Raging Against the Machine: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE’s Casual Racism

So You Think You Can Dance is back for its summer run on Fox, and none of the changes made to the format recently (a returning, less screamy Mary Murphy; All-Star partners) has addressed the most pressing problem the show has. I have complained about it before, and I’m going to keep complaining until something gets better: The casual racism SYTYCD blithely tosses around turns what should be an effervescent celebration of the arts into a grotesque display of white privilege, and it has just. Got. To. Stop.

Feast your eyes on the judges’ treatment of krumper Brian Henry during Wednesday’s New York auditions:

Nigel Lythgoe is practically patting himself on the back for cheerily noting that krumping “doesn’t always have to be violent,” but that doesn’t stop him from insisting that the dance style comes from “frustration,” despite Henry’s objections that this is the exact opposite of what he intends. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as this is little different from Lythgoe’s pride in believing his show has created a form of lyrical hip-hop, which is essentially watered-down nonsense designed to keep white suburbanites from clutching their pearls in fear. These ludicrous comments are rooted in some of the ugliest stereotypes about African American masculinity, and they’re nothing short of dangerous.

Murphy is no better, with her condescending lecture about how “it’s okay to be cocky”–within limits–demonstrating a fundamental lack of knowledge about the social interactions and general culture of the dance forms that fall under the (too broad) umbrella of “hip-hop.” Again, this isn’t anything new–the show’s insistence on referring to dancers formally trained in dance styles with roots in ballet principles as having “technique” while ignoring the specific nuances of hip-hop and African dance is a brush-off deeply rooted in dismissing art forms cultivated in minority communities. Particularly galling is the way judges tend to criticize hip-hop and other dancers for lacking “technique” while praising light-as-air conteporary/lyrical/jazz dancers who are either unable or unwilling to lower their chests during hip-hop numbers. “Technique” may be shorthand in the (also too broad) contemporary umbrella for specific quality of movement, but that type of dance owns neither the word nor the concept. Using language in this way is privileging white experiences and perspectives at the expense of dancers who excel at something else.

I’m not sure it would bother me if a judge noted that the show produces a winner through viewer voting: America is what it is, and maybe taking a different tone would persuade more voters to pick up the phone. This small change would accomplish two things: it could open up a dialogue about why a change in tone would make a dancer more endearing to “America,” and it would allow the dancer to make affirmative choices about personal presentation. As they stand, however, judges’ critiques impose assumptions onto dancers’ intents, training, and personalities instead.

I really want to like this show–the dancers are enormously talented, and it’s hard to find attention paid to dance anywhere but PBS. But the casual, nauseating, completely unchallenged racism woven into the show’s structure is making it nigh unwatchable.

We’ll leave discussion of Nigel’s blatant misogyny for another day. Yay.


10 thoughts on “Raging Against the Machine: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE’s Casual Racism

  1. I struggle with this issue too. I admit I am pretty clueless about dancing. We are watching for the first time, mostly because Zoe thinks dancing is the greatest thing in the world and I thought she would like it. What I found most annoying is the attitude that “hip-hop” dancers are not versatile, the idea that these dancers are full of “tricks” and won’t be able to handle any other type of dance. The fact that the “hip-hop” dancers are sent to choreography to prove that they can pull off a lyrical/jazz dance, while it is immediately assumed that the contemporary/lyrical dancers can do anything seems so unfair. Asking any dancer to learn a style completely new to them in an hour seems mostly impossible and I would guess watching most of the more “mainstream” dancers krump after a one hour lesson would be a pretty sad sight. I was just hoping that this gets betters as the season progresses.

    • Alice–you, me, lunch. This must be.

      Yep. There are some accounts from auditioning dancers stating that everyone has to go through choreography and that the “come get your ticket to Vegas immediately after your initial solo audition!” stuff is staged. Assuming this is true, it makes me feel a little better in that all of the dancers are viewed as limited outside their specialty genre and have to prove they can pick up other styles. On the other hand, it makes things much worse, since the things they choose to edit together combine to tell a story where ballet-based dance is intentionally handed privilege. It’s maddening.

  2. Oh, thank you so much for posting your comments about the casual racism inherent in this episode (and many others) of SYTYCD! I so agree, and actually posted something about this on my blog (see website below), then searched the internet to see if anyone felt the same, and finally found your article today. Although the details of my interpretation are slightly different, the underlying message is quite similar. And don’t even get me started on Nigel’s insensitive jokes about the young woman with amnesia, and previous history of sexist, homophobic, and ableist comments. It’s so hard… I love this show, and what it’s doing for dance! But I am with you that the incessant transmission of oppressive messages has to stop.

    • Stacey,

      You are very welcome here on many, many levels (I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on Ben Cohen’s visit, particularly in conjunction with the recent discussions on William Sheridan, Rick Welts, and the reactions of people like Charles Barkley. And since we’re planning a summer catch-up on Glee, I suspect we’ll be on the same page regarding issues surrounding one Kurt Hummel)! I definitely need to revisit the show’s other issues–the homophobia/effeminophobia drives me mad–but I have to admit that my head exploded when Nigel told Sasha Mallory that a lady would have known to keep her knees together during the jive, and I had to lie down with a cold compress and avoid the show for a while.

      That, however, is me wallowing in some privilege myself (Nigel could likely only call me fat and unskilled), so I may have to tune back in so as to take that on. (Or maybe we could talk you into doing it!)

  3. Hahaha, yes, so much to talk about in terms of pop culture’s handling of racism, sexism, homophobia, sizeism, and the like! While we are on the topic of Nigel inappropriately calling you (and me, since I’m not a size zero and would be in the same club) fat, we could easily veer off to a discussion of that other inappropriate British judge, Simon Cowell, and his incredibly sizeist / sexist responses to the more ample bodied female (versus male) American Idol contestants. Please pass the cold compress. Re: Ben Cohen, sounds like you are referring to my recent blog post on his visit to Seattle; it was indeed a mixed bag, and the responses of folks like Sheridan are frustrating but not surprising. It will always be one step forward, one (or more) back, and the more vocal members of a marginalized group (or their allies) are, the more resistance they will encounter. Re: Kurt Hummell, to be honest my positive emotional response to seeing gay high school students, their friends, the bullying, the dating, even the KISSING depicted on mainstream TV is so overwhelming that my critical thinking goes almost completely out the window; please dish.

  4. Nigel Lythgoe is a dirty old man, a colonialist, a misogynist, and a racist thief. We see you Nigel! Stealing! You’re disgusting and shameless! Your ugly is showing! We’ve got your number! We know your game!

  5. We get it, Nigel- you’re not gay. But could you possibly BE any more offensive? We think not. You’re not superior – you’re a pathetic infantile bully. Take your sense of entitlement and go home to your Mommy who still thinks you’re endearing. And stop stealing ideas invented by others and stop taking what belongs to others. You are so busted, dude. If it wasn’t for the amazing dancers I wouldn’t watch SYTYCD ever again.

  6. So on point! There are weekly examples of the bias on this show, and I applaud you for so perfectly pointing some of them out. It’s sad and frustrating. I expect it to come out, but it doesn’t have to go unchallenged.

  7. This is ridiculous. The judges on so you think you can dance are so racist! It’s disgusting and unacceptable. I now just mute the tv/computer when i watch the show because it’s too discouraging and aggravating to listen to them. Nigel Lythgoe is the worst, he certainly sets a racist tone and it seems the other judges play along. The media needs to do a better job of bringing attention to how racist the judges are on so you think you can dance. There should be some repercussions for this. I feel bad for all of the minority dancers that work so hard to be a part of this show. They never seem to be recognized for their hard work. It’s disgusting and unacceptable. Shame on your Nigel Lythgoe !!!!!!

  8. I was so happy to find this post. I started looking for other references to the casually racist way that the show, and specifically Nigel, interact with and reference hip-hop when, while watching an episode of season 13 (the junior version), Nigel applauded a choreographing duo and their two dancers for “managing to get so much emotion out of hip-hop” as though the form is, in it’s “natural state” somehow without. UGH! I had to leave the bedroom for fear of waking my sleeping partner. And I, by the way, don’t claim any kind of nuanced understanding of hip hop dance or culture. I am a sis-gendered, white, female with a pretty main stream up-bringing. That doesn’t mean his racist, classist crap gets a pass from me. How is this not an all over media scandal? I’m new to the show, but I completely agree with everything in the original post about obvious racism and classism in the show’s use of words like “technique” and I’ve also been almost constantly offended by Nigel’s language choices ( use of the term “African” as interchangeable with “Caribbean,” for example). With all of that said, I feel like over the course of the last …say… three episodes that I’ve viewed, it’s become so bad, I mean, I’m just rendered inarticulate by the fact that the man’s even still got the job and hasn’t been forced to issue any public apologies of which I am aware… I mean… yeah, I’ve ranted myself into speechlessness. So… yeah…

    Thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful post. I couldn’t agree more. I probably should have just led (and perhaps stopped) with that.

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