Misty Copeland Explains Why She Refuses to Ignore Ballet's 'Race Problem'

Misty Copeland Explains Why She Refuses to Ignore Ballet's 'Race Problem'
Source: AP
Source: AP

Misty Copeland was named principal dancer by the American Ballet Theater on June 30, becoming the first black ballerina to do so. Sure, this was a personal achievement for Copeland, but she's also using her platform to talk about how her promotion has broader implications for other black dancers. 

"It's easy for someone who isn't black or other or who has never experienced racism to dismiss what I'm saying," the Huffington Post reported on Copeland's interview with Essence. "It's easier for them to say, 'Why do you focus so much on that? You're a beautiful dancer.' But the reason I'm here and I have this voice is because I'm black."

Source: Mic/Getty Images

This isn't the first time Copeland has discussed the racist backlash she's faced throughout her career, either. "There were many people who seemed not to want to see black ballerinas, who thought that our very presence made ballet less authentic, less romantic, less true," Copeland writes in her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. "The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn't being fully accepted because I was black, that leaders of the company just didn't see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow."

Other black ballerinas have described facing similarly racist attitudes, including Houston Ballet principal dancer Lauren Anderson.

"When we think of ballerinas, we think of pink and pale and fluffy," Anderson, the first African-American woman to reach the rank of principal ballerina with a major American company other than the Dance Theatre of Harlem, told the New Yorker. "We're not accustomed to thinking of black women's bodies in that context. We're accustomed to thinking of black women as athletic and strong. But all ballerinas are athletic, all ballerinas are strong."

Dancers like Copeland and Anderson represent progress given the stark, historical underrepresentation of black dancers in this country. But they're aware that a future of true equity in ballet won't come unless they use their power and visibility to demand it.

Source: Mic/Getty Images

"I'm going to continue to be who I am and my experiences as a Black woman have made me who I am," Copeland said in Essence. "All of a sudden now that I'm in this position, I'm not going to say, 'I'm just a dancer.' It's a huge deal because I'm a black woman."

Copeland has previously demonstrated that she takes her position as a role model seriously. For instance, she's an advisory board member and mentor for the American Ballet Theater's Project Plié, a 2-year-old initiative to diversify ballet. As she told Time earlier this year, "It's important for me to set an example of what a healthy image is, what a ballerina can be — that she doesn't have to be a white woman that's rail-thin." 

For Copeland, this isn't just empty rhetoric. This dancer is on a mission to change the world one jeté at a time.

h/t the Huffington Post

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Julie Zeilinger

Julie Zeilinger is a staff writer at Mic as well as the founder and editor of The FBomb (thefbomb.org), a feminist blog partnered with the Women’s Media Center. She is also the author of "A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word" and "College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year."

MORE FROM

70% of Muslims still believe in the American dream, according to new Pew study

Despite high rates of discrimination, Muslims are optimistic about their lives in the United States.

Man with Nazi tattoos at Cleveland Indians game sparks outrage. The Indians’ mascot is still racist.

Swastikas are bad. So is Chief Wahoo.

Baton Rouge police chief resigns after a year of political turmoil over Alton Sterling shooting

Baton Rouge's mayor had campaigned on a promise to replace the city's police chief, in the wake of Alton Sterling's shooting death.

‘Whose Streets?’ film highlights Ferguson activists’ battle with the trauma of protests

Brittany Ferrell, an organizer of the Ferguson Uprising, says a new documentary about Black Lives Matter protests shows why activists should be more intentional about checking in on each other.

Minneapolis police chief resigns after fatal shooting of Australian woman

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced in a Facebook post that she is stepping aside.

Mentally ill prisoners in Louisiana forced to bark like dogs for food, lawsuit claims

Investigators came. Everyone was told not to speak to them.

70% of Muslims still believe in the American dream, according to new Pew study

Despite high rates of discrimination, Muslims are optimistic about their lives in the United States.

Man with Nazi tattoos at Cleveland Indians game sparks outrage. The Indians’ mascot is still racist.

Swastikas are bad. So is Chief Wahoo.

Baton Rouge police chief resigns after a year of political turmoil over Alton Sterling shooting

Baton Rouge's mayor had campaigned on a promise to replace the city's police chief, in the wake of Alton Sterling's shooting death.

‘Whose Streets?’ film highlights Ferguson activists’ battle with the trauma of protests

Brittany Ferrell, an organizer of the Ferguson Uprising, says a new documentary about Black Lives Matter protests shows why activists should be more intentional about checking in on each other.

Minneapolis police chief resigns after fatal shooting of Australian woman

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced in a Facebook post that she is stepping aside.

Mentally ill prisoners in Louisiana forced to bark like dogs for food, lawsuit claims

Investigators came. Everyone was told not to speak to them.