I’ve been invited to participate in a community consultation about cultural appropriation organized by a local dance company. I have chosen not to attend, deciding instead to write an open response. I see this as an opportunity for white allies who are serious about dismantling cultural appropriation to learn just a bit little more, and for me, a very short woman of colour, to take up just a little bit more space in this massive world, even for just a few moments.
Dear White Women Allies Seeking Counsel,
Thank you for your follow up email which I received on an auspicious morning last week when two black women were thrusted into the spotlight: Michelle Obama, whose 2008 speech was plagiarized by Melania Trump, and actress Leslie Jones who closed down her twitter account after receiving abusive harassment by racist trolls. One woman’s inspirational words were lifted, while another was subjected to heinous online violence for achieving cinematic mainstream celebrity. Both instances were attacks against two specific black women in particular; both instances are attempts to denigrate the dignity and accomplishments of women of colour in general. Both are acts of appropriation.
Your concerns to resolve cultural appropriation within your dance company is absolutely necessary in a time of intense systemic racial violence towards, and the cultural appropriation of Indigenous People and communities of colour. We need more allies and artists to take this issue seriously and it’s my hope that your actions will serve as a precedent for others.
While I believe in the integrity of your initiative, a three-hour consultation is simply not enough time to address the perplexity of cultural appropriation, which will continue to flourish under the paradigm of systemic racism and white supremacy. Undoing cultural appropriation is as life-long as dismantling systemic racism. Although I’m unable to meet with your company at this time to discuss and answer your questions, I offer the following suggestions—and critique—in your long, but affirming process.
In your initial invitation, you wrote:
You have been invited because of your strong moral compass, your bang-on analysis, and your personal knowledge of dance. You are a valued community member and someone we hold deep respect for. In navigating this sensitive topic we feel that reaching out for insight is a paramount step in our desire for a conscientious and informed transition. Our ultimate goal is to be more respectful, appropriate and ethical in our art and in our business. […] As a sign of our appreciation we will offer an honorarium […] for your time.”
Too often, it’s easy for white allies to step back and wait to be educated by people of colour. This is not a new argument I’m putting forward, but it needs repeating, because when asking for insight from marginalized communities, it’s important to ask, who will gain and who will lose in the transmission of knowledge? Understanding unequal power relationships is crucial in eradicating cultural appropriation.
While your offer to financially compensate my time is a kind gesture, it’s actually an unfair exchange, because it’s not my time you’re paying for. What you’re really paying for is the acquisition of my intellectual and creative labour. My knowledge and analysis on the complexity of cultural appropriation is a summation of not only 21 years of social activism, solidarity work, and feminist practice, but a lifetime of surviving institutional racism, white supremacy, sexism and misogyny. It’s impossible to quantify the value of this hard-earned knowledge in dollars—knowledge which can only be exchanged for like-knowledge and political action.
What you’re asking from me is logical under a paradigm in which women of colour are expected to perform and provide solidarity and schooling for white allies, without any sort of genuine reciprocity, or acknowledgement of their intellectual and creative labour—and the exploitation of their labour. To learn from, and eventually use my “bang-on analysis” to advance your art and business without reciprocity is appropriation, and the apogee of race and class privilege. This wouldn’t be problematic if the scales were equal; if I had the same social mobility, wide platforms, vast networks and access to resources to mediate my knowledge and influence the public as you do. I don’t.
“Due to growing concerns around cultural appropriation [we are] currently in the process of transitioning away from the identification with bellydance, and [are] seeking advice and counsel from informed community members about ethical dilemmas in how to go about this in the most respectful and appropriate way.”
Your letter is also concerned about the “ethical dilemmas” of “transitioning away from” the cultural appropriation of bellydance. In my opinion, there are no dilemmas because the solution is really quite simple: To not appropriate, one must be committed to the opposite, which is to give back, to return favours, to reciprocate. Since the very definition of appropriation is an act or instance of taking especially illegally or unfairly, then the obvious counteraction is not only to acknowledge what was taken, but to actively return what was taken.
While the process to end cultural appropriation is a political movement, it starts at the personal level, in your daily practice, in the smallest actions. It’s as tiny and meaningful as reciprocating a homemade meal, to fulfilling requests in a timely manner, to returning—without being asked—what was borrowed. In political terms, giving back means supporting like-minded allies’ initiatives, or fiercely addressing systemic injustices against marginalized communities you have greatly benefited from, and thus, must be accountable to. This doesn’t only mean celebrating and glorifying the artistic customs of Middle Eastern cultures, but supporting the exhausting, yet urgent work that social justice activists from these communities dedicate themselves to every single day. In this particular context, the highest expression of reciprocity is to centre the fight against racism and white supremacy within your artistic expression and cultural work, since cultural appropriation is an inbred result of these oppressive twin systems.
To the point: If the principle of reciprocity is at the forefront of your mind, it will be expressed in all your actions whether you’re conscious of it or not, since reciprocity would be central to your political views, your ideology, your art, and how you see your place in the world. If reciprocity is the true meridian of your moral compass, there wouldn’t be a need to debate or pander to “ethical dilemmas” since they wouldn’t exist.
I understand these suggestions may not be the advice or guidance you’re looking for, and you may even disagree with them. Or maybe not. After all, transforming cultural practices and carrying out solidarity work is certainly not without its challenges and disagreeable moments. However, I believe that challenging, disagreeable, and at times, explosive moments, lend themselves to real learning opportunities and growth. Best of luck with your very timely, and important project.