Wednesday, February 10, 2010

This by Us: One Year Later

One year ago, on February 10th, 2009, we began to post a series of words and photos on the walls of the Barbara Barker Center for Dance. We were a pseudonymous group of Dance students of Color, and our actions were a protest against the lack of safe space for students of Color in the program and the failure of the faculty to provide the resources needed for anti-racist activism and alliance.

We covered the white walls and clear glass of the building with poetry, essays, blog posts, news articles, quotations and photographs, documenting our actions and communications on a public blog ( We chose each text or image because it spoke to us about resisting bigotry and institutionalized prejudice and about forming alliances with people whose oppressions both coincide with and differ from our own. Our protest physically transformed the Barker Center into a site of discussion where it was impossible to ignore what we were saying.

Among our many specifically themed postings was the one to mark Black History Month, for which we covered up the photos of the exclusively White dancers in Classroom 301 with photos of extraordinary Black American dancers and choreographers. On April 1st, 2009, we posted a list of specific suggestions that the Dance Program could implement. One item on that list was the suggestion that the photo collection of White dancers in Classroom 301 be replaced with a more racially diverse panorama — as we ourselves temporarily implemented during the protest. This small symbolic gesture had been discussed within the Program for four preceding years, but was never undertaken.

On April 5th, a group of all White students and alumni tore down our entire protest. The Dance Program administration officially described this silencing action as a "change" while issuing encouragement to students to express themselves at Peer Advisor-led meetings. The Dance administration likewise did nothing to engage the changes we had been trying to bring to the building.

Today, the dancing bodies on the walls of Classroom 301 are still all White.

This lack of response to our protest is characteristic of the Dance Program's attitude towards it, which evolved from appropriative pride, to annoyed indifference, to offended outrage, to active suppression. We held meetings with the Ombudsman’s office and the Office for Equity and Diversity to try to negotiate with the Department of Theater Arts and Dance administration. These meetings were ultimately fruitless. The Dance Program refused to examine its hostile, defensive and disingenuous response to the protest, much less accept any of our criticisms of its policies and politics.

This attitude was exacerbated by the bureaucratic indifference of the University administration at large. The problems we critiqued during our protest are endemic to the University of Minnesota and systemic through the highest levels of administration -- indifference, self-aggrandizement partnered with suppression and dismissal of criticism, defensive and face-saving solutions that do not address problems with the required complexity and rigor, a willingness to perpetuate and protect hierarchies of power, and above all, the construction of an educational institute that values students as consumers first and knowledge as relevant only to gaining power.

While we found individuals in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance, the College of Liberal Arts, and the Office for Equity and Diversity and its various service units who were well-intentioned and concerned about our well-being, they were unwilling or unable to take effective actions that would enable us to trust the official mechanisms provided for student protection.

Given this environment we have experienced, should we have expected our protest to bring about change? The change we desired was initially sparked by a painful discussion about students' racialized experiences with casting in the annual University Dance Theater concert. It is revealing that the semester following this discussion, the faculty and administration held auditions for a dance piece explicitly about transracial adoption without clarifying the casting policy for it beforehand.

A year later, the dance administration and faculty remain completely silent about our protest. Clearly those teachers who talk about the power of historiography in their classrooms are aware of the consequences of erasing history from their narratives, and find it easier to ignore our protest than to acknowledge that it happened, or to address the unresolved criticism of their actions and inactions.

A year later, our anger, born from a concerned engagement with our school and our teachers, has dwindled into disappointment and disengagement. While the overreaching issues of racism, institutional privilege, and abuse of authority remain embedded within the Dance Program in specific and the University of Minnesota at large; this educational institute has proven to be an unsupportive environment within which to point problems out, much less begin to change them.
We mourn that our protest could not effect the change we needed; that fear and arrogance led to its silencing and erasure. We indict the Dance Program for squandering an opportunity for growth by their defensive posturing and empty gestures. Most of all, we regret that our fellow and future students of Color will not have the opportunity to know that they are not alone in the isolation and alienation they may feel.

But we celebrate our protest, because for a brief, wondrous period in our education, we turned the building in which we danced, dreamed and learned into a space reclaimed by our voices, our concerns and our bodies; resonant with a challenge too beautiful, too demanding and too large to ignore.

-- us, February 10th, 2010 (

Note: We are currently (as of February 11, 2010) still in the process of distributing print versions of the above letter to University administration and placing stacks for students in University buildings. This blog post will later be fully updated with recipients and locations we have placed the print material.

An Annotated Timeline of THIS protest may be found here.