Partnership, white supremacy and dance: Macalester student artists reflect on Black and Asian American intersections

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In October, Macalester College hosted a Million Artist Movement “Power Gathering” themed around Asian American resistance and solidarity. That event was a part of the larger and ongoing convenings across racial and ethnic groups called by MAM. Following the event and inspired by the conversation, The Twin Cities Daily Planet published a story in December discussing the different intersections between Black and Asian American history and art. However, the original story left out a key voice in the conversation: the young artists who are shaping the future of how these intersections manifest. As a continuation of the previous article, Andrea Plaid reached out to Macalester dance students Sophia Hill and Niara Williams about their experiences as Asian American and Black American (respectively) students and artists, and how those experiences intersect. They candidly shared their responses below.

 

Where have the two of you seen connections between Black American and Asian American students through the arts and at the rather white space  that is your school, the Twin Cities and Minnesota?

Niara Williams: It’s such a small campus that, out of necessity, students of color find their own people first and tend to forget about other groups when creating art. I’d say the most explicit bridge between Black and Asian students on this campus is dance. Not dance facilitated through our dance department per se, but independent organizations and freestyle dance circles which pop up in people-of-color spaces. For example, Visceral is Macalester’s break-dancing group. The group is led by and mostly populated with Asian students learning, practicing, and performing a originally Black and Latinx art and still remains welcoming to the wider Macalester population.

Last spring, I auditioned for Macalester’s dance concert for the first time. All but two of the student choreographers holding auditions were white – an Asian woman and a black man. I remember a friend of mine, Sophia Hill, an Asian-American woman, had an excellent audition for a piece on misogyny (the contempt of or prejudice against women)/misandry (the contempt of or prejudice against men). When I later found out that she was not cast in the piece I was shocked. However, when I was finally able to preview all of the dances, I finally realized why she had only been cast in the Black student’s and the guest choreographer’s dances: all the pieces with white student choreographers had all-white casts. The piece on misogyny had only cast thin, white female dancers with light-colored hair. And I, the only black dancer, was cast in the piece of the only black choreographer.

Sophia Hill: The internationalism–the state of incorporating more than two nations–that Macalester boasts of seems to go no further than the statistics they post on their college website and the smattering of cultural organizations. These organizations are open to everyone, which does encourage inclusivity and knowledge sharing. The reality is that only limited aspects of the cultures are divulged, and it is largely a space that caters to white fetishsizing of the the “exotic.”

 

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As for connections between Black American and Asian American students through the arts beyond what connection Niara has stated, I don’t see any that are accessible. As a student embodying a mix of different cultures I struggled to find my own communities, so it was hard for me to even think about solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Co-organizing the Power Gathering: Asian American Resistance and Solidarity, helped me realize Black Lives Matter may be centered around liberation of Black lives, but as a person of color subject to white supremacy, it is a shared responsibility to stand in solidarity with other people of color and their suffering. My community goes beyond my heritage and because of this mindset, I can see the connections between Black American and Asian American students through the arts.

Niara Williams: Macalester’s dance department isn’t welcoming to female artists of color. Most dancers in the department are thin, economically privileged white women who have been training since early childhood. It is because of this predominantly white, technically proficient space that many dancers of color do not feel comfortable accessing this department. Because of how aware I am of my differences in this space, I know that white students are even more aware of my differences. My body intimidates and, at times, even frightens them. Seeing this attitude among my peers, people who know me and see me on a daily basis, only heightens my fear of white supremacist violence outside Macalester. If people who know me as a “respectable” college student can be afraid of me and neglect my personhood, what can my life be worth to an officer or anti-black terrorist who sees only a black body?

 

What do you hope for reflecting on the Million Artist Movement Power Gathering as female artists of color?

Sophia Hill: The transformative experience of creating with Niara Williams in dance classes, has given me hope for collaboration between female artists of color.  Though Macalester Dance Department embodies suffocating whiteness, we have found solidarity in supporting each other’s artistry and skill growth, despite having to work with lowered expectations than our ballet- and modern-trained white female dancer peers.

There are many instances of female artists of color being used for aesthetic diversity in artistic spaces.  During the Fall Dance Concert, we were both in pieces where we were one of or the only artist of color, so it became essential to have a space for ourselves that we claimed by listening to each other, critically analysing our respective pieces.

In one of the white choreographer’s pieces, Niara was used as a device to make the piece “look political.” The choreographer created a part in which Niara was kicked across the stage by a white female dancer. We supported Niara constructing a message of objection to their choreographer. Here is an excerpt of the statement Niara sent:

“Within the context of this piece, you are reinforcing a violent power structure in which white women are able to abuse and oppress women of color, especially black women. Gender oppression and the way it is enacted is inextricably tied to race. Asian women experience sexism and misogyny differently than white women. Black women experience sexism and misogyny differently than white women and non-black women of color…I wouldn’t have written this email if I didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell you these things. Please take this email as food for thought or maybe as starting point for some reflection.”

The choreographer at Macalester Fall Dance Concert 2015 needed to understand that putting Niara, a Black female dancer in their piece did not automatically make it racism-free. That choreographer still has a responsibility not to abuse the dancers’ and the audiences’ histories and identities. By abusing that power as a choreographer, they are reinforcing racist stereotypes and white supremacist systems.

Niara and I will most likely be put situations in the future where we may be cast for the color of skin to assuage white guilt rather than our skills as artists. Therefore, the need for collaboration of female artists of color becomes more pressing. We need to upend the dominant white presence on stage, in the galleries, in writings and, by collaborating, we can create voices of artistry infused with our own histories, experiences of oppression and the awareness of each other’s own sufferings. Luckily, collaboration does not call for erasing the histories that female artists of color bring . Instead, collaborating involves creating a space  of learning and understanding the histories of our respective cultures and creating new fusions based on these understandings.

Spaces for such endeavors are lacking at Macalester. To create one will be a struggle but I believe it is possible. Niara and I are in the midst of creating our own collaborative space, where we find connections in our artistry and support each other as we navigate the dominating whiteness that our dance and theater fields are founded upon. Now imagine, if this kind of space and attitude was prevalent for other people of color at Macalester and then outside of Macalester? Not only could these spaces be a beautiful blend of great dance and music, but more importantly we can deconstruct the internalized racism we hold towards ourselves and others. By dismantling these barriers, female artists of color can begin building transracial and cultural support systems. This will allow us to make art free from external white gazes that exotify and discriminate against our bodies, our histories and our voices!

 

Discussion questions from the Millian Artist Movement event at Macalaster.

Andrea Plaid

Discussion questions from the Millian Artist Movement event at Macalester. Photo by Andrea Plaid.

 

Where have you seen your lives and art growing as you wrestle with the real effects of Black Lives Matter?

Niara Williams: For a time, I was worried that as someone in the process of getting a college education who was conscious of the issues facing communities of color, I was doing something selfish in pursuing art rather than political science or law. I felt that because I have the access and capability that so many others do not, it was my duty to seek justice in a particular way. It took me a while to accept that my passions and politics live in an artistic world, and you can’t expect everyone to be out in the streets protesting the whole time or in a courtroom or rewriting city laws. As human beings with different strengths and modes of thinking, we should find a way to use what we do to add to the fight.

Sophia Hill: I agree with Niara! I see our lives and art growing with our own awareness to the systems we are being oppressed by. As we cultivate skills and networks of other artists of color our power as activists grow.  I believe that the arts is a form of communication that encompasses education, self-expression and remembering of our experiences and histories. In this way, it connects people in ways that are imperceptible but so powerful.

 

Macalester

 

Where do you see the entry points/intersections/future of these two groups, who usually get played against each other?

Niara Williams: Intersectionality is a critical aspect to any effective liberation movement in history, because keeping “disparate” groups of people from uniting is the key to their oppression and a building block of the hegemonic power structure. We must love each other and support each other during times of struggle and creation. In unifying, we become stronger and so much more capable.

Sophia Hill: I see entry points through the arts we love, and the passion we bring to creating within these fields. Despite the white supremacist systems in place, I think the future of these two groups is a hopeful one. Female artists of color have such vibrant lives and stories to share. Together we can make powerful work that can educate and interrogate the systems in place.

 

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