Burn Scars

By Gerald Casel

Black and white headshot of Gerald Casel, an Asian man
Photo by Katherine Helen Fisher [ID: Black and white headshot of Gerald Casel, an Asian man]

You can still see the burn scars that dot the hills near the campus where I live, which is on the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi tribe and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. Last year’s CZU Lightning Complex fires burned over 86,000 acres in Santa Cruz County and brought ash from counties far away. When the rains came in February, several areas were evacuated from potential debris flow as a result of the fires’ devastation. We’ve lost power, too, here and there, because the electrical grid has been damaged. Remarkably, you can see much more wildlife than usual – either because they have been displaced due to their natural habitats having been destroyed or because of rewilding, a process where animals return to spaces where they hadn’t been allowed to roam freely before. As a result of humans stepping back, ecological restoration is underway, and although the air is cleaner now, the weather remains unpredictable.

We’re coming up on one year since COVID-19 restrictions have been in place. Since I haven’t been able to dance regularly, my feet have lost their calluses. Those layers of skin made tough and thick through wear and tear have protected me from floor burns and splits while allowing me to turn, glide, and brush the floor without pain. Losing calluses also means a loss of felt sense, being out of shape, and general tightness. We haven’t had our rigorous movement practices and communal exchanges in shared spaces and that lack of human contact has also produced sustained emotional distress.

Callousness can also be used as a metaphor for emotional hardening – protection from constant oppression or harm. As a dance artist of color, I know how to deploy this emotional armor when I need it to survive microaggressions/invalidations/assaults – like that time in ballet class when a white woman physically forced me to move because I was blocking her view of herself in the mirror. Violence like this often comes quick, leaving me frozen and burning with anger, but the scars last for a long time. This incident reminded me how “white body supremacy,” a term used by somatic abolitionist Resmaa Menakem, allows white people to take up space and claim ownership over shared or public spaces. I take care not to be too hardened by these jabs and seek balance when navigating the unpredictable weather of white supremacy. In her book, In the Wake, On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe describes the possible metaphors and materiality of “the weather” that creates a climate where anti-Blackness and white supremacy are pervasive. Sharpe writes, “The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.” We can apply this metaphor to challenge the structures of whiteness that create conditions of exclusion by restoring a felt sense of safety through an embodied preparedness that can weather white supremacist culture. By doing so, we can alter the atmosphere and generate new ecosystems that minimize harm while acknowledging the harm when it arises.

Last summer, instigated by Jill Homan Randall and as part of a series of writing that featured the Dancing Around Race cohort, I wrote a piece called “Regranting as a Performance of Benevolent Colonialism.” I have been thinking about how this needs to be revisited, especially now at the year-long mark of COVID-19 and after the many pronouncements of diversity, equity, and inclusion that white-led organizations have presented on websites, social media, and in many online interactions where I have witnessed emotional performances of solidarity.

 In addition to having annual seasons, many white dance artists with companies or organizations have benefited from receiving large grants only to disperse funds through a festival or through a shared evening of dance that promotes emerging artists of color. This is possible, in part, because these white choreographers have lived and worked in the Bay Area for some time but also because they have solid support from funders who also (through general operating support grants) cover the costs of administrative staff, marketing, and development and grant writing support. What if white artists who are able to receive these funds refrain from doing so, so that artists of color can receive the funds directly? What if we got rid of the ‘middle man,’ or the part that feels the most in need of intervention – this sense that People of Color know all-too-well as imperial benevolence? In other words, changing the narrative that says white people will fix your community, save you from being irrelevant, and prescribe educational and enrichment programs so that they look charitable and have no hidden ulterior motives.

Unfortunately, even after the overdue racial reckoning that inspired so many people to protest in the streets with powerful calls to action following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, things have not changed much in terms of racial politics and power dynamics in the Bay Area dance ecology. White-led dance organizations resume operations as if nothing has changed – not acknowledging how they benefit from their social position through the institutional structures of whiteness. Informed by scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, who remind us that decolonization is not a metaphor, this “evasion” or failure by white people to enact sustained and systemic change gives rise to platitudes that are nothing more than performative gestures.

Because of historical, legal, and institutional barriers such as redlining, racial quotas, restrictive voting and immigration laws, and other settler-colonial logics that are baked into systems that regulate who owns what, generational wealth gaps between white people and their BIPOC counterparts endure. This atmosphere of inequity is true here in San Francisco, where most of the major dance companies, performance spaces, and organizations are owned and run by white people. The system is set up such that BIPOC artists must rely on “renting” from established white artists, which perpetuates white saviorism, white ownership, and Black and brown tenancy.

Racialized climates can be seen and felt by artists of color but thanks to the privileges afforded to them by whiteness, white people do not have to acknowledge how they benefit from such systemic forces; it is simply the norm. As an example, many white-led organizations continue to produce well-meaning programs that support (emerging) artists of color as well as mentorship platforms that imply a boost to those artists’ careers. Such white savior mentality is complicated by the notion of white ownership, and together, they drive market forces that contribute to racial capitalism by promoting a logic of possession. This creates specific turbulence for those of us whose families have never owned any property or who have had to move frequently because of our tenancy status. It is a struggle to feel a sense of belonging even when these gestures of support from white-led organizations seem benevolent.

What would happen if foundations gave resources directly to artists of color rather than brokering them through systematic white gatekeeping? Would BIPOC artists feel more of a sense of ownership rather than being owned by these organizations who parade their institutional ethos of racial equity and inclusion? On the other hand, what if BIPOC artists refuse these offers and instead collectively generate their own systems of support that foster communal care and mutual aid?

As we navigate through the unpredictable climate of racial inequity and as we imagine a future that values the cultural wealth of BIPOC communities, we must weather storms of white supremacy and plant seeds that will grow and transform burn scars into new growth. Refusing colonial structures that reinforce separation, competition, and exploitation, we will find ways to rewild the spaces that have not been available to us. Tending to our bodies and each other, we can learn to heal from generational trauma, and like calluses, we can regenerate tougher skin that will protect us from the elements.

My writing and thinking have been influenced by conversations with the Dancing Around Race collective (David Herrera, Yayoi Kambara, Kimani Fowlin, Bhumi B. Patel, and Raissa Simpson). I have also been inspired by the writings of Maile Arvin, Resmaa Menakem, Claudia Rankine, Christina Sharpe, and Edgar Villanueva.

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of In Dance.

Gerald Casel (he/they) is the artistic director of GERALDCASELDANCE. His choreographic research complicates and provokes questions surrounding colonialism, collective cultural amnesia, whiteness and privilege, and the tensions between the invisible/perceived/obvious structures of power. Casel is an Associate Professor of Dance in the Department of Theater Arts and is the Provost of Porter College at UC Santa Cruz. A graduate of The Juilliard School, with an MFA from UW Milwaukee, Casel received a Bessie award for sustained achievement for dancing in the companies of Stephen Petronio, Lar Lubovitch, Stanley Love, among others. His newest work, Not About Race Dance, has been awarded a National Dance Project grant and will be in residence at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and will premiere at CounterPulse with a forthcoming national tour. Dancing Around Race, a community-engaged participatory practice he founded that examines racial inequity in the Bay Area and beyond, continues to grow. geraldcasel.com