I don’t write this to be critical of Caucasians, or persons who identify as Caucasian. I write this to bring awareness and attention to a few of the administrators of arts education programming, specifically dance educators in predominately African-American and/or Latino neighborhoods in the District of Columbia.

As I think about this issue, I am reminded of the 1995 movie Dangerous Minds. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne Johnson, a White ex-marine who finds a job teaching English in an inner-city high school, Dangerous Minds is based-on-a-true-story. The 2007 movie Freedom Writers (starring Hilary Swank as Vera Drake) hews to a similar boilerplate account of a White crusader ministering to the under-served, predominately African-American and Latinos. The theme that these two movies share reinforces my understanding of dance education programs in the District: the White female heroine archetypes “doing all that they can” inside and outside the classroom to “save the children” from themselves.

Janine Jones, an African-American philosopher, has written about White efforts to empathize with the difficulties of non-white people, and labels characters like LouAnne and Vera as “goodwill Whites”. She describes such people as praiseworthy for the concern they have for others, but asserts that these people usually don’t realize that their efforts are about helping others become more like themselves. Jones writes that unconsciously, “goodwill Whites” believe their customs and beliefs are the “best” customs and beliefs. According to Jones, “goodwill Whites” offer their assistance from a condescending position, because they don’t see themselves as White and thus don’t comprehend how that has come to deeply inform who and what they are. When I think about her analysis and the state of dance education programming in the nation’s capitol, it raises the question: “Should teaching dance in predominately African-American and Latino neighborhoods be left to hippy, free-spirited White women wearing chunky jewelry with their touchy-feely, scientifically-tested, New Age classroom games?”

Dance education programming in predominately African-American and Latino neighborhoods deserves to be investigated. The “white do-gooders”, or “goodwill Whites” who administer these programs express confidently to the outside world that they expose their students to a world that is entirely “better.” In fact, it is just markedly White. As the movies I cited show, the world outside of a ghetto offered to these students is a world full of people who don’t have “dangerous minds”; people who are much “better” than those filling the seats in under-funded, poverty-stricken, racially oppressed inner-city classrooms.

Again, this article is not intended to bash anyone based on skin color. But I have a message to all of the White do-gooders and goodwill Whites out there: We are not a scientific experiment. Your New Age-inspired teaching methods and principles do not work on us. Your job is to educate, inspire, and mentor, not condescend, analyze, normalize, and save us from our-selves. We are powerful beyond measure, despite your blindness to our real potential. Are we just meant to gain exposure to the field of dance? If you have come to help us, you are wasting your time. However, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with ours, then let’s work together.

JonathonJonathon Carrington currently works with Dissonance Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance company in Washington, DC. He has worked with Dissonance as a General Manager for three years; and as an arts manager in the District for seven years. His current professional interests deal mostly with writing about dance-related issues in DC, mentoring, professional development, and arts leadership. You can check out some of his latest blog entries at http://www.ddtmedia.com.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. Well, I’m not a dancer (not to the extent of calling myself a professional by any means, but have taken formal dance classes in the District) but I read the piece and have mixed emotions.

    The writeup sounded definitely racist (using such descriptions as “hippy, free-spirited White women wearing chunky jewelry with their touchy-feely, scientifically-tested, New Age classroom games?”), clearly the point can be made without name-calling or stereotyping. But I can see also this was written out of apparent frustration for the lack of Black and Latino instructors in the community. I would say that (Whites) are just tryin to get a job/gig and if Blacks/Latinos/Asians etc. aren’t applying – then someone got to do it! or risk it being left out. Has there been study to show that the system is turning minority dance instructors away? (reverse affirmative action?). Are White instructors actually saying “this is the ‘right’ way, the White way and you Black/Latino children have been taught wrong”, is there a “Black/Latino” dance (specifically)?

  2. Wow. For someone who doesn’t want to make this about bashing White people, it sure seems to be about it!

    First of all, the problems of modern life and child welfare are real. They aren’t problems exclusive to urban life, but urban areas get more attention because the media and other institutions are here. There are problems with an overly-militaristic, dumbed-down educational system. There is institutional, economic, and community violence. Obviously these things should be addressed as root problems, but social and economic justice is a long-term struggle.

    In the meantime, dance programs–and other arts programs–provide an outlet for creative expression and intellectual stimulation that might otherwise lead to an expression of violence from a kid who often isn’t heard in other areas of his/her life.

    I am sure that there are some people – of all backgrounds – who perceive themselves to be saviors when they are working with kids living in the inner city. It goes with the territory. There is nothing wrong with trying to do something good for others, and just because someone comes from a “privileged” background doesn’t mean that they are being condescending or trying to assimilate anyone.

    Are White dance instructors really being disrespectful of Black or Latino culture by introducing ballet to the community? How so? What’s wrong with cultural exchange?

    Just because the history of ballet comes from Europe doesn’t mean that people of other racial/ethnic backgrounds can’t inspire new interpretations and innovate ballet. Art is an exchange of ideas. Ballet evolves with new choreographers. The number of White people taking hip-hop and latin dance has increased over the years, and those influences are found all over the place in modern choreography.

    If White dance instructors were teaching dance reflecting the cultures represented in the community they are teaching in would that be okay? Or would people be mad because it *should* be people from that community teaching?

    The cynical, arts administrator side of me also has this question:

    Is this a beef based on fundraising and PR (since my guess is that these people are receiving grants or other funding to do this work)?

  3. Part two:
    This is something i wrote in response to jonathan on facebook:

    I think that the term “Goodwill Whites” is pretty offensive and inflammatory. I can’t speak for the specific dance educators that you are referring to, since I’m not in the dance education community, but I took offense to that. People teach what they know, and if they know ballet, that’s what they’re going to teach.

    From my own experiences doing community organizing, international work, arts education and after-school programming is that I recognize that I come from a privileged background and want to share the opportunities that I have had with others, and perhaps inspire or educate them. I am aware that there are social inequalities and injustices that still need to be dealt with.

    For me, it’s not about disrespecting anyone’s culture or trying to assimilate them, it’s not about making me look good or better than anyone. it’s a recognition of inequality, and an effort to try to change that.

    is it possible to have a conversation about race in dance education (or elsewhere) in an open and safe space? Sure. But it helps to not assume the worst about the motivations of other people or to belittle their contributions because of a desire to reserve recognition for minorities. Why can’t everyone work together? If inclusion is the goal, then let’s start by not being divisive.

  4. It seems like you might have a specific issue with one or two people that you have then generalized into a “white do-gooder” bashing article. What is the real issue at hand here?

    If “this article is not intended to bash anyone based on skin color” then why do you go on to call them “hippy, free-spirited White women wearing chunky jewelry”? This is not an attack against their ability to teach, it just emphasizes the generalization that you are making about their skin color.

    I do appreciate that you brought up the race issue, I think in DC especially there are definitely some sore spots, and the rapid (even in this economy) gentrification certainly hits all of them and this is maybe a small part of it. I think, however, that you could have approached the subject in a way that got the conversation rolling instead of forcing people to put up defenses by using terms like “white do-gooders”.

  5. You wrote: “If you have come to help us, you are wasting your time. However, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with ours, then let’s work together.”
    That’s a nice phrase. But haven’t the teachers you stereotype for their earrings simply gone to those students because it’s a job, and they needed work? You seem to imply that they have bad intentions. I think your piece has some good points, but gets astray with random attacks. All of the classical arts are dominated by white people. Ballet. Classical Music. Opera. Should there be affirmative action to have more people of color on classical stages? Should teachers of non-white people be non-white? Sensitivity is important. Listening is important. Cultural imperialism is real. But is someone the best person for the job – to teach ballet – cause they’re black? I don’t think so.

  6. While I appreciate the attempt to bring awareness to the racial power dynamics that exist among dance education, the writer fails to acknowledge his own pre-conceived notions and stereotype about who a “white do-gooder” is. The writer also fails to understand that many dance educators are uniquely aware of race and class privilege because their creative practice and education experiences lend them to greater empathy.

    It is unfortunate that the writer’s assumptions are based on the very stereotypes that he asserts are damaging to the community. It is also unfortunate that the author fails to recognize that the field of dance education is not a black-white issue. It is a multi-lateral exchange of ideas, power dynamics and perspectives.

    The field should be so lucky as to have professionals (of any gender or race) who care enough about the work to invest their time, energy and love with communities of color who otherwise would not have access to dance.

  7. Wow, it’s been almost 4 years since I posted this article. I was going through my files of articles I have written to add to my portfolio, and I happened to stumble across this one. No longer am I with Dissonance Dance Theatre. But as I read this article again and the comments, I realized that at that time, the energy I was sharing was very negative and toxic, and I received it right back in negative comments. It was not in any way helpful or productive to my work in the field, and I apologize if I offended anyone in writing the article. It became quite controversial, and at that time, I didn’t have the resources to defend or explain myself. While I do not agree with how the message was delivered, I do still believe that African-American children desperately need role models and leaders who look like them and who come from similar circumstances as they do. While I didn’t give much credit to the hard-working educators who are really making a difference in these communities, I now take my hat off to them for all of the great work. My main intention in writing the post was because of my own frustration and anger not because of the work that Caucasian dance educators were doing, but because children need to develop a stronger, more optimistic view of themselves as human beings, outside of the realm of what they see on television and in their world. Having live images of African-Americans who can show them that it is fully capable to define their own destiny. It is vital for African American children to see and interact with other professionals of color, African American teachers, dancers, administrators, etc.; especially if the vision is to foster a sense of self-determination in the communities from which they live. I will admit that my original position was quite cynical and pessimistic towards teachers doing great work. That focus is not even that important at all. What’s more important is that they are exposed to positive African American images doing the work that they are doing so they can consequently go back to educate, inform, and inspire to lead the work in the communities from which they live. I wanted the opportunity to thank Rob for giving me the platform to share my opinion, and I wish you continued success in your career endeavors.

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