Ethnicity v race

Why do I want to hang onto class when discussing race and ethnicity in dance?

A friend, Superheidi, noted recently that she’s not entirely ok with the way some white dancers use the word ‘race’. She made the point that ‘race’ isn’t accurate; we are not different races because we have different skin colour. We are all one species.

But the social or cultural concept of ‘race’ is still important. I actually use ‘ethnicity’ more than ‘race’. ‘Racism’ is often about skin colour and appearance.
But ethnocentrism is about more than skin colour: it’s about culture and identity.
If we talk about ethnicity, we can distinguish between west africans and east africans, african americans and africans. And so on. The important points become cultural and social: who a people are rather than just what they look like. This becomes super important for first nations people who have been displaced from their homelands, especially in Australia after the stolen generation.
‘Being Black’ is about identity, culture, who we are inside.

This approach also gives us a hook for talking about whiteness, and presenting different types of whiteness as ethnicity. eg white australian = largely anglo celtic; vs white dutch. Same colour skin, different culture. Different ethnic identities.
It’s a standard distinction to make in feminist studies.
And the concept of ethnicity helps us talk about things like ways of moving your body or talking, which are learnt not biological.

For me the word ‘race’ is highly problematic. I really don’t like to use it.
Unless we are talking about racism specifically, and then I need that word. Racism is a specific issue: the hatred of a particular group of people for irrational reasons (eg simply because they look different or act differently). Ethnocentrism is a more complex concept. It’s about prioritising and privileging your own ethnicity and own lived experience. It can allow us to talk about anti-semitism, where a person might not look physically different, but be culturally distinct.

If we aren’t different races (or species) at at genetic level, how do we account for tropes in particular populations? For example, the overrepresentation of indigenous Australian youth in prisons? Or higher instances of diabetes in some African American communities?

This is where intersectionality gets really useful: class is the bigger factor in black women’s high infant mortality rates. Clearly, gender is also important, as it’s women’s bodies which are regulated by anti-abortion laws or subsidising abortion under public health care acts.

And there is some interesting work on the way trauma has a physical effect on bodies (with potential genetic damage). I remember reading about something to do with aboriginal women’s experiences with malnutrition + trauma = ill health for future generations. Starvation can cause genetic or inheritable damage too. And while these symptoms might be prevalent in black women, it’s not because these women are black, but because being black in modern American or Australian society means you’re more likely to experience violence (including sexual violence), poor educational outcomes, and other economic disadvantages, not to mention poor health care services.
In Australia, these latter symptoms are a direct result of racist government policies which reduce community-centred health care services and support services.
All of these points make it clear that while ‘being black’ or ‘being white’ has clear physical effects that are inheritable, these biological elements are the product of social, environmental factors. To be clear, then: we are the sum of our biology and our culture. Who we are is the result of nature and nurture. Ethnicity, then, is a more useful word than ‘race’, because it allows for variance, for the role of environment and culture.

When I say ‘class’ I’m also referring implicitly to education: women with a lower education level are more likely to have more pregnancies, to have higher infant mortality rates, to be in lower paid work, and to die younger. No matter what their ethnicity. But when you combine class markers with ethnicity and gender, you see a more severely disadvantaged group. Why do we see particular ethnic groups caught in these intersectional binds? Well, this is where the concept of patriarchy comes in handy: it helps us see how ideology (ideas about the world) and discourse (the way these ideas are communicated) shape institutions (like schools, hospitals, governments) and society.

So ‘class’ isn’t just about how much money you earn, it’s also about other economic advantages – the suburb you live in (and the services it has), the type and length of education you get, the health services available to you in the public system (which again are often worse, and over-stretched in black areas), the food available to you (see discussions about ‘food deserts’ in urban america), broken family networks (which leads to children leaving school to care for younger siblings, etc) and so on.

This is why capitalism is a key part of patriarchy, why Cierra’s point about vintage wear being ‘expensive’ is so important, and why I think it’s essential to hang onto intersectionality when we talk about race in lindy hop.

why the black kids sit together

I was just watching this video ‘Why the Black Kids Still Sit Together’ feat. Beverly Daniel Tatum and thinking about how important it was to have critical mass of black dancers at Herrang this year in week 4.
There was a moment after the meeting when I was watching the OGs hanging out with the Frankie ambassador peeps, with teacher, dancers from all over the world. They were just hanging, talking, dancing a bit while staff tidied the hall for the dance, the DJ (me) set up for the gig, and the hall emptied out.

Watching these peeps of colour from all over the world hang out, I was struck by just how white Herrang is, and how there’s this insistence in the camp that we only listen to black music from no later than the 50s in common areas. No hip hop. No rap. No reggae. No modern rnb. None of the music that these young people listen to, own in their everyday lives.

And I thought, ‘This is some pretty fucked up shit. That white, middle class people are gate keepers for what counts as ‘legit’ black culture. And it’s the black culture that’s back there in another time, out of reach of these young people.’ And it makes me want to laugh as much as cry that the camp was stretching as far back as the 1600s to an ‘authentic’ black dance from Africa for classes, rather than just reaching out its hand to the kids who were right there in the camp, a living part – owners! – of black culture today.

That’s why the black kids sit together in the cafeteria, lindy hop.

[edit: these same points apply to why we need more women in DJing, why we need to queer it up in lindy hop, etc etc etc]

Women of colour respond to white appropriation of the margin(alised)

Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s piece ‘I walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is why.’ is being linked up a bit in my book-friend circles, with emphasis primarily on Shriver and the topic of the piece. But I’m mostly interested in how the author got up the guts to walk out of this talk in such a public way. It’s essentially a marginalised woman ‘speaking up’ in a white elite space. It’s an act of bravery.

Breai Mason-Campbell’s talk ‘Dancing White: Race, America, and the Black Body…’ was linked up in a dance group last night by Ana├»s, and something about it reminded me of this keynote article. I think it’s Mason-Campbell’s highlighting of the literal framing and display of OGs* at a dance event. It’s very much like the framing and display of marginalised folk in Lionel Shriver’s keynote.

And both pieces are by women ‘speaking out’ about the appropriation of POC’s bodies and minds by people in power for their creative work. In one case the ‘speaking out’ is non-verbal and in the other it’s after the fact. Both of which reduce the ‘danger’ of these acts for the women.

But these two pieces together are making me think and rethink very carefully my approach to OGs in the modern lindy hop scene. Part of me wishes we did ‘acknowledgement of traditional custodians’ at the beginning of every dance event. And that we asked our OGs if they wanted to do a ‘welcome to country’, and if they didn’t, we didn’t go ahead.
*(Original Groovers)

Mason-Campbell’s talk (start at 37.20):