Before I begin pouring my thoughts onto this page, I wanted to say that I’ve been tempted to start a semi-regular column (presumably called “making art while brown”) just to highlight my experiences and conversations I’ve had regarding the experience as an artist of color trying to make art (specifically dance) in white-ass Seattle. Not gonna promise anything though, cause schedules and things tend to pile up and I tend to overwork myself (which I’m trying to get better at). But I’ve always appreciated writing about my experiences as a way to analyze it and how it fits into larger societal privileged/marginalized dynamics. Hopefully by pushing myself to write more about it, it can make me a better activist/artist/writer/person. If you are reading this and would love to have further conversations about it, trust that that feeling is mutual, and there’s always an open invitation for such productive discussions. That aside, here goes:
I’ve been really angry lately, and for lots of different reasons. Chances are if you’re someone with a marginalized identity, and you’re not part of the white-cis-het crew, you’ve been angry a lot at the way these power structures treat you.
image from “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
In my last post, I wrote about the frustrations that come with being an artist of color in the predominantly white Seattle dance scene. I wrote about the frustration regarding and fear of being tokenized as a person of color, of being put in a box because I made the choice to deal with my identity as an American-Indonesian in a performative work, of being dismissed because I consciously decided to address my distinctly non-White upbringing. I talked about it again recently with one of my bffs/my emergency contact/honorary sibling for The Murmur Journal. The bottom line of this frustration is not that I’m scared of being criticized for my art, but that it sucks that I’m the one worrying about being tokenized and essentialized as a person of color as opposed to people (mostly white people) just realizing that tokenizing/essentializing POCs is not OK.
After that performance, of which you can watch below, I got a lot of really supportive and insightful feedback, none of which tokenized my experiences. If anything, a lot of the conversations I’ve had with viewers had to do with how other folks managed to layer their own experiences on the work, and that led to a lot of beautiful revelations on humanity, on relationships, on imaginations.
But then came the review. To be clear here, Sandi Kurtz is a respectable dance journalist/historian in this city, and this post is not a form to attack her in any way, but I do want to add my two cents to her review on SeattleDances (for which I also write reviews/previews). She wrote:
“The work could be seen as an affectionate nod to Ruth St. Denis, who used elaborate costumes to help create her faux-ethnic solos, or just a happy coincidence—either way, the two seem to share an appreciation for the effect a truly stunning costume can have.”
Ruth St. Denis is a renowned choreographer, but she’s also got a record of being problematic, mostly because she created art in an era where it is “trendy” to create Orientalist, appropriative works that fetishize non-Western cultures (other examples of this: Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, and many other choreographers of the early 20th century—or even later, Doug Elkins for example—that do make “faux-ethnic” dances). The idea that someone would compare me to a choreographer who gets accolades for appropriating and fetishizing cultures that aren’t theirs offends me greatly. My work is and has always been an earnest way of dealing with my identity, and yet the only record of that effort is a person (of considerable privilege) comparing me to a choreographer who tokenize cultures like mine because it’s “exotic” and “ethnic.” It’s as though the assumption of my only goal was to “combine Eastern and Western cultures” in order to be “edgy.” It’s not. I am brown. I am ethnic. That informs not just how I make art, but also how I live my life. I do balance Eastern and Western cultures on the daily not because I want to be “fresh” and “unique” and “cutting-edge,” but because it is something I have to do in order to survive. It’s something I think about daily because if I don’t, the overwhelming guilt of finding yourself complicit in white hegemony as a person of color is unproductive. If I don’t think about it daily, I risk of losing the (non-Western) cultures, nuances, values that I grew up with that is so crucial to my current existence. Obviously I don’t expect viewers who don’t know me to get that (because duh how would you know right?), but I think that statement just needs to be put out there in the world.
video: wali panca at Velocity’s Next Fest NW: Utopia
But I’m not writing this post to talk about that. I’m not in a place where I feel like I need to respond to the review. What Sandi wrote is her opinion and it’s valid (maybe problematic, but still valid), and what I wrote above is my opinion and it’s also valid. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people be right about things and still not agree.”
Instead, I wanted to analyze my anger. After I read this review, I was considerably angry because months earlier, I had written about this very subject. To quote from my previous post:
“The thing is, white-cis-straight people make stuff based on their past life experiences all the time, and they don’t have to worry about having that experience fetishized the crap out of itself. Because their experiences are considered the default, therefore relatable. Mine’s foreign. It’s exotic. …
The thing is, I don’t need people to think a certain thing when they’re viewing my work, I’ve never thought that ever. That’s the beauty of art right? Viewers get to layer their own experiences on it. But it sucks knowing that some people are going to put you in a box because they just grew up differently than you. And somehow you’re the one that gets stripped of your complexity, because the white hegemonic system makes it real convenient to do so.”
In my interview for the Murmur Journal, I elaborated even further:
“I was worried that people would think, ‘Oh of course it would be this ethnic thing because this is what she knows.’ … there’s always that nervousness. You just think about what people’s intentions are. When they ignore you and don’t ignore the white person next to you, you wonder about their intentions. There’s a lot of self-analysis that happen. What’s frustrating is that you worry about their intentions but they don’t think about your intentions. They often just rely on stereotypes. … That’s problematic.”
And I felt that that very concern of being put in a box was manifesting right in front of me. And I was upset that even though I saw it coming, I’m still upset about it. So then I had conversations with people I love about it. At one point, my significant other asked me:
Maybe some people would consider this post to be that response, but I don’t consider it as so. Honestly, I didn’t want to respond (and I still don’t). It takes so much time and effort and courage to express your frustrations and anger as a person of color to a white audience, and I constantly wonder who benefits from that time and effort and courage.
And that’s exactly where the problem lies. We as marginalized peoples (whether POCs, femmes, queer folks, trans* people, differently-abled folks, religious minorities, and many other intersections thereof) constantly have to summon up courage just to be angry. It is as though the white-cis-het-masculine hegemony expects us to summon time and effort and bravery and guts to face our trauma in order to craft eloquent essays to explain to them why we are angry with this system. And for whose benefit is that? We know why we’re angry, so surely we won’t be the ones primarily benefiting from such an ordeal. Most of the time, if we don’t calm ourselves down enough to explain our rage, we risk being seen as the “angry black and brown people,” or the “angry queers” or “angry activists” or whatever the stereotype is. And lemme tell you, that’s not a fun stereotype to be put on you.
image from “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
Here’s where the conundrum lies though: being angry is sometimes necessary, because things should make you angry because we should, in general, hold ourselves to higher standards as to how we’re treating other human beings. South Asian trans* artist/poet/human being extraordinaire Alok Vaid-Menon says so eloquently in an interview:
“Q: Oftentimes there is a narrative of negativity imposed upon activists and anyone who is outraged by the reality of the world. We are encouraged to “think positively” and operate with Hallmark-ready sentiments on our hearts. People also don’t like being told they’re wrong or that their behaviors contribute to violence—that word alone really scares people. You use the word “rage” a lot in a way that suggests it’s positive or productive. What does that word mean to you? Why is rage important?
A: Oh gosh, I think rage is so beautiful and awe-inspiring. Rage means intensity, honesty, confrontation. It’s gotten a negative connotation, but I think it’s actually necessary because so much of this world is about desensitizing us to everything, making us numb to our own pain and the pain of others, and sometimes people need to be awoken to the fact that there’s something worth fighting for.”
It is so important, but wouldn’t it be lovely if marginalized peoples are also given a space to be angry in their own ways, to not have to validate their anger for the benefit of privileged people. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we don’t have to be tired of being angry, much less sick of being tired of being angry? I’m honestly so sick of being tired of being angry. At one point, I wished I didn’t exist as a woman of color in a country ruled by white men, and that’s a hella scary thought, honestly. On the one hand, I know that if I’m just apathetic to these injustices, I won’t win because then I’m just being complacent, and that’s no good. But you need energy to be anything but apathetic, and if you do choose to resist (by being angry or critical or whatever), there’s still the risk that you won’t win, because the hegemonic system is not made for marginalized peoples to win. So here we are, back at where we’re started: between a rock and a hard place.
If you are an artist of color, or even just a person of color who don’t consider yourself an art-maker, I would love to know how you navigate this conundrum, how you hold space for other people, while simultaneously holding space for yourself to resist and be angry yet still take care of yourself. I’m all for using art as part of that effort, cause I think art is a necessary part of navigating this conundrum. But what if your art becomes entangled in that conundrum? Then how do you escape that and look at it critically while still making sure you don’t burn out? I would genuinely like to know, what’s your relationship to rage?