Last weekend, I attended "Feels Like Falling," a performance by Boulder-based dance company, 40 Women Over 40, at the Dairy Center for the Arts. I was eager to attend the performance because I have enjoyed the previous work of company director and choreographer, Nancy Cranbourne.
Although I enjoyed the majority of the performance, I feel compelled to address certain sections of the production that reinforced racist stereotypes. My response is not intended to criticize an individual, but to initiate a dialogue about how seemingly innocent or humorous stereotypes promote false perceptions and prevent us from achieving a more accurate understanding of other races. As citizens of Boulder, we must acknowledge that despite efforts to be an informed, culturally sensitive and inclusive community, we must continue to engage in discussion about understanding and confronting racism.
In "Feels Like Falling," Cranbourne incorporated acting and comedy through video interludes, obviously intended to be humorous. Cranbourne, a white woman, played the role of an acupuncturist. Her depiction included a physical caricature of a Chinese man with yellowish skin and painted-on, slanted eyes, an artificial Chinese accent and broken English. In addition to her portrayal of a Chinese man, Cranbourne played the part of an Indian "guru" of sorts, reinforcing similarly degrading stereotypes. In an effort to address a patient`s psychological problems, the guru seems to suggest that she must be re-birthed and "leave the womb." The guru proceeds to correct the patient`s response and says that she must leave the "womb" not the "woom."
Comedy minimizes our understanding of how stereotypesimpact oppressed groups. Stereotypes are subtle and pervasive -- they affect daily interactions, interpretations of current events, government policy, judicial rulings, employment, housing and educational opportunities, and promote xenophobia.
It is important to recognize that responsibility and awareness does not fall solely on producers, writers, actors, or artists who powerfully and subliminally influence our beliefs about races. The audience`s laughter in response to racist portrayals in "Feels Like Falling" demonstrates that many Americans are desensitized to stereotypes. As recipients of information, it is critical that we examine our reactions to media, literature and art that use negative and generalized depictions to denigrate the intellect and humanity of groups based on their race (or nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability or class).
As a white person, my education on racism was virtually non-existent until my mid-20s. I recall moments when African American students attempted to bring racism to the forefront, but I dismissed their comments and labeled the students as over-sensitive. My disregard for their perspective and experiences reflected my subconscious sense of race-based superiority; I assumed that others shared my social reality and anything that deviated from this must be a misconception or exaggeration. The experiences of people of color are undoubtedly an essential component of white people`s understanding of racism, but we must also have white anti-racist role models -- white people standing up against racism, advocating for racial equity, and serving as allies to people of color.
Following the performance, I initiated a discussion with a friend who had attended the concert. I was frustrated by her hesitant admittance that certain material was somewhat offensive. Although she didn`t think the portrayals were funny, she seemed resistant to acknowledge the seriousness of such representations. The next day, she told me that after reflecting on our discussion and initiating a conversation about the topic with her husband, she more fully realized the negative implications of racist stereotypes. The dialogue with her husband illuminated deeper issues related to racism, heightened awareness, helped identify examples they`ve encountered, and motivated them to continue conversation with their children and friends. The process of educating ourselves, engaging others in conversation and opposing racist stereotypes may feel overwhelming and perhaps insignificant, but a single conversation about racism, as illustrated here, may be a powerful catalyst for change.
While I felt the need to address this topic, I must admit that I hesitated, for fear that I would embarrass the choreographer, jeopardize my relationship with faculty and friends in the performance, and that I may fall short of adequately and sensitively addressing these complex issues. After weighing these risks, I chose to use the power of my voice -- my white, educated, middle-class voice -- to speak up and to reach out to others to do the same.