Yes, White Belly Dancing Is Inexcusable Cultural Appropriation
(Trigger Warning: Words)
There’s a fine column running right now over at the always-excellent Salon.com that confronts one of the most pressing issues of our time. The scourge of ethnic, racial, and cultural appropriation has run rampant throughout this country for decades and it looks as if, now, finally, those who’ve had their way of life used as props for the pleasure of the privileged are ready to stand up to it. In a piece called “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers,” writer Randa Jarrar discusses the pain she feels when Americans don “Arab Face” and engage in a form of dance that is a symbol of her culture and should be reserved only for its use.
She’s harsh in her assessment, as she should be.
Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s…
Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings. This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn’t profit from her performance doesn’t mean she’s not appropriating a culture. And, ultimately, the question is this: Why does a white woman’s sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women’s backs?
Hear, hear, sister in the struggle. As one indignant woman of Arab heritage, our country as a whole should submissively defer to your views on anything involving Arab culture, since you speak for all Arabs against the tyranny of white American privilege. While so-called belly dancing may be viewed by some as a celebration of Arabic cultures, and its proliferation as a means of spreading knowledge of those cultures, the reality is, I’m sorry to say, deeply problematic. It’s not appreciation, it’s appropriation!*
With that in mind, I think it’s finally time that we made it clear to all within the entitled class — the members of the white cisexual-heteronormative patriarchy and even matriarchy — what qualifies as appropriation, even societally accepted appropriation, so that we can put a stop to it immediately. I’ve taken the liberty of creating some rules and guidelines that provide examples of unacceptable cultural appropriation. Please make a note of them.
1. Eating at Chinese restaurants by white Americans and other majority non-Chinese should be looked down upon, as it entails the physical ingestion of Chinese culture.
2. Anyone who suffers a serious but non-permanent physically debilitating injury shouldn’t be allowed the use of a wheelchair, as this is an ableist appropriation of differently abled culture.
3. Members of the privileged and oppressive white majority should never, under any circumstances, expose themselves to black entertainment or express an appreciation for it. Jay Z is for black men and women only and the producers of 12 Years a Slave should give back the film’s Best Picture Oscar in the name of making a direct statement against appropriation. The same goes for Latino entertainment. Production on Machete Kills in Space by Open Road Films should be halted immediately.
4. Under no circumstances should members of the privileged class give their children ethnic names without the express written consent of a majority of that culture or a dual ruling from the staff of Salon.com and that woman who runs Shakesville. Anglo Americans specifically should be required to research proposed names for their children to ensure that the meaning of each name has no ethnic connotation going back at least four generations. Also, no Biblical names unless one is Jewish or otherwise related by blood to the cultures of the Middle East and holy land.
5. Heterosexuals or members of the heteronormative patriarchy may not, during karaoke, perform the version of Willkommen made famous by Alan Cumming in the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret, as that would be an immeasurable appropriation of gay and bisexual culture. Likewise, no one outside of the LGBT, specifically the trans, community should be allowed to watch and enjoy RuPaul’s Drag Race.
These are just a few suggestions for creating the kind of inoffensive, constantly deferential, culturally isolationist world we as liberals should be striving for.
The good news is that today’s Salon.com piece is apparently part of an ongoing series on the intersectionalist grievances of feminist women of color, which means we have many more insightful opinions like Randa Jarrar’s to look forward to. The fight for one very specific view of social justice — which we aim to strong-arm into reality, or else — is just beginning.
Now I’m going to write an outraged letter to WordPress demanding that the red line under “intersectionalist” denoting that it’s not a real word be removed immediately.
* Get your “It’s Not Appreciation, It’s Appropriation!” t-shirt now at Cafe Press:
February 26th, 2015