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Using art to amplify marginalised voices

A New Normal for Storytelling
– Written by Maren Ellermann

The flawed idea of a homogeneous European identity minimises the significant role that diversity has played in building Europe’s rich tapestry of ideas, arts and culture and excludes a large percentage of the members of our civilisation. Brexit, the murder of George Floyd and COVID-19 have all highlighted the impact of our disconnected and unequal society. All identities are complex, but it is that complexity that unites us and links us all together.

Representation is a key step towards equality. People telling their own stories in their own voices. Though this seems like an obvious step it is a vital one. Simply; you won’t change what you don’t understand, and you can’t understand what you don’t see. The ability to imagine a world that is different than the world we live in now is the beginning of affecting meaningful change. Art has the power to bring that imagination to life and amplify the voices of those unheard, connecting people and challenging the limiting narratives of national or European identity.

How our unconscious bias distorts the stories of marginalised communities

Spaces and opportunities where you can unapologetically express your individuality are rare. The voices of the marginalised are often distorted to fit a narrative of helplessness and dependency, reinforcing a culture of infantilisation of people who do not fit the euro-centric idea of success. As an artist you are typecast, tied to checking boxes and fitting specific narratives. The work you do is edited, cut and filtered through the perception of others. We use stories to navigate our way through life, they help us make decisions and shape the meaning of everything we do. So why do we keep presenting false and simplistic story lines that maintain stereotypes and strengthen unconscious discriminatory views?

Women, POC, the LGBT+ community and people with disabilities all live in that same society that perpetuates ungrounded biases resulting in low self-esteem and misleading views on their own identity. White supremacy tells us that black people do not matter. Patriarchy tells us women are less than. The stories we hear and tell ourselves strongly influence our actions. If you are consistently told that you do not fit in, belong or matter your only option for self-determination is to defy the structures and institutions that devalue your life daily, until they crumble.

The power of uncensored narratives

The AVI Racial Narratives Project researched and tested the effect of narrative on public perception. They showed fictional footage of an arrest of a young black man merely trying to get into his own car. They showed the exact same footage to two groups of people, each with different commentary:

Group 1: A conservative commentary emphasising stereotypes Group 2: An emphatic commentary humanising both officer and victim

83% Of the people that watched the footage with an emphatic commentary believed the officer acted improperly, when only 62% of the people watching the footage with a conservative commentary believed the officer had no reason for arrest. By just changing the words that accompany the footage there was a 21% difference in public perception of the same event.

The unfiltered footage of the murder of George Floyd is a testament to the power of unbiased and uncensored storytelling. The flood of paintings, songs, poetry and street art that followed the event brought volume to the voices of black people, inspiring millions worldwide to not only question the issue of police brutality against black communities, but to proactively embrace anti-racism and the dismantling of the institutional and interpersonal structures that created such inequality in the first place.

In this digital age it is easier than ever before to tell authentic stories. So why don’t we?

Technology allows people to share experiences and connect emotionally to something or someone that is a million miles away. The broadcasting of the 1965 march to Selma was Dr. Martin Luther King’s way of getting people to see the daily struggles of the black community in America with their own eyes. He knew that you cannot understand what you do not see.

But more often than not, when we share accounts of marginalised communities, rather than uplifting and supporting change that is already taking place, we perpetuate the story of poor, helpless people in dire need of sympathy and help from white saviours. Our unconscious bias distorts the stories we tell when they are not our own. We have fixed ideas and set perceptions, fed by years and years of indoctrinated idealism, unable to fathom a different reality than the one we are taught. Our flawed educational system and the media failing to tell stories of POC, women, people with a disability and the members of the LGBT+ community in their own voices have created a culture that is founded on inequality and exclusion. Our social structures place traditional white and male qualities as central, making everything else subordinate. Whenever these structures are challenged the response is not to listen, but to increase control over oppressed groups: “All Lives Matter” being a perfect example. Maintaining domination through patriarchy, white supremacy and all that other fun stuff is for most people not an explicit effort, it is an old and defective system that we are born into and are unconsciously preserving.

Nietzsche’s concept of the “ubermensch” was hijacked by Hitler to mean the “superior Aryan race”. Though we all (well most of us) agree this is a despicable ideology, the notion of straight, white men being the “ubermensch”, is visible in nearly every aspect of today’s society. Its more subtle perhaps, hidden in micro-agressions, but very much alive.

How do change that?

We need to celebrate unsung heroes and reshape the flawed ideal of success. A limited notion of identity excludes all of us in different ways. Many people don’t feel like they have a national identity, by using art to amplify their voices we can create a global sense of identity that does not exclude people on the notion of being different. The idea of ‘being different’ implies that there is a normal. There is not.

But simply stripping away false narratives and amplifying marginalised voices is not enough. We need to remove the pedestals on which we have placed patriarchy and white supremacy. We need to stop repeating hero mythologies of white men and stop erasing their flawed pasts in our history books. Founding father Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves in his adult life, King of Rock n Roll Elvis Presley dated 14 year old children, Nobel Prize winner James Watson wanted to use his celebrated DNA research to “die out swarms of black, brown, dirty-white and yellow people”, war hero Winston Churchill diverted food away from India to feed Europeans which lead to the death of 3 million Indians, renowned children’s author Roald Dahl was antisemitic and often said things like “Hitler didn’t pick the Jews for nothing”, and award winning singer Frank Sinatra routinely abused his wife and threatened her with a gun. Let’s tell it how it is. But what do we do if someone we do like does not tick the straight white man box? We simply change the narrative. Last time I checked Jesus was from the Middle East?

We must create a new normal for representing our society by creating spaces and opportunities for democratised stories and helping people to use their art to affect social change. A new standard for storytelling that is not tied to fitting a narrative, perpetuating stereotypes, checking boxes or hitting funding targets but tells stories that stay true to its protagonists.

More articles by Maren Ellermann can be found here


You can pick which week(s) you want to join:

DANCE : 27 July – 31 July | 10AM-3PM
5 day Hip Hop dance camp! Learn technique, vocabulary, freestyle and choreography with some of the UK’s best and most renown teachers.

Outcome: Walk away with a professional video montage of the choreography you have learned and created during the week!

ILLUSTRATION : 3 August – 7 August | 10AM-3PM
5 day comic book/illustration camp! Learn how to create and draw characters, universes and develop your own stories!!

Outcome: Walk away with your very own short comic book at the end of the week

RAP and POETRY : 10 August – 15 August | 10AM-3PM
5 day rap and poetry camp! Learn how to write rap and poetry, how to perform it with music, how to tell your story!

Outcome: Walk away with a digital book with a collection of the participants poetry/stories and raps.

DANCE 2 : 17 August – 21 August | 10AM-3PM
5 day Hip Hop dance camp! Learn technique, vocabulary, freestyle and choreography with some of the UK’s best and most renown teachers.

Outcome: Walk away with a professional video montage of the choreography you have learned and created during the week!

All residents of Newham and Tower Hamlets will receive a free hot lunch delivery at home.

Questions? Email maren@raincrewuk.com

Anti-Racism learning resource

Written by Helen Maule

As we will all be aware of by now, in the past few months there has been a great deal of media attention on the Black Lives Matter movement with the murder of George Floyd working as a catalyst. George Floyd’s murder hit the world differently because not only was it during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – a
pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of colour adding another block precariously to the Jenga tower of issues that effect the lives of black people daily – but it was also seen by the world.

Immediately following the murder of George Floyd, I began to hear polarising opinions regarding police brutality with a surprising number of people thinking it was strictly an American issue, something that I know to be factually incorrect. I began to see people opposing and trying to silence statements of ‘Black Lives Matter’ by countering ‘All Lives Matter’ at which point it became clear there was something missing in their fundamental understanding of why black people feel they need to say their lives matter.

I am a black woman of mixed heritage, born in the UK to West Indian immigrant parents of the Windrush generation. I have been through the British education system and was never taught anything that reflected my history or felt relevant to me. However, I was fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents that educated me on my history and emphasised the importance of educating oneself. I have worked with young people for over a decade both in the UK and in the US and I currently work in a secondary school in East London. While working in the US and spending a lot of time over there with friends and family, it became apparent certain education was lacking on their side also. For example, I’ve had people in the States refer to me as African American. I’m not. I realised they were using the term to refer to anyone black. I’ve had black people in America tell me they didn’t know they had black people in England and another admit they didn’t know that (some of the) black people in England were also descendants of slaves.

The more I thought about the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and wider issues of race, and how people react to those issues, I kept coming back to education. Ignorance is a major issue. Not necessarily wilful ignorance, but ignorance in the fact that there are big chunks of knowledge missing from curriculum. If people think what they learn in school is the sum total of history then they’re likely to remain ignorant to facts that continue to effect the lives of black people to this day, thus not truly understanding why black people feel they have to remind people their lives matter too. Posting a black square on social media is great but what does it change? It’s a pointless act if there is no follow through. So I started writing a PowerPoint presentation to explain to my students why the BLM protests were happening, but as I tried to explain I found I couldn’t fully explain if there were gaps in their historic knowledge of black people. You can’t fully comprehend BLM as a movement if you don’t know what colonialism is, what slavery really entailed, what the civil rights movement was fighting for, what white supremacy is etc. These are things that need to be understood to truly understand the domino effect that has led to black people having to say their lives matter.

Anyone who knows me knows my stance on these matters is generally “it’s not my job to educate grown people on my history. It’s not my job to educate grown people on the history of black people. Let them crack a book and do the work.” Then I thought that’s part of the problem. I complain about people being ignorant of certain information but refuse to be willing to teach. I have no issue teaching kids but for some reason when it comes to adults I’m a bit like “Why should I?” So what started as a short PowerPoint presentation grew and after several people expressed interest in using the presentation within their school or organisation, I decided to split it into sections and share it as a free learning resource for all.

Is it an exhaustive account of these topics? No. Not even close. It’s intended as a jumping off point, providing a foundation which can be built on with further independent reading and research, or to encourage discussion and debate. It’s not intended as a standalone resource on ‘Black History’ because contrary to popular belief the history of the African diaspora isn’t just slavery, civil rights and struggles. I just wanted to do something practical regarding an issue that can sometimes make us feel helpless.

Find the free learning resource ‘Out of Many, One People’ here

Tackling racism

This month Rain Crew held brainstorming sessions with leaders in the dance industry to discuss racial injustice focussed on finding solutions to create a more inclusive dance scene and wider arts sector. Belowa summary of those conversations

DIGITAL RAIN: Online classes

Rain crew is now offering a series of weekly interactive online classes.

We will be offering the following classes:

– Hiphop with Kofi every tuesday 5pm
– All Level Popping with Taiwo every wednesday at 8pm
– All Level Breaking with
Hakim every thursday 6.30pm
– Intermediate Breaking with
Cri6 every thursday 8pm
– House with
Hakim every friday 7pm
– Intermediate Popping with Paris every saturday 6pm

We offer a mixed package of a live online class via Zoom and excercises and tasks to work on throughout the week. Zoom is FREE of charge and can be used on any device. Our live classes will have both a teacher and a moderater who will give indivudual feedback and answer any questions you may have during the live class. Digital Rain will cost £5 per class. After sign up which can be done below, you will receive a full information pack and we will assist you all the way.

Please send an email with your name and which class you’d like to take to maren@raincrewuk.com

Digital Rain