A Better Smelling New Year
This past week, I attended Lindy Focus, and had the good fortune to attend all but one of Breai Mason-Campbell's Discussion Series about Racism in Lindy Hop. The discussion series opened with a presentation of norms, one which I think bares repeating frequently and loudly:
Racism is present in the Lindy Hop and Blues communities.
While this is a fact that I'm not interested in debating, the discussion series served to remind us that it isn't a fixed trait. It isn't a hopeless statement of our once and future community. But we do have to acknowledge this truth in order to do the anti-racist work that will make it less true.
During the discussion series, a central metaphor was presented by Mason-Campbell. When first attempting anti-racist work, we often focus on small token acts: recruiting black dancers, hiring black DJs or instructors. All the while, we fail to do work that addresses larger systemic problems. This is like putting on deodorant real quick between the main dance and the late night: yes, you smell a little better, but you haven't fixed the problem of being covered in that ever-present mixture of your sweat and everybody else's sweat. Eventually, you're going to need to take a shower. But when you take that shower, you're going to want to put your deodorant on too: no one is saying skip the deodorant. That is, we need to both address the systemic problems and continue to make hiring decisions that bring more black artists into our scene.
Throughout the week, there was some of that familiar helplessness when presented with the apparently intractable problem of systemic racism. Mason-Campbell redirected that rather artfully with the closing discussion, setting the various scenes to work crafting a measurable anti-racist goal for 2018. As an example: the representatives from my home scene of Boston made a pledge to talk to the board of Boston Lindy Hop to connect them with the Harvard African American studies department to cross-develop a lecture series around African American vernacular jazz dance.
For myself, I'm committing to a year of both person-to-person reparations and doing anti-racist educational work for lindy hoppers and blues dancers in 2018 on this blog. Some of these posts will be about putting on your deodorant; some will be about taking showers. The general audience of these posts will absolutely be white participants in the United States Lindy Hop and Blues communities (I have yet to dance outside of the US, and can't speak to the relevance outside of my experiences). Each post will have a target sub-audience: it could be dancers of all levels, DJs, teachers or scene leaders. The goal is to propose actions that are feasible and meaningful given the respective amount of power each person has in the scene.
If you're looking at my picture on the website and thinking what does a white Computer Science PhD have to say about anti-racist work: honestly, that's a fair critique. My goal will be to use my skills as an academic and an experienced lindy hop and blues dance organizer, DJ, teacher and dancer to highlight the work of black authors and produce actions doable by folks at each style of engagement in the scene. As much as possible, this project will bolster my own experience doing this work with the voices of black activists and philosophers.
But my whiteness is also part of why I can take on this project. My whiteness allows me to have an air of detachment that is overly respected by other white people in conversations about race, and I will capitalize on that. My whiteness has allowed me to connect to the majority white culture of our scene, and I am definitely part of the "Cool Kids Club" in the American Blues Dance Scene for a slew of reasons related to my socialization. My whiteness has granted me easier access to the language of academics, which allows me to write in a way that is palatable to white audiences looking to be convinced.
I won't claim that I'll get it right every time as I write these articles. As the recent critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates by Cornel West and the countless recaps and break downs of that critique remind us: black thought is not unified. But I do promise that I'll be doing my research, and that I will take critique into account as I continue to write. When appropriate, I'll interview and compensate black dancers for their time in participating in those interviews. Let's find the time together to put on our deodorant, and maybe even take a few showers before the year is out.