Removing My Robes:
a dedication to dismantling unconscious white supremacy, in 3 parts
“I write to free and heal myself.” - Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
I usually process the world, or at least my place in the world, in the dance studio. My body helps me process my thoughts and feelings, translating them into choreography. In the past couple years, since stepping away from dancing with a company, a lot of my processing has moved to the written word, which has been amplified since the world shut down for the coronavirus. At first I was hesitant, even resistant, to call myself a writer, but I recently came across this quote from award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks: “Language is a Physical Act”. That hit home for me, and in many ways has given me permission to further integrate this process into the Bodies in Play practice.
Note: This essay isn’t adding anything new to the conversation beyond my own perspectives. There have been many amazing experts on racism, especially Black scholars, activists, intellectuals, healers, and artists, who have been bringing this concept up for discussion for ( too many ) years - many of us just weren’t listening. I have included a number of these voices that have influenced and shaped my own thoughts on race and whiteness quoted throughout this essay as well as on the new Resources page of the Bodies in Play website. My writing is in no way intended to appropriate their ideas or center my own, but purely intended for my own processing, for my own dedication to being better, and for anyone in my community who may still need a nudge to do the same.
Bottom line: We need to shift the conversation from recognizing our own privilege, to recognizing our own white supremacy, and to normalize discussing white supremacy until our children understand it in the way Millennials understand slavery and segregation - as a horrible part of our past that should never be repeated.
“ Language is a physical act - something that
involves yr whole bod.
Write with yr whole bod.
Read with yr whole bod.
Wake up. ”
Part 1: White Supremacy Is In Me (a Recognition)
“While we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies. If we are to survive as a country it is inside our bodies where this conflict needs to be resolved -The vital force [behind] white supremacy is in our nervous systems.” - Resmaa Menakem
Each of us is a beautiful Venn diagram of various identities. I meet at the intersection of homosexual, Californian, millennial, and various privileges (white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male of a high socio-economic status). These are the identities bestowed upon me at birth.
I’ve also chosen a number of identities and identifying attributes: dancer, choreographer, artist, writer, academic, socially aware citizen, educator, and gay man (the difference between gay and homosexual can be saved for a different conversation). These are the identities that I take pride in - the identities that help shape my values, beliefs, and ultimately my actions.
The concept of privilege (and the identities associated) has been at the forefront of many conversations over the past several years, but in all the conversations I’ve witnessed or participated in, there’s one identity of privilege that has been neglected:
We don’t like to think of white supremacy as an identity. After all, how can I possibly maintain pride in my identities as an artist, socially aware citizen, and gay person if I also have an identity synonymous with oppression? That’s what we’re taught from a very young age: that white supremacy is bad.
We’re also taught that racism is over.
This egregious fallacy immediately lays the groundwork for the white supremest foundation. A foundation that infiltrates our minds, our hearts, our beliefs, and our actions. If racism is over, how could I, one of the good guys, possibly engage in white supremest tendencies?
Now I know immediately what most (well intentioned) white people are thinking: but I’m not racist! It’s not my fault I wasn’t taught the full history of the United States! I’m trying to learn and do better! I don’t choose a white supremacist identity, I choose an anti-racist identity!
While these statements may be true, to an extent, herein lies the problem: Some identities you don’t get to choose. Some identities choose you. White supremacy is an insidious identity that infiltrates all other identities whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Here’s a specific example -
I identify as a dancer. I have since I was 11 years old. Even though I have not performed as a dancer in over 2 years, I teach dance, I train my body using dance vernaculars, I support dance, and I work in the dance industry. I am a dancer. Prior to COVID-19, I began developing a new solo dance. When I entered the studio to begin choreographing on my own body, the 2 years off was tangible. My body didn’t feel familiar. Even though I still feel in shape, mobile, healthy, and strong, I no longer feel “dancerly”. When I looked at myself in the mirror or watched myself dancing on video, I found myself judging the shapes my body made and frustrated at the deterioration of certain skills I had considered necessary for the dancer’s body.
Skills and shapes defined by my Euro-Centric dance training.
This Euro-Centric training has ingrained in me that there is a right and wrong way to be a “good” dancer. So even as I’ve taken steps to expand my own aesthetics as a patron of dance, and built Bodies in Play upon ideals that value all bodies, I’m still holding myself to a white supremest standard.
The most frightening part of this realization is in considering what other parts of my identity white supremacy has infiltrated. Let’s take “socially aware citizen” for example. If white supremest culture suggests there’s a right and wrong way to be “woke”, adhering to this standard can easily set me into a hamster wheel of thoughts and insecurities:
If I’m socially aware, then I’ll speak out against injustices … but …
I don’t know what to say or where to start (so I must not be socially aware)
if I offend someone (then I must not be socially aware)
I haven’t spoken out before,
so I’ll be accused of virtue signaling (which is not socially aware)
if I make a mistake (then I must not be socially aware)
I’m not sure if I’m doing enough (so I must not be socially aware)
Any thought that leads to me back to being socially unaware compromises that identity and therefore returns me to silence or inaction. I can continue to believe I’m socially aware as long as there is no public evidence to suggest the contrary.
It’s important, however, to notice what is at the root of all of these insecurities: Me, and how I’m going to be perceived.
This self perpetuating and self centered cycle is exactly how white supremacy traps the white mind and muzzles with white mouth. White supremacy puts white people’s feelings, ego, and self-image at the center of the narrative. It enforces a binary that there are good people and bad people, and that racists/white supremacists belong in the bad category (even when the behavior is unconscious), providing no opportunity to improve our behavior through trial and error. White supremacy thrives because white people are bred to believe our personal feelings are truth (news flash: they’re not) and that a single action or behavior can make or break our identities (i.e. one Black Lives Matter post makes me a good person / one unconscious racist comment makes me a bad person).
Instead of continuing to accept this unfortunate dissonance, what if we invited white supremacy into our conscious identity so we can give it the attention needed to dismantle it?
My name is Andrew, I am a dancer, I am a socially aware citizen, I am one of the good guys, and I am a human with white supremest blinders who is trying to do better.
Now it’s your turn.
Part 2 - White Supremacy in Blue (How White Supremacy Has Shaped My View of the Police Force)
"This is why those pious calls to ‘respect the law,’ always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.” - James Baldwin, 1966
I’ve been pulled over only a handful of times in my life, and always for something I did wrong:
Forgetting to turn my lights on past sundown.
Swerving because I was dancing along to the radio with my friends.
Yet, for each of these examples, when I was clearly out of accordance with understandable guidelines for public safety, I still felt entitled to sass the officer. You see, (white) society raised me to believe I’m at the center of my own (white) universe, so when I’m forced to stop what I’m doing and pull my car over, it’s in direct disruption to my cosmic course. So not only did I feel empowered to talk back to these cops, I felt entirely justified. Never once was my safety a concern.
My experience is not an isolated instance. I’ve heard multiple stories from my white friends in which the police are cast in roles ranging from mild inconveniences to the absolute butt of the joke. Personally, I’ve never heard a story casting an officer as a hero, let alone a compassionate citizen. This isn’t to suggest those cops aren’t out there, they just don’t prevail in opinion or stereotype.
This is of course reinforced in our media. I don’t think I can count the number of times I’ve seen white, often well-off, characters in crime dramas present outward disdain and rudeness during an interrogation scene. Of these scenes, I can’t remember any time these white men were then beat up by the questioning detectives, even if they turned out to be guilty! The comedy genre goes a step further to explicitly make fun of the police force with films and television programs such as the Police Academy series, Reno 911, or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Instances when films do glorify police usually involves an officer’s direct disregard for the rules, acting against the demands of their chief in pursuit of justice. In other words, we’re taught that cops are either clowns, or vigilantes fighting against an oppressive system.
All of this is to say that we, as white people, need to stop pretending that we hold the police force in any kind of noble regard. Disrespecting cops is part of our culture. The only times we seem to band together in their support is when the Black community seeks rightful justice for the crimes committed against them. To laugh at the mishaps of a dysfunctional precinct, cheer on a protagonist who ignores the rules to save the day, or show visible annoyance when a cop disrupts your day, only to turn around and preach respect for an organization after its members have murdered innocent Black civilians is nothing short of white supremacy.
Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers to improve this pressing and ever-present issue. There are hundreds of people whose lived experience and research can provide better insight and actionable steps toward resolution as well as much needed reparations.
What I do know is that when it comes to my own experience of public safety, I have my skin color to thank far more than any police officer.
Part 3 - White Supremacy in Us (and the Conversations Within My Immediate Communities)
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.” - Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn, 1978
For those of us in the process of "checking our privilege", should this not also include "checking our tastes” ?
I’ll dig into this more in a moment, but for some context:
I’ve been on a personal crusade to unpack my own privilege for a few years. I’ve attended workshops, listened to podcasts, read books and articles, sought out media, had tough conversations, etc.
But a few years out of a lifetime of indoctrination is not very long - and as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered man, I’ve got A LOT of privilege to unpack.
In going through this process, I’ve attempted to invite others into the conversation by sharing perspectives and/or interesting (if not horrifying) pieces of history that were new to me. The thing I’ve found most challenging in broaching this subject with other people of privilege - especially white people - is the burden of proof they force me to take on - especially in topics regarding race and the Black Lives Matter movement. Rather than taking my words at face value (as they would with almost any other topic), or in the very least, engaging in conversation around the subject, I’m instead met with people “just playing Devil’s advocate,” or having a “difference of opinion”, or, most aggressively, demanding dates, facts, and statistics for any concepts they find disagreeable.
These conversations always make me feel like I’m at a debate, but I’ve left my cue cards at home.
Which brings me back to checking our tastes. Psychology and behavioral research has shown that our tastes are developed based on what we're most exposed to.
Let's take visual art for example:
People exposed to more art are more likely to enjoy a wide variety of styles, from Abstract Expressionism to Baroque or from Classic paintings to Avant-Garde sculptures. However, those less exposed to art tend to like things that are more familiar, or “safe”, like photography of faces and landscapes.
When it comes to matters of race and culture, to “check our taste” would include checking our “preferences” for attraction and style (especially my fellow gay white men) and checking our “aesthetics" for genres and content (my fellow artists). What if we didn’t click past that new Netflix show, or skip that song on the radio, or pass up reading that book, or swipe past that face on our dating apps because they're "just not my type”?
Perhaps increased exposure to cultures outside our normal purview could help alleviate that burden of proof placed on those who speak to racial injustices.
Because there’s just SO MUCH information, especially for those of us who have gone through most of life with privileged blinders on (not to mention the very necessary process of unlearning required to understand it all). So when my dialogues on race and privilege are met with resistance, or require validation through an encyclopedic download of all applicable sources, it feels like an uphill battle, beating me back down toward complacency.
But that’s what the system wants! That IS white supremacy - a system of checks and balances that keep white people within their own comfort zone of thoughts, actions, and consumption.
Do I have all the facts at the tip of my tongue? No.
Do I believe a plethora of well-researched sources which all present congruent information should be regarded as true? Yes.
Do I (will I ever) understand how Black people and other non-white people feel about racial inequality? Absolutely not.
Do I believe their feelings, experiences, ideas, and opinions are valuable? Absolutely.
So the next time a person we care about is sharing something with us - especially the non-white people we claim to care about - we must recognize that they are trusting us with information that is important to them and enter the conversation from a place of belief.
Then do our own research.
“You can’t really have these deep conversations about race […] unless you’re willing to do deep digging about where issues of race live within you […] This idea of Archeology of the Self probably has to be done in community of some sort.” - Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
Oppression is Oppression is Oppression. We all have the potential to be oppressed. We all have the potential to be oppressive to others. Each person’s experience of oppression is specific, but the remedy is the same: recognize the humanity of all individuals and create systems that support and acknowledge these individuals. What’s important is that we listen to one another, with complete openness. To trust one another when we say “that was hurtful” and work toward improving behavior. To speak with the identifiers used by individuals rather than categorize based on the groups or labels we’re most comfortable with. To freely make mistakes but apologize for them swiftly and sincerely. And when certain oppressions are recognized to be systemic, acknowledge the issues and work toward change.
Ultimately, we must acknowledge that language, culture, and governing systems are as dynamic as the humans who make them up so we can remain agile enough to adapt as necessary.
“I believe that we are windows to what is possible when we break down all of these restrictive ideas of who we’re supposed to be and lean into authenticity and vulnerability.” - Raquel Willis