In class this week, we discussed the perspective that some have of “variety is the spice of life” and to how this can quickly turn into the equally troublesome perspective of being “color-blind.” Being so celebratory of multiculturalism can easily turn into race erasure. Regarding diversity in race as simply variety or something to keep life interesting is diminishing of the serious struggles that people of all races have had to endure, past and present. After discussing these topics in class, I looked introspectively at my own experiences with these concepts. This brought back my feelings and understanding of a dance work that was performed here at Muhlenberg last semester and the critical reception surrounding it. In the spring, there was a piece choreographed by Donald McKayle, a choreographer who created many works about the black experience in America, including the one performed here last year. It was controversial because most of the dancers were white and the solo in it was given to two white women who switched off performing it. Many people of color were very offended by this and there was a lot of talk about cultural appropriation. I could talk about this cultural appropriation and make claims on whether or not it was “okay” for a mostly white cast to dance in this piece. However, what was even more conflicting to me was the defense and explanation surrounding this piece.
In one of my dance classes last semester, taught by the professor who restaged McKayle’s piece and has worked closely with him before, we discussed this piece. Based on McKayle’s own travels and findings from his experiences, my professor explained something along the lines of “Everyone has felt the same things and experienced the same things, so everyone is the same.” He meant it to say that therefore, people can easily share their experiences and understand one another, feeling a sort of kinship this way, and that is why it was okay for white people to dance in this piece and have solos in it. While this is a nice sentiment, I think it is a bit risky to make this kind of claim. At the time, I really struggled with this statement really wanting to believe it and get on board with it. However, I was a bit reluctant to completely accept this. Now that I am a bit more informed on issues with some racial conversations, I see that this explanation is a bit reflective of being “color-blind.” It erases the differences between racial histories and the unique experiences and struggles that each race still faces. While it would be wonderful to say that we’re all the same so we can understand each other perfectly, this may not be the case. As a white woman, I may have had people in my life make pre-judgements about me based on my gender. But I cannot personally understand the extent of the micro-aggressions, prejudicial feelings of hostility, and the resulting discrimination that many Blacks face daily. I most definitely cannot understand the experience of Blacks in America at the peak of slavery up until the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. So I don’t think it is necessarily fair to say that we have all experienced the same things and feelings, because that, in a way, invalidates and diminishes the severity of the issues that races other than my own have faced.
Going back to that moment of discussing the Donald McKayle piece in class, it seemed as though a lot of my (white) classmates latched onto that feeling of sameness and oneness with all of the other races out there, further saying similar absolute statements about people of all races. I think that maybe this is the easy way out. I think that this belief that we are all the same additionally eases white guilt about our privilege and the way that some Whites treat people of color. This viewpoint in regards to the piece is partially another way to quiet accusations of racism and cultural appropriation, bringing more silence into the discussion of race. This serves to exemplify how much we need to talk about it, even if it acknowledges the privilege of whites and the unfortunate hierarchy of race. We need to acknowledge that we have not suffered the way that Blacks have, and therefore we are not the same in all aspects. No matter how much discomfort it may bring to some, change will not happen without acknowledging this in our conversations about race.
Talking about race is complicated and messy. So maybe there is no extreme side that is correct in my topic for this blog. Maybe we are not all the same, and you shouldn’t be color-blind, but maybe also we are not so totally different that we cannot share any experiences at all. We can find ways to connect with one another’s similarities while also treating each other’s races with respect and recognizing the differences no matter how big or small. But in what ways can we say we are “the same” if ever, or when is this not an option? And where is art’s place in this all; is there more flexibility in this concept when it involves the arts?