Thursday, 4 December 2014

"I am not a racist."

White people, listen up: If even the Klan claims not be be racist, think of how hollow your protestations might sound in the face of overwhelming statistical evidence that the United States has a race problem. 

Over the summer, someone said to me: "White men are the bad guys for everything now. You can't even talk about race if you're white without being called a racist." I found this hilarious, and was stunned to find, upon sharing this ludicrous statement, that it is actually a fairly common opinion.

Allow me to clarify: This is bullshit. I talk about race all the time, and have never been accused of being a racist. To add a wrinkle to this, my husband and I openly converse about racism and racial prejudice, and acknowledge that there is always a risk and a likelihood that we unknowingly bumble into racist behaviour in the course of our lives. We don't get accused of being racists, even as we admit that there are unthinking things we do that probably contribute to these social ills. We are likelier to accept that we might be racist, on some level, than the KKK. Such is the warped state of this national conversation.

If no one is a racist, then where is this racial bias coming from? We can see it in national statistics, anecdotes and evidence, and yet, somehow, everyone is blameless.

All of us have prejudices; it's one of life's great challenges to remain real with yourself, and discover what your own flaws are so you can take action to root them out and be a better person. This an everyday endeavour, the practice of refinement and open-mindedness and education. This is looking at patterns in the world around you and being really real that not everyone gets treated like you do. It is not claiming to be colour-blind as you negotiate a blame-shift because the situation is uncomfortable.

If you are protesting that you are not a racist, or that you can't even talk about race without being accused of racism, knock it off. Seriously, you are probably saying racist things, and dressing it up in some conversation about class, culture, behaviour, economics, affirmative action or any number of excuses that allow you a little distance to judge others without directly filling in the blank that you're talking about race. You are being judgmental, loud and ignorant, and that is the problem.

If you want to talk about educational achievement gaps, you need to talk about the impact poverty has on educational outcomes. You need to talk about urban food deserts and the PTSD-like symptoms that kids in rough urban neighbourhoods often exhibit that prevent them from being able to concentrate in school, leading to disparities in academic performance relative to their better-off peers. You need to talk about how relentless testing, failing scores and de-funding of schools drastically affects kids whose parents cannot simply move them to the suburbs or put them in private school.

If you want to talk about economics, you need to talk about the biases amongst employers that mean a black grad with no criminal record has similar odds in the job market to a white ex-con. And then you need to talk about how the people making those hiring decisions are disproportionately white, and how the crucial component of an inside connection for a job posting cuts along racial lines.

If you want to talk about prison populations and absentee fathers, you need to talk about disproportionate arrest rates between races, especially for minor crimes, and the fact that your white teenage son or daughter is lucky they aren't black, because if they were they'd be getting thrown out of school for minor offences, sent to prison over small amounts of marijuana or shot because they looked threatening. 

And your kids are not special. They are doing this stuff, too. I know from experience. Their skin colour alone is improving their odds of finishing high school, going to university and getting a job, even staying alive, because authority figures are not watching their every move like they are criminals waiting to happen. Instead, the police are likelier to be lenient with them, perhaps because they relate to them more as their own sons and daughters.

All of these problems are fixable. We just have to properly identify them at their source, and with kindness. There is systematic discrimination, and it is wrong, and it also breaks down into smaller, still-nasty pieces that can be attacked bit-by-bit. But you have to see that the problem is there, acknowledge your part in it and start to fix it, both within yourself and in the world around you. A huge part of that, the most important part, is listening to the people who are being hurt by this. Understanding what someone's going through, rather than telling them. So many people are experiencing the sharp end of racism, and I'd bet that each of them has some solution to the problems they encounter.

From my informal polls, it appears that no one wants to be a racist. We are not yet colour-blind, however much we might want to be in that post-racial world. We live shoulder-to-shoulder in this injustice and violence, and defensive posturing does no one any service. Soften your heart, listen, and embrace the possibility that you have been wrong, or misinformed, or you didn't know. We can all be better.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

From One White Bellydancer to Another

This post is in response to an opinion piece which made waves in the bellydance world this week: Randa Jarrar's "Why I Can't Stand White Bellydancers," for

Imagine your uncle broke into someone's house on the other side of town, and stole a very beautiful necklace, among other things. Years later, someone gives it to you. You treasure it. One day, while you're walking down the street, the daughter of the woman who was robbed sees her mother's jewellery around your neck. She comes up to you to tell you that the necklace is a priceless family heirloom that was stolen. It had been in her family for generations, passed down from mother to daughter over decades. Would you try to suggest to her that you should keep it, or that she is crazy to try to tell you that she has a greater claim to it? Would you try to compare your love for it to hers?

As white women, we all have that uncle, or appear to. We look like the wives and daughters of the soldiers and foreign heads of state that played a part in carving up the Middle East and helped perpetuate conflict there. The impacts of that violence are not past but present, and the ruptures manifest in the looting of museums, the endangerment of women and minorities, and the erosion of cultural autonomy. We, as dancers, might not have done this, but we have to imagine how it looks to take on a certain costume and dance style and proclaim ourselves protectors of an art form that originated outside our borders.

Even if you are not from a country that directly colonised anywhere, we should remember a few facts. Baghdad has been sacked. Cairo remains tense. Throughout the Middle East, people are dealing with the aftermath and ongoing damage to cultures that have been ripped open partly by white people. Did they do that to each other, too? Yes. Does that exempt us from consideration of our appropriation of their arts? No. 

I think we need to be extraordinarily cautious about dismissing Randa Jarrar as cranky, racist, or bigoted, which has been the tendency of some. She is having the experience of something that is culturally near and dear to her being rewritten, by people who look nothing like her and mostly do not have the history of their culture being exploited that she does. The dance she loves does not belong exclusively to her, but it is woven into the fabric of her childhood and family life in a way that is very different from the experience of most Western dancers.

There is a difference between people adopting the dress and customs of a dominant culture that is actively exported (as in the cases of European dress or American music) and people from a dominant global culture feeling entitled to adopt or adapt the folk arts of another region. In one instance, the originators of the cultural form happily expect to be leading the way, and are validated by the uptake of their trademarks. In the other, people often feel that they are fighting to retain their identities and ways of life in the face of massive pressure to assimilate to "modern" expectations, largely from the global West/North.

The circumstances surrounding who has the luxury of dabbling in what art--including day-to-day discrimination based on skin color, historical facts of empire, wealth and power imbalances, gender politics (and how those are affected by race, nationality and context)--must be taken into account. It stings to get hit between the eyes with racism. White folks are generally not used to that. After we're done feeling our feelings about it, we have an obligation to acknowledge that our attempts to artfully borrow may have collateral damage. And, we have to decide if that changes our approach, or if we're okay with some people feeling the way Jarrar does. She is not alone in her feelings, either. 

It is a mighty privilege to be able to buy another region's priceless cultural heritage and try it on for fun and experimentation. That's what appropriation is. If other cultures feel respected when we do that, we help grow folk arts into global arts, like ballet. If we leave people feeling violated, then it undermines our cause, in my opinion. 

No one can be blamed for finding dance beautiful and becoming enamoured by it, regardless of context. One can, however, be held to account for failing to deepen one's education of context and history, especially in reference to a region where there has been ongoing conflict and war with Western nations, through our lifetimes. Art never happens in a vacuum--it is surrounded by facts and vagaries of history, and the tensions within those. 

If you are not comfortable with the weight of responsibility for other people's interpretation about your interaction with their cultures, I would suggest, as Jarrar does, that you find another hobby. There are some uniquely American dance forms that risk dying out right now--any one of them would appreciate your attention and participation. If they are not as appealing, I invite you to ask yourself why that is. Less amazing jewellery to wear? Not as worldly? Fewer opportunities for personal authorship in dance? 

Because, honestly, many of the things that make this dance shine to newcomers and audiences hinge on motivating common ideas we all have about the exotic, which derive from moments when Western culture became enamoured with the real and imagined worlds "over there." And, while we might once have felt far apart, those worlds are rapidly growing together, ever more mixed up in and exposed to each other. The heady appeal of that opportunity to craft one's own artistry, literally from the pieces of another place's cultural treasures, comes with the great responsibility to not just feel like you are respecting that with your intentions, but to deliver on that respect. 

We can't expect anyone to read our minds and hearts, and interpret our enthusiasm as appreciation. Execution is crucial; it is what defines art. If we intend to honour peoples' traditions, then we have to check to make sure that they do, in fact, feel honoured. The practices we reference in bellydance don't belong to long-gone people of the past--they are borrowed also from their descendants, who have the right to be respected when they speak up for their cultural integrity. If they don't feel loved, we might want to re-evaluate whether what we're doing just feels good to us, to the exclusion of their feelings on the matter.

In the case of Middle Eastern dance, we can choose to engage--artfully and considerately, and hopefully by invitation--with the injuries of conflicts we have directly or indirectly been party to. Or, we can keep blindly dancing in that wound, without regard to the feelings of those closest to the thing we claim to love. I know what I'd rather do.

None of us will get it right all the time. The failures sting, and they should. We should learn from that, and refine our approach. From there, we can begin to integrate the great diversity of opinion that matters outside of our own, and gain a sense of the perspective. We find our audiences, and we lead them somewhere. We can do better than presenting a cartoon of "elsewhere."