Re-centering Blackness- Examining Colorism
If we are truly dedicated to dismantling racism in the world, and more specifically in our field, we have to understand the nature of the beast. A key strength of this mercurial animal is its high adaptability, which gives it such longevity. It has the ability to shift, morph, grow back amputated limbs, or simply sprout other appendages as needed. If you study history, movements like BLM and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are cyclical, generally having a strong run for a decade where advancements are made, followed by a contentment or complacency period of about 15-20 years, during which the advancements either slowly roll back or the world shifts, rendering them impotent or insufficient.
As a field, we were about a decade into the work to diversify ballet, specifically by increasing the presence of Black dancers in ballet. We were just about to cycle out when Covid locked us down, and the murder of George Floyd sparked a global racial reckoning, creating a sense of urgency for action and accountability. As we are moving back into “normalcy” with great social and economic instability, the focus is shifting away from institutionalized racism, particularly antiblackness (as we have spent a long time on it), and onto “more important” urgent matters. This is a cautionary module. Stay awake, stay vigilant …
In order to truly understand how institutional racism based in white supremacy works we have examined the historical waxing and waning that has always been a part of “racial progress”. The period of reconstruction in America is a perfect example.
“The Reconstruction era was a period in American history following the American Civil War (1861–1865) and lasting until approximately the Compromise of 1877. Its main goals were to rebuild the nation after the war, reintegrate the former Confederate states, and address the social, political, and economic impacts of slavery.
During this period, slavery was abolished, Confederate secession was annulled, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (the Reconstruction Amendments) were added to the Constitution to grant equal civil rights to the newly freed slaves. In 1866, Congress federalized the protection of civil rights in response to violent attacks against Black people in the South, and ex-Confederate states were required to guarantee freedmen’s civil rights before rejoining the Union.”
This was a period where black people were elected to political positions, and were influential in developing legislation to support equity for Black people. – However there was backlash not only was there physical and psychological terror reigned down on Black people in the formation of the KKK and the erecting of confederate statues but both the governmental advancements (in the form of representation and laws) were rolled back.
“The first Klan was established in the wake of the American Civil War and was a defining organization of the Reconstruction era. Organized in numerous independent chapters across the Southern United States, federal law enforcement suppressed it around 1871. It sought to overthrow the Republican state governments in the South, especially by using voter intimidation and targeted violence against African-American leaders. Each chapter was autonomous and highly secretive about membership and plans. Members made their own, often colorful, costumes: robes, masks and conical hats, designed to be terrifying and to hide their identities.”
“The end of Reconstruction was a staggered process, and the period of Republican control ended at different times in different states. With the Compromise of 1877, military intervention in Southern politics ceased, and Republican control collapsed in the last three state governments in the South. This was followed by a period which White Southerners labeled “Redemption”, during which White-dominated state legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws, disenfranchising most Black people and many poor Whites through a combination of constitutional amendments and election laws beginning in 1890. The White Southern Democrats’ memory of Reconstruction played a major role in imposing the system of White supremacy and second-class citizenship for Black people using laws known as Jim Crow laws.”
There are real and dangerous repercussions to taking your foot off the gas and your eye off the ball. We are currently in the “Pseudo equity” or “What about XYZ” phase, which says, “We have spent so much time talking about black people and racism that other marginalized groups are being ignored or left out.” This is where all of a sudden the “Equity” that Black people have been fighting for (and have never comprehensively received) starts to work for everyone but them. Historically, we see the strength of the fight for Black Civil rights slowly siphoned off to gain advancement for women (the right to vote and feminism), the Disability Rights Movement (1960), Gay Rights (1977, pre-LGBTQ+). While these communities are indeed disenfranchised in various ways and absolutely deserve equal rights, the common thread among them is that they can and often do recenter whiteness in their struggles. The feminist movement is known for it, and the Gay Rights movement historically centered on the white gay male experience (even today, there is a “Black” pride day, which should tell you something). If we acknowledge that social inequities disproportionately affect marginalized communities, and if we recognize that Blackness is at the bottom of the social totem pole, then why are we not addressing issues like women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and disability rights from the perspective of those most impacted? Consider whose voices are the most amplified in these areas. This only illustrates that systemic racism is deeply embedded implicitly in the aforementioned movements, and that allyship often falls to the wayside when people are fighting for their piece of the pie. So this month, I wanted to re-center Blackness by providing a bit of nuance to the conversation in the area of colorism and where it exists in ballet.
Dr. Sarah L. Webb is the founder and owner of Colorism Healing, a global leader in raising awareness, shifting attitudes, and taking action to address colorism with corporate, consumer, and community strategies. A former college professor, Dr. Webb now provides public speaking and professional training, individual and group coaching, community events, and more.