Premises the following assumes are true:
- We live in a racist society – the systems this country uses are generally biased toward white people.
- Race, while often signified by physical characteristics, is *not* an appreciable biological difference (e.g. black humans and white humans are all homo sapiens), but a socially formed idea that white people are better/more human/more powerful than other groups. It is a social concept that uses physical differences to assign social status to individuals. If this is confusing, check out this excellent PBS page.
- ALL of us, as products of our society, are a little bit racist.
- Awareness of our biases helps individuals navigate interracial interactions and conversations, and provides a starting point for making things less racist.
- Appropriation occurs when a piece of a culture is used for gain – monetary or otherwise – by people not of the original culture.
If you disagree with the above, the rest of this will probably not matter to you or not be relevant to your worldview – feel free to message me if you want to talk more about any of these points.
As a cisgender, heterosexual, middle class, able white woman, I have a lot of privilege – I don’t have to think about how I will be treated when I get pulled over, I can publicly display affection toward my romantic partners without fear of reprisal, I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll have money for food tomorrow, and a multitude of other things. I believe that with that privilege comes great responsibility. Call me an idealist and you would not be wrong. But that’s what I believe.
I am involved in both the blues dance and lindy hop communities, as they exist today in the US. These communities are made up of people. These people, whether they realize it or not, are products of American society, and thus are subject to the systems that have created racial inequality. These dances — specifically lindy hop and blues — were originally created by black people, and that is the dynamic that I’m going to mostly talk about. There are clearly other groups in the U.S. that have been historically oppressed, and I’m not discounting that, it is simply not the focus of this post.
The history of inequality as it pertains to black people in this country is horrific. A lot of it is not taught in high school history class, and I encourage you to do some research on post-slavery America between 1863 and 1965. I am just now coming to really understand the way that those experiences echo down through the generations. If you are non-black, here’s a thought experiment for you. If you are black, you may want to skip the next paragraph.
Imagine, for a second, that your great-grandmother was the daughter of a slave. Chances are, she was not raised by her biological parents. Chances are, she witnessed horrible things happen to her loved ones. Chances are, she was treated as if she were subhuman for the majority of her life. Imagine her children, your grandparents, growing up under Jim Crow—not just being required to eat, drink, and generally live separate from whites, but getting arrested for looking at someone wrong or standing still for too long or being alone in public, seeing their friends and neighbors lynched, having crosses burned in their yard. Imagine their children, your parents, growing up under segregation. Being told where they can and cannot drink water, buy lunch, go to the movies, VOTE. Your parents.
My parents were born before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which officially made it illegal for polling places to discriminate based on race. That is not that long ago! My parents lived through that, can talk about it, experienced it. Not only that, but that is a *century* of disenfranchisement. A *century* of federal policy that did not adequately reflect the opinions and experiences of black citizens.
Now, consider, that this is the context out of which emerged Blues, Jazz, and countless other black art forms. Can you honestly say that knowing that context doesn’t influence your artistic choices? I can’t. Understanding that these art forms were in many ways a coping mechanism—a way to express and move through pain, suffering, and hardship—fundamentally changes the way that I think about them. To me, dancing to this music means acknowledging that history, acknowledging the incredibly difficult lives that many of these artists had, celebrating the fact that somehow they had the resilience, strength, and drive to create brand new art forms that would change our musical landscape forever.
Yes, dance is fun. And a lot of the time, we dance for fun. But I think social dancers sometimes forget that they are creating art. Or dare I say, Art. And that Art has an incredibly rich, deep, painful history. Not only that, but the echoes of that history are still being played out today.
The dance communities that I am a part of (that you are also most likely a part of if you’re reading this), are majority white communities. The circumstances that created these communities were, again, shaped by the racist structures that are present in our society. Meaning that white people tend to have more time and money to take formalized dance lessons and go dancing for fun outside of family functions. More white people tend to have the resources (monetary and otherwise) to attend college, and thus, join a college dance club. As these communities have grown, more and more people (mostly white people) have made teaching these dances their livelihood, whether part time or full time. So we have a situation in which a lot of white people are making money off of art that was created by black people, and more often than not, not acknowledging those creators and that history. I am part of this. I make money teaching blues dance. And that situation is appropriative. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
That being said, there is concrete value in sharing these dances with people. Art changes everything. Giving more people the tools to express themselves adds value and meaning to their lives. Teaching these dances specifically, to me, is an opportunity to educate people about our history. It’s an opportunity to get people to think about racial justice as something that directly affects their lives.
So this is my dilemma, and something I think about on a weekly, if not daily basis. Is continuing to participate in, organize, and teach these dances, in this community, an ethically viable option for me? Is that doing more harm than good? Would not being involved at all make things better?
If I decided to stop, and instead put that energy toward engaging with racial justice and politics, would that do more good than continuing? A big part of my brain thinks it would. And my heart hurts thinking about it because these dances, and this community are an enormous part of my life. Losing that would change everything.
If I continue to be a part of these communities, I will continue to include as much history, context, and honoring of the creators as I can. I will donate any money I make to racial justice organizations or use it to support black-owned businesses. I will stay uncomfortable. I will push myself to do more, to do it better, to stay accountable to the POC and old timers in my communities. This is my promise to myself, and to you.
At this point, I am continuously re-making the decision to continue. Someday I might make the decision to quit. But that day is not today.