While eavesdropping on a Twitter conversation, I wound up reading an article denouncing white women who take up belly dancing. The author says it’s an ignorant appropriation of Arab culture and the equivalent of white people performing in “brownface.”
The article took me by surprise. I’d never thought about the racial politics of belly dancing. That says something about the privileged position from which I experience the array of cultures in the pluralistic Canadian society in which I’ve always lived. I’m someone who — despite my gender, low artsy income, and, strangely enough, my height — scores fairly high on privilege-o-meters. I know that and I don’t argue when someone with an ethnicity other than my own tells me what looks to me like a well-meant tribute is actually unfair cultural appropriation. I defer to them completely. There’s been a lot of huffy Internet backlash against the article. I will not add anything to that. The role of humble, awestruck observer of diversity suits me just fine.
I felt a little chastened by the article anyway. To insulate myself from my white imperialist self-loathing I went to my closet and reached for something colourful from my own culture.
Don’t be fooled by the Swedish surname I use now. Quist is my husband’s family name. I like it. It works well for me. The Q is distinctive, the name is short and Google-friendly. Though, when people ask me how it’s pronounced I have got to stop answering, “Phonetically.”
My real name, my ethnic name, my blood name is MacKenzie. It’s a name so Scottish it verges on caricature. In my genealogy, I can trace my roots back to this clan three different ways. No matter how generic it is, I love my family name.
My Mister loves it too. His dad lived in Scotland for two years before he raised a family of Anglo-Swedish Mc-wannabe Canadians (love that pluralism). Some of my siblings-in-law can highland fling and play a few bagpipe tunes. Maybe it’s because I’ve got nothing to prove that I never learned to do either of those things. I don’t do things because they’re Scottish. Things are Scottish because I do them.
I was touched anyway when my husband gave me the gift of a kilted skirt (a “kilt” is strictly menswear) in my family’s tartan. It’s beautiful, dark green, heavy with pleats, handmade in Cape Breton, a symbol of my ancestors’ passion for ticking off and freaking out the English.
Even before I had a sweetie-pie to bring me authentic tartans, I’d been wearing cheap, chain store versions of dark green kilted skirts my whole life. They’re not hard to find. Unlike belly dancer outfits, kilted skirts are everywhere. Right now there are probably thousands and thousands of non-Scottish girls wearing them as school uniforms all over the world. And that makes my relationship with my skirt a little complicated.
I wore it yesterday. I wore it even though I was a little nervous someone might assume I was wearing it not as a grown up Scottish woman but as an old otaku tart making a pathetic attempt to appropriate the culture of East Asian school girls. When my friends’ 15-year-old anime loving daughter saw my skirt she admired it — a lot. It didn’t matter that it’s a stodgy knee-length and closed with a pin bearing my oh-so-Euro family crest. The unintended connection to kawaii Asian students was not lost on her.
Wait. Here is where I do not descend into a snarky denouncement of non-Scots wearing tartans and transforming an emblem of my culture into something vaguely awkward for me. Here is where I will not complain the way I used to groan and barely restrain myself from going all highlander on my father-in-law when he’d strut around bawling in that horrible fake brogue of his. My culture created this situation ourselves. We can’t colonize – both literally and figuratively – other nations and then complain when their use of our artifacts makes us look silly.
South Korean schoolgirls used to wear han bok – flowing, bell-shaped, colourful dresses — to school until their region got entangled with the West and they eventually wound up dressed in the tartan skirts of our schools uniforms. If white belly dancers got dressed up and performed out of a desperate sense that the only way to prosper and find a voice in the world was to do so, their position would be different. It wouldn’t be so privileged. It would be more like the position of the people who first brought my skirt into their schools in the last half of the twentieth century, trying to emulate the global power and wealth of the empires bearing down on them at the time.
It’s probably fitting that, woven within my lovely kilted skirt, there’s a bit of a hairshirt – a bit of mortification for me to bear in behalf of my imperialist ancestors, a bit of ambivalence about a culture that is flawed but still precious enough to its heirs to be worth remembering and preserving. Fortunately for all of us, love and shame have never been mutually exclusive.
So scoff at me and my apparent lack of self-awareness, walking around at my age posing as a Japanese high schooler. There’s a bit of me that knows I deserve the scorn, and another piece of me that can still enjoy what’s beautiful about the only people I can call my own.