Belly Dance, Writing, and White Privilege

 Is this offensive, okay, or merely ridiculous? Photo from Slate.com


Is this offensive, okay, or merely ridiculous? Photo from Slate.com

Here I go, not writing about writing for weeks because I said I wanted a break from it, and when I come back to it I jump into something big with both feet. Let’s talk white privilege and racism, shall we?

The other day I read this article on Slate: Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers. (I also read a more nuanced response on the Patheos.com blog Mulsimah Media Watch, a fascinating and eye-opening blog in general that I highly recommend reading, and a useful response to read even if you don’t click through to the Slate post.) The author of the original post, Randa Jarrar, presents her argument as a feminist woman of color, articulating her anger at this form of cultural appropriation where white women wear hyper-sexualized costumes and use fake Arabic-sounding stage names while gyrating. I admit I felt a twinge of defensiveness on behalf of my many white friends who belly dance, but I can understand Jarrar’s anger. A person of color in this culture already faces so much oppression, and now here’s yet another thing that’s being taken away from them. Still, I had trouble agreeing with the idea that white people should never do dances that come from other cultures.
Here’s one problem: where do you draw the line? Am I as a white person allowed to do yoga? Enjoy anime? Play music by Chinese composers? (There are some differences between these examples and the white chick in the jingly hipscarf, but they’re all somewhere on the same scale.) More to the point – am I as a white writer allowed to write about minority characters? I’ll come back to this.

But the thing that bothers me most about the suggestion that I shouldn’t do these things is that the arts are one of the best ways to engage a person’s humanity, and sharing in the arts is one of the best ways to understand other people. If we’re not allowed to have any cultural exchange, then we have to draw firm lines between cultures, never to be crossed. That arrangement might protect people within a culture but it also promotes racism. Racial understanding is fostered when you can interact, share, and relate to people in other races and cultures. Not that the hyper-sexual, Orientalist version of Westernized belly dance is the best way to share in another culture, but banning it wholesale is not the way to better racial understanding.

This issue of respectfulness, I think, is crucial. Be aware of what you’re doing, where it came from, and how you’re representing the original creators. There’s a world of difference between blackface and young white urban kids dancing hip-hop alongside their black friends. And this is the issue that becomes crucial in my writing example. My current WIP is a police procedural set in a near-future version of my own community, Greater Phoenix. This is a very racially diverse population, heavily Hispanic, historically Native, with a strong African-American, Asian, and Middle Eastern presence. I’m writing from two alternating points of view: a white woman (hello, author stand-in) and a Hispanic man. Their boss is a black woman. A coworker is a Korean-American who’s been assigned a Chinese name by a clueless governmental authority. And so on. I fully expect to catch a lot of heat if and when this series gets published. Who do I think I am, being a white person, appropriating the voices of people of color?

But I think it would be even more racist, not to mention dishonest, to leave their voices out – or worse, to make all the minorities marginalized, non-narrative characters. So I have a job to do. First: present the characters as honestly and respectfully as I can. All the good guys should not be white and all the bad guys should not be black. (A running theme that I’m working with is the idea that preconceived notions about good guys and bad guys are wrong, anyway.) All the drug dealers and users should not be one race. All the cops should not be one race. All the people of one race shouldn’t get either all the happy endings or all the tragic ones. Be conscious, be respectful.

I also have to admit that I am a recipient of white privilege. I think John Scalzi’s take on this heated topic was the best: being a white straight male is like playing a computer game on the easy setting. You won’t necessarily win, you still have to work at it, everything won’t just drop into your lap, you still need a bit of skill and luck – but all other things being equal, you’ll find it easier to win than another person playing the same game on a harder setting. My ability to write is a result of my educational background, which is itself partly a result of my hard work and some innate intelligence, but largely a result of having been born white and middle-class, with access to good schools and parents who encouraged my educational goals. I never had to deal with anyone saying I wasn’t good enough for school, that I didn’t belong in school, that I was never going to make anything of myself so why bother going to school. Those are obstacles I simply never had to face. I don’t need to feel guilty about that any more than I need to lord it over people; I do have to accept it and own up to it. And then I should recognize that I have some responsibility to behave respectfully, and maybe put the advantages I had to good use.

What’s my other option? Not to write? Silence myself? Do I really have a story that needs to be told, or should I just shut up? That’s a whole other discussion.

Belly Dance, Writing, and White Privilege

Is this offensive, okay, or merely ridiculous? Photo from Slate.com

Here I go, not writing about writing for weeks because I said I wanted a break from it, and when I come back to it I jump into something big with both feet. Let’s talk white privilege and racism, shall we?
The other day I read this article on Slate: Why I Hate White Belly Dancers. (I also read a response posted on the Patheos.com blog Mulsimah Media Watch, a fascinating and eye-opening blog in general that I highly recommend reading, and a useful response to read even if you don’t click through to the original post.) ___The author__ presents her argument as a feminist woman of color, articulating her anger at this form of cultural appropriation where white women wear hyper-sexualized costumes and use fake Arabic-sounding stage names while gyrating. I admit I felt a twinge of defensiveness on behalf of my many white friends who belly dance, but I can understand __the author’s__ anger. A person of color in this culture already faces so much oppression, and now here’s yet another thing that’s being taken away from them. Still, I had trouble agreeing with the idea that white people should never do dances that come from other cultures.
Here’s one problem: where do you draw the line? Am I as a white person allowed to do yoga? Enjoy anime or manga? Play music by Chinese composers? (More to the point – am I as a white writer allowed to write about minority characters? I’ll come back to this.) But the thing that bothers me most about the suggestion that I shouldn’t do these things is that the arts are one of the best ways to engage a person’s humanity, and sharing in the arts is one of the best ways to understand other people. If we’re not allowed to have any cultural exchange, then we have to draw firm lines between cultures, never to be crossed. That arrangement might protect people within a culture but it also promotes racism. Racial understanding is fostered when you can interact, share, and relate to people in other races and cultures. Not that the hyper-sexual, Orientalist version of Westernized belly dance is the best way to share in another culture, but banning it wholesale is not the way to better racial understanding.
This issue of respectfulness, I think, is crucial. Be aware of what you’re doing, where it came from, and how you’re representing the original creators. There’s a world of difference between blackface and young white urban kids dancing hip-hop alongside their black friends. And this is the issue that becomes crucial in my writing example. My current WIP is set in a near-future version of my own community, Greater Phoenix. This is a very racially diverse population, heavily Hispanic, historically Native, with a strong African-American, Asian, and Middle Eastern presence. I’m writing from two alternating points of view: a white woman (hello, author stand-in) and a Hispanic man. Their boss is a black woman. A coworker is a Korean-American who’s been assigned a Chinese name. And so on. I fully expect to catch a lot of heat if and when this series gets published. Who do I think I am, being a white person, appropriating the voices of people of color?
But I think it would be even more racist, not to mention dishonest, to leave their voices out – or worse, to make all the minorities minor, non-narrative characters. So I have a job to do. First: present the characters as honestly and respectfully as I can. All the good guys should not be white and all the bad guys should not be black. (A running theme that I’m working with is the idea that preconceived notions about good guys and bad guys are wrong.) All the drug dealers and users should not be one race. All the cops should not be one race. All the people of one race shouldn’t get either all the happy endings or all the tragic ones. Be conscious, be respectful.
I also have to admit that I am a recipient of white privilege. I think __Jon Scalzi’s__ take on this heated topic was the best: being a white straight male is like playing a computer game on the easy setting. You won’t necessarily win, you still have to work at it, everything won’t just drop into your lap, you still need a bit of skill and luck, but all other things being equal, you’ll find it easier to win than another person playing the same game with the same conditions but on a harder setting. My ability to write is a result of my educational background, which is itself partly a result of my hard work and some innate intelligence, but largely a result of having been born white and middle-class, with access to good schools and parents who encouraged my educational goals. I never had to deal with anyone saying I wasn’t good enough for school, that I didn’t belong in school, that I was never going to make anything of myself so why bother going to school. Those are obstacles I simply never had to face. I neither need to feel guilty about that nor to lord it over people; I do have to accept it and own up to it. And then I should recognize that I have some responsibility to behave respectfully, and maybe put the advantages I had to good use.
What’s my other option? Not to write? Silence myself? Do I *really* have a story that needs to be told, or should I just shut up? That’s a whole other discussion.

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