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. [Read more...]

Right Answer, Wrong Reason: Why “Muslim” Is Not A Halloween Costume

Just in time for Halloween, the Toronto Star‘s ethics columnist, Ken Gallinger (whose columns I enjoy), received a question from a parent:

We are a Christian family. Our daughter, 7, goes to a school where there are many Muslim kids. Some of their moms walk them to school in burqas. My daughter is fascinated by these mysterious “costumes” and says she wants to go out on Halloween as a “Muslim lady.” Do I let her?

Yes. This is a real burqa costume. Via costumestore.com.

Gallinger’s first remark (“Absolutely not”) and his concluding paragraph (which I’ll get to) aren’t bad.  Cultural appropriation via Halloween costumes seems to be a yearly thing, which we’ve touched on before on MMW,* and is never okay, so I’m glad that Gallinger was so forceful in his initial statement.

But the reasoning is off.  Gallinger begins by saying that, “In the first place, the Muslim community in Canada is conflicted, within itself, about the place of the burqa in religious life.”  This is an interesting point, and it’s definitely good to point out that the Muslim community isn’t monolithic, but it’s not exactly relevant here.

Wearing a burqa as a Halloween costume is wrong because of issues of cultural appropriation (which is problematic no matter how well-intentioned the young would-be burqa wearer), not because the Muslim community doesn’t have one unified stance on this.  Gallinger continues:

At one extreme are those, of both genders, who see wearing these garments as a matter of religious devotion, even obligation, for Muslim women. At the other, many see them as signs of the oppression of women, and therefore offensive in a progressive society like ours.

[Read more...]