While he knelt on our father, brother, uncle, nephew's neck, we know that it could easily be our own. So when Black dancers scroll their organization's feeds and see "business as usual" digital classes, promotions for digital seasons, dance mash-ups that require time, energy, thought and organization to construct, this particular lack of representation is a lance to the heart. Our suffering, our anguish, our mourning is invisible, not important or valid enough to share.
It is especially heartbreaking when organizations profess to be actively and mindfully engaged in the work of diversity, equity and inclusion, have received funding for this work, and have engaged consultants, done workshops and seminars to better comprehend what and how institutional racism and implicit bias shows up in their organizations. They are so eager to "communicate" and illustrate their work and "commitment," are quick to employ brown bodies to herald that message, trot Black and brown bodies out to enroll other Black and brown bodies. And yet when Black bodies are in peril, they do not publicly acknowledge it or the effect it has on the Black members of their organizations.
Some have claimed confusion at how to go about it, that they are "afraid" of getting it wrong, and yet they take that risk when they are trying to convince us it is safe to enter, that we are welcome, that these are spaces of belonging.
It smacks of the all-too-familiar rapacious characteristics of whiteness. You are for us when it benefits you.
To be certain, all it would take is for a Black ballet dancer to be brutalized or killed for the dance community at large to rise up. There would be floods of posts, television spots talking about the atrocity, no doubt.
But why must violence, brutality or death happen to the Black bodies you care about, that directly serve you to move you to action? It is because you connect with their humanity? That need for it to feel like a personal affront harkens back to the Black body being regarded as property ergo the damage or loss of it is equated with its "value."
Standing up and publicly acknowledging social injustice generally involves too great a risk (of offending donors, patrons, board members, etc), hence you retreat to the safety and sanctity that is the privilege of whiteness. This perpetuates the mistrust for whiteness that has been historically embedded into the Black community. Black people don't have that option, the privilege to sit certain things out, nor do your Black dancers, students, faculty or administrators.
It is important for white dance organizations, specifically ballet organizations, to understand that the Black community does not want to hear your excuses of not knowing how to show up. We do not accept your fear of making a mistake. We are in fear of our lives that are under threat.
The time for excuses is over. You have an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate your authenticity and your commitment to your DEI efforts. You want the Black community's trust? Here is where you earn it. Black dancers are asking, WHERE IS YOUR OUTRAGE??? You want us—stand up for us. Put some skin in the game. If you use Black bodies in marketing as the face of your diversity initiatives, be as public in supporting issues that put their bodies and lives at risk.
Here is what we need you to do:
- CONSIDER THEM AS ONE OF OUR OWN. Treat the death of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Trayvon Martin as if they were members of your organizational family—how would you honor them?
- GET COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT. Comfort is a privilege of whiteness. Black people in this country exist in a persistent state of discomfort that we internalize to the degree of normalization. Black people do not have time to soothe your personal anxiety about showing up. Decide to be brave and bold. Don't look down, and don't look back.
- GET INFORMED. Always be in a learning space; it evokes humility, vulnerability. It allows for mistakes and is forgiving. When you are open to being taught, people are more apt to honor the effort. It will help avoid an authoritative or "expert" tone. But you must do your work and learn, educate yourself personally and professionally. Have your organization (and personally follow) racial justice leaders and influencers like Brittney Packnett, Marc Lamont Hill and Eric Michael Dyson. Introduce them to your followers.
- FIND YOUR VOICE, FLOOD YOUR FEEDS. It is easy and earnest to repost a Black dancer's response to this revolution, but your organizational response should not lean on their emotional labor. The time for cookie-cutter responses is past. You need to put your skin, your heart in the game—we can tell the difference. When you do repost or hashtag, especially if it is sourced from people of color, acknowledge it. Too often whiteness appropriates both Black culture and causes, then collects unearned accolades for courage. The #MeToo movement was popularized by white women in Hollywood but in true allyship, they credited its founder, Tarana Burke. Do the moral and emotional work to develop social media campaigns that reflect your values surrounding DEI. Avoid cut-and-paste platitudes; they ring hollow. Connect to the humanity of your company. Make it more heart-driven, less brand. Dance organizations, you have thousands of highly diverse followers from all over the world, with different cultural and economic backgrounds and beliefs. By posting events and information, you can be an influencer reaching people who would not otherwise seek out this content. When you display your values as an organization, it signifies to your followers that perhaps it is something that they should be aware of and active in supporting as well.
- TIPS ON POSTING. Don't know what to say? Perhaps your dancers might have something to share (but note that some of your Black employees might not want to do your work and are emotionally taxed). Your story is their story. A picture is worth 1000 words. Be courageous. Choose an image that says what you mean. A beautiful image of a dancer with text is wonderful, however people often don't read the text. If you place your message in the image, even those who scroll by will catch it.
- DO MORE THAN POST. Over the weekend, many companies posted messages of support on social media. We see you, and stand with you. But it is important to know that posting is not enough. It is merely an acknowledgement—people will be looking for your action. You will be held accountable for your declarations and promises of solidarity so get ready to back them up with sustainable change.
- PUBLIC, PRIVATE, PERSONAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. Organizations are people. This is a time of civil unrest that directly affects members of your organizational family. It could be the mother, father, auntie, uncle, sister, brother or grandparent of someone in your community. When was the last time you actually checked in on the Black and brown people in your organizational family: Dancers, admin, faculty, support staff, students and their families? Do a wellness check on the people you say you stand with. Think tangible ways of showing support—an email or phone call to let them know they are seen and valued.
- USE YOUR NETWORK TO GUIDE YOUR RESPONSE. You don't have to guess the right action. Speak with the Black people in your organization. Embody allyship and yield the space for the voices of color and their lived, embodied experience, knowledge and perspective. Allow them to design and drive responses. Ask, What can I do? How can I facilitate? What do you need? Then listen and act.
- LIVE THROUGH YOUR CORE VALUES AND GET YOUR BOARD ON BOARD. Almost every organization working on DEI has crafted a set of organizational core values and mission statements. It's time to take them off the paper and put them into action, show and prove. Companies need to galvanize the economic, social, corporate and political power that exists on their boards. Put that power to use by familiarizing yourself with local issues. There should be public statements to donors and patrons, facilitated conversations and forums held for artistic and administration staff as well as the board.
- IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. Dance organizations measure most of their actions on what they get out of it. Act selflessly—exercise humanity and empathy by taking action because it is simply and purely the right thing to do.
- CONNECT WITH YOUR LOCAL BLACK COMMUNITY LEADERS. Find out how you can support and be in service to local grassroots business, organizations, establishments. Build relationships with them that are equitable and reciprocal in kind; they are your places of higher learning. Perhaps there are resources you can share to support their work and growth. When it is safe to do so, offer spaces to hold gatherings, have organizational presence at events (perhaps a board member), ask dancers to perform, post about them on your feed, perhaps create a space on your website.
- GET RID OF INTERNAL TERRORISTS WITHIN YOUR ORGANIZATIONS. You know who they are. Stop making excuses for them and their behavior. Stop placing artists and employees at risk by making them carry the emotional burden and abuse of racist, bigoted, sexist employees because they are "valued' members of the artistic staff, faculty or board. You have to choose.
To dance service organizations who are charged with leading the field and serving the dance community, you should be modeling how activism, advocacy and allyship shows up at a time like this. Your platforms should be resources for the organizations you serve.
- DANCERS' SELF PROMOTION VEILED AS SUPPORT IS CANCELED. Don't be tone deaf or opportunistic. Now is not the time. To white dancers seeking to be allies, especially high-profile dance stars: We see you. Although we thank you for your anger and your outrage, your followers don't need to hear about your feelings right now. (See above about comfort.) Or your voice white 'splaining. We need you to fall back, and use your platform and your sphere of influence as tools to amplify the issues by lifting up Black voices, stories and experiences. Show solidarity by exposing your followers and fans to our experts, the people who are doing the work. And leave the comments on so you can see and hear who your fans are.
To Black artists, especially high-profile dance stars, whom the community so richly, full-throatedly supported: Use that same platform that was built for you by the community to support the community. Your silence is duly noted as well. You can't stand on the ancestors' shoulders to ascend, and then stand silent when your influence is most needed. We need all hands on deck. It will not be excused or forgotten. Rise up!
CALL TO ACTION ON JUNE 19, JUNETEENTH: AS A SHOW OF SOLIDARITY, WE ASK THAT DANCERS AND DANCE ORGANIZATIONS DEDICATE THEIR PLATFORMS FOR THE DAY TO HIGHLIGHTING RACIAL THE INJUSTICE AND INEQUITY VISTED UPON BLACK PEOPLE. #JUNETEENTHDANCEBREAK #NOJUSTICENODANCE