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Guest Artist Nyama McCarthy-Brown Discusses Race and Inclusion

The final Listen Up! event of the Winter ‘21 semester featured professor Nyama McCarthy-Brown from The Ohio State University

Photo by Nyama McCarthy-Brown / The Ohio State University

Nyama McCarthy-Brown visited with students virtually from Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio. She spoke to dance students and faculty about racism, cultural relevancy, and bridging educational practices.

McCarthy-Brown was brought in at the suggestion and high praise of BYU faculty. Professor Kori Wakamatsu from the Department of Dance participated in a Q&A in preparation for McCarthy-Brown’s lecture. You can read the Q&A here.

The educator said customs in the United States are very race-based. “Our culture has many racist mechanisms, and so the people within the culture maneuver and negotiate that space.” She followed up by saying that it’s problematic to penalize any one single person, because one single person does not make up the entire construct. It would take a group effort to change the systems in place.

McCarthy-Brown continued and said that it is really about learning, growing, and coming to a place of understanding how and why all these structures are working and how they harm people.

During the presentation, a photo of a little Black girl in a leotard and tutu was shown. McCarthy-Brown presented questions such as, “Does this little girl get to dance? Where does she get to dance? What about her appearance has to change before she’s accepted into a space?”

“The first thing that jumped out for me was her hair,” said McCarthy-Brown. “She has beautiful braids that are flowing into what I think looks like a bun. But I know some places would insist that she had a flat bun, straight with no braids. And that gives me pause.”

Situations like this cause McCarthy-Brown to think about how culturally relevant a dance form can be in its requirements. “Do you have to overcome who you are and your appearance to participate? Or can the structure accept you as you are and even a step further–affirm you?” she asked. McCarthy-Brown challenged: “If the dress code pushes against a student’s identity, is something wrong with the student or something wrong with the code?”

At the end of the lecture, Wakamatsu presented questions students had submitted. One of the questions was, ”What’s the best way to incorporate more culture in our dances without being disrespectful to their traditions, and where’s the line of centering another cultural dance forms and appropriating a culture’s dance?”

McCarthy-Brown responded by praising the students for being aware and receptive of those issues. She then shared a quote from a Native American friend of hers. “There is no representation of me, without me.”

“I think there is no representation of any culture without people from that culture. That stated, there are always opportunities and space to share knowledge and information that you hold,” she said. In addition, cite your sources, even if it was a neighbor or friend, cite expertise of all kinds. All people deserve to be recognized, respected, honored, and given credit for what they have shared with you.

In McCarthy-Brown’s work employing culturally responsive teaching, she seeks to bridge the gap between past ‘traditional’ habits and progressive habits that would make spaces more inclusive. “As a dance educator, it’s really important for me that all of the material I give students is culturally relevant. My goal is to reach students by relating to who they are and what they came into the classroom with,” she said.

The instructor said she believes that most people dance somewhere, somehow in their lives. “Students have movement history. They have embodied knowledge. How can I bring that knowledge into the classroom and position my students as experts, even before they start the work of training in a particular technique?”

McCarthy-Brown said first, it’s about exchange. “It cannot be that one group has something to offer and the other group has nothing to offer.”

During the lecture, McCarthy-Brown posed these questions: What way is the field of dance upholding structures of whiteness? In what way is the field of dance dismantling structures of racial oppression?

She followed up by saying, “If you’re not a dance person, then I challenge you to ask that question in terms of your own discipline or area of expertise and study. What ways are structures of whiteness being upheld in your area? And in what ways are the structures being dismantled?”

McCarthy-Brown said that when she’s talking about ‘whiteness,’ she’s not talking about white people. She shared a definition of whiteness from Angelina Castagno’s 2014 book, Educated in Whiteness. The term refers to:

Structural arrangements and ideologies of race dominance. Racial power and inequalities are at the core of whiteness, but all forms of power and inequity create and perpetuate whiteness. The function of whiteness is to maintain the status quo, and although White people most often benefit from whiteness, some people of color have tapped into the ideological components of whiteness for their own financial and educational benefits. Whiteness maintains power and privilege by perpetuating and legitimating the status quo while simultaneously maintaining a veneer of neutrality, equality, and compassion.

She explained that she has also tapped into whiteness, for her educational or financial benefit and survival on occasion. “So, what does it mean to dissent from whiteness? I’m asking you to consider that,” she said.

She called on future educators, parents, and community members to ponder what it meant to dissent from whiteness and consider what inclusion really means.