These dynamics aren’t limited to the theater world but run rampant throughout the arts. According to dancer Pareena Lim, who was interviewed for this article, the dance world is similarly awash in executives who are “hand-wringing” about racism yet refusing to substantively address the ways racism and exploitation are built into the industry. Lim, a non-Black dancer of color who’s active in New York’s “downtown” dance world, describes a shift in recent decades from outright racist exclusion to paternalistic liberal representation. “The dance world I’m a part of was created by mostly white people in the ‘60s,” she explains. “These choreographers proclaimed interest in the formal aspects of dance, content was taboo, and embedded in this aesthetic was an erasure of history and oppression.”
Today, Lim says, the downtown world is dominated by the same narrow liberal focus on representation that dominates theater. As Lim explains it, the gatekeepers in dance have decided the solution to structural racism is, “We’ll just have more Black or POC gatekeepers, or we’ll make sure there’s programming where you see more people of color onstage.” Lim points out that the liberal emphasis on representation puts newly appointed “intermediary gatekeepers” in compromised positions, since their promotion to gatekeeper status embeds and implicates them within the industry’s racist structures and practices.
Much like Bryn Carter, Lim also notes that the racist dynamics in dance have a psychological impact on dancers. She explains, “For so long, I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t hired because I wasn’t white enough or because I wasn’t good enough. Once there were more non-white people onstage, I was asked to do more stuff, but it was super confusing because I didn’t know if it’s for the wrong reasons.”
To Lim, half-measures—like the hashtag activism of Black Out Tuesday or “councils for diversity” that she says have sprung up throughout dance—do nothing but distract from an arts industry where “success is measured in how many shows you have and which venues you showed your work at, but nobody’s thinking about whether the system in which you’re trying to measure your success is supremely flawed.” For the dance world to have any relevance for radical political activists, she believes “the whole system, from how dancers train, to how work is shared, needs to be overhauled.”
The demand for a radical reimagining is gaining traction throughout the arts. Shortly after Carter’s letter to The Flea began circulating, another letter started making the rounds in a very different corner of the arts industry, documenting the many ways that becoming a gatekeeper compromises the struggle against white supremacy in the arts. This one was addressed to one of the literary world’s ultimate gatekeeping organizations, the Poetry Foundation. Written by Phillip B. Williams, a Black poet and 2013 winner of the foundation’s illustrious Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the letter documented Williams’s experiences being welcomed into the world of poetry’s gatekeepers.
As a Ruth Lilly Fellow, Williams had access to resources and relationships of which most writers only dream. Along with these privileges, writes Williams, came a sense of entitlement. “We felt as though we earned it,” he writes, “by nature of our skill (which is subjective), our identities (if we were part of a group under-published [in the Foundation’s elite literary journal]), and by nature of simply having been chosen.” Though Williams knew the foundation was rife with “nepotism and elitism,” those resources and privileges proved seductive to Williams and other fellows, who “hoarded” the resources or doled them out to artists in their circles. “We were hungry,” writes Williams, “and capitalism brings out of us all manner of defiance of our best selves…. We ate while others went hungry. And we did the worst thing of all: we celebrated these empty opportunistic successes in peoples’ faces.”
Like Carter’s letter, Williams’s impresses with its willingness to challenge the very gatekeepers who might destroy an artist’s career. Carter begins her letter acknowledging her fears about her reputation and future opportunities. “This is a real fear for anyone,” she writes, “but doubly so for POC and queer creatives who are often made to feel they should be overjoyed to be invited into spaces once closed to them.” Until recently, the fear Carter describes and the desperate hope to be invited in by the gatekeepers had effectively muted public criticism of arts executives around their hoarding of resources and shoddy treatment of workers.