By Shivaangee Agrawal
Agrawal: "I was offered the opportunity to write for Dance FTF on my experiences of racism and anti-racism. I've chosen to reflect on my work as a freelancer that goes most undocumented but is the most demanding of me, which is the work of dealing with white-led arts institutions."
The Labour of Complaining: a murky, paradoxical and gaslighty experience
In our post-blacklivesmatter 2021 arts landscape in the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that many institutions have changed, that marginalised identities are being given more space, that anti-racism is becoming centre-stage. And yet, when I try to voice a whiteness-related concern with an institution, most often they reply with a link to their webpage on anti-racism and diversity. Whose job has actually got easier?
As I navigate the institutions that support me/ don’t support me/ that I must come into contact with in order to create and present my work, an increasing proportion of my time and energy is diverted to getting them to practise the ethics that they have publicly committed to. The more I find myself writing an email of complaint, the more I am confronted with the murky, paradoxical and gaslighty experience that is the labour of complaint.
I have to first reconcile the oppressive hypocrisy of language; the word ‘complaint’ paints me as a troublemaker, as having a tantrum and causing a nuisance. And yet, in untangling my experience and finding the words to articulate it, I am giving birth to the language that will form practices of accountability and ethical working. In outlining the problems that I have come up against, I offer institutions the nuanced feedback that they do not otherwise look to collect, and in my proposals for change, I offer them the frameworks that they will later flaunt in their performances of wokeness. And yet, as Jamila Johnson-Small’s Note to Institutions eloquently puts it, the endless labour to address problems and suggest solutions within institutional working practices most often goes “unremunerated, uncompensated and unacknowledged”.
“But they’re trying their best.”
“You have to be patient, things take time.”
“You’re asking too much.”
If only a complaint ended with the complaint. In many scenarios, I’m met with responses that imply I’m ungrateful, impatient or unrealistic. In the worst scenarios, people remind me of the precarity of my work, remind me to fear the consequences of speaking up. My brown therapist identifies for me that these are mechanisms of oppression, designed to shut down my feelings of dissatisfaction with new feelings of guilt, shame and fear. But any risk of being blacklisted by institutions is preempted, as in most scenarios I find myself turning away from employers who cannot hold space for my critical and conditional participation in their work.
My privilege (and my passion for writing) enables me to make these choices, and I’ve been thinking about publishing all of my emails of complaint. I revel in the thought of black and brown artists everywhere being able to copy, use, extract my writing for their own use, some radical comedic vision of artists of colour rising up with thousands of sharply crafted emails that lay institutions bare. Meanwhile, I’d be able to expose the white fragility that characterises nearly every response to a complaint I’ve made.
I’m undecided if and how I will go ahead with this exposé. In a society where performativity is the highest currency, I am painfully aware that my laboriously crafted language is quickly co-opted by perpetrators to signal wokeness or anti-racism, to cover their tracks and gaslight into the future the numerous others that will inevitably find reason to complain. This hyper-rapid evolution and adoption of language makes it ever more difficult for people of marginalised identities to evidence experiences of racism. In a reversal of this perverse dynamic, Sara Ahmed points out that being able to complain about an oppressive situation is often seen as evidence that you are not really oppressed by that situation.
This is already a dismal picture and this article is short. However, I am compelled to keep complaining and speaking up with honesty, because in each of these processes I’m rewarded with precious new friendships that emerge out of solidarity. In each rejection of the people, companies, groups and institutions that will not honour their responsibilities, I find one new person who emerges from the darkness to join me in kinship, support and commitment to the cause. It’s a painful filtering process, but each of these new connections is more fulfilling, hopeful and re-energising than I could have predicted. And if that isn’t sometimes incentive enough to keep going, Audre Lorde’s warning that our silence will not protect us, rings in my ears.
About the artist
Shivaangee Agrawal is a dance artist with a practice that concerns choreography, writing and advocacy. Having trained in Bharatanatyam in both London and Bangalore, Shivaangee has worked with a range of choreographers/directors including Janine Harrington, Shane Shambhu, Evie Manning, Rosie Kay, Sonia Sabri, Seeta Patel, Jo Tyabji and Suba Subramaniam. Shivaangee makes work that is informed by collectivity, rhythmic structures and disorientation - this year she is a Choreodrome artist at The Place and you can find out more at shivaangee.com.