Tag Archives: white supremacy

Deconstructing the Ballet Body

Black ballet dancer Misty Copeland in a mid-air split
Black ballerina Misty Copeland, photo by Marty Sohl

Debbie says:

Once upon a time, I was a ballet fan. I still think the art form is beautiful, but I stopped being able to tolerate what it does to dancers’ bodies (especially women’s bodies), and I switched my allegiance to other forms of dance that don’t eat their performers alive.

It has never been possible to pay attention to ballet without noticing how extremely, unforgivingly white the ballet world is. Journalist Chloe Angyal has just written Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself. Marie Claire published an excerpt from the book last week, with the perfect title “The Unbearable Whiteness of Ballet.”  The excerpt opens with some stories from the experience of Wilmara Manuel, a Black woman from Haiti and her biracial ballet student daughter Sasha.

Sasha grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis and is now 16. She trains at the Royal Ballet School in London, an exclusive training ground that serves as a feeder school for the Royal Ballet. It’s widely acknowledged to be one of the best ballet schools in the world.

Wilmara says that people often express their surprise at the quality of Sasha’s training and technique. “Oh wow, you’re really good,” Wilmara says by way of example. “Where do you train? Have you been dancing for a long time?” She says that while she tries to give these white people the benefit of the doubt, she knows what they usually mean, and she’d prefer they just come out and say it: “I’m surprised you’re that good. You’re Black and you’re dancing and you’re good.”

Now that Sasha is a little older, Wilmara talks to her about the racist assumptions embedded in those surprised comments. “You know she’s asking because she doesn’t think a person of your color can do this,” she’s told Sasha, who now “gets it when she hears that tone of voice.” …

This emotional labor, the work of helping young dancers understand what “that tone of voice” means and why it’s being used—or the work of deciding whether to tell your child about the racist remark you just overheard or absorb it yourself and shield them from it—is a part of parenting not demanded of mothers of white dancers.

Angyal then pans out from individuals to a more generalized analysis of ballet dancers of color:

Discipline, order, adherence to strict and unquestioned rules. That’s what ballet is. When dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild (author of The Black Dancing Body) asked Seán Curran, a white dancer and choreographer who performed with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, what he pictured when he thought of white dance or white dancing bodies, he said, “Upright. . . . For some reason, ‘proper’ stuck in the head a bit, something that is built and made and constructed rather than is free or flows.” A body that is rigid, obedient, and disciplined, remade from something natural and unruly into something refined and well behaved. Proper. “Whiteness,” Curran said, “values precision and unison.”

Curran’s assessment identifies a central underlying prejudice of white supremacy: the belief that people of color, and their bodies, are wild. Uncivilized, animalistic, subhuman. That white people—who, by contrast, are assumed to be organized and civilized—have both a right and a responsibility to tame that which is untamed and impose order, precision, and unison on it. To suppress and control that which is savage; to press it into something that approaches whiteness but will never be truly white and thus never truly equal.

To follow this thread about wildness in Black and Brown bodies out of ballet and into a wider context, Laurie and I recommend Nell Irvin Painter’s A History of White PeopleAngyal, in keeping with the subject of her work, goes deeper.

it is easy to see how the ideal ballet body—so controlled, so upright—is everything that white supremacy imagines a Black body is not. And because of deeply ingrained American cultural associations with musculature, loose movement, brute force, and untamed sexuality, the Black body is believed to be everything a ballet body is not permitted to be.

“When we talk about the ballerina,” says Theresa Ruth Howard, a former dancer and a teacher, diversity strategist, and the founder and curator of the digital ballet history archive Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet), “we’re talking about the ideal, our stereotype of the desirable woman, and that is reserved for white women.”

Howard has made a career of helping the people who run ballet companies and schools to examine their ideas about what makes for a “good” ballet body, asking them to question their biases about the inherent fitness of white bodies and unfitness of other bodies, especially Black bodies. She says that long-standing racist tropes about Black women’s bodies make Blackness and ballerinas seem antithetical.

“You have the trope of either the jezebel, the mammy, or the workhorse of the Black woman,” which are incompatible with desirability, fragility, and sexual purity, the ideal of white womanhood at the heart of the ballerina’s appeal.

The subtitle of the book implies that other chapters shine some light into a less white, less supremacist future for ballet. I find that encouraging and simultaneously wonder if such a transformation is possible. Angyal seems like a fine guide into that territory.

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Remembering Wilmington: The Successful White Supremacist Coup

America’s Only Successful Coup d’Etat Overthrew a Biracial Government in 1898

Debbie says:

Like most Americans, I didn’t know much about the history of the November 1898 election in Wilmington, North Carolina until a few years ago. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to hear a couple of podcast episodes on the subject, most recently “If It Ever Happens, Run,” on Criminal. Reveal’s “Remembering a White Supremacist Coup” digs a little deeper.  In 2020, David Zucchino published Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy.

If you haven’t heard or read this history, here’s what the city of Wilmington has to say about this story, today in 2021.

It isn’t very detailed, but it could be worse (I found some really whitewashed language on other tourist pages, so kudos to the city for telling the basic truth):

The Civil War wasn’t the only tumultuous time in Wilmington’s history, and The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 proved that the racial conflicts in the Port City were far from over after the war. In 1898, two days after the election, more than 1,500 white men attacked and destroyed the only black newspaper in the state before spilling into the streets and wreaking havoc on black residents. An estimated 10-100 black residents were killed during the violent mob attacks, and no government officials or governmental body stepped in to prevent the atrocities or administer justice to the radical offenders. Today, the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, (also known as the Wilmington Race Riots of 1898), remain one of the darkest chapters in the town’s history.

For more detail, here’s Aaron Randle, writing at history.com

In 1898, a group of white vigilantes—angry and fearful at the newly elected biracial local government—joined forces with area militias to rain terror on Wilmington, North Carolina, then the South’s most progressive Black-majority city.

After stoking fear of a Black uprising that would upend their way of life, endanger their women and bring about an unfathomable new American reality in which Black men—not white—governed, white city leaders pledged to “choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses” rather than allow Wilmington’s Black citizens to succeed, and lead.

When the carnage ended, more than 100 Black government officials—city councilmen, the city clerk, the treasurer, the city attorney and others—had been forced from their elected roles. Somewhere between 60 and 250 Black citizens were murdered. 

After the coup, for which no one was ever prosecuted or punished, more than 100,000 registered Black voters fled the city. No Black citizen would again serve in public office for three-quarters of a century.

As we are newly confronted with having to think about coups, violent insurrections, and white supremacist mob rule, remembering Wilmington is sobering … and important.

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