By Melissa Parke, Founder of Black Teaching Artists Lab, LLC (BTAL)
This essay series is a reflection of my personal experiences, thoughts, and opinions, as well as the shared experiences of my peers. My goal for this series is to not only shed light on issues surrounding race and identity in alternative creative spaces, but to also spark a conversation with individuals of varying viewpoints—so that we may learn, grow, and understand one another as members of a community.
Terms to Know 1
Alternative Creative Spaces*: mostly white-dominated spaces, where creatives veer from the mainstream and find community amongst individuals who share similar interests, either in-person or online
BIPOC: stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color,”
Black: a socially constructed racial grouping, largely ascribed by visual cues of dark pigmentation
Dominant Culture: the established language, religion, values, rituals, and social customs on which a society or social entity is built; this type of culture has the most power, is widespread, and is highly influential within a social entity—such as an organization—in which multiple cultures are present. An organization’s dominant culture is heavily influenced by the leadership and management standards and preferences of those at the top of the hierarchy.
Microaggression: the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. There is a growing body of research that suggests the accumulated impact of these stressors affect long-term health and can contribute to higher rates of mortality and depression.
Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing
Tokenism: the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly
In this article, I will be exploring Blackness in alternative creative spaces. Individuals who are Black, and especially artists who are Black, often experience feelings of discrimination and a sense of discomfort, when entering alternative creative spaces. What’s more, they can find themselves rejected by a community of people who share a common interest, leading the Black individual to feel a sense of confusion about their own self-identity.
Alternative creative spaces are sectors of the creative world, where people who share common interests can come together, in order to collaborate and discuss their love for specific creative genres. Oftentimes, these spaces provide an unconscious sense of comfort, understanding, and connectedness for their members—giving individuals the freedom to be themselves through specific art forms. Examples of alternative creative spaces can include gaming, anime, cosplay, and the rock communities. Oftentimes, but not always, these spaces are white-dominant.
The battle for self-identity exists for many individuals who are black, but it is especially difficult for black artists. Artists who are black will often find themselves being referred to as “a black artist,” first and foremost—an identifier that suggests an artist whose work is a reflection of their blackness, rather than an individual who is creating art. This phenomenon is amplified in white-dominated, alternative creative spaces.
As Bronx-based teaching artist (TA) Jay Howard states:
“Sometimes I question my experiences in philosophy and artistry, as a Black TA. How much of my craft is grounded in my identity? How much is my identity grounded by my craft? I don’t want my Black identity to be seen as dominant (in white spaces) but also don’t want it to be minimized or generalized (in white spaces).”
Black teaching artists, in particular, have trouble navigating white-dominated creative and educational spaces. Less than 10 percent of all K-12 educators identify as “Black/African American,” and teaching artists who identify as Black make up an even smaller percentage of those educators2. The silent majority expectation for black educators to serve as individual representations of their entire race, as well as the demands that come with showing up for students, especially students of color, in order to teach an artistic craft, can be emotionally exhausting for black teaching artists.
Creating a safe space for black teaching artists—a space where these individuals can simply exist as artists, without the added fear of being judged or evaluated, because of the color of their skin—is essential. As Howard adds:
”Carving out creative spaces, where my identity and experiences can just be is essential to maintaining growth in the TA field. You want to feel supported in any community you are part of.”
One might assume that alternative creative spaces would be ready, open, and willing to accept anyone and everyone who enters into the space. But this is not the case. Many black individuals who enter these spaces often deal with discrimination and microaggressions that cut much deeper than typical interactions in everyday life.
Many people who are black struggle with confidently expressing their individual interests, especially if those interests challenge commonly held black stereotypes. This stems from an internal fear that these individuals will be or will be perceived as acting outside of their race. Plus, once a black individual has the confidence to enter into an alternative space—for example alternative rock, anime, gaming, or cosplay clubs or shows—they run the risk of being either rejected or being cast as a Token. These internal struggles can often make Black individuals feel as if they are holding the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Despite the racial tension that is encountered in these creative communities, black artists continue to enjoy many alternative creative outlets, oftentimes creating their own spaces in the process. Take for example, Jade Stevenson, also known as Jadeisland on social media(pictured above), who explores the intersection of Blackness and the Kawaii culture through her writing. Another popular community is anime. Many male anime characters assume the role of the underdog, rising above adversity. This theme resonates with and attracts many Black creatives, especially Black male creatives, to the anime space. As Hip-Hop artist Akai Solo states:
“The first manga I bought was ‘Naruto, Volume 4,’ and it’s still in my house. He was like my Superman. I resonate with this type of storytelling, because these characters come from humble beginnings, which many Black youth can relate to. Anime is another platform of ‘what if,’ an alternative lens to see what life could be.”
Being in an alternative creative space often leads to overwhelming feelings of awareness of one’s own Blackness. This can be a triggering or uncomfortable experience for individuals who are Black, especially if they haven’t experienced such an encounter before. In response to the lack of Black spaces within these creative communities, Afro-centered spaces, such as Afropunk and Afrofuturism Fest, have been created. But the creation of these spaces alone does not fix the internal struggles that still persist for black artists and creatives.
Fortunately, difficult conversations are now happening around race, culture, and identity. And examining these alternative creative spaces and the experiences of black individuals within these niche spaces can offer us a better understanding as to why there has been such a push back within seemingly “open” communities. For art is a defining symbol of our humanity; it does not belong to anyone and should be enjoyed by everyone.
To further spark these discussions, I will explore several different alternative creative spaces throughout the next installments of this series. I will also be highlighting an artist’s experience within each space along the way. Stay tuned and follow us on Instagram @blackteachingartistlab for updates!
1 These definitions come from several resources including The Provider’s Council. Race, Equity, and Inclusion Glossary
2 Institute of Education Sciences. Characteristics of Public and Private Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States: Results from the 2017-18 National Teacher and Principal Survey. National Center for Education Statistics. PDF file. Accessed February 2021. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2020/2020142.pdf.