Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Why I'm White and I'm Going to Keep Belly Dancing

Today, Salon posted a piece that is making the rounds through the belly dance community, and to be blunt, I think it's pretty darn offensive.  The writer of this brings to mind that guy on the first season of Real World who (wrongly) insisted that because he was black, he couldn't possibly be racist.  She accuses white women of being racists, but in so doing, she reveals her own racism.

If you follow me closely at all, you know that I take cultural appropriation very seriously.  I am extremely vocal and unashamed about how important I believe it is to seriously study the history and culture of the art we are portraying.  It is imperative for us to understand the difference in Orientalist origins as well as the varying Middle Eastern origins.  I've complained about cultural laziness in Western dancers, I've defended Arab viewpoints, I've lectured my students on how I refuse to just teach them dance moves.  I recall  discussion with Amara- who has a PhD in the study of Middle Eastern culture and dance- about knowing rules so you can make educated decisions about breaking them. 

The author goes on to accuse other members of her race who teach to non-Arabs of being sellouts and lacking in self-respect.  If her issue is actually with cultural appropriation, the best weapon to battle that is education, is it not?

I also understand that as a member of the privileged majority it is easy for me to dismiss the feelings of someone from another, non-dominant culture.  However, understanding that does not mean I should allow White Guilt to cloud my thinking.  Ultimately, the author of this piece is absolutely no different than white members of a country club saying, "This is for us only!  You don't belong."  By stating that white belly dancers should not belly dance, she is stating that everyone other than those she deems acceptable must keep their filthy hands off what she thinks is hers, and hers alone.  She elevates herself and her judgment above others based solely on their race.  If that is not racism, what is?

Thankfully, in the years I've studied Middle Eastern cultures, I've received much encouragement from many Arabs, Persians, Armenians, etc.  Through that encouragement has come insight that has helped me understand many aspects of their art, so I can respectfully present and preserve it. The majority of them are delighted I am so in love with the cultures and want to share even more with me.  They appreciate that I want to elevate and study and represent it, and do not resent that I am of a different race.

Ultimately, the line between celebration and appropriation can be very fine, and this is a discussion that is good to have.  However, insulting a entire group of people and making assumptions about the motives of every last one of them is not the way to engage this discussion.  A good place to start is to examine one's own racism. 


  1. While I can agree with the overall conclusion, pretending that there aren't different real world effects when the white country club says no people not like us vs. people of color who aren't going to be taken as seriously or get as much support is just not reality. It's not white guilt to be aware that you stating your opinions has a tangible weight that it only gets because of your race.

  2. There were two sentences in Randa's article that struck me so forcefully I had to copy them down:

    "Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s."

    If I am actually expressing _myself_, I'm not appropriating anything from anyone.

    In addition, art forms have always been living things. They are affected by everyone who engages in them and everyone who views them. This is how they live and grow. Any attempt to limit an art form to keep it 'pure' will eventually kill it.

    One final thought. The author makes a distinction between 'Belly Dance' as a western term and 'Raqs Sharqi' or 'Eastern dance' in Arabic. That right there, in my mind, differentiates the art forms. I admit that it is a small distinction and would require educating the ignorant as to the differences.

    1. "If I am actually expressing _myself_, I'm not appropriating anything from anyone."

      Just remember that we do not live in a vacuum devoid of cultural and social influence. We can't produce anything that is 100% our own. That doesn't mean self expression isn't a real thing. It just means we have to take into account the larger context of what we are creating.

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  4. I can't agree more, Avoiding "Cultural Appropriation" isn't about "I get to, and you don't", it is purely a matter of not unnecessarily mixing or watering down a real thing. If you study a thing, do your best to honor the practice, avoid hybridization, and make good note and careful reason where you are forced to interpret, I have no problem, and see no reason why any good person should.

  5. So as a chef who has studied Italian meat preservation techniques for years, because I am Irish American I should stick to Haggis (which by the way, I make very well) or Bangers and Mash (also, I kick ass at these). Bullshit. It's like the Christians saying they are the ones who should dictate who gets married, and to whom. They don't own marriage. Art is the privilege of the artists, no matter what the medium. Passion and inspiration and dedication are its blood, water and air. I DARE anyone, from anywhere, to do what I do better than I do. I am a woman, I am Irish/German American, my art medium is pig. If you are putting me down, and you have not experienced my art first hand, then it is because you are an insecure fuck and I pity you.

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