Positionality and My Writing on Dance

Positionality and My Writing on Dance February 4, 2020

Pausing to reflect on one’s social positioning in regard to one’s writing is a good thing to do…preferably before publishing said piece of writing. Here are a few thoughts on my recent work on the belly dance debates.

Photo by Aaron Burden from Unsplash. In public domain.

In my two posts on recent occurrences in the North American belly dance world – discussing the various meanings of the word “tribal” and asking whether belly dancers should use the word at all – I didn’t really pause to unpack my identity, my approach, and my overall positioning before hitting “publish.” That’s what I’m going to do here.

Within feminist thought and adjacent academic and social circles, positionality refers to an awareness of how your context and your background creates your identity and your outlook (I think this dictionary.com definition explains it succinctly). Basically, it means acknowledging that your social positioning plays a large role in making you who you are. I don’t necessarily teach this word in all my college classes, but I try to encourage students to cultivate an awareness of how many facets of our identities are socially constructed, and how it’s important to have a culturally relative approach when considering how others might reach different viewpoints on issues that might seem noncontroversial to us.

Based on some of the social media response I saw to my two blog posts, I’m realizing that I failed to state my positionality in regard to the issue clearly (or perhaps at all), since some people saw my language in the posts as erasing or steamrolling minority dancers in the U.S. (and I’m not going to name names or try to trace what got said on which social media site, in part because I don’t know which conversations were meant to be more public-facing and which weren’t, but once I learned that some people had negative responses to my posts, I thought it was worth addressing)

I’ll admit to having that generally-horrified response that most writers, I imagine, get when their words fly out into the world and get misinterpreted. It sucks, but it happens all the time, and I can’t blame people who don’t know me for responding to the words on the screen and taking them as they stand.

In brief, my intention was never to speak or write for anyone, but I can see where my words might’ve been construed that way. When I used “we” in my blog posts, I was specifically writing as a white American woman to my fellow white American women (and adjacent folks) as a call to action, saying that we often walk through this world with a disproportionate amount of privilege and therefore the burden on us is to wield it compassionately (or better yet, strive to create systems that distribute it more equally). We ought to educate ourselves, rather than ask marginalized people to do that labor for us (and note that I didn’t write “emotional labor” there, because while there is certainly emotional labor involved in setting aside your own feelings to teach someone who should really know better, teaching is also STRAIGHT UP LABOR because it is work and it is an acquired skill, and why yes I am a teacher in my day job and I have strong feelings about how teaching is often not given enough recognition and value).

Intention does not erase impact, though, and I get that.

I’m aware that it’s not just white people in the belly dance community in North America, but we make up a good amount of the population and as such as hold some power over community norms, conversations, and so on. I want us to do better. People not included in that “us” should also obviously strive to learn more and do better, but I was not addressing them/you (depending on who is reading this) in these blog posts as much, in part because I imagine there are other struggles on their/your plate right now plus probably they/you have already considered some of the impacts of colonialism, white supremacy, and so on when it comes to these topics. Obviously being a person of color isn’t a “get out free” card from doing self-work, activism, and so on… but I feel like the burden isn’t or shouldn’t be primarily placed on them, when it’s the people benefiting from white supremacy who clearly should be doing the lion’s share of the work to dismantle it.

So… I’m bummed that I left out some of this information in my posts and as a result was not writing to as wide of an audience as I could have and should have been. It was fairly clear in my head that I wasn’t trying to overreach in terms of who I can speak for, but if I didn’t convey that adequately, I’ve gotta try harder and do better next time.

Also, fun fact, we academics receive practically no training in how to write for wider audiences, so I’ve been figuring this out as I go. Most academic publications do not require a positionality statement, so I’m not accustomed to really taking care with my words to make sure my audience knows exactly where I’m coming from and that I’m not trying to speak for anyone (as I type this out it’s increasingly obvious that yeah, most writers in most contexts would probably benefit from more of this awareness, but ah well, you live you learn, and academia does so enjoy training its disciplies to pretend to be totally objective and neutral).

Anyway, I’m going to wrap this up before I decide to include a billion more parenthetical asides since that’s apparently where my head’s at today, so to sum up, I’ll try to do better in my writing so as to not appear to be speaking over or for others.

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