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[COMMENTARY] Engaging the Body in Diversity Education

The image is permanently burned into our retinas – a knee on the neck with hands nonchalantly tucked into pockets. The trial surrounding George Floyd’s murder has exposed the residue of lingering pain, which has settled into the bodies of the live witnesses. Whether a nine-year-old child, a white firefighter, a black store clerk, feelings of helplessness and guilt were palpable in their shaking heads and sobbing shoulders.

Photo: Natalie Fiol. Dance at University of Illinois

Unfortunately, just at a time when diversity education should be a path toward learning and healing, it has come under intense criticism.  The Idaho Senate recently took away $409,000 from Boise State University, which was intended to support social justice programs. In Utah, parents in North Ogden lobbied to have the Black History curriculum optional. Parents in Texas’ Southlake School District (much in the news because of a viral video of racist comments two years ago) have been fighting against diversity education because “it seeks to divide rather than unite.”

Intense backlash is regretfully understandable considering the deep, investigative, and personal work necessary to undo the chains of racism. But rather then get distracted with extremist reactions, those who want real change need to advocate for diversity education that comprehensively engages the body and the intellect.

Interrogating racism is neither quick nor easy. Cyrus Mehri, a civil-rights lawyer, says organizations want “drive-by diversity.” New York Times writer David Brooks laments that superficial diversity training does not change minds or change behavior. If transformation is the goal, and it should be, the body – sobbing shoulders, nodding heads included – need to be addressed in a series of strategically designed stepping stones.

I write from the perspective of a white, dance practitioner. Through this lens, I have witnessed the physical and emotional weight of oppression in bodies of all kinds. The lethargy of a walk and the protective bracing of the chest tell the stories we are not yet ready to tell publicly. As Ta-Nehesi Coates has noted in Between the Word and Me, racism is “a visceral experience.”

Embodied practitioners have developed pedagogical methods to enhance physical, emotional, and intellectual integration. Dance educators begin the process by heightening awareness. Beginning students are given simple, accomplishable tasks. Walk. Walk on the beat. Noticing the heel strike the floor as the downbeat occurs activates both the mind and body.

Short workshops on implicit bias and micro-aggressions are valuable in the same way, as they raise awareness about stereotyping. Awareness hits people differently. For some, it is comforting to know there is a reason for their daily exhaustion. Others begin to question whose name, rather than whose qualifications, ends up in the rejection pile. It’s a first step, but it is not enough.

The next stage for dancers requires a deepening of skills, and dancers are typically awkward at this point – legs and arms fly in multiple directions without core facilitation. Their discomfort grows as they question everything and address their own dance lineages. Context is essential if one is to improve.

Good diversity education, such as the Undoing Racism Workshop by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, offers cultural exchanges and historical information surrounding the formation of race. By sharing the songs, dances, and recipes from one’s culture, bodies remember, taste, and feel their histories. Reading the early slave laws in which early Americans attempted to sort out whiteness, provides a gut punch. Constructing systemic racism was both methodical and diabolical.

As white bodies feel the weight of complicity, we counter, “Slavery is gone, so what’s the point?” The point is, racism resides in our bodies, differently and unequally so, but we all carry the weight of the system of oppression. Knowing this history helps us understand why some people tense up when the red lights of a police car start flashing, and others cross the street when seeing a Black man in a hoody. As children, we absorbed these fears while sitting in the back seat of a car or holding a mother’s hand.  Psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem in My Grandmother’s Hands, and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score, help us understand how the body transmits messages of trauma through generations. Uncovering our personal and collective trauma is a crucial step toward healing.

Advanced work in dance training requires an integration of technical skills with the uniqueness of one’s character. This stage gets personal, a reckoning with one’s skills, identities, and ambitions. It is a time to take truthful agency over one’s journey.

Work on diversity also requires a personal journey. One of my stories goes like this: I have always attributed my successes to my perseverance and hard work. It is part of my German, working class upbringing. Unpacking my own history with race helped inform and shift this narrative. After returning from World War II, my father and his Black friend both sought to buy houses in the suburbs of Detroit through the GI Bill. My dad got his dream house in the suburbs, but due to racist policies of red-lining, his friend stayed in Detroit. His son attended dilapidated schools, while I attended the best. When I applied to college, my bootstraps were significant. White guilt is not useful here. What is important is I can now hold onto multiple truths: I achieved success through my own agency, and I had help from an affirmative action plan called whiteness.

The work of undoing racism can be transformational, but we need to participate in and advocate for long-term educational experiences that engage the body, mind, and soul. To be sure, this dance will be exhausting and uncomfortable, but the rewards will be a dance that changes lives.

About the Author:
Jan Erkert
 is a professor and the head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois. She received the Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award for her ongoing work on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Illinois.  She is the author of “Harnessing the Wind,” and is currently writing “Stories from the Body on Leadership and Life.” She is a 2020-21 Public Voices Fellow of the national OpEd Project.



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