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‘The Nutcracker’ Is the Whitest Shit — And I Hate How Much I Love It

Being Black in America means constantly reckoning with your enjoyment of shit with a racist history. You can cancel it, but sometimes you can crack that racist shell so you get to still enjoy the good stuff

Oh, you thought our Thanksgiving op-eds were bad? Gird your stockings for the least wonderful time of the year, when the merry gentlepeople of MEL attempt to outdo one another with the most heinous holiday takes we can unwrap. We can already feel the angry tweets nipping at our noses.

I look forward to hearing The Nutcracker every holiday season. It’s a personal tradition born from the fact that in the town where I grew up, schoolkids put on a Nutcracker performance every December. To that end, I was in the stage show for three years running. I’ve enjoyed it all this time even though I’m painfully aware that it’s mad racist. 

If you’re unfamiliar with it, The Nutcracker is a 19th-century allegory for European colonial supremacy. To convey its hegemonic point, the ballet features stereotypes of all sorts of non-European ethnicities. The various peoples are equated to foods, reduced down to the colonial comforts that they offer to their European masters. Moreover, Donald Byrd, artistic director for the Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, told Dance magazine, “Think of the Mouse King and his marauding horde as foreign, alien elements that sneak in under cover of night to infiltrate, undermine and disrupt the order of ‘the house,’ i.e., country, kingdom, Europe. They are vanquished by the Nutcracker/Prince and Clara. In this context, the second act is a vision of European supremacy. The rest of the world and its people are there only to ‘sweeten’ the lives of the dominant Europeans.”

Throughout the Nutcracker’s second act, the porcelain white heroes, the aforementioned Clara and Nutcracker Prince, get entertained by a series of dancers –– among them Chinese tea cups and Arabian coffee. The Chinese ballerinas are typically presented as straight-up caricatures, while the Arab dancers are generally rendered as slinky and exotic, intoxicating like hemp smoke. They both exist purely in service of white fantasies. 

But despite all that — and despite myself — I still love this ballet. So what gives?

In my defense, if you’re Black and grew up in America, you’re going to love something — a TV show, a movie, a video game, a sports franchise — that’s racist. It’s not like you support or excuse the racism, but if you’re limited to only loving popular things that are free from any inherent racism, well, in America, your list of options is gonna be very short. Also, the music in The Nutcracker still slaps. And thankfully, the music isn’t racist, which means we can keep what we like and ditch the racism.

Case in point: We can happily cut out racist dance routines. (In fact, last holiday season, the Kansas City Ballet did exactly that — removing the Chinese tea cups, which ideally will become much more commonplace over the next few years.) We can enthusiastically redesign bigoted costumes. And we can good-naturedly transform the story into something that reflects the world that it’s performed for — i.e., the one we live in today — rather than the world it was born from.

In short, nothing has to stay racist. And nothing has to be canceled just because it originates from offensive origins. We can break off that racism just like a nutcracker shattering shells in order to give us the good parts of the nut we do want. 

Better yet, if you really love The Nutcracker, you can go one step further and watch the Chinese National Opera perform it. For obvious reasons, they steer entirely clear of racist caricatures of Asian people. But their costuming and stage design is truly incredible, a level of creativity that’s a testament to how diversity will always win out in the end.