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.