Response to "Why I Can't Stand White Bellydancers"
Monday, April 7, 2014
by Andrea Kitta (East Carolina University)—
On March 4, 2014, Salon published an article, written by Randa Jarrar as part of their series by feminists of color, titled "Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” This article caused an outcry in the belly dance community worldwide with comments ranging from guarded sympathy to absolute hatred of both the author and her article, leading Jarrar to publish a follow-up article on March 18th titled "I Still Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” The primary claim of these articles was that white belly dancers were engaging in cultural appropriation by practicing belly dance. However, this article overlooked several key points that our fellow folklorist Jeana Jorgensen has covered in her blog post "Cultural Appropriation vs. Borrowing in Belly Dance,” including the origins of belly dance and its complicated history with the West and race, ethnicity, and identity. I strongly encourage you to read her post on this topic, as well as her article on "Why Folklorists (Should) Love American Tribal Style Belly Dance”.
One of the points that several people have attempted to make is that this article tries to open a conversation about imperialism, colonialism, and post-colonialism, but fails. As a folklorist who has done some ethnographic research on the notion of "whiteness” in belly dance, I would like to share some of the findings from my previous fieldwork. In 2011, I presented in a forum at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting called "The Living Traditions of Belly Dance: Embodied Knowledge, Practice, and Theory” with Nadia DeLeon and Jeana Jorgensen. My presentation[i] was on the tension between dancers who were raised in a culture that traditionally belly dances vs. those who were not (who were often labeled as "white belly dancers” by my informants, no matter what race/ethnicity they were perceived to be). I found this labeling of "white belly dancers” problematic, but my informants assured me that it had nothing to do with race, rather it was a way to define who "got it” and who did not. For my informants, "getting it” was less about technique (although they did agree that technique was important) and more about expressing emotion. One informant stated that there was "too much of a focus on control when you’re supposed to let go.”
My informants all agreed that "white women” could be belly dancers. They had no issues with sharing their cultural knowledge or the dance with others. Where they did take issue was when they felt left out of the conversation. As people who grew up belly dancing, they felt they should be respected as experts, at least experts in the culture(s) they were raised in. One informant stated, "A white woman came up to me and asked me a bunch of questions about my culture. Then she started lecturing me. On my culture! She told me that what I experienced was incorrect because of a book she read!” My other informants agreed and shared similar incidents where they were lectured by people outside of their culture on their culture.
As a group, the women I interviewed seemed to agree. "Whiteness” was more akin to imperialism than it was to color, and those who attempted to understand and respect the cultures represented in belly dance were not a part of this group. My informants also did not see any issues with changing or combining traditions to convey creativity or artistic expression; they only took issue when someone claimed a culture they did not know. The women I interviewed felt left out of the conversation about where belly dance is headed. Many of them expressed different reasons for this, including that they felt left out in general in a post-9/11 America.
One of the key missed opportunities (dare I use the phrase "teaching moments"?) in all of this is the opportunity to discuss white privilege and multicultural feminism. Many of the comments and responses to Jarrar’s articles show a distinct lack of understanding about white privilege, reaffirming Jarrar’s point of view. Additionally, the idea that what works for "white” feminists or feminists in the West will also work for feminists of color or from other regions is short sighted and does not take into account the complicated issues that face multicultural feminists. While the intentions of these Internet posters are well-meaning, they are ignorant to the cultural issues faced by women around the world, insisting that what works for feminists in the West must also work for feminists around the world. This very notion, no matter how well-meaning, may be perceived as another form of colonialism.
As folklorists, we know that authenticity is a complicated issue and it is no less complicated in belly dance. I have often encountered people who claim to dance "exactly the way they did in _____,” the same as we see people trying to find the ur-version of a story or claiming that their item of folklore is the most authentic because it is the oldest. While many folklorists may be reluctant to broach a topic like belly dance because it is not their area of research, this is a great example of how our expertise in authenticity, tradition, variation, transmission, and many other basic concepts for the study of folklore can be presented to a wide variety of audiences. As Diane Goldstein encouraged us all to do in her Presidential Lecture at the 2013 AFS annual meeting in Providence, we as folklorists should engage in discussions about issues important to our discipline. I encourage you, my fellow folklorists, to weigh in on this issue in whatever forum you feel is appropriate and make your research and our discipline known.