Novelist 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