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.