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The Year That Exploded

As I write this, there are still 6.75 months left in 2020.

This year has seen first a global pandemic, then a national crisis of conscience, completely bungled by the folks at the helm. One has exacerbated the other, and the failure of leadership at the top level in the United States has set the stage for a conflagration that, frankly, needs to come.

I’ve been quiet about it, here, for two reasons.

First, this is primarily a ballet blog, and while everything in my life touches ballet, I’m still not always sure what constitutes going off-piste.

Second, I try not to write about politics here (mostly because I feel like I don’t know much about politics … but, let’s be frank, neither do a lot of the people who routinely and loudly opine about it).

But I realized, recently, that to consign the current moment– a moment in which police brutality has ended the lives of several people in my own community, and in which the simmering cauldron of systemic racism and repression has come to a boil–to the realm of “politics” is a function of privilege.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t politics.

It’s people trying to survive. It’s people trying to communicate that they–whether literally or metaphorically–can’t breathe. It’s people saying, enough is enough. It’s people saying, I just want to live.

It’s not that, in the past, I didn’t support the movement in question. I did. But I left talking about it outside of my professional life (I have, to be clear, talked and written about racial inequality in ballet–but in a context very specific to ballet, and not very often in this blog).

The thing is, Black and Brown people don’t get to do that. They don’t get to take their skin color off at the door. It is impossible to separate being Black or Brown from your professional life when you are Black or Brown. And even if you don’t talk about it, the context is there.

So I have realized that I need to talk about it, too. That being silent, even if it’s the silence of “I’m not sure what I should say,” is poor ally-ship.

I can’t speak for people of color. But I can say that I believe them when they talk about their struggles with systemic racism.

Someone I know recently replied to reports of fatal police brutality against Black people with, “Yeah, but this white lady was also killed by the police.” That argument misses the point. It’s not that white people are never subject to police brutality, to workplace discrimination, to profiling, or to the other things Black people experience.

Rather, it’s that for Black people, experiencing these things is the norm.

As a apparently-white male, I can go to a shop with one of my girl friends and hold her bag while she steps into the changing room, and the response I get, even from people who haven’t seen my friend hand me her bag, will almost always be, “Aw, isn’t it sweet of him to hold her bag for her.” Occasionally, someone might look at me with suspicion–but overall, no.

If I was Black, it would be more likely that someone who didn’t see my friend hand me her bag would assume I had stolen it. It would be more likely that I’d be shadowed by store associates or security guards. It would be more likely that if I entered a store that sells expensive things–or one that sells dance stuff, because I need to acknowledge that ballet is still perceived as a lily-white pursuit–people would assume I didn’t belong there. They would assume, at best, that I couldn’t afford the items on display; at worst, that my motives were antisocial and that I should be stopped before I could carry out my nefarious plans[1].

  1. “Antisocial” is often used as a synonym for “unsociable,” and because I’m not trying to be a linguistic prescriptivist, I’m not going to decry that usage as wrong. That said, I’m using the word in its more technical sense, here: antisocial as in stealing things mugging people, not antisocial as in curling up with a good book.

If you think that this sounds utterly ridiculous, please know that I have friends who are Black guys around my age who literally experience this every time they leave the house. People assume they’re up to no good simply because they’re shopping while Black, or driving while Black, or walking in the park while Black, or gardening while Black. Please know that their experiences are not the exception: they’re the norm.

This happens to Black women, too: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my Black women friends talk about being pulled over because someone assumed the car was too nice to belong to a Black woman (that someone isn’t always a cop: sometimes it’s someone who calls the cops, who then have to respond to the scene).

So, in short, this isn’t about politics. Politics will almost certainly be involved in the process of change, because that’s kind of what tends to happen … but at its root this is about peoples’ lives.

As a small detour, it seems particularly fitting to me that so much of this is happening during Pride month. It’s easy to forget that Black and Brown people were right out front at Stonewall: Look up Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera if you’d like to know more.

Queer history tends to get whitewashed just like history in general: but the spark that ignited the movement in this country was lit largely by Black and Brown trans women. D has a facebook profile pic that reads, “The First Pride Was A Riot.”

Because it was. And it was for a reason. No movement goes from 0 to Riot without good reasons, but when people have had enough, they’ve had enough.

I’m going to close with one final thought about how this all relates to ballet. Obviously, we should defer to Black and Brown choreographers in this moment. We can help to make space for their creative voices to be heard, instead of rushing to speak on their behalf. We can promote their works (no better time than now, when lots of companies are making works available to stream free of charge).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t also create work and use our artform in the interest of resistance, of renewal, and of rebuilding. If anything, we not only can, but must.

We just have to figure out how to do it without speaking over the people whose experiences we’re trying to support and amplify.

Remember that the current moment didn’t spring from nowhere. The fires that burn right now were lit by hundreds of years of accumulated wrongs, borne with admirable patience by people whose lives have been harder than they should have been.

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