CN D Magazine

#5 march 24

Dance Institutions and Race: Moving From Words to Action

Binkady-Emmanuel Hié

Euzhan Palcy, the Chevalier de Saint-George and Habib Benglia are among the many non-white artists who have broken through the racial glass ceiling in their chosen mediums over the last 250 years. Have cinema, classical music and French theater done away with institutional racism as a result? Of course not. And dance is no exception. Ballet has seen many such talents flourish, including Raphaëlle Delaunay, Kader Belarbi, Charles Jude, Jean-Marie Didière, and Éric Vu-An. But the careers of pioneers – past, present, and future – remain mere anomalies if systemic change doesn’t follow to prevent others from facing the same obstacles.

Binkady-Emmanuel Hié, who co-initiated the manifesto Demanding Racial Equality at the Paris Opera, co-wrote VISIBLES! Black Figures in French History and founded the NORME agency, explains why cultural institutions must now take responsibility. Instead of remaining passive in the face of change, he says, it is up to them to train their teams and refine the language they use around inclusion.

The fact that it is still rare to see non-white dancers on stage is but one of the many examples of enduring racial inequalities in the French cultural scene. When non-white artists do perform, it is hailed as a sign of progress, shaking up tradition and inspiring young people. But these embodiments of “change” – who aren’t spearheading anything anymore than they are trained to promote “diversity and inclusion” – can’t be expected to take up the work that institutions should be doing, nor should they be expected to bear the responsibility of miraculously transforming a profoundly dysfunctional entertainment industry.

And institutions should not use the presence of non-white people on stage or in a season’s program as proof of progress. Proper representation of non-white people in French culture will entail a profound reshuffling of the cards in positions that are less exposed to public scrutiny. Indeed, if there are no non-white people in leadership and decision-making positions, be it as artistic, administrative, or technical directors, the movement towards inclusivity in the French dance world will remain a mere performance.

Beyond issues of representation, cultural organizations must, above all, carry out in-depth work to become spaces where non-white people are welcome and aren’t met with hostility. This hostility, far from being an elusive atmosphere, can often be measured in a number of ways. It can be seen, for example, when a make-up and hairdressing team doesn’t know how to deal with dark skin or naturally kinky hair. The same could be said when lighting technicians aren’t familiar with methods to show darker skins in their best light. Institutions are failing in their missions if they do not require staff to be properly trained to fill these gaps.

If there are no non-white people in leadership and decision-making positions, be it as artistic, administrative, or technical directors, the movement towards inclusivity in the French dance world will remain a mere performance.

Hostility may also stem from a lack of seriousness in implementing policies to prevent or sanction the various ways in which racial inequality crops up. In fact, anti-racism is not limited to good intentions, an open and educated mindset, “left-wing” political opinions, or keeping non-white people around simply to protect oneself against any accusation of discrimination. It requires meticulous work, diagnosis, education, and the implementation of internal measures. It requires determination, a proper budget, and qualified staff. To avoid getting bogged down in ideological discussions, it must focus on tangible elements that leave little room for discussion – such as words, figures, or rules.

Confusing a person’s appearance with their nationality, misusing the term “diversity” to refer exclusively to people perceived as non-white, stubbornly using the English word “Black” in a sentence in French for fear of pronouncing the terrifying adjective “noir”: the language mistakes made by the French betray their poor mastery of the vocabulary linked to ethno-racial origins and the discriminations they foster. In private circles these errors can result in a simple scene of discomfort, but they are unacceptable in a professional context when used in a discussion with a colleague, in an official speech, or in communication campaigns. To begin the difficult conversation about racial inequality, it is necessary to identify the relevant terms, understand them, appropriate them, and use them correctly.

Everyday, we are reminded of the fact that France is a country in which tolerating legally punishable language and deeds is deeply entrenched. The arts world is no exception to this reality, and many acts and words prohibited by law continue to find their way into studios, stages, and concert halls, despite the fact that. provisions for combating racism, racial discrimination, and microaggressions are already included in many internal institutional guidelines. Failure to take action to prevent or sanction racial inequality, when France’s criminal and labor codes demand action, is tantamount to passivity.

You can’t improve what you can’t measure. Policies aimed at achieving gender equality in cultural institutions have shown this: measuring disparities with numbers enables us to grasp their scale and to gauge the effectiveness of the methods used. In this respect, the time has come to put an end to the myth that measuring racial inequalities is forbidden in France. The various calculation methods authorized by French law, based on objective non-racial data (such as the country-of-origin or nationality of birth parents) or subjective data based on feelings of belonging or perceived origin (which have been used by the Regulatory Authority for Audiovisual and Digital Communication ARCOM for 15 years) should be known and tried out by all managers of cultural institutions.

If the issues of fair representation and hostile work environments are ever to be resolved, a complex equation will remain. It is legitimate to allow racialized experiences to be shown in artworks by those who experience it. But these artists must also have the right, in turn, to benefit from a universality of appearance and discourse that has so often been denied them. How can we allow artists to oscillate as they please between these two possibilities, and how can we integrate this variety of postures into cultural programming? What visions need to be turned upside down and what notions need to be upended so that non-white artists can finally present themselves to the world as they wish, free from the burden of their appearance? The answers to these questions will be found as much within institutions as in artworks and their public reception. But most of all, the seeds of change will be found in discussions with those directly concerned by racial inequality.

Binkady-Emmanuel Hié holds a law degree from the Sorbonne and the École du Barreau de Paris, where he passed the bar in 2016. He turned to the art world and cultural institutions and joined Arop, the official patron of the Paris Opera, where he works as project manager for events and public relations. In May 2020, he co-wrote and led the press campaign around the manifesto De la question raciale à l’Opéra de Paris (Race and the Paris Opera). Two years later, he founded the NORME agency, as he was convinced of the necessity to develop an adequate method to tackle racial issues in France.

VISIBLES ! Figures noires dans l’Histoire de France 
(VISIBLES! Black Figures in French History)
Texts: Binkady-Emmanuel Hié and Léo Kloeckner
Illustrations: Aurélia Durand
Stock Editions
Published in October 2023