Circus News

On Racism and Representation

Like many others, Covid19 forced me to retreat into unemployed isolation at home. This period allowed me to reflect on my journey, my experiences, my practice and my values on and offstage. I could finally untangle and put a name on a number of things. These reflections turned into the following piece, that I first shared independently on my personal social media platforms.

Last Thursday, I was part of the first panel Wake Up Call for Inclusion – Institutional Barriers and Individual Biases in the Performing Arts by CircusTalk, alongside fellow artists of color Johnathan Lee Iverson, Joseph Pinzon, Noeli Acoba and Marco Motta, and it all clicked.

I believe times are changing, and that with the rise of more diverse voices and actors in the field we’re starting to address the most problematic aspects of our field. We have a long way to go, but I firmly believe this change is important, current, and will ultimately benefit us and our art form.

A few years ago, along with some friends I performed in a poor neighborhood of my hometown in Mexico. One of us was fair-skinned, with blue eyes and long, soft, blond hair.

I remember seeing the little girls in the audience come to her in awe, and one of them asking to touch the hair of this real-life Disney princess. It was a beautiful moment, but at the same time, it broke my heart.

My friend IS beautiful (inside and out, may I add), but she is beautiful in the way the world defines it; white, thin, long hair, blue eyes, thin nose, the right waist to hips ratio. These girls were brown-skinned, with typically Amerindian indigenous features. It broke my heart to know, for I had been there, and although they thought she was beautiful, they themselves felt like they weren’t and couldn’t be.

Why would they believe anything different? Our world tells us that beauty and virtue come with certain features. Look around: most people who matter, whom we idealize, whom we tell stories about and uplift share certain features.

This isn’t just about beauty. Worldwide, our stories, our movies, our books, our songs, our narratives… are predominantly about people who fit the ‘white’ box, even though they might count for as little as 11.5% of the world’s population. When do you see people of color? Often in ethnic-tied narratives, often as side characters. The smart Asian, the naive but charming (black) African, the sassy Latino. We’re rarely anything neutral. We are not the norm.

From band-aids to crayons, “skin-color” is one particular tone.

Speaking about her role in Jane the Virgin, actress Gina Rodriguez said: “I wanted it to be a story that was going to liberate young girls and say, ‘Wow, there we are too, and we’re the doctors, and we’re the teachers, and we’re the writers, and we’re the lawyers, and I can do that too.”

Fellow actor Riz Ahmed has said “I gave a talk in parliament about representation in general, because you know sometimes people use the word ‘diversity’ — I hate that word, you know? It feels like you’ve got the main thing going on here, you’ve got, like, a burger. And diversity’s the thing on the side — it’s the chips. I prefer to use the word ‘representation’, because what we expect from our culture, from our stories, from our politics, is to be represented. I don’t want to hear any talk about diversity. It’s about representation and it’s about how we’re represented out there.”

We can all perform the mental contortion necessary to identify with a British wizard going to a Witchcraft and Wizardry school; is it that far-fetched to ask the same for stories about brown and black and Asian people? To believe such stories can be appealing and powerful too? To believe there is non-white neutrality? It caused a scandal when the character of Hermione was played by a black actress in the London Harry Potter play, even though the book never specifies her ethnicity. It wasn’t just Emma Watson’s legacy; it was the belief that characters are white unless otherwise specified.

We have learned to relate to aliens, CGI talking animals, mutants, superheroes, sweet-hearted robots in dystopian futures. How are the experiences and faces of 88.5% of the world’s population unrelatable?

This is not just a conversation about entertainment. If you can name people of color in positions of leadership and power it’s because there are so few of them. They are the exceptions that prove the rule.

This is not just a conversation about entertainment. If you can name people of color in positions of leadership and power it’s because there are so few of them. They are the exceptions that prove the rule.

If you don’t learn to put yourself in someone’s shoes and empathize with them, you can’t understand their struggles or you might look end up looking away as they die by the thousands.

Similarly, if you don’t see representations of people who look like you, sooner or later you internalize that you don’t matter. You might end up believing that you are not as beautiful, smart, capable, and valid as others.

In order to change this, we don’t just need social performances, free workshops, fundraisers or missionaries who come to our neighborhoods. These initiatives come from a good place, and I salute them. Sometimes they help, but they don’t fundamentally change how the world works. They don’t truly set anyone free. A more powerful effect could result from a conscious effort to rebuild the system, to challenge our collective beliefs and make reparations for centuries of injustice. To heal the wounds caused by slavery, patriarchy, racism, colonization and systemic oppression. To let us rise.

We don’t need saving; we need space. We need trust, pen and paper, movie deals, theatre roles, creation grants, microphones, stages and access to education, jobs, opportunities and resources others have long taken for granted. We need for walls to come down and for the glass ceiling to be shattered so we can all finally see the sky.

The power of representation is immense. In 2012, London’s Royal Ballet principal guest dancer Carlos Acosta has said: “In most companies, when a talented black dancer is chosen as a member, they don’t know how to cast them properly. Still there is this mentality, especially with directors, that a black ballerina in the middle of a flock of white swans would somehow alter the harmony.”.When dancer Misty Copeland was promoted to Principal, the highest rank within company American Ballet Theatre, audiences immediately changed. The line to enter the MET Theatre was long and filled with brown and black faces of all ages and backgrounds. Copeland has been credited with making a traditionally white art form like ballet appealing to black audiences in the US, and for allowing black kids to dream about a career in the field.

My own work is led above all by personal motivations. Yet in everything I do, there is the awareness that because of the rarity of people like me in the spotlight (not just in my field but in general), I — without having chosen so — end up being an ambassador of sorts to my ethnicity, my nationality, my gender, my skin color and background. That isn’t some light pressure to carry. I wish there would be more with whom to share it. Not just a handful, but so many that making a list of us would be an impossible task. If you are one of these people, please keep taking space. Keep creating and telling your story. Stay loud, inspiring and emboldening as many as you can.

I am grateful for the visibility I have, for the power I hold to challenge narratives and stereotypes. To, maybe, help make brown kids believe that there is space for us too, that we deserve it, that we can step in and take part in these stories as equals to others. Because, as activist Marian Wright Edelman so beautifully put it: “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

To the little kids like me, I want to say “You are valid. Your skin is perfect, as are your eyes, your nose, your hair, your body and your accent. You can be the main character in any kind of story. You can dream big and get as far as you can imagine. You are smart, talented and capable. Your mind, your experiences and story are worth being told, and above all, heard. You are who you are and not what others imagine of you. You write your own story. You matter”. And I want for those things to be true, for these kids to really have those chances.

What do you do when you become aware of the unfairness of this world? When you realize that your ethnicity, your nationality, your gender, your socioeconomic status, your cultural capital, your language, your body, etc… have been decided to be right and valid? When you look around and see yourself represented in the world? When you go to the movies, the theatre or the bookstore, and you don’t struggle to find people who look like you being positively and diversely portrayed, and having all kinds of adventures? When those in power defend your interests and ideals? When folks born across the ocean know the history of your land, and you ignore everything of theirs’? Sometimes it’s not a foreigner from far away, but a neighbor who speaks with a slightly different accent, dresses differently or has a different hair color.

First, see those different from you not as others, but as equals who belong too. Unthreatening. Unexotic. Admit that your experience of the world is not theirs, that maybe you’ve had it easier in some ways. If that makes you uncomfortable, take a breath. Know that you are not under attack. Know that you are not to apologize for the actions of your ancestors. You are not being blamed for having benefited from an unjust system. You are not being told that you’ve never suffered. As much as your feelings are valid, it is not on people who don’t share your privileges to reassure you.

Privilege is relative, context-dependent and complex.

The aim is not to prepare for the Oppression Olympics; Discussing privilege should not become a competition in which the most oppressed one is a better person, and the privileged ones are Bad People. If you are reading this, chances are you hold, like me, a fair amount of privilege.

I am marginalized in some regards; as a woman, as a person of color, as queer, as an immigrant, as coming from a developing country. But I am also young, cisgender, thin, conventionally attractive, highly-skilled, possessing valued cultural capital, multilingual, body-abled — (to the extreme, as a dancer and acrobat)- , I grew up in the middle class, enjoyed private education for most of my childhood and teenage years, and had access to higher education later in life. I am far from being the most marginalized person in the world. Sometimes it’s my time to speak; other times it’s my job to shut up and listen.

Don’t write the stories of others if they can tell them themselves.

When the conversation is about someone who has been more oppressed than you, step aside. Don’t make the situation about you. Don’t write the stories of others if they can tell them themselves. Don’t talk about giving a voice to the voiceless. Voiceless people don’t exist; There are merely those who are powerless, excluded, underrepresented and undervalued.

Being color-blind in a racist world is a self-deluding lie. The same for any other kind of privilege and marginalization. We have a fight bigger than guilt and discomfort in front of us; a fight for true equality. Equality that starts with empathy, representation and a plethora of different voices and faces. When the world we build will truly reflect the one we live in, none of us will have to carry its weight alone. We will be free. All of us! We will be on our path towards healing collectively. The more voices, the more different the perspectives at the table, the less blindspots we will have as societies. We will see each other, in our difference, and learn and build together a future for all. A future where all voices are heard, where everyone matters, where all lives are equally important and valued.

Check your privileges. Be critical of your beliefs. Challenge the norm. Look at the people in the rooms you find yourself in. Expose yourself to opinions, languages, cultures and beliefs you are unfamiliar with.

Check your privileges. Be critical of your beliefs. Challenge the norm. Look at the people in the rooms you find yourself in. Expose yourself to opinions, languages, cultures and beliefs you are unfamiliar with. Ask questions. Let others surprise you and do your best to not impose labels on them. Don’t assume you know better. Vote and fight for others to have the same rights you have. Challenge biases against otherness. Call out bigotry and prejudice, even from your loved ones (especially from your loved ones). Demand representation; ask for politicians, leaders, classrooms, companies, panels, art, festivals, culture and media to reflect the people on the streets. Be uncomfortable, and make others uncomfortable. Be curious: read about all sides of history; research and educate yourself on systemic oppression and colonialism. Listen to stories different from your own as told by the people in them. Give up some of your space for others to reclaim back the power that was taken away from them.

We can do this. We can build a world where this little girl, and all other kids, won’t see just my friend but also themselves as beautiful. A world where they won’t be held back and denied opportunities because of who they are, how they look or how they speak.

This article was orginally published at Medium.com. Main image created by Florian Poullet.



Majo Cazares
Circus Artist, Prodcution Manger - Belgium
Majo Cázares was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1988, to a Mexican father and a Colombian mother. After exploring gymnastics as a child, she trained as both dancer and acrobat in her hometown, Buenos Aires and Bordeaux, until ultimately attending and graduating from the Superior School of Circus Arts (ESAC) in Brussels in 2015.

She has performed as a freelance artist across Europe in physical theatre, cabaret, circus and dance. In 2015, she co-founded and served as production manager for circus company Naga Collective, whose show Persona premiered in 2018. She is a resident performer at Cabaret Mademoiselle in Brussels, part of the original cast of show Sombra by GOP Varieté-Theater, and co-founder of hand to hand duo Majo & Erik alongside Swedish performer Erik Glas.

Majo Cazares

Majo Cázares was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1988, to a Mexican father and a Colombian mother. After exploring gymnastics as a child, she trained as both dancer and acrobat in her hometown, Buenos Aires and Bordeaux, until ultimately attending and graduating from the Superior School of Circus Arts (ESAC) in Brussels in 2015. She has performed as a freelance artist across Europe in physical theatre, cabaret, circus and dance. In 2015, she co-founded and served as production manager for circus company Naga Collective, whose show Persona premiered in 2018. She is a resident performer at Cabaret Mademoiselle in Brussels, part of the original cast of show Sombra by GOP Varieté-Theater, and co-founder of hand to hand duo Majo & Erik alongside Swedish performer Erik Glas.

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