racial bias

A question of perception, part 2

Part 1, written almost 4 years ago.

Last week was not a great week for celebrities, was it? First Kate Spade, then Anthony Bourdain. Both deaths were unexpected. Both deaths saddened. Cue the endless posts about suicide help lines and knowing one is valued and matters. Which is nice, but mostly beside the point. Most people don’t kill themselves on a whim. Knowing there is a 1-800-number out there is nice, but is unlikely, MOST OF THE TIME, to deter someone who is too exhausted to live. Someone who commits suicide might be very aware that they matter, they are loved (or not), but that isn’t what they are trying to avoid. They are trying to end the sustained misery and agony that their brains are inflicting on them. Incessant pain, physical or emotional, distorts reality to the point that suicide becomes an act of mercy – granting oneself peace and saving friends and family from the burden of worrying about the one’s sickness.

Anyhow.

MommaBear who is part of my dance school shared an article about Kate Spade’s death, with the following comment, “Euh, WTF… So you’re successful and suicide… so much energy, hard work, notorious… no…”. I like MommaBear, I do. She is fiercely protective of her cubs, be they her own children or girls she meets on the dance floor. Given her deep capacity for love and loyalty, her comment struck me as one of ignorance. Some ppl really don’t get depression and suicide. My uncle doesn’t: he made a very similar comment following Robin Williams’ death. So, I commented, gently, that success has nothing to do with the burden that a person may be called to carry, or the demons they must deal with.

MommaBear: I know, but so much work, all that energy… If a person was doing fuckall, I might get it (the impulse to kill oneself). Nobody admires a person that doesn’t succeed, nobody will listen to the advice of a person that doesn’t stand out in society. If you succeed, you can latch onto that success as a life jacket to get you out of the current.

Vanilla: No, not really. Success can become a burden in and of itself. A responsibility that suffocates you even further.

MommaBear: I’m a single mom that got played by her husband and has 6 children, of which 2 are autistic. You can betcha I will fight till the end to do my best.

Vanilla: Yes. There are tangible demons and burdens, like the experiences you just described. But there are also demons and mental health burdens that are intangible, not easily identified, but just as hard to manage. We must never deem monetary or societal success as a reliable indicator of the mental health of an individual. Never.

MommaBear: So, based on what you’ve just written, you are comfortable hanging out with people that have not succeeded in society? People that in no way stand out in society? You could spend time with a man that looks like a hobo, and not care what people think of you? (P.S. I would have preferred to talk about this, but I guess Facebook will have to do πŸ™‚ )

Now. I’m extremely wary of Facebook bitch-fests. I don’t want another pointless repeat of this incident. Sides, I was aware that MommaBear had attempted to diffuse the situation with her little P.S. addendum. MommaBear is good people. I like MommaBear.

But.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut.

But. But. But.

Her comment pissed me off. SO MUCH.

That one comment made it very clear how she perceived me. A spoiled, well-off, white girl condescendingly preaching empathy from her comfortable ivory tower, blissfully unaware of what suffering could possibly feel like. Who was I to talk?

Never mind that the last 2 guys I’ve dated do not have university degrees. Hell, Beaut barely finished high school. Beaut came from a broken childhood, foster homes, poverty, worlds apart from my life. He worked HARD to make ends meet with that kind of background, stopped at nothing to gainfully and legally provide a comfortable existence for his daughter, a loving and devoted father… But he didn’t have a kitchen table. He can’t write one sentence without making grammatical or spelling mistakes. Doesn’t have the traditional indicators of success, yet has managed to carve out a good life through sheer stubbornness and struggle. I was proud of him, proud of his perseverance, his unwillingness to let life, and all the shit thrown at him, stop him from doggedly pursuing his goals. I’m impressed by the life he is building for himself, bit by bit, patiently.

Never mind that my mother with her poor health couldn’t hold down a job from the moment she had me, for the rest of her life. The knowledge that she was a drain on society weighed heavily on her conscience. Her health was so bad, she could barely walk, and as a result, her physique shamed her. Most days, she could only summon the energy to put on baggy jogging suits. I’ve witnessed people speak to her as though she was mentally impaired, because apparently walking slowly with 2 canes is correlated to one’s intelligence. #goodtoknow. A cop once threatened to have her do a drug test because he thought she was some druggy, with her wheezing breath and sweaty face (brought on by the extreme pain attack she was undergoing). Was I EVER ashamed of her? No. I prided myself on being her bodyguard, physically protecting her from oblivious people, and ensuring people addressed her with the respect that was her due. As an adolescent, its true, sometimes I would dread running into schoolmates, but that was only because I kept my family life a secret. It was too complicated, too painful and private to share. So I hoped we didn’t to run into people. But never, not ever, because I was ashamed of my mother.

Never mind that my father worked his whole life in a blue collar job, 38 years of exhausting physical labor with no social distinction whatsoever, to ensure that his wife and his baby girl could live a comfortable life.

Never mind that when I met MommaBear I was in the throes of the worst depression of my life, a few weeks away from my upsetting diagnosis. Never mind that I HAVE A BLOG DEDICATED TO MY MENTAL HEALTH STRUGGLES. Which obviously MommaBear has never read, as is her right.

None of that mattered. Because despite spending anywhere from 5-15 hours with me every week for 5 months, MommaBear couldn’t see past my skin color and my professional title.

I’m upset, deeply, not because I got misjudged according to another person’s bias. Nah, that’s cool, I’m aware I get to live my life mostly immune to that sorta thing, so when it happens, I really can’t be that offended.

But.

I’ve always naively clung to the belief that for social change to successfully occur, for racial bias to be dismantled, yes policy matters (which is why Trump is so worrisome to me) but that really, change would be inevitable the more people interacted with individuals that are not part of their socio-ethno-econo demographic. One on one interactions increase the likelihood of recognizing an individual’s humanity, which is something we all share, and to the extent that humanity is present, it creates cognitive dissonance with wtv prejudice and false beliefs are held about that person’s demographic, and thus change in opinions and a broadening of world views are possible. Schindler from Schindler’s list was a Nazi sympathizer. This has been my core belief for as long as I’ve lived, the result of my upbringing. I recognize that it is not a perfect solution (mingling between demographics is not always possible or probable, or else #whiteprivilege wouldn’t be a thing). But, to the extent it occurs, I remained hopeful.

Y’all. I live in Montreal. My dance school has every possible nationality amongst its students. And yet. On a Facebook post about suicide, we failed at recognizing each other’s humanity.

I feel defeated.

Advertisements

Kizomba is a dance of the world. Until it’s not.

As the child of immigrants, I’ve often laughed at the culture clashes and distinctive behavioural patterns – My Big Fat Greek Wedding is almost an autobiography, apart from the small detail of the wrong country (Russia), and how I am still unmarried. I live in a world where race, culture, nationality are visible, identifiable, noticeable. I am not color-blind when it comes to skin: I celebrate the entire rainbow. However, North American society is not tolerant towards minorities, prejudice and bias run deep,​ systemic discrimination and white privilege are real, not debatable. Previous musings include:

The more I’ve tried to educate myself to avoid unconscious biases about minorities, the more I’ve learned about the commonly held perceptions about whites, and I’m uncomfortably aware of the weight of my white privilege and just how impossible it is for others to be color-blind when they see my skin color. #lossofinnocence #poorlittlewhitegirl


My eclectic tastes draw me equally to ballet as to African dances like kuduro/semba/kizomba. Unfortunately, not only do I have negative sensuality, but it is a well known fact: white people can’t dance. I mean, if Dave Chapelle says so, it must be true? Still, I can’t help it. The music makes me feel alive.

After one too many comments about how I can’t shake my hips like the other girls in the class, GT pulled me aside at a party and told me I should stop making such disparaging skin-based comments: it made the others uncomfortable. It was a silly stereotype, it wasn’t true, I was part of the team, not all black people can dance, just drop it Vanilla, ok? It’s in bad taste. Because I was too wrapped up in my insecurities, I didn’t listen to him. A few weeks later, following a constructive criticism during practice from Teacher, my response of “yes, well I CAN’T pop my hips any more, I’m white, I’m missing a few joints to have that kind of mobility” produced a tirade from Teacher.

I’m sick of this “white” business. There is no white, there is no black, there is just dance. You are not a white dancer. You are A dancer. Your job is to move to the music. Music doesn’t care what color your skin is. We all hear the same music, we all dance to the same music. Yes, kizomba is from Angola, but every country dances kizomba. One of the biggest kizomba festivals in the world is in Moscow. And in Sweden. And in the Netherlands. Are you going to tell me all those people can’t dance? Kizomba is a dance of the world. Stop with this stupid bullshit and get to work. I told you to pop your hips. Pop them.

Ok then.


Back when Beaut introduced me to Kizomba: “The music is so good! Except for the French Kizomba music, that stuff is crap. And there is so much of it! The French love to believe they invented Kizomba. They think it’s theirs now, they have quite the history of claiming whatever they like from other cultures.”

Walking home from dance class last week, I ran into a guy I used to kickbox with many years ago. Beautiful black guy from Europe, he always was a looker. We chatted a few minutes, catching up on each other’s life. When he found out I’dΒ quit boxing for dancing, he was intrigued. “What kind of dancing?” Kuduro/Semba/Kizomba, with the odd moment of Salsa. “Lol, taking us over, are you? Hey, relax, I was joking. It’s cool, you have good taste at least.”

Kizomba is a dance of the world… a world in which whites have a long, violent history of cultural appropriation.


I love my school. I love how much enjoyment we derive from watching each other grow as dancers. We are all on the same journey together, regardless of our individual levels of competency. When I am with my team, I do start to believe that dancing is dancing, and kizomba/semba/kuduro is a dance of the world.

At the end of yesterday’s kuduro class we had a boys vs girls showdown. The cheering in these videos makes me so happy. (Same choreography as in this post.)

​​

​

Just like my boxing gym was a perfect example of what could be if tolerance, respect and acceptance were the norm instead of the exception, my dance school gives me hope that occasionally, as a species, we can set aside our differences long enough to listen to the music and enjoy a quick dance. Fun fact: my boxing gym and my dance school are in the same building. So maybe, this has nothing to do with Coach and Teacher’s leadership skills and values, and everything to do with the specific GPS coordinates of the location. The chemical mix of the cement used in the building – undetectable fumes produce abnormally peaceful & loving human behaviour?! Must be it.