ICYMI: Belly Dancing When You’re a White Woman

Just don't, one Arab-American writer says

By Carla Murphy Mar 11, 2014

Reaction is still coming in to last week’s, "Why I can’t stand white belly dancers," essay by Palestinian-American novelist, Randa Jarrar. Muslimah Media Watch, a Muslim feminist forum on global religions site, Patheos, is the latest to weigh in. But notably, so too have white men in the MSM, including a First Amendment law professor blogging at The Washington Post and Atlantic writer, Conor Friedersdorf. As in all cultural appropriation conversations, a common thread: where do you draw the line?

Jarrar’s essay, which uses the Egyptian name, "Raqs sharqi," after the popular style, is worth the read. For her:

This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn’t profit from her performance doesn’t mean she’s not appropriating a culture. And, ultimately, the question is this: Why does a white woman’s sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women’s backs?

Over at MMW, some of the women identify with Jarrar’s visceral recoiling. They also inject a definition around cultural appropriation versus cultural exchange, as well as introduce a new question: is it still cultural appropriation when "minorities" do it?

UCLA Law prof, Eugene Volokh objects to the idea that belly dancing like all cultural art belongs to anyone but humanity.

Maybe — and I know this is a radical thought — artists, whether high or low, should be able to work in whatever artistic fields they want to work in. Maybe they should even be able to work in those fields regardless of their skin color or the place from which their ancestors came. Maybe telling people that they can’t work in some field because they have the wrong color or ancestry would be … rats, I don’t know what to call it. If only there were an adjective that could be used to mean "telling people that they mustn’t do something, because of their race or ethnic origin."

And Conor Friedersdorf uses a Native American example to agree with Jarrar that appropriation can be insensitive or disrespectful. But common ground ends there:

Randa Jarrar writes as if all appropriation is self-evidently objectionable, and if her attitudes were adopted widely, we’d miss out on the awesomeness that emerges from our wonderfully polyglot country. Insofar as anyone considers any aspect of any culture to be partially mine, I hereby cede my share of it to the creative commons. Have at the appropriation. 

Be sure to check out all the perspectives above. And, add your own.