Next week I’ll be traveling to Africa for two months working as a performer and media manager for Shifting Centers: Creative Collaborations in and outside of Africa through Cyberlearning and Ubiquitous Technologies. Esther Baker-Tarpaga directed a solo for me, working title, Whiteness Revisited #2. Along with regular blog posts about the project (check out the research platform at http://shiftafrica.wordpress.com) I’ll be writing some personal essays on my experience traveling to Africa – it is part of a series I’ve titled: The African Chronicles.
Esther and I worked on a solo that will be presented in Senegal and Morocco. I’m amazed at how little distinction I can make between the two countries at the present moment. In truth, I have very little understanding of Africa and almost no reference points to orient myself. Except for my friend, Jacob, who spent two years in Africa; he has a deer skin on his table.
I’ve traveled to many places in the world and I would usually considered myself a culturally-adaptable person. I’ve eaten frog legs. My home is decorated with various rugs from China, pottery from Sweden, and paintings from Mongolia and Russia. Africa, how different can it be? I’m sure I’ll adapt just as I have to other countries. Then Esther asks me, “Move like a white person.” Um, a white person? Well, that should be easy, I’m white, move like me. And then I realized I didn’t have a category of stylized moves for whiteness. I know what black dance looks like; I know what how asian bodies move.
A few days later I stopped in at the grocery store to pick up a few items for dinner; a friend from West Africa was with me. People stared. Their eyes shifted back and forth between the two of us, and I could almost read the questions behind their curious lenses. My mind suddenly shifted to a similar experience in Mongolia when I stopped in at the post office. I had been in the country for a year and being with Mongolians, speaking their language, and moving through their public spaces was completely normal. As I walked into the post office, I was startled by a foreigner with dark hair and white skin, her nose was pronounced, not flat, and her eyes looked large and round. I was staring at my own reflection. Jolted back to the grocery store I forgot what it feels like to be gawked at.
As Esther and I continued to work on the solo the question rebounded in my mind, “why can’t I categorize white dance?” People who’ve experienced a season of privilege often see their culture as normative: the standard by which other people create an anti-culture or are labeled as Other. Normative cultures become invisible in a sense and Others’ qualities can easily be detected and categorized. Blindness, I am blind. May the welcoming arms of Africa help me see with new eyes.