Sorry, ‘Cousin’ Brandon

Two black women go to the ballet…

Sounds like the beginning of a horribly racist joke, unless you are in fact two women of color going to the ballet. Just this past weekend, my friend Cole and went to the ballet for a night of beauty and culture.

The Louisville Ballet’s “Studio Connections” performance was at its home on Main Street. It was a mixed repertoire of classical and newer pieces that showcase the dancers in intimate and sometimes challenging ways. My story actually begins in the second act of the night, the pas de deux “Diana and Acteon” from “Le Roi Candaule,” performed by dancers Natalia Ashikhmina and Brandon Ragland. 

Ragland is one of the few dancers of color in the Louisville Ballet. During his beautiful performance, an older white woman sitting in front of us turned to Cole and asked if she was related to Ragland. Cole looked at me, her mouth open in shock. She shook her head no. The woman then turned to me and asked if I was related.  

Sure, we were the only African-American women in the audience, but what is problematic is her assumption that because of this, we must be related to the one African-American dancer. We could have overlooked this incident (however offensive), except for her need to check in with us throughout the show and then after to follow up with even more racist commentary about the physicality and strength of Mr. Ragland as a dancer. 

After the performance, as I was waiting with Cole for a chance to congratulate one of the dancers she knew, the woman located me in the crowd and reiterated her assumption that we might be related to Ragland, then immediately began discussing his body with a strange, sexually charged glee. “He’s so big,” she declared. It was extremely creepy and set off multiple red flags for me as a person of color. I’m damn near positive the shock I felt became visible on my face because she stopped talking and walked away — likely unaware of her transgression but figuring out that at the very least, I had nothing left to say to her.

Her racist intrusions brought me once again to the issue of white privilege when dealing with the black body. I have written about my own intersections with this problem involving my hair and that of my son, but this struck deeper. Somehow she felt these comments were appropriate to share with a stranger — perhaps because I was black or female, or maybe because she felt that I should feel some desire, as she clearly did, for the black dancer. What she did, in that brief moment, was shamefully reduce Ragland’s study and skill to that of minstrelsy. 

 For many years, the issue of black sexuality and the “neurotic desire” of whites for the black “other” has been the study of scholars around the world (from “Racist Sexualisation and Sexualised Racism in Narratives on Apartheid” by Tamara Shefer and Kopano Ratele). The minstrel show, in particular, was an area where the desires and fears of whites were put onstage to feed these conventions. Black dancers and sports figures continue to confront the sexual politics surrounding their ability to perform the responsibilities of entertainers and athletes.

How does this problem stop? I wish I had the perfect answer, but it needs to begin with calling racism out when it happens — even if it seems like “playing the race card.” When these tired and xenophobic narratives continue to show up, they need to be named — and exposed. 

Much of my life has been spent in areas typically associated with whiteness: rock music concerts and academia. I’ve had many run-ins with ignorance, and many times it is a symptom of white privilege and almost always unrecognized by the perpetrator. I feel that instead of breeding anger, for me it creates many moments of possibility whereby I can effect change and dispel stereotypes. Most of the time, this is the case. The ballet incident left me flabbergasted and sad. Sorry this happened, “Cousin” Brandon. I’m glad you didn’t know about it at the time.

America is at a crossroads in its relationship to citizens of color. This is not only in reference to African-American citizens but those of Middle Eastern, Hispanic and Asian descent. The “melting pot” ideal of what America should be doesn’t work because it erases the identities and histories of the people who create the tapestry of our nation’s population. To survive intact as a nation, we need to harness these differences and create a culture that appreciates and understands our rich diversity.