Anti-Racism Dismantles Communities, Not Oppression
For me, the world of dance was a utopia disconnected from the everyday ugliness. Until it wasn’t.
I grew up attending integrated public schools in Atlanta. From the start, I was used to being in the minority: I’m white and my friends were almost all black or Hispanic, and when I was a freshman in high school, in 2010, I came out as a lesbian. Neither my race nor my sexual orientation mattered to my friends. One reason for that was dance and music and the belief that my friends and I shared that art can change people, give them purpose, communicate something beautiful and transformative.
I moved to New York City when I was 18, but the day after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, I was back in Atlanta visiting my parents, and I drove to my friend Sean’s house. He lived in a quiet, black suburb called Camp Creek filled with orderly, identical homes.
That night, I remember wanting to wrap my arms around my friends, to be there for them in what felt like this unbelievably dark moment. As the protests turned to riots closer to the heart of the city—just a few miles east of Camp Creek, near Centennial Olympic Park—Sean’s neighborhood stayed quiet.
But as soon as I stepped foot inside Sean’s house, I was greeted by the family dogs, and smelled the grill being fired up. There was a bowl of potato salad on the counter. Our mutual friend Khalil greeted me as if nothing was wrong, sweeping me off my feet into a familiar dance lift we’d done a thousand times. “Reidist!” he said.
Sean’s mom told me she was so glad I was safe, away from the neighborhoods being vandalized and, in some cases, set on fire. She shook her head as she prepared the hamburgers and hot dogs, as she always did in the summer. There were violent clashes all that night, and the mayor issued a 9 p.m. curfew, which meant, as usual, I would be sleeping over.
That night, all of our friends were there. There was a sense of deep-seated grief, and people wanted to be together, and they wanted to cry and hug and share stories. My friends—all black men in their early twenties—recalled run-ins they had had with the cops.
Being pulled over for no obvious reason while police dogs searched their car. Being roughed up. Being cuffed. Being called racist slurs. Being taken down to the station for questioning when they had done literally nothing. In the coming days and months, we donated to bail campaigns and posted a black square on our Instagrams. In June, we marched, and chanted, and we waved signs and demanded justice.
That summer, the world seemed upside down, violent, crazy. We wanted to make it right. What I couldn’t see then was that, far from making it right, we were on this spiral, and it was taking us somewhere dark: The world I had grown up in was being dismantled, and it was never coming back.
I grew up going to public schools just north of downtown. My kindergarten class resembled one of those stock diversity photos with one kid from every race sitting at a table together. I didn’t think twice about it. They were my friends.
I frequently had friends over at my house. My mom—everyone called her Mama Newt—hosted everyone no matter what they looked like or where they came from. No one left Mama Newt’s kitchen hungry.
In middle school, the black kids started sitting with the black kids at lunch. The Hispanic kids with the Hispanic kids. The white kids with the white kids. I agonized over where to sit. All of my friends were at different tables.
I loved to dance, and I became captain of the step team. I was the only white girl on the team, and I stuck out, but the girls didn’t treat me any differently. There were jokes about how surprising it was that I had rhythm; we all laughed about it. Race was present, but it didn’t feel overbearing.
In high school, race and racial identity became more important, more talked about, inescapable. The dance studio was the only classroom that reflected the school’s diversity. Most other classes were de facto segregated based on students’ academic track.
The dance crew—we were like a sitcom. There was Sean, the music theater geek who was also a first-rate swimmer. Then there was Khalil, who was a firecracker gymnast and cheerleader—and hilarious. (People compared him to Kevin Hart.) Then there was Isaac, who was tall and lanky, a lacrosse player and preacher’s son. And then there was me. They called me “lil sis,” which I loved, maybe because I’d never had siblings. As an only child, my friends really felt like family.
The studio was like a race-blind utopia, and it felt unreal, because it was: the moment you stepped out into the hallway, the intimacy and warmth gave way to a kind of unhappy, low-level tension.
Usually, that tension resided just beneath the surface. But not always.
I remember one day in 2011 there was supposed to be a big fight between the black, white, and Hispanic students. There had been an altercation a few days before between rival gangs, and it was near the end of the school year, when fights were more common, and someone started a rumor about a “race war.”
I stood in the middle of the courtyard and looked around at the various corners full of people siloing themselves into white, black, and brown factions. I had no idea which corner I belonged in. In the Hispanic section, I glimpsed Jessica Sanchez, who had taught me in the sixth grade how to throw a punch. I wondered what would happen if I had to punch Jessica Sanchez.
Luckily, security stopped it before it started, and everyone eventually returned to class as if nothing had happened.
The point is, the racial tension notwithstanding, we seemed to be moving in the right direction. Maybe I was blind. Maybe my whiteness made it impossible for me to see what was really going on in other people’s heads. I don’t know. I found my tribe wherever I found kindness and laughter. Wherever the bass was bumping, and people were dancing. The rest always seemed to work itself out.
In 2014, I moved to New York to go to Fordham University and the prestigious Ailey School of Dance. Alvin Ailey, who founded the school in 1969, was known for having said that “dance is for everybody” and “we are all human beings and color is not important.” I loved the power of art to transcend difference.
My high school sweetheart, a black woman I naively believed I would one day marry, started her freshman year at Harvard, where she immersed herself in the spoken-word poetry scene and acquired a new racial consciousness. I remember taking the five-hour bus from New York to Cambridge only to find myself sitting alone in her dorm, excluded from the party and poetry slam she’d gone to.
She said that she no longer felt safe being near me because I was white, that any physical affection I offered was me attempting to colonize her body.
Six months into college, she broke up with me.
At the time, I thought this was an anomaly—a sad derangement that came out of elite places like Harvard. I had no idea what was coming.
Dance distracted me from the hurt. My goal had been to make it to the professional Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since I first saw Ailey’s Revelations performed at the old Fox Theatre, in Atlanta, and that feeling intensified after I attended Ailey’s Summer Intensive when I was 16—now that I was at the dance school I felt like I was on the cusp of getting in.
A hip injury put an end to that dream, but it didn’t really matter. I went on to dance professionally elsewhere—among other gigs, I spent three seasons as a dancer and stunt double on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—graduated from Fordham in 2018, fell in love once again with an older, Bengali-American woman, got my own apartment in Queens, and moved my dog, Tiger, a Pekingese-poodle mix, from Atlanta to New York.
I also started to think beyond the narrow confines of a New York City progressive, which felt increasingly small and myopic. I read books like The Coddling of the American Mind and The Problem with Everything and The Rise of Victimhood Culture. I started to disagree, silently, with my friends.
Then, in early 2020, my girlfriend and I broke up, and Covid happened. I was furloughed from my day job as a technician at a physical therapy clinic, and my dance gig auditions came to a halt. I got depressed being all alone in my apartment, and I flew home to Atlanta to be with my family.
A few days after I got home, George Floyd was murdered.
Suddenly, I felt this thing I had never felt: people viewing and talking to each other through the lens of race. Yes, I know, that lens had always been there. But there had always been other people, ideas, forces to counteract that. Our impulse to divide had always been eclipsed by a more powerful desire to come together.
But now the fissures were opening up, and it was impossible to sew them together. I remembered being broken up with six years earlier by my critical-race-theory-poetry-slam girlfriend, and suddenly it seemed like millions of people were breaking up with each other, walling themselves off. When I showed up at Sean’s house that night, his mom’s familiar embrace almost made me cry. Between social distancing and racial siloing, physical affection had started to feel foreign. I leaned into her hug hard, and she had to steady herself to keep herself from falling backward.
When the lockdowns ended, I went back to New York, but I couldn’t stay for long. My mom had always had multiple sclerosis, but now it was getting worse. My parents were everything to me: They’d supported my dancing; they’d supported me when I came out. Now, my mother was struggling, and my dad, forced to juggle full-time work and full-time caregiving, was overwhelmed, drowning in responsibility. I had to go home, and I wanted to.
At the time, I didn’t know you can’t ever really go home again.
By spring 2022, things were finally reopening, and we all wanted to go out and dance.
That night, at a club in midtown Atlanta, I was, as usual, the only white person. I was used to that, but this time it was different.
As I danced with my friends to classic southern hip-hop songs like “Knuck if You Buck” by Crime Mob, “It’s Goin’ Down” by Yung Joc, and “Walk it Out” by Outkast, I could feel the eyes around me searing into my back and head and legs and face. People pulled out their cameras and filmed me in disgust—as if I had two heads. They said things like: “Who does she think she is?” and “She shouldn’t be allowed here—I don’t care if she can dance.”
The worst part wasn’t how it made me feel, how out of place I felt in this world I had once thought of as an extension of home. The worst part was that the people in that room felt threatened by my being there. This seemed crazy to me, but it was undeniable. They genuinely felt unsafe and uncomfortable because of the color of my skin. They viewed me as an oppressor and a grifter looking to take—to appropriate—what wasn’t mine.
The world of dance, which had given me that precious language to communicate with anyone irrespective of who they were or where they came from, was fragmenting—consumed, like everything else, by our seemingly inescapable racialization and tribalization.
A few weeks later, I received an invitation to a party. At the top of the invitation bold letters stated: “THIS IS AN ALL-BLACK EVENT.” I responded to the friend who sent it to me and asked if they meant to wear all-black clothes. She responded, “Nah, it’s for black people only, but you know you’re the exception.”
I did not attend.
The self-segregation was suffocating. The most meaningful art and friendships in my life had come out of piercing through racial boundaries. Expanding my horizons. Now, it seemed like those horizons were closing in on me, my friends, the wonderful, collaborative, fluid, undulating world of dance that had infused my life with so much meaning. It felt like something was being lost forever.
I know, I know—we’ve been in this moment for three years, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that setting aside my race, my whiteness, is a privilege. Does that mean we shouldn’t aspire to live in a world in which we all set aside our immutable traits? That we shouldn’t try to see beyond race?
Which brings me to the most amazing woman I’ve ever known.
After a couple of years of dating as a gay woman in New York, I was feeling discouraged. Everyone I had gone out with was a hyper-political leftist. They always seemed to be in the middle of a rant. Every date gave me an uneasy feeling for fear of saying the wrong thing—my views on race, sex, gender, you name it, were not in lock-step with those of my fellow LGBT New Yorkers. On edge and worried I would never find my person, I had almost given up dating entirely.
Then I connected with Bianca. She’s an elite marathoner and the daughter of Cuban immigrants, and she’s perfect: measured, kind, curious. The only woman I’ve ever met who could convince me to run a 5K and the only one who’s made me rethink some of my opinions about politics, identity, life, and the world.
I like to believe we were always meant to be, but I also know I would never have arrived at this place were it not for the ups and downs of the last few years. Before the summer of 2020, it was easier to feel or think or exist outside our superficial differences. We didn’t talk about these things with the same frequency or intensity. There weren’t as many landmines. Now, it’s more important than ever to discuss our differences—while also trying to see beyond skin color and demand that we’re seen the same way.
A few months ago, I had a ring made for Bianca using the diamond from my late grandmother’s wedding ring. I haven’t proposed yet, but we’re thinking maybe a small wedding with family down the line. As for Sean, Khalil, and Isaac—they’re planning on being my three best men.
The Black Sheep will release a video interview with Reid next week diving deeper into her story. We encourage readers to leave their feedback for Reid in the comments, and select questions from paying subscribers will be posed directly to her.