M. Linda Graham
Privileged to be the Only
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
In the American culture I’m as privileged as a woman can be: straight, educated, financially stable, middle class, WASP. The recent (& long overdue) BLM demonstrations had me once again wondering what I can do from my place of privilege to help rectify and reconcile our broken and unjust culture. Before real change can happen, we must address our own personal truths regarding race. For me, who was raised racist, this is like being a recovering alcoholic- it’s a life-long journey. First, I had to realize and acknowledge that I’m racist. Race isn’t biological – it’s a cultural construct. It’s hard shit.
In the spring of 1981, 39 years ago, I had all but my thesis completed for my Dance Performance/Choreography MFA from the University of Illinois. Desperate to prove myself as a professional dancer, I took the first job I was offered after a cold audition in August. Without doing any research on the company, save to know that they had an awesome line up of choreographers coming in and that I would receive a salary and benefits with a 40wk contract, I auditioned for and was offered a position with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company [https://www.dcdc.org/], a professional regional company based in Dayton, OH. Unbeknownst to me, the company was an African – American contemporary dance company. High energy, young and technically powerful, founding artistic director Jeraldyne Blunden had decided it was time to integrate. I was the first white dancer with the main company.
I had been raised thinking I wasn’t prejudiced. I “had black friends,” performed with black peers, but I was always of the majority race. I cultivated a fantasy that I was a liberal non-racist intellectual artist. On the first day of class, waiting for company members to enter the studio, I remember the strange gut mixture of incredulity and fear when I realized I was the only white. I was the only. The company members were smart, generous, funny, teasing, kind and welcoming. Me? I freaked out inwardly – wrestling with racist feelings I didn’t understand.
The first time we performed. I literally heard an audience member shout “LOOK! There’s a white one!” and realized that here I was judged not for my dancing, but first for my skin-tone – THEN my dancing- did my dancing “fit in?” The lighting designer struggled to light my pale skin so I didn’t look green. The company hair products didn’t work for my thin hair. They had to buy new skin tone tights for me. I realized that racism isn’t the singular purview of whites, and that within the black culture there is another level of skin-tone racism. I was the steady recipient (and I suspect Jeraldyne was, too) of disparaging remarks from black and white adults both – black because I was “taking a job from one of their own,” white because I was where I “shouldn’t be.” What was wrong with me? wasn’t I “good enough” to be with a white company? I was too fat, too tall, too white. There were parts I would never dance because I was white, guest artists who wouldn’t look at me much less cast me because of my skin tone. And there were gifts, like when the company literally closed ranks around me to walk me through areas they collectively, silently understood to be hazardous for “the white girl,” or the time I stayed at Jeraldyne’s home overnight (I don’t recall why). When I went to get in my car early the next morning, an elderly black gentleman out for a walk came up to me and gently, firmly urged me to “move on now - It’s not safe for you here.” I experienced the fear of being physically harmed just for being me, alive. A complement I cherish was inadvertently given by a young boy in an inner-city school we were working with - this boy giggled as he looked at something I did – blurting out “you dance like you’re….” and then he caught himself. Debbie Blunden, Jeraldyne’s daughter, twinkled as she goaded “like she’s what?” “like she’s black!” I was often partnered with a young, light-skinned tallboy in the company, the amazing and talented Dwight Rhoden, who went on to an incredibly successful career, founding “Complexions” amongst other things https://www.complexionsdance.org/. Best of all, attending a black church service - where there was a lot more noise than I was accustomed to, which had Debbie Blunden and Dawn Wood chuckling at the stunned, confused look on my face. They also invited me to go with them to a music concert with their new idol, some young artist named Prince. We were so close to the stage we could touch him, and I swear he nearly stripped naked. Unforgettable. I worked with some of the best people in the business: Ulysses Dove, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Louis Johnson, as well as teachers like Jimmy Truitte, Jon Rodriguez, Bess Saylor. In 1981-1982 I was too close to the experience to see beyond my own struggles and discomfort, but realize now that, as Mr. Truitte told me one day after we’d been working on Afro-Caribbean material, mine was a special opportunity – “my dear, your people don’t get the chance to learn this kind of material, but here you are – you are very very lucky indeed.”
I completed my contract, but did not sign on for another year. Now 24, I felt old and out of place. However, when I moved to NYC, NY, doors opened thanks to the array of amazing choreographers & teachers I worked with while with DCDC. I always had mixed feelings about my place within the company, but Jeraldyne believed in me- and thanks to her wisdom, confidence, push and honesty, my life was changed for the better - when I bore witness to what it was to be black in America from the perspective of a privileged white, when I was privileged to be the “only.”