Guest post by Jenny Malone-Brown
I am going to cut to the chase here: as a woman of mixed-race heritage and a student at University of Puget Sound, I am confused and troubled by a recent article published online by Wetlands Magazine. Many aspects of the article were on-point in regards to Miley Cyrus “playing black” and then drawing attention to similar situations in America’s history. This has been a relevant and hackneyed topic on the web for the past couple months now. But, comparing the students and choreographers in RDG to black face minstrel shows in years past is inappropriate. There is a huge jump from mainstream media to an inclusive, no-cut dance club on a liberal arts college campus.
Dance is a collaborative art form. Just as the UPS Dorian Woman’s Choir performs soulful gospel hymns sung by slaves while they picked cotton, RDG choreographers draw upon dance styles they have learned and enjoyed to share with the larger campus community. The author argues that “most of the people on stage [were] not members of the marginalized groups that created these dance styles.” To that I say, can no other race perform and appreciate dances by other cultures? Are we to assume that all white people are racially insensitive and should not try out new styles of dance because it mocks the culture of the people who traditionally perform it? Furthermore, what am I, a child of a black man and a white woman, to do? Am I allowed to booty drop and twerk to “fierce hip-hop tracks”? In the eyes of the author- someone who gazes upon a stage and by merely looking decides one’s racial heritage- an individual’s physical appearance, namely the color of their skin, might make these dance moves OK. In my case, maybe it would be half OK. Last semester alone there were three choreographers that identified as something other than white. In past semesters RDG has had a racial rainbow of different choreographers and dancers: Arabic, Eastern Asian, Hispanic and African American student choreographers, to name a few.
In reading this article I found myself feeling spoken for on my account. The author’s personal opinion was presented as something that someone in my position is apparently supposed to feel. The “message these RDG performances send[s] to students of color on our campus” is something the author should have made an effort to find out. I recognize that anyone who writes on the topic of racial class issues can only “speak for themselves” as the author states in the article, but this is irrelevant to even state because that is all anyone can do, is speak for themselves. In this case the phrase was used as a sort of asterisked disclaimer enabling the author to speak on topics on which she has no authority. The author cannot “imagine how uncomfortable and alienated [she] might feel if [she] had grown up as a person of color or poor” because she has no lived experience being either. Despite her academic knowledge on certain issues she still has a lot of racism and classism to unpack. Not “all of us who attend this school are able to tap into a deep well of privilege simply because we attend this school”. In fact, there are students who attend UPS who were homeless at some point in their lives. Some students’ families could not afford to go to the doctor until the recent advancements in government care. Some students send home their own paychecks from their second job so their working single mother can pay the rent on their house and feed their younger siblings. Though her position of privilege is acknowledged in the piece, privilege means there are certain spaces, discussions, and narratives she is not entitled to and can’t speak on based on said privilege, and that has to be respected. So long as these structures exist, we live in them and are privileged by them, benefit from them, and we learn from them.
This is a lifetime effort- wanting to dismantle the racist power structures that exist in our society- which means it is a lifetime of the people who benefit from this power structure letting marginalized people take control of their own identities, and allowing them speak on them. It is their job to simply listen.