On the evening of Saturday, September 19, 2015 at 8:30 pm, a predominantly white audience gathered under white flood lights in the small stark room of Bodyvox Dance studio, complete with white drapes and white floor, to watch Dana Michel’s black body shuffle, writhe, stutter, and groan in her performance titled, “Yellow Towel” as part of PICA’s (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) TBA Festival.
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas
Dana Michel, a choreographer and performer based in Montreal, Canada drew the dance’s name from her childhood when she would wear a yellow towel on her head to “emulate blonde girls”. In May of 2014, following her second performance of “Yellow Towel,” Michel in conversation with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko from Movement Researchtalked about the genesis of her work and revealed how she avoided the issues of race as a performer before “Yellow Towel”:
...I had gone out of my way to not make “black work” and not address blackness in my work because from the get go, from the start of my career, every critique that was ever written, every conversation, every conversation with the lighting designer, it was always brought back to, “Oh you’re clearly doing African dance, you’re clearly influenced by hip-hop, you know…” And I just wanted to do that work that I needed to do without it being put in any kind of particular box. I was going out of my way to not talk black and in this piece, after all of these years of going out of my way to not do black things and repeatedly the critiques of… “black, black, black, black, black, black,” I’m like, “Ok, you want black? I’ll give you black.
In my online research, I found this accurate account of Michel’s performance as summarized by local writer Noah Dunham for the Portland Mercury:
With the house lights still on, Michel entered unceremoniously, dressed all in black—black hoodie, black pants—and proceeded to speak inaudibly, moving across the stage embodying (both accurately and poetically) what I assumed to be a homeless addict. Michel would begin an uncomfortable ritual of sorts, spreading a white substance across her face. She lounged on a white cushion (the set was essentially all made up by white pieces), sloppily drinking milk and pouring it down her chin. All the while, Michel sputtered words and unfinished sentences. Twenty minutes into the piece, the house lights were still on (they remained so), the space was still silent aside from Michel’s mumblings...
The piece progressed from there as Michel shifted and changed costumes… eating and spitting out food items such as bananas and white crackers…Michel played out a phone conversation with an aunt or grandmother who was teaching her how to make a baked crisp. Then, Michel revealed a blonde wig that she attempted to brush with an afro-pick before attaching it to her own hair.
Music was eventually incorporated in the performance as well as a couple light cues...
Her performance was a series of one stumbling black stereotype after another, and she toed the line uncomfortably between caricature and reality. Dunham fails to mention that before Michel shuffled onto the stage, we, the audience, were instructed to not just mute, but turn off our cell phones, and that no photos or recordings were allowed. Our attention was instructed, and demanded. The quiet of the room amplified not only Michel’s movements and auditory mumblings, but everyone else’s rustling and discomfort as well. Five audience members left at different times before the performance was over, and those sounds of leaving landed louder than a hammer on plywood.
I can’t assert confidently the reasons why they left, but I can certainly assume. By the observable demographics of the room, I probably don’t have to tell you that all five of them were white. I can only be responsible for my own feelings during the show, and I did not want to move. I worried that I would bring too much attention to myself. That my restlessness, the minor shifts in my chair, would loudly and suddenly mark my presence in the room—that I would be found out in all my own discomfort, confronting my own judgments and confusions about Michel’s performative “dance.”
Photo Credit: unknown
There is no telling exactly why those five people left, but because the lines between stage and room were blurred, their leaving could not go unnoticed. It could have been as benign a reason as their seats being uncomfortable. Maybe they had highbrow conceptions of what “art” ought to be, and Michel’s performance didn’t fit them. Maybe there were formal reasons: maybe Michel’s discordant dance was not the “dance” they thought it should be. Did they feel cheated for paying for such a show? Maybe they thought Michel was wasting their time. Were they repulsed to the point of leaving? Maybe it wasn’t entertaining enough. Maybe each of them received an emergency call that pulled them away. Maybe they didn’t like that they “didn’t get it.” Maybe they felt that Michel made them feel dumb for not “getting it." Though I don’t think Michel had a specific intent or outcome in mind. She struck me as an artist, because she was doing what she needed to do and invited us to witness and participate in the uneasiness of it. Maybe those people didn’t want to sit in their own discomfort triggered by the image of Michel’s black body. What are the implications where Michel’s black body is the authority, the actor? What does it mean when the audience is being acted upon? Does a white audience who leaves, and rejects a performance, do they reassert their own dominance and control?
In conversation with Kosoko, Michel speaks about her use of the props in "Yellow Towel":
Basically I went about things by pulling up a few very hyper-legible black culture stereotypes. It wasn’t as though I wrote a list. I was just working on the piece in bits and pieces over a couple of years and something would just naturally emerge. And I would use a very obvious object like a banana, or a trumpet, or an Afro. And then consciously and not consciously–probably more consciously than not, I just worked on blurring the fuck out of that.
During the show, I found myself vacillating between rapt attention and wanting to turn away. I was repelled by her chewing and spitting out the mushed banana. I felt dizzy when she squatted on the table, and groaned, sputtering-out cracker crumbs. When she hung off the edge of the table, and fell to the floor, I was unsure of the absurdity. When she rambled nonsense into a prop that was not a phone, “cooking” up rubbish, I felt deep pity. Watching her reel, the intimacy of voyeurism was unbearable. There were moments where I felt deeply disgusted by the Black body that she was showing me, and through her practice she revealed to me my own judgments and prejudices. Dare I admit, my own racist associations and stereotypes. As I felt all of those things, I could not un-witness my own thoughts while I watched her, and I felt ashamed by the implications of those particular feelings. I became astutely aware of my own liberal-minded blind-spots. I was disappointed in myself. I had been riled.
The fourth wall between the performer and the audience had been broken. From the first second Michel stepped onto the stage we were players, complicit and responsible for everything we felt. The wall – except the wall of one’s own ignorance, or the wall built from the act of removal and dismissal – was never there to begin with.
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas
As an audience member, I was having the realization that my feelings had more to do with my own misguided expectations of race and identity politics, and in particular conceptions of black beauty and strength. For example, I dig underground hip hop, and I’ve taken hip hop dance classes and love the in-your-face flair of b-boy/girl dance battles. I appreciate the meticulous and extravagant aesthetic of graffiti art. Funk n’ Soul is my favorite genre of music. Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” are probably my favorite songs of all time. The ideal black female image can be seen in the worship of Pop/RnB queen/artist Beyonce. Michel’s version of “Blackness” offered none of these representations that we non-Black folk celebrate in Black culture. In other words, she provided us with none of the typical, mainstream (see: palatable) versions of Blackness. She offered grit and honesty, the absence of a narrative, and disjointedness between one physical embodiment to the next, and her performance ended as abruptly:
In the last four years, I have started to unearth through self-reflection and conversations with my educated and thoughtful friends, who are admittedly mostly white, and have begun to reveal to myself the complicated layers of my own internalized racism and shame about being Chinese American. I’ve moved beyond my delusional youth of thinking that “I don’t see color,” or that “I’m just like everyone else!” (i.e. “like white people”).
There are moments during Michel’s dance where she combs both tenderly and jerkily a blond wig. “Yellow Towel” for Michel, is also metaphor for my growing up always feeling lesser than: less pretty, less attractive, less worthy, less wanted than all the popular white girls in school.
I wrote a really personal piece about growing up in Oregon a few months ago through the lens of Dinaw Mengestu’s novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. I understand now, that living in the suburbs of Portland during my formative school years had an insidious and stealth-like way of eroding my Chinese-ness through shame and stereotypes to the point that I believed myself to be white.
Up until the middle of my graduate program at University of San Francisco (USF), I was drafting short stories with “colorless” characters. I’m now embarrassed to admit, that they were indeed white, all of them white in white spaces, because that’s how I conceived of them: the wallpaper, the four-car garages, the decor, the weekends away, the wispy-fussy-overly-emotional female leads, the fraught relationship drama, the first-world problem complaints and cheating on each other’s partners: white-ways of being all over the pages of my own fabricated stories. I had been so adept at assimilating that I had successfully eliminated myself from my own imagination, and I had convinced myself that it was necessary for the sake and merit of my art. Like Michel in her interview before conceiving “Yellow Towel,” I also didn’t want my race to be the first thing that readers saw in my work. I just wanted to be, a writer.
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas
Looking back, I’ve become aware of how this delusion of acting/feeling/being “white” also helped me navigate rather fluidly through predominantly white spaces: see trips to San Juan island, see regular snowboarding weekends to Mount Bachelor, see various white people-owned boats and yachts, see vineyards, see lecture halls, see white people’s dining rooms, see the art museum, see best seats in the house at football/basketball/soccer/baseball games, see Jake’s Grill, see white people’s backyard barbeques, see the theater, see various white-run arts organizations, see white people’s readings, etc. etc. etc.
And the truth is, despite the moments of ignorance or inappropriateness (please don’t tell me you’re into Asian girls - it’s gross), I feel rather comfortable in those spaces (some more than others), and will probably keep returning to them (except sporting events, unless it’s the play-offs) because it’s part of who I am having grown up in Portland – it’s part of my cultural identity. I will keep returning to those spaces because the people I have lived around all my life, fallen in love with, respected, and befriended also reside in those white spaces. It’s just that now, I won’t let an unwarranted racial joke slide the way I use to, and I’m probably more adept at knowing when I’m being tokenized or talked-down to.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been meeting with a group of POCs (people of color) to talk, listen, and relate to each other about our various experiences of being POCs in white spaces, and in particular with Portland being one of the whitest. We come from all over and have lived in different places, California, Arizona, India, Taiwan, and I think this multicultural perspective will keep getting larger as more people join. Having grown up in Portland when white is the dominant and ideal, I’ve never had, and admittedly never actively sought out or thought I needed a community like this. I’ve found a group of individuals that understand what it feels like to be made aware of their skin color in minor or major ways (all of it is racism at work, no matter how slight, or whatever the intentions).
For example, in our first meeting I learned better what white privilege looks like when two people, both first-generation Mexican American from different states, shared with the group that their parents banned them from speaking Spanish. The first reason was to minimize the blatant racism that they would experience, and the second reason was to maximize their employability because then they wouldn’t have an accent. I can guarantee you that no little white kids will ever have to worry about this. Being told “you’re special” and “you can do and be whatever you want to be” is reserved for the privileged.
Photo Credit: unknown
I feel grateful for this group, for our stories, and our generous sense of humors, and most for our ability to see each other. We meet once-a-week, and being with them has helped me to hone my vision. It’s a bit like x-ray glasses: that’s structural racism at play, that’s white privilege yet again setting itself as an authority about non-white issues, that’s white fragility shutting down a conversation about race, that’s white supremacy perpetuating itself in an organization’s hiring practices, history, and presence: that’s what it is, that’s what it looks like.
The hard work has been recognizing it, and then comes the even harder soul-crushing work of admitting your place and complicity in this larger scope. This kind of anti-racism work is not suppose to be comfortable. It’s suppose to feel like a personal affront when these realizations occur, no matter what race you are.
I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between The World And Me, and the reality is devastating, and the prose is gorgeous. As I’m thinking about the larger context I’m also wondering: is this my privileged hyper-intellectual way of understanding the black experience, without having any Black friends!? Yes. I don’t like it. But yes, it is. But it’s also much more complicated than that.
My intentions for reading the book, which is a letter to Coates’ son about being Black in America, and other books and articles that will come after it, is to try to understand the most overt and violent expressions of racism in our country. My experience as a Chinese American woman is not the same, and is by statistical standards, charmed compared to the life of a Black African American man anywhere in the United States of America. I think that the intensity of racism experienced for different people of color may fall along a complicated and messy spectrum between the two poles in which one is stark white and the other is pitch black. The only thing I can be certain of is that I’m figuring this all out as I go along, and I know I have some really hard work to do to be a better human, which includes not just thinking about these issues, but to do something as I’m feeling my way through them, which is what Dana Michel’s “Yellow Towel” was able to help me feel.
We’re all players – the audience, Portland, the people who left, you, me, Dana Michel, the barista, the patrons, who serves you, who doesn’t, who gets served to, who gets an education, who gets hired, who doesn’t, who reads, who struggles, who gets a stage, and who doesn’t and never will – whether we like it, or admit to it or not, we are all part of this system that we’ve inherited. Even the most well-intentioned, kind-hearted individuals won’t want to deal with these realities. They will not want to talk or think about it, and some may even leave in the middle of a dance performance that they’ve paid for.
At the end, the house lights turned back on, revealing Michel in the middle of the room. Three to four seconds passed, a held breath, in which no rustling or movement occurred. And then, as if emerging from the subterranean, the start of a few tentative claps, slowly growing to a standing ovation.
Michel bowed, then exited stage right.
Jenny M. Chu
P.S. If you want to find out more about the POC group, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Right now we’re holding a space once-a-week to gather and talk. People come and go, and make the meetings when they can. It’s a leaderless group, and eventually, we want to leverage and utilize our various resources and networks, as well to create new platforms to elevate and highlight the amazing work that we’re all doing as writers, artists, thinkers, performers, feelers, and whatever the hell else we want to do and share with this wide-fucked-up-beautiful-world. Come with us.