I’m a white woman, and I belly dance.

…I mean, if you don’t count my mother’s side of the family (with the surname Lopez and of Sephardic Jewish heritage). But, that’s beside the point.  Or is it?

On March 4th, Salon.com featured an opinion piece by Arab-American author Randa Jarrar as a piece in a series of articles written by women of color, titled “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.”  I’m not sure if that’s her original title for the piece, or if Salon.com changed it to the current click-bait that is now is.  Either way, it has stirred up some constructive conversation as well as some unsavory responses.

Having read nearly every article on cultural appropriation and belly dance out there that I can get my hands on (seriously), this subject is nothing new to me.  It is, as I’m finding out now, new for many dancers.  So, the article in question has, in a way, done some good in generating useful discussion.  However, it fails on so many levels. It calls out an entire race and gender for partaking in a specific activity; the author even asks women of northern European descent (or, at least, those who look as though they are) to not belly dance at all and find another hobby/career/activity.

As a “white belly dancer” I’ve heard/read the premise of Ms. Jarrar’s article before:  that white belly dancers are playing at “Arab Face” and engaging in cultural appropriation. Maira Sunaina already wrote that article, and frankly, it was poorly-researched.  (Sunaina did not talk to the top instructors in our field, and clearly researched her work with a hefty dose of cherry-picking and confirmation bias.)  Jarrar’s does no better, but at least it is framed as an opinion piece. Some of the faults of Jarrar’s article include: she fails to mention that belly dance is not exclusively Arab, it is declining in its home countries, dancers are looked upon as prostitutes; she also does not actually quote any dancers themselves nor does she mention that she actually spoke with preeminent instructors in our community.  She writes them off completely as either perpetrators of cultural appropriation or as engaging in self-exploitation.  (Tell that to Suhaila Salimpour: an Iranian-Sicilian woman who has been performing belly dance since she was 2, teaching since she was 9, performed in the Middle East for several years, and whose mission is, first and foremost, education.)

Ultimately, though, we cannot deny Jarrar her experience or her opinions, and her observations are worth hearing and considering. To deny her her firmly held convictions is to commit the cultural crime of which she already accuses us: denying an Arab woman of her own experience.  I’m sure that being an Arab-American in a post-9/11 United States has been incredibly difficult, in fact, I KNOW it has.  (Yes, I remember my friends receiving death threats that autumn for the mere fact that they were Arab and/or Muslim.  It was and still is heartbreaking.)  I’m willing to bet that Ms. Jarrar has faced her share of bigotry and racism against Arabs and Muslims (not the same thing, although many people think they are).  She is angry that something she feels is part of her culture is being appropriated by the same race as the political leaders who have wreaked havoc on her familial homeland for more than 100 years. I get that. I’d be angry, too.

I do admit that as a woman who presents as white and has devoted much of her life studying the language, culture, history, and politics of the Middle East, I do take some personal offense. I came to belly dance (raqs sharqi, raqs baladi, danse orientale, gobek dansi, etc.) through my study of the Middle East, not the other way around, as many dancers do. Unfortunately, many of my fellow practitioners do commit kinds of cultural appropriation that the author mentions here. It’s true. I’m not denying that these things happen. Some of us are much more educated in our approach to the dance than others, and, yes, using belly dance as a vehicle for Orientalist fantasy is harmful and rife with ignorance.

But, let’s for a moment, change the dance and the ethnicity, using some other imperialist powers from history.

“Why I can’t stand Chinese hip hop dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand Turkish salsa dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand Mongolian blues singers.”

“Why I can’t stand Russian ballet dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand French Afro-Caribbean dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand Japanese belly dancers.”

Each of the groups mention here were imperialist powers. Each of the arts mentioned here have been appropriated by the people of the imperialist powers in question. Do the above titles sound any more or less ridiculous than the title of this article? And if they do, why?

What this article wants to be is about imperialism and power. It wants to be an article about the domination of the “West” over the Middle East. It wants to take a jab at the exploitation of Western powers (read: British, French, and American) of the Middle East and its people. It wants to be an article about Orientalism. It wants to be about white privilege in the United States.  All of these topics are valid and should be discussed; and, in fact, they are being discussed in academic discourse on belly dance every day. But, as a means for bridging gaps of understanding between the Arab world and “white people,” it fails. It fails because of its own racism, sweeping generalizations, and bigotry. Change the sectarian group name and it still turns into “Why I can’t stand ___ group for doing ____ thing.”

Hating on a group is not a productive way for erasing racism.

(Yes, that means let’s stop hating on white people as a group—rather, those of northern European descent, for are Greeks, Sicilians, and people of Balkan descent “white” in the context of this article?  What about Jews?—for doing anything that isn’t also of northern European origin.  Just as a Arab woman has no choice but to be an Arab woman, a “white” woman has no choice either.  We can however, make educated choices about how we regard elements of other peoples’ cultures.)

To the author: You could have used this article as a means for productive education and discourse. You could have actually quoted some of the preeminent scholars of this discourse (let’s start with Edward Said) or even members of your own community.  But you instead relied on a click-bait title (and, as the subject is within my field of study, I clicked). I hope that you are able to take your personal experience and work with, say, a local educational institution or non-profit, or maybe you should reach out to your local belly dance instructors and offer to give a special class to their students rather than just writing yet ANOTHER article about how white people oppress brown people.  Yes, imperialism, racism, and cultural appropriation have all happened and continue to happen and cause great harm.  Let’s help it NOT happen by fostering exchange and education rather than anger and bigotry.

 

Comments: 27

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I am just now coming across this debated issue of Cultural Appropriation in my studies and I still do not quite understand, being a product of the melting pot. That being said I would love to learn more about it to try and ‘see it from the other side.’ Do you have any recommendations?

 

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    Hmm… well, there’s Maira Sunaina’s article, which, as I said, is not very well-researched and relies on shoddy scholarship. I also really like Donnalee Dox’s article “Dancing Around Orientalism.” I’m not an expert on ethnic studies or cross-cultural studies, though, so for more general discussions of the subject, I’m really of not that much help.

     

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    This is a good explanation of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, as there seems to be a lot of confusion about it.
    http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/

    Asharah, I too see a lot of the knee-jerk reactions (same as the ones from guys when sexism is pointed out). People take it as a personal insult instead of a complaint about systemic problems. I try to explain but it’s an uphill battle…

    As an ATS dancer I’ve struggled with issues of appropriation for years. IMO we can only do our best to be educated and respectful about what we do, and be up-front and honest with our audiences.

     

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    Leila Ahmed, Egyptian American feminist, wrote a great article called ‘Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem.’ Here is a link: http://www.northeastern.edu/womensstudies/graduate/courses/course_material/men_women_social/documents/Ahmed_Western.pdf

    I personally am not a fan of the articles by Donalee Dox or Sunaina Maira because they are not educated in Middle Eastern culture and I find that their perspecitves just put down American bellydancers.

     

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      Thanks for the link. I’m not a fan of Sunaina’s article either, but I wanted to suggest articles with varying perspectives. My recommendations aren’t necessarily my agreeing with the authors’ theses. :)

       

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I’m so relived to see critique of the article that does not take pot shots at the author, as so many have done. Thanks for that.

While the discussion around the article has often been frustrating to me, I am glad of it, in a way, because this discussion is one that I think the bellydance community never needs to stop having, especially in the US. The systemic racism of our racial hierarchy and institutional privileges that are afforded white people don’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy arts from non-white cultures, but it does give us the responsibility of examining HOW we are enjoying and portraying them.

And I don’t think that there is ever going to be an easy answer to this. People from a cultural group are going to have different answers. I have seen some of the Indian/Desi community say that seeing a white woman wear a bindi in any context is hurtful to them, as for us, it’s a fashion element we put on to look cool and are praised for being “worldly,” whereas when they wear one, they are the target of racist hate. I have also been GIVEN bindis to wear by women in the Indian/Desi community. And it’s important to acknowledge that neither of those perspectives is “right”– because it’s not my place as a white woman to judge how someone of a group that is targeted by racism to be the arbiter of how they react to personal experience. It’s not my job to tell them to get over it because America is a supposed melting pot– because let’s face it, that’s the ideal, not the reality. (And I hope I’m being clear that these are not things I’m saying you’re doing so much as responses I’ve seen throughout the community.)

I think that a good first step for many in our community would be to not just dismiss concerns of appropriation out of hand. Because in our culture (speaking of the US here), cultural exchange often isn’t weighted evenly on both sides. A white woman wearing a bindi isn’t the same, for example, as a Middle Eastern woman wearing blue jeans. So reflecting on how our whiteness protects us in a lot of ways is a good thing to do, even if you decide that doing thing X is something you are still going to do.

Overall, I did not agree with the Salon article in many ways. But I am happy it is broaching more conversations on the topic, because I personally have seen things that have crossed the line from appreciation into appropriation, and I think that those are things we as a community ought to be discussing regularly.

TL;DR sorry for taking up so much space, and I’m glad that you wrote a more even-handed critique.

 

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    Yeah, I’m frustrated with all of the “She’s dumb,” “That’s stupid,” and “Stop wearing blue jeans,” knee-jerk reactions to this article. Sure, I don’t like hearing that I should basically quit my job and find another one because one woman is offended that I’m “exploiting” her culture. I, too, have heard from other Arabs (and Turks, because we must remember that belly dance is not exclusively Arab) that they love my dancing, that I have “the feeling,” that I understand the music.

    Clearly, though, the article hit a raw nerve, which surprises me. Have these people REALLY never heard of “white privilege,” cultural appropriation, Orientalism, or any of the other issues that Jarrar attempts to discuss? That, to me, is shocking. I don’t fault the people who haven’t heard of it; I fault their instructors.

    I keep adding to and editing my response… Like you, I’ve seen some pretty awful and offensive belly dance performances. Awful in terms of cultural insensitivity, and I continue to see offensive performances. Which is why, if Jarrar wants to really do something about it, I think she, if she is so bothered by white belly dancers, and other Arab women should take up the mantle of hands-on education, rather than just railing against us pale-skinned people who practice it. But instead, she tells us to basically find another hobby/job/career/activity. That’s just not productive for anyone.

     

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      I think she, if she is so bothered by white belly dancers, and other Arab women should take up the mantle of hands-on education, rather than just railing against us pale-skinned people who practice it. But instead, she tells us to basically find another hobby/job/career/activity. That’s just not productive for anyone.

      While I do have the opinion that making a blanket statement of “X people should not Y” isn’t “productive” per-se, I also realize that as a white person, it’s not my place to tell her what she should be doing in response to her own lived experience. That just strikes me as a bit… icky.

      But I do think that in general, there should be more inherent teaching about appropriation from beginning dance classes on up, and that Arab women should be very prized when they wish to teach on the topic.

       

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        Yeah, you’re right. “Should” isn’t the best word. But I do feel like if someone is bothered by something, then maybe… considering taking some more positive actions to change it might be a better course of action than writing a click-bait article?

         

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      As an Arab-American, I can say that I don’t agree with Randa Jarrar’s for many reasons. One, she states that belly dancing belongs to Arabs, essentially. It’s not accurate. The Turkish Ottomans had belly dancing. It may not have started in Turkey, but the Turks built on the art. In addition, records say a similar dance did exist in ancient Asia Minor and Greece as well as Babylonia, ancient Egypt, among the Berbers, people of India.

      Thus, people of different skin tones including those with a pale skin tone danced such a dance and Randa is pale and has green or hazel eyes. Yes, to a large extent, modern belly dancing as we know it connected to a large measure to the Arabs and Turks.
      However, let’s not forget the ancients who danced a similar form and the Turks who are very connected to the art are not Arabs.

      In addition, many of the dancers in the Middle East who are Arab have light skin. However, she didn’t bring that up. People from the Balkans, who were occupied by the Turks, have been belly dancing for over 200 years.

      I think she’s reacting to the prejudice many Arab-Americans have experienced in the U.S., but you don’t erase racism by targeting all Euro-American women who belly dance and painting them with one brush.
      It makes no sense.

      If you saw many Arab belly dancers, you wouldn’t be able to necessarily tell if they’re from Europe or the Middle East. This is a fact because the people are quite diverse. Has Randa critiqued her own culture that tends to favor lighter skinned Arabs over the darker skinned ones when it comes to dancing? No.

      Some belly dancers in America are promoting stereotypes and we should look at how people are promoting stereotypes, but we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. The author should have focused on people connected with that behavior rather than writing an article with such an unfortunate title.

      Many Arab Americans don’t agree with portraying American women of a certain skin tone and with European ancestry with one brush or would want to be labeled as well as people who don’t welcome cultural sharing. One of the best Arab musicians was Abdel Wahhab from Egypt. It’s clear that he was influenced by Western, classical music. We live in one world where so many cultures from each other.

      You have to understand that many Arab-Americans have encountered a lot of prejudice and stereotypes. This can lead to a lot of hurt. When I initially saw people who don’t have an Eastern belly dance, I did find it unusual, initially, but I learned to embrace it. I saw how happy the women are.

      I can understand that many women who belly dance who care about other cultures were incensed and felt insulted.

       

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Jennifer Dobyns
 

Very well written rebuttal. Thanks!

 

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Thank you!
This article brings up so many questions. Someone posted a link to a lecture by Karim Nagi in one particularly heated discussion. In the video, titled “Lauren of Arabia”, Karim asks the question why there aren’t more Arabs who practice and perform Raks Sharqi professionally. I think it’s a poignant question in this context as author Randa Jarrar makes Arabs seem like victims to the oppression “white women” simply for practicing bellydance. There is nothing stopping more Arabs in various diaspora communities around the world from taking the stage and representing their own culture and dance and in that sense “having a voice”. OK, there may be taboos and stigma attached to dancing publicly for money, but the question still stands.

 

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GREAT response, Asharah!! I really appreciate your response on multiple levels, as a person of color who can relate to her rage. You are totally right in how her article is lacking, I was thinking the same thing. One more point I would like to put out there, even though it was more “implied” than spelled out in the article, is that the white dancers she complains about (specifically, skinny white dancers) now dominate the gigs. To that, I would like to say that it is patriarchy, colonization, and lack of pride as a people at fault here, and NOT the white dancers. Rather than blaming white dancers, she needs to question WHY THERE IS SUCH A DEMAND for white dancers. They wouldn’t be taking up all these gigs if restaurants and event organizers (many of them run by her own people), insisted on having their own Arab dancers instead (I also noticed how she left out the Nubians… Are they non-Arab too, even though they speak Arabic and that is their home too??). I can write a whole lot more here, this is an entire volume of issues….

 

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Love. This. SO. Much!!!

I just read the article to which you’re referring, and I am SO glad to’ve found this shortly after. THANK YOU for this. In every way, from every angle.. -you said it.-
HUGE kudos, cheers, thanks again, and AMEN. ^_^
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Racism and hate are ugly no matter what color you are or who you hate.

 

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Culture is not static. It is in constant flux. It lives and changes throughout time. American Indian powows are a good example. Indians from the 1800 ‘ s would recognize the event, but dance moves, costumes, face paint, even the drums have changed over time. The Indian culture embraces this change and invites everyone to participate and gain a sense of community. Some people consider it a dilution of one’s heritage or culture, I believe the only things that stay the same are dead ancient cultures with no participants other than anthropologists and archeologists guessing at what they were. .

 

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A very gracious response to that particular article…complicated subject, and I also appreciate the author’s sentiments in a post 911 world, but I disagree in that to me all art is an exchange, or has the potential to be an exchange, culturally, emotionally, intellectually… You can put up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, for example, but you cannot keep out culture. Culture will always spill over. In all mediums. Berkeley Rep did a Kabuki version of Macbeth. 20th century French painters were revolutionized by Asian art influence. A Polish friend of mine went to Japan to teach Western “Method acting” (Stanislavsky-Russian) to Japanese Kabuki actors. Folkloric dancers from Nuevo Leon, Mexico have infused Irish folk dances into their choreography. Art will always be an exchange, can’t stop the river. And, as my father always used to say, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

 

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A very gracious response to that particular article…complicated subject, and I also appreciate the author’s sentiments in a post 911 world, but I disagree – all art is an exchange, or has the potential to be an exchange, culturally, emotionally, intellectually… You can put up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, for example, but you cannot keep out culture. Culture will always spill over. In all mediums. Berkeley Rep did a Kabuki version of Macbeth. 20th century French painters were revolutionized by Asian art influence. A Polish friend of mine went to Japan to teach Western “Method acting” (Stanislavsky-Russian) to Japanese Kabuki actors. Folkloric dancers from Nuevo Leon, Mexico have infused Irish folk dances into their choreography. Art will always be an exchange, can’t stop the river. As my father always used to say, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

 

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I have been around bellydance all my life and have been put in the catagory of ‘white’ for one reason or another and I was not offended by Jarrar’s article at all. For me this is her perspective. I appreciate hearing all perspectives – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And all perspectives include the barrage of negativity towards the article from the bellydance community. I think its great that people are talking about this.

 

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Also, I would like to say that racism against Arabs is rampant in mainstream American culture and I hardly ever hear anyone in the bellydance community speak out against it. Now that an Arab American woman used the word ‘white’ to describe the group of people, who she has felt marginalized by, all hell has broken loose. Her facebook account was closed due to the 1600 negative comments. Why are we not defending all peoples rights in this country like this? Why all the sudden do belly dancers care about race? I mean I hear people of all different backgrounds generalize about African Americans and middle eastern people all the time, as if it’s the norm in the US. And look what happens when a Arab American woman plays the race card….

 

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I would love to see the same enthusiastic support for ‘white’ bellydancers extended to all human rights in this country. The minute of marginalization that was felt by American bellydancers is pale in comparison to oppressed populations that transcend being marginalized everyday. I seriously think American bellydancers could move mountains if they connected this feeling of being marginalized to the larger scope of human rights.

 

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interesting read thanks.

would love to get your take on some things I was talking about earlier today on another dance page

1.) Even mainstream publications have picked up this story, and raised its exposure. to what degree did the specific use of “white” in the article’s title fuel this unprecedented level of engagement? Do people care more or less about a perceived attack based on the this choice?

2.) thoughts about how/why Jarrar’s phrase “can’t stand” gets escalated to “hate” in the responses

3.) thoughts on how the african-american experience is called upon by Jarrar’s critics. Many comments have assumed whiteness and blackness (the af-am kind) are in direct oppostion. I’ve been seeing a lot of wishtory about the history of blackface in entertainment and why its supposedly not at all like bellydance

4.) and lastly would love to hear your thoughts on, how people are talking about the idea of “ownership”. Not your thoughts personally, but your thoughts on the discussions happening around the following:
What is considered to fall under the domain of whiteness (technology, cars, iphones, houses, civilization)? vs. what should an arab writer like Jarrar be expected to forgo if she’s going to insist on maintaining cultural boundaries? And what is anything does the middle east owe the west in return fro all the West has “given” it?

 

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Her name is Sunaina Maira and she is a very esteemed scholar. Seems like you could do some research too!

 

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Thank you for this insightful article, I appreciate your simultaneous objectivity, intelligent rebuttal, as well as compassion of Ms. Jarrar. I can only imagine the frustrations she has been through leading up to her conviction and stance. But the truth is, can anyone truly document the exact locale of the advent of ‘bellydance’? (albeit an Anglo term). Sure, the Golden Age of the Egyptian film industry was probably the first to bring to the limelight the quintessential Raqs Sharqi stage show we know today, but surely women of many cultures have long danced these movements, and lets not forget the gypsies of Northern India who dance similar movements emigrating north into Europe and North Africa over 1000 years ago. So when I read of or hear an Arab person saying Oriental Dance came from the Middle East, I think ‘possibly so” but then again “possibly not” and then sigh in silence. Speaking of white women who perform Oriental Dance.. I’ll venture to say women of Turkey and Greece might find fault with Ms. Jarrar’s article. I personally don’t perform Raqs Sharqi Egyptian style but more Turkish/Gypsy, I’ve never used an Arabic stage name and don’t paint this brownface she speaks of. Stage makeup yes… Cleopatra style? No. I feel I ‘appropriate’ (as Ms. Jarrar puts it) nothing. But I digress. What puzzles me is the ‘white’ label. When is a person considered truly a ‘whitie’…when they are of European descent? Anyone not African, Arab, Indian, Native American descent? Anyone who’s 100% Wasp White Anglo-Saxon Protestant? I have met Arabic descent lighter-haired women who were as ‘white’ as I am. How many people are truly 100% ‘white’..white meaning English/UK/Norwegian/Danish/German etc. I too am a white bellydancer (if you don’t count my Native American, Jewish (Cohen) Spanish (De Pou) and Italian (Mureno) heritage.

 

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    No context? Just a link? Really? Also, this post of mine is nearly 2 years old on a site that’s hardly active anymore. (Not to mention that someone’s opinions can change a lot in two years, so maybe ask me how I feel about this post now as opposed to 2 years ago?) How did you find it? Please, engage me in constructive dialog rather than trolling around on my old website.

     

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