Monday, March 9, 2009

Part 9: Open Letter to the Dance Program + Statement on the Protection of White Walls

From part 9: March 9

Today we posted our open letter to the Dance Program on the glass walls of the main floor lobby. We posted on the main office door a response to the faculty's concern over the paint on the walls.

Open Letter to the Dance Program:

THIS is not an exhibit.

THIS is a protest.

THIS protests against the lack of safe space for students of Color in this program.

THIS protests against the failure of the faculty as representatives of the University, to provide students the resources they need to be anti-racist allies.

Anti-racist activism is not an aesthetic choice for self-expression to be judged on its creative merit: our purpose is political agitation.

To the faculty and staff, we say:

Mere support for guerrilla art does not support us as students in the issues we are protesting; it co-opts our cause. Do not focus on the pride you feel in your 'intelligent, thoughtful students,' or the idea that you have made us so. Concentrate instead on the ways you've failed us as teachers and administrators.

THIS is your problem. You are responsible for it. The Mission Statement of the University of Minnesota declares it your job to:

Prepare students, interested in continuing education and lifelong learning, for active roles in a multiracial and multicultural world…provide an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance, [and] empower individuals within its community (

You have not yet met these goals.

You have demonstrated a profound disconnect between the theories you teach, the ideals you talk about, and the actions you practice. You preach a pragmatism about 'the real world' while at the same time practice a blindness to the real racism that exists. You have shown an unwillingness to carry through the momentary thoughtful discussions that occur in individual, personal interactions to take definitive, institutional action. There is a deafening silence about the intimidation and coercion of students, as well as a participation in faculty politics that prevents you from learning from each other in order to create a healthy atmosphere of mutual respect that has a unified approach to valuing us.

THIS is not just in response to any one person or any specific incident, although the straw that broke our camel back was the discussion around casting and cultural appropriation that occurred during the Dance Revolutions’ post-mortem meeting on February 9, 2009. That discussion proved that the discourse on race in this program has not moved to a higher level in the years we have observed the program faculty repeatedly promise to treat it as an important issue.

We cannot have productive discussions about racism when you have a need to assure everyone that their voices are equally important. The pain of our fellow White students confronting their privilege and guilt about racism is not the same as the pain of students of Color dealing with the sometimes numbingly routine, sometimes shockingly unexpected experiences of being a visible minority.

You should not glorify perseverance in the face of injustice. You should not equate surviving abuse with making lemonade out of lemons. Racism is not a natural disaster -- it is perpetuated by you, even when you are continually working to dismantle a system that privileges them at the cost of others.

To use individual students’ pain as a teaching tool is the symptom of a lazy and selfish pedagogy. Discussions born from our anguish are not “brilliant.” The momentary empathy and enlightenment generated in White students is not more valuable that the frustration and fear required from us to create those “learning situations.” When the only discussions are personal, White students learn about pain without acknowledging their privilege, and students of Color learn that our voices will be co-opted, ignored, belittled, or squashed.

To our teachers we say:

We do not want the hypocrisy of a relationship that simulates honesty at the cost of our silence. Open dialogue can only happen when there is a respect for all the voices participating in it. It is your loss if you cannot be as open to and desirous of correction as you ask your students to be.

We are not overly concerned in assuring the University of our safety for the purposes of insurance liability; we have taken responsibility for our bodies in this as we do every day in our actions as students and human beings.

If you are concerned with our safety and well being, focus on what truly makes us feel unsafe. What really threatens us is the lack of a space where our minds are not assaulted by prejudice and our voices are not silenced by ignorance and privilege.

You cannot create safety by vocal assurances of good intent. You can only earn our trust by consistent, rigorous action. Hearing our criticism is a privilege; it is not our responsibility to educate you about the mistakes you make, but a measure of the belief we have in your good intentions.

To the faculty of Color, we say:

We recognize the difficulties you face in negotiating the power you have as faculty with the challenges you face as people of Color. We respect the battles you have fought and the work you do, even as we include you in our criticism. We are angered by the attempts to use your identities as weapons against our dissatisfaction, and resent the implications that your bodies are part of the “solution” to the “diversity problem”, because we learn from you and respect you not because of your race, but because of the quality of your knowledge and teaching. We agree that the burden of educating your White colleagues and superiors should not have to fall on you, but we must point out that your failure to do so has led to their continual assault on us. We are grateful when you help fight injustice on our behalf, but we want to remind you that you cannot speak for us, because your bodies of Color are marked with an institutional power and privilege that we do not have.

To our fellow students, we say:

If you have felt threatened, alienated, or angered by the voices on these walls, perhaps you might want to consider the extent to which we—your classmates, your peers, your friends—have been silenced for the sake of your comfort. We stand by all the words on these walls. They speak for us when we are too afraid or drained or angered to.

If you cannot understand why you must be subjected to them—take it up with your teachers. It is the responsibility of this university to educate you about views and opinions other than your own, and the education you pay for has failed you if it leaves you exposed to hurting or alienating out of ignorance the people you work with and care for.

We have put the means of educating yourself inside this very building—ignoring them exposes you to our disappointment at your willful blindness, and that you have the freedom to make that choice is a privilege. We support your anger at the institution for not giving you these tools—you have a right to demand that it is the faculty’s job to educate you.

To those who see our anonymity as cowardice, we say:

We do not trust personal discussions with any of you because you have proven yourself unfaithful too often. We are first and foremost concerned with protecting our minds and hearts from the assaults they are routinely subjected to every time we try to engage with activism. We spent four weeks creating moments where the building became safe for us because we had the freedom to invest our energy in our cause without being derailed, decried, or despised. We will only talk to those whom we trust, on the terms that we set, because any other kind of dialogue has proven unproductive for us. We have seen how even faculty members feel silenced because of their fear of those with more power than them. In such an unhealthy climate of institutional intimidation, we have no desire to test the fairness of those who hold power over our academic, financial and intellectual standing in this university.

To those who would ask us, "Well, what are you doing to be part of the solution?" we say:

Placing the burden of fighting racism on those who have to deal with it every day derails the issue. It is unjust to demand activism from students who are already coping with surviving in a system that is actively, continually, and consciously stacked against them. The solution comes from the perpetrators being held accountable.

We take real risks in challenging people in power--people who have a direct hand in our careers and dreams and aspirations, and it is a risk for us to challenge people whom we respect, admire and have deep affection for.

Do not ask us for some easy, ultimate solution when the space is not even safe enough for us to openly state the problem. We demand change from those whose inaction we are protesting.

To anyone reading this who thinks institutional racism is irrelevant:

The act of silencing is an act of violence. The abuse of power permitted by privilege is an act of violence. Talking about it is no more inappropriate than talking about sexual violence. Racism must not be treated like the molesting uncle in the family whose public acceptance is bought by the suppression of his victim’s voices. It is more shameful to be silent about the violence that to feel ashamed about its existence. Denial only aids the oppressor, and hurts the survivor.

As we confront our own unthinking prejudices and strive to become better allies to each other, we are very aware of the magnitude of what we are asking of you.

So --

THIS is how we feel. What are you going to do with this knowledge?

-- us, March 9, 2009 (

From part 9: March 9

A Statement about the Protection of White Walls

We have done our best to ensure no harm comes to the building. Your worry for the “safety of...the building...being compromised” implies a threat that is out of proportion to the cosmetic injuries of peeling paint. Part of what we are protesting is that the resources that we students pay for have not been used to give us the anti-racist protection we need—in that regard, the money we have spent on this protest serves us better than our money that the University will spend on fresh paint.

We are saddened that being complicit with bureaucracy forces a real person to take a stance that says “We care more about the safety of paint than we do about Anti-racist protest.”

We will try to use the sort of mounting adhesives you ask us to, while observing the irony in us complying, at our considerable financial expense, with your demand to protect the assets the abusive system values over our protests at its failure to use the money we give it to satisfactorily protect and serve us.

If the program is indeed supportive of the material on the walls, then we suggest you actively demonstrate that support by supplying the adhesives you would like to be used, and replacing it on all the existing material.

We realize that this is a lot of work, but if you were to ask our fellow students for help, by providing materials and setting an example, we suspect that many of them would be happy to do so. Some of them might be us.

We would definitely see any removal of the material on the walls as an act of further silencing, and we are not the only ones who would feel that way.

1 comment:

  1. To the creators of THIS by us,

    I was one of the students who removed the Open Letter before ACDFA registration began.

    This was exactly the opposite of what I was compelled to do following the problematic discussions of Tuesday, March 17. The faculty’s behavior toward students was poor at best and demonstrated exactly why the program needs to not only reevaluate how it engages with diversity (and dissent) but to also continue the difficult conversations that have been inspired by THIS.

    I removed the letter before the conference because: 1) I was troubled by the exposure of valued faculty members to the judgment of ACDFA attendees without context and felt that creating such context myself (by posting bios or otherwise) would create a different and equally problematic type of exposure. THIS isn’t intended to be personal and it would have been wrong of me to make it so. And 2) I saw the continued public presence of the Open Letter detrimental to achieving any real communication at all between students and faculty. This motive was tactical; if the Open Letter returns, as it may have already, I will respect that others disagree with me and leave it up– while continuing to do my best to engage with fellow students and faculty in re-examining the possibilities for genuine “next steps”.

    I hope my part in removing the Open Letter is not perceived as “taking sides”, though I acknowledge that I have forfeited any chance of earning the trust of the protest’s creators. For that I’m sorry.

    In the Open Letter you state, “We demand change from those whose inaction we are protesting”; I’m trying to own my part in this change by acting.

    THIS-by-us members have raised the dance program’s awareness of institutionalized racism and brought the discussion to a community-wide scale– and it wasn’t your responsibility to do so. RACISM (ABLISM, TYPISM, SEXISM…) IS PREVALANT IN THIS INSTITUTION AND IN THIS BUILDING.

    Thank you for saying it out loud (in a manner of speaking).

    Here’s hoping for real change,