I am happy for them, but angry for me, if I can put it that way,” Simone Blais shared during a Q&A following a screening of her recent documentary Dance Like Everybody’s Watching. She was commenting on the presence of a dance studio in Greater Victoria run by and for predominantly white dancers that focus on West African drumming and dancing, as well as hip hop dancing.
The Social Justice Committee at Lutheran Church of the Cross, Victoria, invited Blais to screen her documentary about her experiences of anti-Black racism. It offered an opportunity for people to learn more about racism in our own neighbourhoods from a filmmaker, dancer and doula who lives and works here.
She acknowledges that people who run the above dance studio did their homework travelling to parts of West Africa in order to learn drumming and dancing from that region. Where things run into trouble is when the drumming and dance is exported for white consumption, becoming a form of cultural appropriation.
The art forms become disconnected from their cultural context when packaged and presented on Southern Vancouver Island by people with little connection to the original land and people.
The argument isn’t that art forms cannot travel, be shared or influence people’s art and practices, but rather it reinforces a colonial narrative when white people put themselves forth as experts or practitioners of Black dance and music.
It also speaks to the white privilege of being able to afford the travel and cultural experiences many members of the African diaspora never get to encounter.
This discussion captures the unease with which Blais finds herself as a Black woman in Greater Victoria. It is an area with a lower representation of Black and other racialized people than for example Toronto where she grew up. Blais and other Black people, some who grew up here and others who moved to Victoria for studies or work, continue seeking to build spaces of their own.
They want spaces to practice dance and other creative projects without being subject to the white gaze of predominantly white dance studios. With spaces of their own, there is greater chance of flourishing and supporting a local scene for Black artists.
In order to tell her story, Blais applied for and received a TELUS STORYHIVE grant to produce this 26-minute documentary. Her successful pitch was selected out of hundreds of applicants; green lit through a combination of audience voting and jury selection.
After being awarded the grant, Blais received guidance from another filmmaker, suggesting she tell the story from her own perspective rather than as a more distant narrator. As a result, she recorded the narration as a series of voice memos as though she was in conversation with her sister. It is the same kind of voice memos she leaves for her sister on WhatsApp. This gives the viewer the feeling we are listening in on a more intimate conversation.
At Church of the Cross, conversations like this one with Simone Blais, help us better to understand racism within our own church context. It can help us recognize barriers for racialized people to feel fully at home in the congregation and church structures.
For example, she mentions the challenge finding a Black dance instructor in Victoria, who she eventually identifies. She describes the microaggressions she experiences being one of the few Black people in a predominantly white dance studio.
She mentions white people looking at her differently, as though they expect her and other Black dancers to reveal a more authentic form of hip hop dance because they are Black.
She describes how white folk both elevate people of colour as experts because of race, while also subtly looking down upon racialized people when they fail to perform according to their expectations.
Some takeaways for us in churches include recognizing ways in which we make Black and racialized people invisible or further marginalized in church spaces. There are ways in which we increase their discomfort often in unintended ways, but that are experienced as racism nonetheless.
It is an opportunity for confession, acknowledging the structural sins upon which church structures are built and continue to maintain. Jesus calls us to dismantle structural injustices through action in our local contexts.
Some responses that are helpful for white folk is for us to listen to the voices of racialized people already in our midst. This includes stories and art already available whether books, art or film. We also continue to listen to anti-racism talks and resources available within the ELCIC through seminaries, synods, congregations, chaplaincies and by giving time for the Task Force on Racism to do its work and report its findings.
You can watch Dance Like Everybody’s Watching by visiting www.simone-blais.com. There you can subscribe to Simone Blais’ newsletter and get in touch with her to book her as a speaker for your event whether in person or online.
—Rev. Lyndon Sayers