On the Identity Politics of Belly Dancing

belly dancingNovelist Randa Jarrar has been mocked – and accused of racism – for telling the world that she “can’t stand” white belly dancers. As Eugene Volokh notes, if we were to universalize Jarrar’s objections to “cultural appropriation,” then we might object to East Asian cellists or Japanese productions of Shakespeare, rather than treating the arts as they ought to be treated: as the “common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group.”

Are such rebuttals entirely fair? After all, there is such a thing as cross-cultural mockery or unintentional caricature. And Jarrar is claiming that the belly dancing of white women is a form of racism and cultural degradation that causes her and other Arab women direct emotional harm. It is something that happens “on Arab women’s backs.” How is it racist and degrading? For wearing traditional costumes and certain kinds of makeup, Jarrar accuses white belly dancers of dressing up in “Arab drag” and appearing with a “brownface Orientalist façade.” She otherwise criticizes the appearance of white dancers (one dancer was too thin for Jarrar’s liking) and the use of made-up names.

While her piece doesn’t provide much in the way of details, it is doubtful that Jarrar means to accuse white belly dancers of intentional mockery. After all, belly dancing is a discipline that requires attention and practice. We can assume that white practitioners on the whole take belly dancing seriously, and do it not for the sake of mockery but for enjoyment.

It is also doubtful that Jarrar means to say that belly dancing is something sacred within Arab culture, or that there is a cultural prohibition against the participation of non-Arabs in the practice, in the same way that there is a general prohibition against images of Mohammed. Belly dancing is not considered in the Arab world to be a sacred practice; it is not a practice explicitly prohibited to outsiders; and even were it so prohibited, it is not immediately clear that we would be morally obligated to honor the prohibition.

Consequently, the only other way to make Jarrar’s objections work, is to say that her hurt feelings are decisive, regardless of the authenticity of white women’s interest in belly dancing, and regardless of whether the majority of Arabs or Arab-American women agree with her, and regardless of whether her hurt feelings are reasonable. But why would they be decisive? Jarrar certainly wouldn’t agree that she was morally obligated from refraining from publishing her article, if she knew that it was the case that even a single white woman would be offended by it. And very likely she wouldn’t agree that she was obligated to refrain from offending even the majority of white women, whether by publishing her article or culturally appropriating some Western practice.

Jarrar’s hurt feelings can be morally decisive only if white women have a set of moral obligations to Arab women that Arab women do not have toward whites. And this is the obligation to refrain from offense, no matter how authentic one’s intentions, and no matter how widespread or limited that offense. How do we explain the asymmetry of this obligation? Only by saying that white women are somehow morally compromised in relation to Arab women. If white women had the same moral status as Arab women, their moral obligations to each other would be entirely symmetrical. Further, this moral compromise must be universal and a necessary product of race. There can be no exceptions here for white women based on socio-economic status, authenticity of sentiment, a conscious revulsion to racism, the having of Arab friends, or any other factors of individual biography. If there were such exceptions, Jarrar couldn’t claim to know which white belly dancers were engaged in an immoral, emotionally harmful act.

How do we explain such universal moral compromise on the part of white women toward Arab women? Only by appealing either to the historical crimes of whites against Arabs, or to disparities in power or “privilege” between them, past and present. Further, we must assume that every individual within a more powerful group is morally compromised by this collective power, even if she actually has very little power herself. Consequently, we must give an account why it is that every member of a group is culpable for its history or its power relations, whatever their individual behavior.

One very implausible way to cache out moral compromise is to appeal to the concept of collective guilt, and to say that every white woman bears some moral responsibility, whether for the unfairness of disparities of power between whites in general and Arab-Americans (and other minorities) in general, or for the past crimes of European nations against the Arab world. The prohibition against belly dancing – or participation in any other Arab cultural practice – would then be the requisite punishment for this guilt. But then a very similar argument could be used to justify much more severe punishments toward any randomly chosen white woman, on sight.

More plausible in explaining moral compromise is an appeal to psychology or identity (and in what follows I will gloss this approach as “identity politics”): here we assume that the collective power of a group is in some way psychologically, dispositionally, or spiritually corrupting to every one of its members. Again, we must assume this corrupting force even for individuals whose actual share in the power of their group is minimal: an impoverished, mentally ill white woman possesses “white privilege” and is morally compromised even with respect to the wealthy Arab-American woman with a thriving business and powerful connections to city hall. Actual individuals do not matter here: the individual disappears into the collective social ontology. Whatever the individual biographies of any two women, one white and one Arab, the former is morally compromised toward the latter solely by virtue of her race.

How do we explain being morally compromised in virtue of identity or psychology? We might say that the psyches of all white American women must necessarily be suffused with racist and condescending attitudes toward Arab women in particular, or more generally with some subtle sensibility of “privilege.” Since many white women would deny consciously having such attitudes, we must accuse them of harboring them unconsciously or dispositionally: we can ignore their protestations of good will, and we can ignore every other thought and feeling they happen to have about the matter (and if they happen to be philosophers, we can entirely ignore their considered arguments: it is only their identity that counts). On this account, we might think of white belly dancers as cultural tourists, dilettantes, and even voyeurs, who don’t bring the appropriate respect and humility to the practice. They approach it with an air of superiority, whether conscious or unconscious: they leave their belly dancing class or gig and then go home to privileged lives. Where for an Arab woman belly dancing might be a form of life central to her identity, for a white woman it is a bauble – to be pawed absently in her ample, hobby-hopping spare time, and then abandoned without consequence. (For further variations on such sentiments, see this primer sent to me by a friend).

How do these attitudes, conscious or unconscious, cause harm? They cause harm by hurting the feelings of Jarrar and those like her: specifically, by altering her imagined connection to a practice that, while not sacred within Arab culture, happens to be sacred to Jarrar. Jarrar is forced to imagine the condescending, defiling gaze of white women in connection with her culture, and this is humiliating and, as she puts it, invasive: “Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in.”

Now, suppose someone pointed out that this argument sounds remarkably similar to the arguments that conservatives have used against gay marriage. To some conservatives, the sacredness of marriage is undone by the participation of homosexuals, because homosexuals are morally compromised by their sexual behavior. That the majority of society does not today agree with this notion is not relevant, on this view: marriage, they might say –adopting Jarrar’s phrasing concerning belly dancing – “is originally ours.” Their hurt feelings are decisive.

Further, suppose someone else wanted to compare Jarrar’s sentiments to those of a white person who fears that what he views as the culturally deficient practices of African Americans and Hispanics threaten to adulterate and destroy his culture, and along with it “the real America.” Again, the racist believes he has a strong justification for his views: he believes there is an existential threat to his identity, by way of his cultural identity. White culture, he might say, is not a vessel for black or Hispanic culture to pour itself into. The existential nature of this threat makes his emotional harm a decisive objection that overrides the rights and the dignity of African Americans and Hispanics.

It should be clear by now that the concept of moral compromise at work here really amounts to the concept of moral inferiority: and it is a concept essential not just to those that seek to discriminate against African Americans and homosexuals, but also to the advocates of identity politics. All of these arguments rest on the notion that moral obligations between various types of human beings can become asymmetrical, implying that one type or another is morally inferior in some way. Identity politics cannot be made to work without the concept of moral inferiority, in this case an inferiority that attaches to a group of people by the virtue of their unfair advantages or historical crimes.

A defender of Jarrar might wish to reply as follows. They could concede that privilege implies neither the moral inferiority of white women nor their collective guilt. But they might nevertheless claim that white women ought always to voluntarily defer to the hurt feelings of minorities out of a feeling of obligation to make up for past wrongs, regardless of their actual obligations. One need not be individually responsible for some inequity in order to feel the urge to remedy it: in this case benefiting from the inequity is enough. The problem with this argument is that whatever our race or other identity-based designation, we already have an obligation to behave ethically toward others. And as a society, we have an obligation to try to eliminate inequities between groups. None of this implies that white people have obligations toward minorities that minorities do not have toward them; nor does it imply that we must treat every case of hurt feelings, for any given member of a marginalized group, as decisive. We ought to ask whether Jarrar’s hurt feelings are actually reasonable: we ought to ask whether she is making a demand that it actually ethical. Otherwise, she could demand that white women conform to any behavior she liked, as long as she could point to her hurt feelings as evidence. And it would require us to defer to her even if her motives were entirely racist. As I pointed out, there are strong reasons to believe that Jarrar’s hurt feelings are unwarranted, including the fact that white belly dancing is not actually a form of mockery. Deference in this case could only be a form of condescension, in which we think of Jarrar’s complaints as unreasonable but of her as unworthy of our reasons: and I find it routinely shocking that anyone finds this sort of condescension to be ethical. This brings us full circle: we can only say that Jarrar’s hurt feelings are decisive, regardless of their reasonableness, if we assume the moral inferiority of white women. That’s why many will instinctively believe her piece to be motivated by racism (or at the very least, something like envy) – a racism to which she think she is entitled by power dynamics between races.

A defender of Jarrar might go another route, openly embracing the concept of moral inferiority. In this case, they would have to respond that power dynamics are indeed the legitimating difference between standard racism and identity politics. The moral inferiority that some conservatives ascribe to homosexuals, and that a racist might ascribe to African Americans, is groundless. The moral inferiority that attaches itself to white people, by virtue of “white privilege,” is a fact. The former implies that homosexuals and people of other races are inferior; the latter merely takes note of whites’ superior power.

But if any of this were true, it would lead to the following odd consequence: if homosexuals were a dominant majority within a society, and heterosexuals a historically oppressed minority who nevertheless originated the institution of marriage, then arguments against gay marriage might suddenly have some weight. (“Might,” because of course marriage is a very different institution than belly dancing, and even on the assumptions of identity politics there would be arguments for the right to appropriate it, even from an oppressed minority. But the illogic illustrated by this example should nonetheless be clear).

Finally, there are other important problems for identity politics, problems that I believe make it distinctly illiberal and immoral. The first is that drawing a conclusion about any randomly chosen individual from generalizations about racial inequalities is simply unfair: the single white high school educated mother on food stamps is not more privileged than Condoleezza Rice. She may suffer less for reasons having to do with race; but that does not mean that she has suffered less, or has had more opportunities in life overall (and she will be confused to know that she is being informed of her “privilege” by professors at universities that she would never had the slightest chance of attending, much less serving at as faculty). “Privilege” is not some essence that attaches to people of certain races willy nilly. Power dynamics are far more complex than the advocates of identity politics admit, and depend on far more than group membership: we can’t know anything about a given person’s privilege or level of suffering without attending to their individual biography. Even knowing this biography, quantifying the quantity of their suffering relative to our own or that of others would be a consequentialist fool’s errand. But this doesn’t matter: because we don’t need to know someone’s level of suffering or privilege to know whether they are worthy of ethical treatment. Their humanity is the only form of identification required. I am of course here making a classical liberal appeal to the notion of human moral equality, one that the advocates of identity politics more or less explicitly reject.

Beyond the rejection of equality, the appeal to power dynamics, which the advocates of identity politics see as so decisive, is one essential to many historical acts of dehumanization. Nazis didn’t justify the Holocaust by portraying Jews as weak: they portrayed Jews as a powerful, existential threat, responsible for Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. They cultivated a sense of victimhood powerful enough to be thought to justify any atrocity whatsoever. German nationalism was identity politics par excellence. The same thinking is at play in many of history’s other great horrors: recall, for instance, the Rwandan Genocide, in which the overriding issue was Tutsi Privilege. Or consider the extent to which nationalism, and wounded national pride, is at stake in any war. Meanwhile, many Israelis are blind to the injustices involved in the occupation of Palestine, because a sense of victimhood is felt to be an inoculation against the possibility of wrongdoing. Palestinians are thought of not as victims of oppression, but a powerful existential threat, collectively responsible as a people for every act of anti-Israeli terrorism. And yes, the views I have expressed here can, in the wrong hands, be put to the same pernicious use: many Americans – even the very wealthy – see themselves as the victims of the political power of minorities and leftist “elites,” and nurse their sense of grievance and victimhood in order to justify their bigotry. But the point of what I’ve written here isn’t to make another contribution to the world’s continuing cycle of political ressentiment and identity-based dehumanization. I mean to say that in all its forms, it ought to stop: in the short run, it is immoral. In the long run, it is dangerous to everyone.

-- Wes Alwan


  1. says

    Excellent, philosophical response to Jarrar’s poorly thought-out article. I’ve read this article and various responses because I am a belly dancer. It was posited as a feminist article so it is good to have a well-constructed philosophical response. As a dancer my response isn’t at all philosophical. I just feel sad that this women has missed the entire point of dancing altogether.

    • says

      I want to thank you for this insight. When I read Jarrar’s article I had a very strong reaction. I don’t belly dance, but I do love the beauty of objects, religious symbols, jewelry, art, and music of cultures outside of my own. I own some of the items Jarrar described in her piece. I imagined Jarrar walking into my home and seeing the patterns and fabrics I surround myself with–items I pick because they are visually appealing and emotionally warming. I thought of the disgust that would show on her face (from my interpretation of her article on white belly dancers). I realized it would be my instinct to feel ashamed of having “stolen” the colors, patterns, and textures of her heritage. I was disturbed by the notion that I could be in reverence of a people and at the same time harming them. I was also hurt that my respect and admiration could be automatically negated by the color, patterns, and textures of my own person.

      Your article helped me better understand why something as innocuous as a stranger’s opinion about white belly dancers would evoke such a strong reaction.

      Thank you.

  2. Colin Ray says

    It is refreshing to read a thorough and sensible response to the poor ideas set forth by Jarrar. Cheers to the prospect of genuine equality instead o victimhood competition!!

  3. Tim says

    Thanks for parsing out the implications of this argument. I think I probably have more sympathy for identity politics than you do, but it’s always bothered me how proponents neglect aspects of the ideology which have illiberal consequences. Reading a lot of this kind of stuff, the thinker I’m most often reminded of is Johann Gottfried Herder.

    I have to correct you on your second to last paragraph, however. Or not really correct you – your points about the complexity of privilege are correct. But you are wrong that this complexity is not acknowledged by the proponents of identity politics. It’s actually become an increasingly important issue over the past decade or so, and goes by the name “intersectionality.” You might be able to make the point that intersectionality is forgotten in favor of simplistic models of privilege in the case of certain specific arguments such as Jarrar’s. But this is not a critique of identity politics as a whole.

    • Andrew Jensen says

      I concur with Tim; the author is simply mistaken in his presentation in the next-to-last paragraph of the views of intersectional feminists (of whom Randa Jarrar appears to be one). As far as I can tell from my personal experience as a radical leftist, the standard view among contemporary American leftists is that just about everybody is privileged in some ways and oppressed in others. Ways in which we are unjustly and to varying degrees oppressed or privileged include but are not limited to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, and undocumented immigrant status.

      Even the Queen of England is oppressed in some ways, compared to an English man, for example with regard to what sorts of athletic activities she could permissibly undertake when young. And even an African-American woman living in deep poverty in the Deep South, if she is cis-gendered, is probably going to be privileged relative to an African-American *trans*woman living in deep poverty in the Deep South, for example with respect to the ability to walk down the street without being harassed on account of her gender identity, or in how she is likely to be treated by police. (Not that police treatment of poor cis-gendered women of color is not awful, but if I recall correctly a nationally representative study of about 7,000 transgender people found that about half of transwomen of color have been physically assaulted by police, and something like 8% have been sexually assaulted by police.)

      The author’s error is a common one: misinterpreting the idea of white privilege to include the clearly incorrect claim that every individual white person is better off than every individual non-white person *on the whole*, rather than merely in particular respects. Consider the following analogy.

      Imagine two Western European businessmen before the euro: Fritz and Francois. They both frequently travel internationally and thus keep in their possession a supply of money in various currencies, in cash. We note that Francois has more French francs than Fritz does, and we point this fact out to Francois. Outraged and suddenly defensive, Francois replies that this cannot possibly be the case because Fritz has more German deutschmarks than he does. We respond that there is no contradiction here: it can simultaneously be the case both that Francois has more French francs than Fritz does, *and* that Fritz has more German deutschmarks than Francois does. Francois then changes tack, saying that it is impossible for him to have more French francs than Fritz does because, if one were to convert the net worth of both men to dollars, Fritz would have more dollars than Francois would. Again, we would reply that, even if true, this difference in net worth does not at all contradict the fact that Francois has more French francs than Fritz does. It’s simply irrelevant to the question at hand, and the objection amounts to changing the subject (which is often called “derailing” in discussions of privilege in social justice circles).

      (This analogy is misleading in that different national currencies are in general easily convertible, while the same is not true of different forms of privilege. While white privilege and male privilege make it easier to live the American dream and rise up through the class structure, for example, this is neither so simple nor so sure as changing $1,000 for an equivalent sum of yen.)

      So to use the author’s example, a “single white high school educated mother on food stamps” *does* still have *white* privilege relative to Condoleezza Rice, even if she is worse off on the whole. For example, many middle-class African Americans report that, if they are to shop in a department store, they must dress up in something approaching business attire if they wish to avoid being followed around by store employees or security guards worried about shoplifting, while the white mother on food stamps, if her financial situation improved sufficiently as to allow her to shop in such a store, would probably not need to worry about this.

  4. s. wallerstein says

    Maybe some Arabs aren’t white-skinned, but I’ve known several that were, so all this stuff about
    Arab women vs. white woman is just even more nonsense, since some Arab women are white.

  5. Cezary says

    Excellent article.

    I thought this section especially good:

    “And it would require us to defer to her even if her motives were entirely racist. As I pointed out, there are strong reasons to believe that Jarrar’s hurt feelings are unwarranted, including the fact that white belly dancing is not actually a form of mockery. Deference in this case could only be a form of condescension, in which we think of Jarrar’s complaints as unreasonable but of her as unworthy of our reasons”

    There does seem to be a fine line between intellectual condensation and empathy though. Or am I missing the point? My example would be how the following: would it be condescending of me to empathize with a minority that dropped out of high school and is working a low paying job. Despite the additional hardships minorities may face in graduating, is it not condescending of me to think this particular person didn’t have the “strength” to graduate? I’m not buying my argument but can’t clearly think out why.

  6. Zeb says

    Is it not possible to participate in an evil without knowing or intending it? That is what these identity politics crusaders are trying to point out – not that an individual Euo/American belly dancer is a racist or a bigot or oppressor, but that she is participating in a racist and oppressive dynamic. That participation is still in some way condemnable despite the lack of knowledge or intent. It’s like the naive shopper who thinks they’re just getting a great deal on socks at Walmart but in doing so he may be funding child labor. The offender here should not be punished but should be informed, and being informed then has a duty to change behavior.

    The offense in the belly dancing case is participation in a history of cultural imperialism and expropriation. Why is it that an Arab woman can get really into Viennese waltz and not be in the wrong, but an American white woman cannot get into belly dancing without being in the wrong? Well consider why it is that we’d think a white person who was angry at the Arab waltz enthusiast was both racist and kind of crazy – for about 500 years Europeans and American made it their business to violently bring their culture to the rest of the world and both force the peoples there to adopt he Euro-American customs and engendered a white supremicism in those places that ensured that the native populations would aspire to participate and excel in European and American culture, whether it was Bach or rock and roll. So naturally we (I’m a white American) applaud anyone from another culture who takes up our customs. It’s both flattering and interesting to see, and if nothing else it certainly doesn’t hurt or insult us. But at the same time that Europe and America were forcing out cultures (and economics, military, and political regimes) on other peoples, we were forcefully exporting their cultures (as well as their natural resources and their people and their antiquities) to our own lands and using them for our own entertainment within a context of our own creation. That history leads right up to the present and we’re all still participating in it. The illusion that we’re not is one of those white privilege things that isn’t available to people from places still suffering the consequences of past and present colonialism, or if they live in America or Europe, still suffering from bigotry and dis-empowerment based on appearance and culture. So when someone like Jarrar calls out something like belly dancing it would be wrong to understand her as saying that belly dancer [X] as an individual is harming Jarrar as an individual and is therefore personally morally culpable, but rather that belly dancer [X] is participating in a history harmful to whole peoples or even to humanity as a whole, and should stop or at least make a very serious reckoning with that reality.

    • s. wallerstein says


      Almost everyone is privileged in relation to someone else, when you think about it. As Wes points out, a white high-school drop-out is less privileged than an African-American or Arab-American professional, especially if that white high-school drop-out is gay and disabled.

      I’m from Latin-America (and Latin America has been the object of as much imperialism as the Arab world), am Jewish (family killed in the Holocaust, which was far from a privilege, but then again, I have family in Israel, who are priviledged in relation to Palestinians), am well-educated (a privilege), am lower-middle class (not so privileged in economic terms) and am very very introverted (and introverted people are the object of a lot of discrimination).

      Where do I stand on the privilege scale? Whom do I have the right to exclude from my customs because they are privileged in relation to me? Are you more privileged than I am? Do you want to compete?

      It seems to me that much of this privilege talk is an excuse or pretext for people to feel superior to others because they previously were seen as inferior: the last will be first or something like that.

      That privilege and oppression and exploitation and abuses of power exists is a fact and instead of competing to see who is less privileged than who and thus, has the right to make those with privilege feel guilty, maybe those concerned about privilege and oppression and exploitation and abuses of power should begin to do the hard work of political education and organization in order to create societies with less privilege, less oppression, less exploitation, etc.

      • Zeb says

        I think your error, and Wes’, is interpreting all this as individual versus individual. It is not at all about who is more or less privileged than who and who has the right to make whom feel guilty. To say that European and American society have been expropriating and imperializing the societies of Asia, Africa and the Americas for hundreds of years and that this is immoral does not mean that every European descended person is guilty of oppressing every African, Native American, and Asian person. It does mean though that every European descended person can participate in that immorality, for example by freely borrowing a caricatured out of context cultural practice like belly dancing. On the other hand if an Arab borrows a caricatured out of context cultural practice like watlzing, she is not doing the same immoral thing in reverse because that reverse history does not exist. So it’s not about whether you or I are more privileged and who then gets moral superiority over the other, it’s about how the cultures and societies we embody relate to each other presently and historically and how we participate in that relationship.

        • s. wallerstein says


          Economic and geopolitical imperialism is an on-going fact. If people are concerned about it (and they should be in ethical terms), there are lots of organizations dedicating to global justice, to stopping drone warfare, to ending sweatshops and regulating companies which take advantage of low wages in the third world, etc. In fact, we might all consider how our relatively comfortable life-style is made possible by products from low-wage jobs in countries where legislation protecting workers is non-existent.

          In order to deal with such evils, we need to unite, to organize, to stop bickering over whether you are dancing my dance or I am dancing yours.
          That is just plain childish. The cause of ending imperialism is not in the least advanced by childish bickering and in fact, well-intentioned people concerned about injustice in the third world (including Arab countries) probably will be turned off by being told that their dancing innocent dances is somehow “imperialistic”.

          It’s a globalized world. No one owns belly dancing, any more than the Italians own pizza or the Jews own bagels.

          I understand that some people have been so oppressed or screwed over that the only thing that they have left is a sense of identity based on traditions and I feel for them.

          However, the cause of anti-imperialism is not advanced by hanging on to traditions. In fact, hanging on to traditions is reactionary.

          In fact, the great British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn, recently deceased, has an excellent book on how so many so-called traditions actually are fairly recent inventions, although those involved with them consider them to be age-old. I don’t know if belly dancing is in that category, but one wonders.

          How about a boycott on Israel, if you’re concerned about imperialism against Arabs? How about indicting Bush and Blair for war crimes?

          • Zeb says

            I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said other than your either/or fallacy. One might say that if *you* were really concerned about imperialism, or individual liberty for that matter, you wouldn’t spend time taking down some novelist’s essay on belly dancing much less an internet comment on the same. But it’s not an either/or choice. We can fight the much larger impact aspects of imperialism like economic exploitation, occupation and unjust war while still debating relatively subtle and low impact things like cultural appropriation. This shouldn’t be divisive. We can unite on the big issues while still investigating and debating the small ones.

    • Cezary says

      I think Wes responds to your argument in the original article (which I summarize as one-way racism being OK due to historical power relations). I can’t see this argument being very enticing, or, at least as a Polish person don’t want to spend the rest of my life making sure German’s don’t eat perogies.

  7. staci says

    This is bullshit. Minorities cannot appropriate anything from white people no matter if we take up “white” activities or not. Appropriation occurs when a white person take m and m or miley cyrus who takes up a in this example something created by and for black people and then it becomes popular or a trend or that white person makes more money of their appropriation than the minorities that invented the art form. Black people can take up rock n roll ( which we created anyways) and we will never have the money or fame of a white artist. But let miley twerk ( terribly smh) and all of a sudden you have twerking classes with becky and shes making money off of something that white girls used to call black girls nasty for doing. SMH white privilage is a powerful drug.

    • Noah says

      I can see where you’re coming from. I know that blues music was largely ignored in America, (amongst white audiences) until English bands imitated the style and brought it back over the Atlantic. In other words, nobody in America, outside black audiences, gave much of a shit about Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, etc., until The Rolling Stones / Led Zeppelin, and the like “re-packaged” the music in the form of skinny white guys in tight jeans. As you said, this type of thing is still going on: Miley Cyrus “twerks” and then all of a sudden it’s a big thing and everybody’s doing it.

      To me, this says more about the (perhaps subconscious) racial prejudices of the average consumer than the racial prejudices of the artists. So, I think criticism should not be directed towards Jimmy Page for imitating African American blues music, but instead towards the masses of people who paid no attention to blues music until a white guy was performing it. Obviously Jimmy Page respected the blues and the people who invented it; he himself wasn’t prejudiced.

      This is why I find this whole issue so sticky: on one hand, I think it’s ridiculous to outlaw any one from taking part in a cultural practice they enjoy; but on the other hand, I can see how individuals, in sum total, are contributing to the long-running historical trend of profiting from another culture’s inventions more than that culture.

      If somebody put a gun to my head and told me to take a position, I’d say that people, whatever racial group they belong to, who engage in belly-dancing, or anything else, should understand the historical significance of what they’re doing, so that if people ask them about it, they can point to the original culture and say “they invented it, and it meant X and Y to them.” They should understand they are taking part in a tradition, not just in some fad. This is how it was when I took karate as a kid, and it seemed to garner respect for the art.

  8. X Li says

    The points intelligently discussed here are irrelevant to the original objections raised by Jarrar. Of course, the article from Jarrar is open to interpretation, but it seems to me that she is objecting to white women appropriating belly dancing not as a matter of principle, but because she views the practice as pretentious and gaudy (e.g. white women taking Arabic performance names or wearing fake Arabic looking accessories, while having completely separate identities most of the time), as well as failing to respect the traditions inherent in the craft (e.g. the context for dancing, the desired body type of the dancer).

    It is entirely symmetrical for one group to accept another group adopting their practices only if that practice is adopted faithfully. For instance, a Japanese man dressed in a suit everyday of his working life is a faithful adaption of Western clothing. It would be different if Japanese people always wear traditional Japanese clothing, but for special occasions wear Western garb because it entertains them to pretend to be Americans. Of course, you can find both acceptable, but it is not morally inconsistent to treat them differently.

  9. Harri Siikala says

    This strikes me as an extremely simpleminded (I’d like to match Wes and say immoral) examination of a complex issue. Most of what I find troubling here stems from a blind faith in universalizing liberal individualism.
    The notion that we all have equal ethical responsibilities towards one another is in no way incompatible with the idea that certain cultural or “ethnic” minorities have distinct rights (as they often do legally) or to the idea that we have a moral obligation to be especially sensitive to their values due to their disadvantaged position in society, structural racism, etc. Due to the recent rhetoric US government has used about the war between civilizations which echoes 19th century Western imperialist sentiment about Arabs (to take one example) we could argue that Arabs are one such group.

    You constantly point to the intentions and feelings of single individuals, but cultural appropriation should be viewed as part of wider social discourse about otherness. It should be analysed and evaluated as a cultural and ideological phenomenon, and at this level there are real asymmetries and inequalities that no amount of false equations between belly dancing and the waltz will eradicate.

    To evaluate what is moral in this case one should describe what is actually happening, what kind of cultural discourses and representations are reproduced and maintained, rather than appealing to abstract notions about equality. What is almost entirely missing from your text is the politics of representation: what does it mean to appropriate certain aspects of a culture, what aspects get appropriated, and what does that say about how otherness is conceived. With belly dancing one could make an argument tying the innocuous seeming role playing to eroticism, racial otherness, and orientalist ideas of the exotic.
    Not all cultural practices are used in the same way to maintain identity in the face social, economic, and political hardship.

    I’ll give a personal example of cultural appropriation. I conducted fieldwork in Samoa and was asked by my host family to get traditional tattoos. When I finally did this they were very happy (even though my tattoos were not of the most traditional kind), but when I visited Samoan communities in New Zealand people were much more ambivalent about a white man sporting Samoan tattoos. Many viewed this as insulting cultural appropriation. In New Zealand Samoans were a socio-economically marginalized immigrant community, so in this context my actions constituted cultural plunder, while in Samoa, where I was the minority as a white person, they were happy because in a sense they had appropriated me. The same action in two different contexts had different ramifications, and I’d be a fool not to be sensitive to the moral issues this posed.

    • Seth B. says

      Is your argument then that a white person belly dancing is only acceptable if they are directly invited to by an Arab?

      • H.S. says

        Not at all. I don’t know when it is acceptable and when its not because I don’t know enough about the cultural context. What I argued against, perhaps rather sharply, are the cursory dismissals of type of argument that Jarrar makes, or of “identity politics” in general, on the grounds laid out by Wes, not to speak of accusations of reversed racism or appeals to “common stock of humanity.”
        It should be noted that race is not necessarily the locus of these kinds of disputes. Who has what rights and how boundaries of groups are negotiated is a complex and often problematic issue.
        The whole notion of “identity politics” partly arises from a schism between assertions of distinct group identities and ideology of the modern state which guarantees equality through individualism.

  10. H.S. says

    To clarify, surely this is not only about a single person’s hurt feelings, or some kind of essentialzed absolute moral asymmetry between two reified groups (reading such nonsense into Jarrad’s text is a bit too much). But it is about specific cultural representations and the notion that certain socially constructed groups have distinct rights (pertaining to their cultural heritage etc). For example, if some African Americans use the “n-word” would you insist on the right to use the word on the grounds of common humanity and the assurance that you do it jovially.

    Sure, conservatives in America have become very good at using the persecution card (Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas was a pretty good analysis of the culture wars). The difference is, of course, that the values and practices that they champion are quite in the mainstream (hegemonic even?), and that they also simultaneously legitimize themselves by saying they speak for the majority (or want the majority to conform to their values). This is completely different from minorities which try to maintain distinct social identities and are sensitive to the way their practices are appropriated / distorted by those they deem outsiders.

    Where the matter becomes more complex is looking at the various ways in which groups self-identify, exclude people, are heterogeneous in constitution, and cross-cut various borders of difference and privilege. But to appeal to individualism that simply looks past such borders is about as convincing a solution as Stephen Colbert’s colour blindness.

    As for the politically dangerous implications of “identity politics” or the Herderian notion of distinct cultures and all that goes with it, the universalizing individualism of liberal ideology can be equally pernicious and equally effective in sustaining social inequality. The homogenizing ideology attached to the modern administrative-bureaucratic state can be equally the source of systemic oppression.

  11. s. wallerstein says

    The specific situation here is important. Belly-dancing is already globalized, already part of our general culture. It’s practiced by lots of well-intentioned non-Arab women (not all of them white of course, there being latinas, Asians, blacks, etc.), many of whom probably seek it out because they want to participate in and learn from non-Western values.

    It would be so very different if McDonalds or Coca Cola or the Gap or Apple were to appropriate a previously untouched custom or article from a third world culture in order to market it. That would be a reason to protest.

    • Profile photo of H. Siikala says

      I agree that it’s debatable whether belly dancing represents in any way a heinous example of cultural appropriation. The argument Wes was making did not hinge on the example, but was, as I understood it, a more general one.

      Economic exploitation is one thing, but regardless of their good intentions individuals can also unwittingly reproduce racist or demeaning collective sentiments. This, I think, has been the issue raised recently about American white artists mimicking certain aspects of black or hip hop culture in order to appear rebellious or hip (class has been similarly used). It is the association of race with danger, sexuality, physicality, violence, etc. which it could be argued reproduce centuries old stereotypes about blackness in America. Whether this is right, or whether one could seriously make a similar argument for belly dancing, I don’t know (I’m not particularly fond of Edward Said’s Orientalism), but I would not dismiss such critical perspective out of hand.

      That said I think critical theory has been long plagued by self-defeating political hyper-vigilance which tends to reduce the complexity of cultural representation to a kind of power functionalism.

  12. s. wallerstein says

    Harri Siikala:

    You seem to have studied these issues more than I have, but as I said, the specific situation is important here.

    I don’t live in the U.S., but my outsider impression is that racism against blacks in America is in a class by itself, while that against Arab-Americans is not.

    So given the poverty and exclusion that African-Americans suffer, whites using black music in order to appear cool or rebellious is offensive and childishly pretentious, especially since black music often talks about real-life dangers and injustice, going to prison, being the object of police brutality, being generally screwed over by the system, a situation that applies to very few whites. It’s like people who never have been at war pinning medals on their chest, so to speak.

  13. Anon. says

    Would someone mind explaining what the downside of “cultural appropriation” is? Who, exactly, is hurt when I eat a taco? Is there any actual harm done, other than someone being “offended”? You say it’s about groups, not individuals…who is defining these groups? The commentators on PEL? What gives you the authority? How is it even possible to have ethical responsibilities to some loosely defined abstraction? How could you possibly justify the asymmetric nature of the responsibilities that these ethical rules result in? How far back in history does one have to go in order to determine who is oppressed and who is not? Arabs ruled in Spain for a long time, does that mean they can’t eat Tapas?

    • says

      “Who, exactly, is hurt when I eat a taco?”
      No one I assume. Though the example is clearly meant to trivialize the issue, one should be able to imagine other cultural features / practices that are more central to a social identity, or used differently to maintain it. Religious ones are perhaps easiest to imagine in this way, and indeed are singled out by Wes several times in the text.

      “Is there any actual harm done, other than someone being “offended”?”
      You might as well ask what harm racial slurs do as long as you don’t punch someone. One could claim that social repercussions of an “offence” are not always the same if certain groups are more susceptible to harm because they are already in various ways marginalized. Some people may feel a pressing need to maintain control of their cultural identity, especially if they feel that appropriation by the “hegemonic” discourse entails racist distortion.

      “…who is defining these groups? The commentators on PEL? What gives you the authority?”
      Certainly not me, I wasn’t in any way suggesting to speak for anyone. Social groups become defined discursively, through cultural practices, and through the power dynamics of societies and various processes of globalization. This as I said is extremely complex issue and negotiation of group boundaries is often highly contentious. This becomes quite clear when distinct legal rights are attached to group membership, as is the case with Native Americans.

      “How is it even possible to have ethical responsibilities to some loosely defined abstraction?”
      Many would claim to have ethical responsibilities to the state, family, or local community, all abstractions to different degree. We do not encounter people in a vacuum but through their social personas that are partly constituted through affiliation with various social groups. Though such groups are socially constructed doesn’t mean they aren’t real. It is a peculiar notion of Western individualism that stripped of all social affiliation there is anything left (the universal human subjects).

      “How could you possibly justify the asymmetric nature of the responsibilities that these ethical rules result in?”
      Easily. There is no asymmetry. Let’s say I’m caring for a starving man and a slightly peckish man. I have equal responsibility towards them, and thus I should give all my food to the starving man. Basically we have to look at the repercussions of our actions, which may be different when dealing with different people.

      “How far back in history does one have to go in order to determine who is oppressed and who is not?”
      Again the groups, or any kind of abstract moral stance towards them, should not be viewed as a reified fixed thing. But surely we can’t deny that some groups, classes, etc. are marginalized or oppressed or have a different relationship to the normative order as defined by various power structures (in the Foucauldian sense)?

      “Arabs ruled in Spain for a long time, does that mean they can’t eat Tapas?”
      That’s just silly. None of this automatically means anything, you have to look at the social reality.

      There is a tendency to draw false equivalences in this debate between cultural practices (waltz, belly dancing, tacos) and between social effects (my hurt feelings vs their hurt feelings).

      • Cezary says

        Hey H.S.

        I appreciate your comments but (probably because I’m dull) I’m having a hard time drawing any conclusions from them.

        I agree that certain groups are marginalized and oppressed and therefore deserve different treatment. Your starving man vs nippish man metaphor makes sense of that.

        How does this tie-in to participating in the culture of the marginalized group? The author of the original piece did a follow-up article on salon where she takes down what I see as straw-men arguments (racist bloggers called her stupid etc…) and in my view rescinds the original argument of “white woman shouldn’t belly dance” in favor of a more reasonable “white woman shouldn’t be racist caricatures if participating in other cultures.”

        If that’s the argument, I’m certainly behind it. It shouldn’t take much convincing that racial slurs, Mickey Rooney pretending to be Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or white dudes getting drunk in native costumes is offensive and does harm to a group’s identity. I’m just not sure if you’re arguing for more? I don’t think any part of culture can be cordoned off by a specific race, body-type, sex etc. And the end of the day, I’m not sure how cordoning off culture does anything good or helpful. People use culture for their own purposes whether they are participating in it within their cultural identify or outside of it. I don’t think claims of “authenticity” are at stake here as I don’t think people participating in other cultures are at root seeking “authenticity”.

        What I don’t get is arguing that someone participating in another culture could, though not offend or harm a specific person in said culture, but still cause harm to some “other”.

        • says

          Well, even in the first article she called it a “brownface Orientalist façade.” And as I argued above there needs to be no malicious intent to unwittingly reproduce racist representations.Idealized depictions of otherness can be equally distorting, like the stereotype of the noble savage.
          A key text int his example would be Edward Said’s Orientalism, though I find it’s critical stance rather simplistic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism_(book)

          Beyond racism some cultural practices may be felt to be an intrinsic part of a group’s identity, or part of its wealth. You could think of it as intellectual property. Controlling such cultural resources may be more critical in cases where the group does not have as many other resources to draw from because of its marginalized status (as in my example above of Samoan tattooing in two contexts).

          I agree that we can’t cordon off culture, people use cultural practices in various ways, and that authenticity is not at stake here (its only one more socially constructed value). I’m not suggesting any rules about appropriation. Only that people be a bit more sensitive to the kinds of claims that Jarrar makes. And I think Wes’ criticism is ideologically and philosophically highly problematic.

          Furthermore I’m thoroughly tired of hearing about reverse racism. There seems to be a backlash against certain politically correctness that is coupled with a raging sense of entitlement I find obnoxious. Anyway, in no way do I aspire to be a PC police, but watcha gonna do.

  14. says

    There is an actual philosophically interesting problem in this debate, beyond all the moral indignation one way or another, about the way in which society or social existence is conceptualized.

    I’d argue, and this is not an original idea, that there is a way in which post-modern critical theory which seeks to deconstruct knowledge hierarchies and essentialized boundaries of social groups becomes an extension of an individualizing and homogenizing ideology of modernity. A certain rejection of difference in the name of equality becomes a project of both modern state power and of deconstructionist theory, and both, despite their commitment to equality (in the case of postmodernism even subversiveness), can actually serve to maintain the status quo and massive inequality. After all deconstruction is said and done we can quote Thatcher: “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women…” Not that I’m suggesting that Wes is being postmodern, his arguments are more classical. From this perspective the evocation of difference becomes jingoistic nationalism, racism, Nazism, or tribalism. Yet the eradication of difference can justify imperialism (cultural, economic, even military), the suppression of cultural revival movements and striving for social justice (as dangerous ethno-nationalism), and socio-economic inequality on a massive scale.

  15. Cezary says

    Aren’t you mixing up two distinct arguments? I read Wes’ original argument as one for cultural exchange – the ability to engage in cultural activities regardless of one’s born identity. I don’t see this as the same as claiming there are no distinct identities or cultures and we should all be a homogenous mass. Does the first argument necessarily lead to the second (I don’t see it). Wes isn’t claiming everyone should be bellydancing or no one should be as everyone knows waltz is the best form of dance – everyone should be waltzing.

    I agree that one’s self-identity is important, and usually is elevated by a group/cultures/society identity. I recently read some Judith Butler where she spoke of the importance of gender identity. For her, gender definitions should be broad enough to not exclude those that don’t have traditional conceptions of their gender, yet not so broad as to lose any meaning as an identity. Like you mentioned – if you deconstruct further, all you get is “taboos”, homogeneity and meaninglessness depending on what deconstructionist you’re reading.

    I see the same argument for a cultural identity. You can’t prescribe a specific set of actions to a person of culture/identity “A” and you can’t disallow other groups from engaging in those specific actions. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t dynamic elements that make up a culture or identity. I think preservation of culture or identity is not accomplished by guarding it and claiming it solely as one’s own.

    • says

      I don’t think I am mixing two arguments. I’m only extrapolating from my view of what Wes is saying, which relies on classic enlightenment liberal individualism. Difference which makes a difference, for example difference which dictates different moral rights, has always been a problem to an ideology with freedom and equality as its central values (the former usually trumping the latter). Let’s take this argument: “drawing a conclusion about any randomly chosen individual from generalizations about racial inequalities is simply unfair…we don’t need to know someone’s level of suffering or privilege to know whether they are worthy of ethical treatment. Their humanity is the only form of identification required.” Well, yes, but this could be used as an argument against affirmative action; is it not fundamentally unfair to disadvantaged white people, aren’t we making an unfair generalization. The idea of equality also relates uneasily to distinct legal rights given to ethnic minorities like Native Americans (which then create their own internal systems of inequality and exclusion). What is even harder to accept is distinct groups or status positions which claim separate moral rights, to, for example a cultural practice.
      The ideal imagined equality of modern individualism can serve to powerfully obscure substantive social inequality. But now I’m really straying from the topic…

      • says

        Another view on the matter from Zizek:

        “My problem with liberalism is in principle. This move of the new Left, or new radicals, towards a problem of identity politics (minority politics, gay rights, etc.) lacks a certain more radical insight into the basically antagonistic character of society. This radical questioning has simply disappeared.
        For example, take my friend Judith Butler. Of course from time to time, she pays lip service to some kind of anticapitalism, but it’s totally abstract, what it’s basically saying is just how lesbians and other oppressed sexual minorities should perceive their situation not as the assertion of some kind of substantial sexual identity, but as constructing an identity which is contingent, which means that also the so-called straight normal sexuality is contingent, and everybody is constructed in a contingent way, and so on, and in this way, nobody should be excluded. There is no big line between normality identity and multiple roles. The problem I see here is that there is nothing inherently anticapitalist in this logic. But even worse is that what this kind of politically correct struggling for tolerance and so on advocates is basically not only not in conflict with the modern tendencies of global capitalism, but it fits perfectly. What I think is that today’s capitalism thrives on differences.”

        This critique I can sympathize with, tough I’d argue difference Zizek refers to is a difference that does not make a difference, for it is contingent and encompassed by sameness, hence just grist for the mill of capitalism.

  16. Julia says

    This is the most sensible, reasonable article I have read on identity politics and cultural appropriation. I was feeling mightily depressed with the interwebs, this has cheered me up.


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