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The Race Issue

Posted on Monday, June 08, 2009 at 2:34 PM

Giving editorial coverage to a matter that is for many publications uncharted territory.

By Wendy Perron

In 2005 my publication, Dance Magazine, devoted a whole issue to race in our field, which is dance. We felt there were a lot of conversations to be had that many people were not comfortable having. And I was inspired by my experience on the Multi-cultural Committee at my son's school. It's always a challenge to speak with someone of a different race about race, and I was learning how to do it there, so I kind of transferred what I learned to the magazine.

As with any field, dance has special tensions with regard to race -- although I felt and still feel that dance is an area that is freer of prejudice than most others. Being in a studio and dancing side-to-side, sweat-to-sweat, with a person of another race or sexual orientation dissolves some of those biases.

Our Editorial Plan

We have room for only four features a month, but luckily our publisher allowed us to have more pages so we could have a fifth. We chose to delve into trends that exist in more diverse companies: why there are so few black ballerinas, the identity of Latino dance artists, and the generational differences of Asian artists. Since any discussion of race has to face white privilege, we also had a feature on "whiteness in dance."

After we decided what the focus of the stories would be, I had to choose writers to assign. One of my editorial staff was appalled that I planned to assign the Latino story to a Latino writer. He thought the writer would be insulted at my assumption. But I asked this writer, and he jumped at the chance. This writer has a broad experience with dance, but since the Latino experience was so much part of his background, he had followed Latino concert dancers all over the country and was happy to have a chance to highlight them.

For the story on black ballerinas, I thought I would ask a black writer who long ago had aspirations to be a ballerina. I thought she would get more honest interviews with black dancers. She accepted the assignment, but only later did I learn that she had serious doubts about the race issue and about the story I had assigned her in particular.

For the story on whiteness in dance, I asked a black dance scholar who has written often on deconstructing whiteness and blackness.

A Mis-Step?

We felt we were in uncharted territory and knew that we would make some mistakes. For the cover we chose four dancers from a company known for its diversity, a company that was mentioned in our lead story, "Beyond Tokenism: When diversity is part of the art." However, the art director, not wanting to clutter the cover, did not put their names or the name of the company on the cover. And they were soooooo angry with me after that. They felt they were used instead of celebrated.

Another bit of trouble we got into was that some readers were so happy about the race issue that they expected every subsequent issue to address the topic in a similarly bold way. A couple readers accused us of falling back into racial indifference the very next month -- which was a wake-up call to me.

Success in the End

I was proud of our issue on the race issue, and it got a huge response. Readers wrote long letters, some with the stories of their lives. Others commented about a single telling incident. I really wish we could have set up a continuing dialogue, as we all need to talk openly about race. Now that we have a mixed-race president, these conversations might come more easily. So I am planning a five-year follow-up in 2010.

For any editor who wants to mount a similar theme issue on race, I would give only this advice: Make no assumptions. Talk to as many people of different races as possible, especially if your editorial staff is mostly white -- and gather different viewpoints. It's risky to go into that embattled territory, but it's worth the risk.

Wendy Perron is editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, circulation 50,000.

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