I know how you feel

"We don't need your guilt. What we need is your action and your courage."

Greetings, my dear readers —

This week, I want to speak directly to those of you who are white. To my readers of colour, and especially my Black readers: I know this has been an enormously grueling week, just one such week of many. And I hope you are spending your Sunday evening taking care of yourself, whatever that means to you. If it includes reading the rest of this newsletter, I’m honoured. 

To my white readers: I know how you feel.

You feel horrified. You feel appalled. You feel ashamed. You feel guilty. You feel shocked — and you feel appalled and ashamed and guilty that you still feel shocked.

You feel heartbroken. You feel like you want to say something, do something, fix something. You feel afraid that you will say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, further break the thing you were trying to fix. You feel worried that you are not one of the good ones. You are feeling so much. 

To all that, I say: your feelings are valid. They just aren’t that important right now. 

I don’t mean that they’re not important to you, or that they’re not useful to what comes next, because of course they are.

What I mean is, feel your feelings. Feel them deeply. Remember how this week has felt: the horror, the shock, the heartbreak, the devastation, the rage, the hopelessness, the despair. Remember how loud all those feelings are right now.

And then, turn their volume down so that they’re background noise. The bass line. Your white feelings, like a bass line, are necessary, but not sufficient. And they’re definitely not why anyone comes to the concert. They are not the main event, and they are not here to pull focus.

This is not easy and I don’t mean to sound like it is. I certainly haven’t perfected it. I work at it, resisting the gravitational pull of a culture that tells me that my white feelings are the most important thing at all times. They are not.

I know, I know, this is supposed to be a newsletter about ballet.

So let me tell you about Theresa Ruth Howard, founder and curator of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. Theresa has spent years in the ballet world, first as a dancer and then as a teacher, and now as an advocate for diversity in the arts and a strategist who helps ballet companies in the US and abroad to confront their own racial biases. You can read her latest story in Dance magazine here.

I’m extremely lucky that Theresa signed on to be a sensitivity reader for my book, and her insights have already made it smarter, sharper, and, I hope, more valuable to readers. In one of our earlier conversations, I said something about feeling ambivalent — no, not ambivalent, just straight up guilty — that I was the one writing this book. Theresa said, more or less, fine. Feel guilty. Then do something.

“We don’t need your guilt,” she said, “what we need is your action and your courage.”

As we were talking, I scribbled that down on a Post-It and stuck it on my office wall, above my desk right at eye level, where I see it every single day that I work on Turning Pointe.

Action and courage. That’s what this moment demands. That’s the melody and the harmony. The bass line is there, sure, but don’t let it overtake the song. Resist that gravitational pull.

Here are some actions you can take.

Read about ballet’s history of racial exclusion, and the essential contributions of Black dancers to the artform.  

Donate to a Black-helmed ballet organization, like the Black Iris Project. All arts organizations have been hit hard by the pandemic, but the hits land hardest for the smaller organizations. Black Iris Project does great work and we need it to survive this crisis.

Ask your local dance organization what it’s doing to be actively anti-racist, not just diverse and inclusive. If you’re a ballet parent, call your child’s school and ask them what they’ll do, if/when they re-open, to rebuild better than before. Are they recruiting students of color? If so, are they making sure those students are taught by teachers of color as well as white ones? What are they doing to make sure that dancers of color who want to be classical ballet dancers are getting the same quality training and the same opportunities as their white classmates? Call them. Ask them. Make them uncomfortable. Make them earn your tuition check.

Finally, examine your own biases about what a “good” ballet body looks like, and about which bodies look “right” doing classical ballet. If you think it would be “distracting” for all the swans at the lake to have different skin tones, or if you struggle to imagine a dark-skinned Juliet, or if you’ve assumed that the Black dancer in your daughter’s ballet class is preparing for a career in modern or contemporary dance rather than classical ballet, sit with that. Ask yourself why that is. Question where those discomforts and assumptions come from. Correct them, as many times as you have to.

To quote the author Ijeoma Oluo, whose book So You Want to Talk About Race was a must-read before this week and will continue to be one after, “the beauty of anti-racism is that you don't have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it's the only way forward.”

Take courage, and take action. Thanks, as always, for reading.


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