I’ve just spent practically my entire day in the cafe at a waterstones catching up on a book and after I feel I’ve moved the needle a little, I spend some time looking at new books. I do this about once a month, I usually come away with at least one book to read that i’ll forget to read and then I just rinse and repeat the cycle again next month. So far i’m about three quarters through the new Philip Pullman novel so I feel like it’s enough until the next sit down and as i’m heading downstairs from the cafe, I spy that a new book has been laid out on display and has the usual array of praise and big starry banners alerting you to a new great read. The book was written by Reni Eddo-Lodge and was entitled “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about Race”. It was cleverly designed, the sleeve around the book was white but some of the words were in big black block capitals and others were in big white block capitals. From no more than a few meters away this creates the illusion that the book is called “Why i’m no longer talking about race” with the words “to white people” hidden until closer inspection.
Something interesting happened immediately after I saw the book.
- It took me approximately 30 minutes after seeing the book and a lot of dilly dallying around the store to pick the book up and read the blurb. I actually tried leaving the store but it was lashing it down outside.
- When I finally got the courage to buy the book, I fumbled and let people past me in the queue until a person of colour was available to buy it from.
- When reading it, I took off the sleeve and put it in my bag in order to hide the title as the hardback inside had a usually empty black cover.
I wasn’t doing any of this for me, it’s been a long time since I cared what people thought of me, I was doing this for the people around me.
In my youth before leaving for university i’d always felt a confidence to confront my friends who I felt were being moronic because they were tough enough to deal with it. I played a lot of sport which meant I was surrounded by a boys that couldn’t tell the difference between ‘banter’ and misogyny. But arguing with them was easy, they could dish it out but they could also take it back, and there was a begrudging respect.
The ugly truth that i’m ashamed to admit is that in this dance environment full of liberal, left leaning corbynistas and feminists, i’ve experienced a litany of discrimination as a student, graduate and professional that I have always shied away from confronting. These experiences range from the frustratingly constant micro to the rare but shockingly macro. And the REAL ugly truth is i’ll probably never confront those issues, one because they could potentially affect my career (which is a whole other thing) but also because I don’t want to rock the world of those fragile people. Just like in waterstones, I hide all the time the minute the confrontation comes up, if it hadn’t been for the rain outside I probably wouldn’t have bought the book.
As I was walking to the train station and I had been thinking about all of the above and it led me to defiantly grab the sleeve and put it back on the book and walk with it proudly under my arm. I eventually get to the station and sit in the waiting room for around 11 minutes waiting for my train reading the second chapter of the book. There were two boys in front of me, my best guess (although i’m terrible at this) would have been that they were no older than 22. They were dressed similarly to me, we were all in sweats, mine adidas, theirs nike and reebok, (in fact the purpose of this story let’s call them both Nike and Reebok). Now everybody glances at what people are reading, so I totally understood that the title was attention grabbing but I had remembered that they probably could only tell what the words in black said. I sometimes think people forget that other people can see them and that people have a peripheral vision that extends beyond the bounds of what’s directly in front of them, but even without that they should known I would notice them. They were squinting and peering at the book trying to work out what the middle part said and after a while Reebok turned to the other and said “To. White. People.”… then Nike said “oh” and then eventually (possibly to me as well as to Reebok) quipped “that’s good, we’re sick of hearing it.”
Now I have to be honest, this kind of made me chuckle internally, it was a quick and clever retort and at that I could have rolled my eyes and given a wry smile, but what happened next immediately annoyed me. Reebok suddenly lets out a long and loud “iiiinnnnnniiiiitttttt” and proceeds to curl his hand into a ball and gift this well earned fist bump to Nike. Two affections of black culture in less than a second after admonishing the title of a black author complaining about the problems that affect black culture.
I could taste the irony like a copper coin but I couldn’t be surprised by it, I grew up with these idiots and I knew how to clap back at them if it was needed. I was once again dragged into thinking about the industry i’m a part of and one of the earliest experiences i’d had as a dance artist.
It took me a while to gain the confidence to create my first work, I wanted to work with 9 boys as it fit the theme of the work but I didn’t want the sole woman in the work to stick out like a sore thumb and for it to be known as “The Boy Piece”.
I was shocked however when only a few weeks after we had performed a few peers would ask me about the work and when trying to remember its name would smirk, laugh and agree to just call it “The Black Piece”.
“The Black Piece”
While this would be disrespectful had the piece included only black dancers, it was downright insulting when realising that it actually had a majority white cast. It was simply the presence of colour in the work that gave it the moniker “The Black Piece” which I heard 3 more times without ever confronting the issue. From people that play grime music at the pre-drinks, who constantly mispronounce Jamaican Patois and who constantly need to know why they can’t say “Nigga”, to them we’re a costume.
These are allegedly my “Allies”, and while i’m comfortable using examples with peers and people I consider friends, there’s so much more out there to be talked about from people with significantly more power. If and when I choose to confront that fragility it’s most likely going to have a much longer and lasting effect on my career than with those on the same level as me.
The fact is that the most supportive and understanding people tend not to be the ones who make it their goal in life to name themselves as “allies”. It’s the people that have often chosen to virtue signal to almost every different societal group that are the most frustratingly closed. My experiences with people from the Midlands or London who live around diverse sets of people understand my concerns and gripes almost immediately. They nod profusely and furrow their brow and purse their lips as if to say “I know, what’s new”.
But my experiences with ‘lefty’, liberal middle class white people who more often than not live in communities of people who look just like them tend to almost always leave me cold and frustrated. I’ve had experiences where i’ve had to put aside my frustration and pain at a situation in order to help calm down the tears of the fragile person I thought I could confide in.
Within the arts this fragility from people who often felt themselves so open and liberal is almost harder to combat than the virulent strain of racism of the alt-right, because we can’t actually combat it. I’ve found it so much easier more often than not because usually you can trace that anger and pain back to something tangible and understandable.
(I should stress at this point, I know what’s worse, I’m not a complete fool, I don’t think it’s comparable to compare the alt-right and any of the people I come into contact in the dance industry. But that’s the point really, this is all about who I regularly come into contact with and who holds the keys to my development and opportunities.)
When I arrived at my family’s home in Luton i’d found I couldn’t quite get the experience of the two boys out of my head and I ended telling my parents about the moment (Funnily enough when mentioning the book, my mum made reference to how when she first saw it at a music festival, she didn’t want to be seen buying it and bought it online instead)
As always we ended up discussing a range of issues (some referenced above) and my (white) father made clear to me that my brother had been going through similar issues in his training in a completely different arts subject. When dealing with an issue that was to my father so clearly ingrained in racial bias he commented that my brother had to ask him what he should and shouldn’t say when arguing his case. Eventually after messaging each other back and forth, my father gave my brother the OK on what he could say in order to protect him. My brother agreed but asked my dad “How much longer can I really do this for?” I felt this swell of emotion and slumped in my chair as I realised how ingrained this issue really was.
At this moment that my father is talking about my brothers experiences I’m looking back at the book and I see that the cover is somewhat grubby in a few places and creased from where it was bent in the bag and I immediately wondered what the cover look like if I had to hide it every time I was in public.
The metaphor hit me like a tonne of bricks.
How can I really go on like this.
I’m still practically a baby in the contemporary dance industry and it’s only going to get harder and more prevalent as I get on. I hear from other artists of colour almost all the time about similar experiences that they just hide from, creasing and dirtying themselves up as they shove what they’re thinking into their own bag.
This experience started with one author and I think it ends with another with JK Rowling summing it up almost perfectly,
“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
I’m trying Albus…