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In an article called Why I can’t stand white belly dancers, Randa Jarrar argues that white women who belly dance are “playing at brownness” and dressing in “Arab drag.” Since belly dancing is historically Arab, she explains, and since it is still used as a form of protest in Egypt, white women shouldn’t do it. To those who object to her stance, citing their own love, respect, and commitment to the art, she responds simply, “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.”

It is unclear why cultural appropriation has become the object of such liberal ire, but Jarrar is not alone in her objections. She communicates the same hostility Miley Cyrus faced when she twerked at the MTV Music Awards. Cyrus is white, twerking is a traditionally black dance, and her act was seen as a form of cultural theft. Doing something from someone else’s culture, even with love and respect, is now interpreted as racism.

My most immediate response to all this is that since Jarrar is neither an Eastern European Jew nor an Italian, she had better not eat a bagel or order any pizza, because, by her argument, doing so would be sporting Jewface or playing at Italianess. But this is too flippant of an answer for such an important issues; my real objection is that her argument against cultural appropriation is itself racist and segregationist.

The argument against cultural appropriation assumes that all people of any given group are, in some sense, identical. Jarrar, for example, thinks that there is a group called “Arab,” whose members are equally entitled to belly dance (only if they are women, of course). But she neglects to acknowledge that Arabs come from cultures and countries as different as the Sudan, Qatar, Tunisia, and Egypt, not to mention that Iran, which is Persian and not Arab at all, has its own form of belly dancing called Bandari.

She does the same with white people, dismissing whites who wear dreadlocks as “waspafarian.” She doesn’t seem to know that not all white people are WASPS, that they affiliate with many different religions, not just protestant Christianity. Furthermore, there is no reason why whites can’t be Rastafarian. The Rastafarian religion is of Jamaican origin. It is not black in the same way that belly dancing is not Arab. Chadians and Congolese, for example, would be just as inauthentic wearing dreadlocks as Australians. We’re talking belief system here, not skin color.

Race is a social construct. It is only the history of racism and colonialism that clumps all Africans together, just as it is only the history of immigration that results in finally considering Jews, Italians and the Irish white. (in the US at least). By claiming that only “brown” Arabs are entitled to belly dance, Ms. Jarrar is assenting to the very arbitrariness of oppression she would no doubt oppose in other contexts.

It is not surprising that in a deeply racist society like America, arguments about cultural appropriation focus on the most marginalized race and ethnicity. People of color are routinely discriminated against, lack many of the opportunities afforded by white privilege, and are frequently made to feel bad about who they are. It is laudable that in the face of such oppression, people want to have ownership over their own histories. The 1960s and 70s phrase “black is beautiful” was revolutionary precisely because it faced down the ignorance of American majority with pride and self-love. I suspect Jarrar’s protectiveness about belly dancing comes from the same place. But denying others access to one’s cultural practices is not the way to celebrate one’s identity; inviting them to share the wonders is.

Progress is made from mixing of cultures, not segregation. The Mediterranean world advanced because Egypt interacted with Greece, Greece fueled Rome, and the Romans learned from the people whom they, well, conquered. (Thanks Bill for reminding me of this.) India and Pakistan would be much better if they celebrated their common history, not their differences. And, America is most successful when we take the best from all of our people and at our worst when we ignore the voices who make us up.

I can imagine three objections to my position. The first one, no doubt, would come from Ms. Jarrar herself. She writes that “the most disturbing thing is when these women take up Arabic performance names — Suzy McCue becomes Samirah Layali.” I couldn’t agree more. Belly dancers shouldn’t pretend to be Arab just to belly dance. Doing so is racist because it assumes that being Arab is so shallow and so easy that one can wear it like a suit. If Shawna O’Grady is a world class performer, people will enjoy watching her whatever her name is. If she’s lousy, changing her name will do nothing to advance her career. But who can blame them for hiding their real names when people like Jarrar stop them from doing it in the first place. Belly dancers will only be themselves when they aren’t punished for it.

The second objection is that cultural appropriation is a form of stereotyping. This can be true. A couple of years ago, the band No Doubt causes a furor when they released a “cowboys and Indians” themed video in which Gwen Stefani dressed like a Native American “squaw” in jeopardy. In response to the protests, the band pulled the video and apologized.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, the video is indeed horrendously offensive. It relies on the worst of Hollywood stereotyping and makes Indians into cartoon characters. On the other hand, there has to be room for non-Native uses of clothing and headdresses for art and exploration. Art takes everything, from the most sacred to the most profane, and challenges our preconceptions. Yes, Piss Christ is offensive, but so be it. Sometimes art makes us uncomfortable. Fashion should play this role as well. Wearing an Indian headdress in an advertisement should not be condemned because it’s a violation of cultural boundaries; it should to be condemned because it’s lazy. Designers should be congratulated when they learn from the genius and beautify of Native American culture and create something new that unites us all; they should be disregarded when all they do is superimpose someone’s treasured and sacred history over their own lingerie.

The third objection can be presented as follows: who am I, as a white male, to be telling Arab or Black women, or any Native American for that matter, what should or should not be done with their culture? As a white man writing against Jarrar, am I not just silencing people through my own privilege? There is no easy answer to this objection; it is a concern I take very seriously. My preliminary answer is that if we assume that white men (or women) can’t have valid opinions on these subjects, then we have to assume that they are incapable of learning. And if white men (or women) are incapable of learning, then who is Ms. Jarrar’s talking to? If no one can learn from others culture, there can be no growth. In a world aimed at getting better, all voices must be heard.

What we do have to do is pay special attention to the voices of protest and make sure we are attending to the marginalized with sincerity and generosity. I’ve spent more time on this blog entry than any I have written in months—it’s taken me hours. This is a testament to the respect I have for those, like Jarrar, within a tradition sharing their worldview. But my responding is not silencing anyone, it’s just stating my thoughts. All I’m doing is putting out my ideas in the same manner that she is and trusting my readers to decide for themselves, whatever color they are and whatever dance style they may prefer.

[One brief note for blog followers: in my last post I argued that people shouldn’t put Stars of David on Christmas tree, and there are bound to be some readers who think I’m contradicting myself here. I need to clarify that my argument in the previous post was not about cultural appropriation at all. I wasn’t arguing that Christians shouldn’t take a six-pointed star and make it their own, or even that they are wrong to claim ownership over the Star of David via Jesus’s legacy. I was suggesting that if one wants to acknowledge Jewish participation in the holiday season, then one has to do it while talking to Jews themselves, not through Christianity. That has nothing to do with cultural appropriation and everything to do with respect.]

4 comments on “Should white women be permitted to belly dance or twerk? (On cultural appropriation.)

  1. Thank you for this. It makes a difficult conversation understandable. We must celebrate other cultures while remembering or learning their histories.

  2. Anonymous says:

    half a square dancer, half a belly dancer? or 1/4 my head covered in dreadlocks, 1/4 in one long braid down my back and the other half of the head is braided tight and wrapped around my ear a la Heidi or Princess Leah so as not to culturally appropriate above my share? Why must I be defined by what others perceive as my race? I am from Earth and I love and embrace all the diversity of the people with whom I share this wonderful planet!

  3. Anonymous says:

    This article and and the comments left on this page are valuable, I'm sure. However, I think it is important that the definition of 'cultural appropriation' be clearly understood before joining in the debate. Otherwise, there may be no use in responding if the most central point of the debate was missed.

  4. ChewEye says:

    How is the notion of cultural appropriation anything other than a great example of a genetic fallacy? Also, how can one dictate on behalf of another based on sight, what their culture is? Also, if one lives in a society that is definitionally a cultural plurality, can cultural appropriation even exist?

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