An article over at Salon entitled “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers” has attracted scads of anger and angst. The author, Randa Jarrar, accuses white women who practice belly dancing of cultural appropriation:
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?
The article and the conversation (for want of a better word) in comments remind me a bit of the controversy surrounding the Miley Cyrus twerking dealio awhile back, where Cyrus was accused of appropriating black culture.
I can’t even competently do a white person dance (unless Elaine’s arrhythmic flailing counts), so I don’t have a dog in the belly dancing or twerking hunt, but I do find the “appropriation” issue unsettling and interesting.
There are some cases where adopting facets of other cultures seems like a clear-cut case of exploitation (on an individual or societal level), and others where it seems like the sincerest form of flattery and a natural outflow of cross-cultural pollination. In determining where the line lies, it’s important to be mindful of how those who are a part of the culture being appropriated perceive it, but is that the final word? And how do we determine that?
And if the feelings of those who are in the appropriated culture are a factor, does it even matter what motivates the appropriators? I’m not sure, but I do know that a key component of “privilege” is a lack of awareness of an individual’s role within a cultural action.
The white belly dancers and twerkers almost certainly don’t perceive themselves as potential white usurpers — they have the advantage of not having to think in those terms and (at least in their minds) do not bear the burden of representing anyone but themselves.
Anyway, just wondering what y’all think.