MMW Roundtable: Responding to Randa Jarrar’s “Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers”

Last week, Salon published Randa Jarrar’s “Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers” as part of their “feminists of color” series curated by Roxane Gay. The response to her post has been overwhelming, including responses from dudes at the Washington Post and The Atlantic to G. Willow Wilson’s response at her blog. We’ve been exchanging emails back and forth here ourselves at MMW. The following is our edited take on events:

Fatemeh: Have you seen Randa Jarrar’s “Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers” over at Salon? I wrote something similar for MMW and Racialicious in 2007. I swear, if someone asks me if I can belly dance one more time… *head exploding*

Shireen: Thanks Fatemeh for sharing your article. It is sadly still so relevant.

Nicole: My suggestion to all of you wise ladies is to not read any of the comments on any iteration of this article unless you already take blood pressure meds.

I plan to harvest these comments and others for my seminal academic work on white privilege called Still White (with the ultimate hipster irony being that I am whitesplaining white people because, well, that is what white people do).

Eren: I really liked the article. Lately, though I have seen a lot of discussion about appropriation—it seems like a blurry topic. I also find interesting that there is little talk about how minorities also appropriate and the difference between appropriation and imposition…

Sana: A local belly dance class called “Serpents of Anubis” is being held where I live. Yeah.

Fatemeh: GAAAAAH.

Shireen: Nicole, the “whitesplaining” comment made me laugh all day. Still giggling about it. Sana, You MUST attend that class. And do this dance.

Azra: I second the cobra dance!

Randa’s article reminds me so much of how yoga is often practiced/appropriated, but I struggled with the idea that white women should never take up dancing. When is it okay to partake in an activity from another culture? Where are we supposed to draw the line?

The comments on Randa’s piece at Salon are all sorts of ish. You’ll have an excellent hipster project, Nicole!

Anneke: I gotta admit I have a hard time understanding where to draw the line. As a Frau Antje can I only dance in my wooden shoes? And who can belly dance/do raqs sharqi? It is certainly NOT a style of dance authentic to all “Arab” countries….

Shireen: I think we struggle with where to draw the line. I am not Arab but I grew up in a small community with a HUGE Arab presence. Very few Pakistanis as close friends. I spoke more Arabic than Urdu until I was 6 and my Grandparents freaked out (our neighbours were from Egypt).

I feel slightly fraudulent but it wasn’t my fault I learned to make basbosa before kheer.

Here’s an article Eren shared—“Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation” from Everyday Feminism by Jarune Uwujaren—which really helped clarify things for me. An excerpt:

“So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.

Because for those of us who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave, and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited.”

Eren: I love Jarune’s article. However, I feel that there is also a lot of focus about how white people appropriate stuff, but not enough talk about what the power relations are between minorities.

Fatemeh: Somebody on Twitter had that exact question: was it still appropriation if done by people of color?

Long answer: it depends. If it’s just dance, then I don’t think so (yes, even if white people dance). But if it’s jangly belly dancing hip scarves and stage names like Fatima and all that…well then I’d say yes, because those become appropriation.

(Meanwhile, The Washington Post and the Atlantic publish their responses to Randa’s post.)

Fatemeh: It’s sad that the majority of reactions Randa’s received are basically the same whitesplainy outrage that my MMW & Racialicious articles got 7 years ago.

The thing is, it’s not the dancing that most of us have a problem with. It’s the Orientalist stereotypes that often accompany the dancing that are the problem. But everyone who has a problem with these articles feeds back into the “But, but, but…you can’t tell me what to do!” mindset of white hegemony. It’s definitely not the same thing as white people getting angry that they can’t use the n-word, but I think it comes from the same place.

And, in Conor’s article (from the Atlantic), he completely dismissed the valid concerns involved in Randa’s article with that piece on the lady who studied raqs sharqi in Morocco when he says: “Well, if you don’t want us to help you break down stereotypes, that’s a shame.”

IS THAT WHAT SHE DID? I hope so. But most bellydancing troupes are NOT about this. They’re about playing dress-up in spangly Orientalist gear and putting on a fetishized brown persona under the guise of [insert here: female empowerment, entertainment, tips, sex, etc.]

Tasnim: I don’t think all “white belly dancers” are the same; some study it as a form of dance and some use it as an opportunity to gyrate in Orientalist garb.  And appropriation is not just one way. One difference between the appropriation of Beethoven versus the appropriation of “belly dance” though is that they don’t start at the same level, in the same way that there are Western forms of music and then there is “world music,” which is everything else. Using these terms as a shorthand, Western culture is assumed to be universal, whereas all non-Western culture is “ethnic.” And sure, “Westerners” should be able to practice, take part in, dress up in “ethnic” cultures, art forms, fashions, just as “non-Westerners” regularly borrow from and appropriate Western culture. But I think it makes a difference what attitude people take.

For example, consider Arabs Got Talent, a show that is itself an appropriation, and which regularly features Arabs appropriating Western culture, from rap to breakdance to ballet. Then there was Jennifer Grout, who was lauded everywhere, including in Arab media, precisely because she was a non-Arabic speaker who appreciated and sang like the most beloved Arab singer in the history of ever, Umm Kulthum.  Somehow, I don’t think she’d have gotten the same reaction if she was a “belly dancer” of the gyrating in Orientalist garb type.

Krista: What are your thoughts on appropriation more generally?  How else does this come up with relation to Muslim women?

Eren: In relation to Muslim women…hmm…that’s a tough one. From a convert’s perspective it is very tricky. I have tons of white friends who “adopt” their husband’s culture. All of the sudden they are not only hijabis, but they wear shalwar kameez or black arab abaayas or saris. Is this appropriation? Imposition? I am not sure.

Fatemeh: G. Willow Wilson has an interesting response. An excerpt:

“When you shimmy around a stage in a hip band and call yourself Aliya Selim and receive praise and encouragement, while the real Aliya Selims are shortening their names to Ally and wondering if their accent is too strong to land that job interview, if the boss will look askance at their headscarf, if the kids at school are going to make fun of their children, guess what: you are exercising considerable privilege. This is not an accusation or a judgment, it is a fact. You are not a bad person. But you owe it to the actual Aliya Selims to grapple with these issues in an honest way. Nobody is asking you to fix the world—just to look that privilege steadily in the face.”

Shireen: GWW’s piece is very well – presented. Randa Jarrar’s was much more emotional. I can relate to the passion of her rants. I have a problem with the way WoC can be discredited for having emphatic voices. And I although I do agree with RJ on her critiques and feeling the way she does as an Arab woman, GWW’s piece laid it out so perfectly.

Sara: Initially, when I read Randa’s article I was like “SPOT ON.” She hit on some very real frustrations that I’ve felt myself.

But then I changed my mind about it. I think that she was radically oversimplifying something that’s actually quite complicated, and it would have been useful to unpack it better.

Anyways — here’s my beef with her argument: what she calls appropriation isn’t appropriation as much as it is an orientalist nightmare based in colonial fantasies. I feel like I spent a lot of time growing up explaining that I *didn’t* have beaded, bellydancing costumes. I usually associate appropriation with things that are rooted in my culture, that I’d like to be appreciated/is worth respecting. In some ways, I feel that way about the dancing, but the whole world of “bellydancing” is so foreign to me. I just don’t want it to be tied to my heritage *at all*.

And this is the weird part of that whole “bellydancing community.” It’s not a cultural exchange or appreciation. It’s dangerous because people think that they now understand your culture via these classes. There’s also this disturbing sexualization of Arab women that’s furthered by it. Personally, I didn’t even see bellydancing as sexual until I heard white people suggest it.

See also: I’m Palestinian, and I should have learned dabke. Will blame the Egyptians I grew up with for that one.

But anyways, my question here is: Is it really appropriation, when what is being “appropriated” is a gaze that Arabs didn’t actually create? A fetishization that doesn’t seem to be based in very much reality at all?

Another thing she glosses over is the actual complexity behind the bellydancer in the Arab restaurant/shisha cafe. A few things here: 1) Since this orientalist fantasy is what the ~*west*~ associates with MENA, many of these restaurants go for that theme in the name of marketing. And their owners are usually Arab (at least in my experience).

2) Purely anecdotally here – but while the demand for the exotic Arab fantasy with our falafel is maybe something to be examined, the “white bellydancer” is maybe furthering stereotypes of Arab women, but she’s not exactly taking on a job that an Arab girl would realistically take. No girl that I grew up with would ever be allowed to bellydance in public, let alone don the outfit and dance in a restaurant. Not just because a lot of these things really aren’t a part of our culture, but also because of chastity related stuff.

As long as “Arab restaurants” need to rely on the “authentic ethnic experience as perceived by white people” in order to sell food, the white bellydancer will always exist. I think that’s a huge, huge, huge, thing missing from her argument.

That, of course, doesn’t make all of this any less problematic or messed up. But given how complicated it is, I think that she should have constructed her argument a lot better.

At the same time, of course, the reaction from mostly white outlets was hella eyerollworthy (and predictable). They weren’t trying to maybe find the truth in her argument, instead used it as a pawn in the “PC GONE MAD” outrage that the MSM likes to whip up.

Those are my two cents.

Tasnim: Here’s a video I watched a while ago featuring Donna Mejia. The second half of the video features her dancing and then giving a lecture about tribal fusion which “combines Arab, African, and nomadic traditions (whatever that is) with American hip hop and electronica.”

It’s clear from what she says that she’s at least thought about the issue of appropriation. Her point is that in today’s world, at least in the metropolitan West, we’re all mixed up, hybrid, third-cultured and so on, and this kind of dance reflects the community which is diverse and celebrates its diversity. I think that explains the “fusion” part, but then there is the “tribal” element, which seems to be fetishizing the kind of “authentic” identity she says is no longer possible, at least for Western cosmopolitans. It’s an interesting tension.

Krista: I think there are two issues at play here:

  1. The question of whether certain forms of cultural “exchange” are ever right or acceptable (and if so, which ones, and when, and where), and

  2. the impact of the participation of some of these exchanges on the people coming from the cultures involved.  These questions are very closely interconnected, but I think there’s also value in considering them differently.

I think a lot has been said in response to the first question already.  But as for the second question, even if a particular white person (or a person who appears white, or who otherwise is perceived to have some kind of privilege with relation to the culture being taken up) has an airtight reason for engaging in whatever kind of cultural “borrowing” is happening, and does so with the utmost respect, and is otherwise the epitome of ethical bellydancing or what have you (just assuming, for argument’s sake, that this is possible), there might still be people who feel anger or frustration or bitterness at seeing their culture (or people’s imaginations of it) being used by someone else, seeing people not from their culture being able to take part in the elements that they find fun or meaningful, without having to deal with the social ramifications of actually being from that culture.  And I think that’s totally understandable.

So there is room to debate Jarrar on some of the specific points she makes, while acknowledging that this discussion is happening in a context where some groups have power in relation to others (to put things mildly), and where some forms of cultural appropriation or exchange cause pain and anger, regardless of the good intentions of the person doing them.

It’s not necessarily the fault of the person doing the appropriation/borrowing/whatever, it’s a bigger context than that, but the context isn’t neutral, and I’m disturbed to see people attacking Jarrar for feeling the anger that she does.  I appreciated what G. Willow Wilson said in her response: “You are not a bad person. But you owe it to the actual Aliya Selims to grapple with these issues in an honest way. Nobody is asking you to fix the world—just to look that privilege steadily in the face.”

Shireen: I like your last point and although RJ’s piece does not distinguish between cultural appropriation vs. feshitization and exploitation, and what I call “non exchange,” there is still value to her writing it. It might not have been the most nuanced thing we’ve ever read, but my concern about how voices of WoC are silenced and the supporting argument is “reverse racism” comes out in full blast. #hijabdesk

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