This article has been making the rounds in our community. It’s nothing new. Here’s my response:
As a “white belly dancer” I’ve heard/read this argument 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. This one does no better, but at least it is framed as an opinion piece. We cannot deny Jarrar her experience or her opinions, and her observations are worth hearing and considering (as are the opinions of ANY person). And 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. All of these topics are valid and should be discussed; and they are being discussed in academic discourse 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. 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 all white people—I mean, people of northern European descent, for are Greeks, Sicilians, and people of Balkan descent “white”?—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. But you instead relied on a click-bait title (and, as it is within my field of study, I clicked). ّI hope that you are able to take your personal experience and work with, say, an educational institution, 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 happen. Let’s help it NOT happen by fostering exchange and education rather than anger and bigotry.
“Hating on a group is not a productive way for erasing racism.” YES