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.
Was that my twitter convo you were eavesdropping on? I still don’t know how I feel about that article, but like you, trying not to do the knee jerk “well what about YOUR culture appropriating this and that from MY culture” reaction.
I took belly dance lessons for years and performed in a few shows. Never for money – I gave up the hobby because it is so expensive (among other reasons; my belly ain’t what it used to be) and I was trying to figure out if appropriation of culture is better or worse if someone’s making a profit. I mean, SOMEone was making a profit out of my hobby, it just wasn’t me. And it was likely another white person. The belly dance community in Edmonton is surprisingly large and mostly white.
Next week I’m going to take a Bollywood aerobics class and I don’t even know where that fits into this discussion. Dance fitness is huge right now and everything from Zumba to belly dance appropriates to some degree.
I’m rambling but I appreciate the thought you’ve put into this.
It was totally you and Danielle P. Thanks for the blog fodder, you guys.
Can things really be Swedish just because I do them? That would rock. Except, I don’t look Swedish and people are always asking me, “Where the Hell are you from?”
This was hilarious.
Thanks! We did the math once and I’m more Scottish than AQ is Swedish. I’m getting it from both my parents. But with the right attitude and enough Ace of Bass you could Swed-ify anything!
Though, when people ask me how it’s pronounced I have got to stop answering, “Phonetically.”
This article is more than a little embarrassing. Specifically this part: “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.”
If by “[your] culture” you mean “Scottish culture” then feel that I need to stop you right there.
Scotland in and of itself is not, not has it ever been, a colonial culture and, in fact, has historically been opposed to colonialism. Scotland was absorbed into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture after the union of the crowns. A huge number of the Celtic settlers in North America went there after it had already been colonised by other, richer countries. They did so out of desperation, in search of a livelihood after being forcibly ejected from their homes and many of them died horribly en route. Google the Highland Clearances for an example.
Just because you happen to now consider yourself privileged as a white person living in North America does not mean that your ancestors were privileged, nor does it mean that the people currently living in Scotland are privileged. Yes, it’s all relative and we’re still a “first world country”, but only just and only in some areas. The reality of being Scottish within the UK is that of continually being second class to another dominant culture. In recent history, our industries were smashed, we were the guinea pigs for a discriminatory tax system, unemployment soared, we are constantly subjected to a UK-wide stereotype of being a country full of welfare-consuming alcoholics and drug addicts who are incapable of making our own decisions, we are continually referred to as the “begging bowl” of the UK, we were dragged into wars that we didn’t want, we are being used as a place to store nuclear weapons that we do not want, we have serious problems with child poverty, homelessness and elderly people dying in the winter because they can’t afford heating. We are ruled by a government that we not only did not vote for, but actively voted against. We are allowed lip service to democracy with a devolved parliament which has extremely limited powers. We’ve had any serious move for independence effectively blocked by economic bullying tactics, being told that if we do we’ll have our currency, which we have as much right and claim to as the rest of the UK, forcibly taken from us.
I think you’re well intentioned and genuine but having a Scottish surname and a kilt that somebody bought you doesn’t mean that you have the right to make deprecating statements about a culture and nation that you have only a peripheral and distant ancestral connection with. Just because you happen to live in an environment where Scottish culture is affectionately considered to be whimsical and romantic instead of a target for mockery, discrimination and derogatory stereotypes doesn’t mean that you can make generalisations on the matter. You’ve never had pressure to conform to a dominant culture’s deals of acceptable physical appearance and mode of speech just to be employable. You’ve never lost your job or home because of your ethinicity. You’ve never experienced having your dialect or native language ridiculed and stamped out within an education system which is dominated by another culture’s ideas of social and academic acceptability. You’ve never lived in a country governed by a party nobody voted for. But your ancestors did and it’s still happening today. It’s not acceptable to paint Scotland as a dominant colonial culture when the opposite is true.
Also, a side note on the matter of tartan school skirts – Scotland didn’t colonise South Korea and influence the school uniforms. Tartan had already been borrowed for use in school uniforms by other countries (the majority of Scottish schools don’t actually use tartan in their uniforms – strictly speaking, tartan is usually more a reflection of your family/clan, not your place of education).
To clarify, I actually feel that the backlash against cultural appropriation has been taken to harmful extremes. I personally have no problem in general with non Scottish people wearing tartan as an innocent fashion statement. No, Scottish culture is not dominant or privileged (at least not from where I’m sitting) and yes, tartan does have a strong and deep cultural significance which has been ignored and trivialised for the sake of a fashion statement. But I also strongly believe that it’s a mistake to buy into anything that tries to make the world even more divisive than it already is. To put “cultural appropriation” in perspective, I’m offended by members of the North American neo-nazi movements wearing tartan and getting celtic-style tattoos and doing sword dancing displays at their rallies because they think that Celtic = “white purity”, I’m not offended by someone who just wants to wear a tartan skirt because they think it looks nice.
But if you say that Scottish cultural appropriation is fine purely because we’re privileged colonialists who had it coming then you cross a line into ignorance and racism. Please remember that living in North America and having some ancestral connection to another country does not give you the same experiences or perspectives as someone who is native to that country.
Thanks for the long, thoughtful, heartfelt response. I wish you’d shared your name. And I wish you weren’t so callous about the children of the Scottish diaspora.
Don’t tell me about the Highland Clearances, ask me about them. Based on a quick glance at where in history each of our families have ended up it looks like atrocities like the Clearances went better for your families than for mine. My ancestors’ families didn’t leave their homeland because they were bored or curious or super excited to watch their babies die of smallpox in the bottom of filthy boats or to be exploited by the English and used as foot soldiers in their wars or to abet them in bullying the Irish. The children of the diaspora are the children of the survivors of the very worst it.
I know my family history in detail. It’s not a happy story. It’s also my story every bit as much as it is anyone’s who enjoys the privilege of still living in Scotland. Yes, now we’re talking about the privilege of Europeans who shout down their emigrated brothers and sisters who were once so wretchedly destitute we lost the privilege of staying in our homelands. Parts of your comments are perfect examples of that privilege. You belittle me. You denounce me, as if you have some right to do it and I ought to be ashamed for identifying with my own blood. I’m not. But I am offended by your sense of privilege. Your ancestors had enough money or security or support or – something — to stay off the boats, out of the plantations, out of the Highland regiments. That doesn’t make you more Scottish than me. It makes you more privileged than me.
My soldier great-grandfathers traveled the world in Highland regiments wearing kilts like the ones I write about above. They came as agents of an imperial force. It didn’t matter to the people they were fighting and colonizing that they were second class citizens in the empire themselves. They raised British weapons in behalf of the empire and the physical trappings of their clothes and kits became symbols of British domination abroad. No one in the colonies cared how ironic it might have been at home.
No, we never colonized South Korea. But the Western presence in Asia was concrete and long-lived as a physical colonization and it is still real today as a cultural colonization. Listen to one K-pop song – any one – and ponder why there’s so much English in the lyrics when there’s no Korean lyrics in Western music. Cultural colonization isn’t about “boots on the ground.” It’s about cultures short on power identifying with another culture, sometimes in an attempt to garner some of that culture’s power and influence. When South Korea wants to show its aggressive neighbours it’s not interested in their way of life and it’s supported by powerful Western allies, one of the things it does is emulate those powerful countries’ culture. It’s not the same kind of appropriation Jarrar was talking about in belly dancing because it’s done from a position of political peril, not privilege.
Maybe it’s nice to believe other cultures love our skirts because we make ‘em look so darn cute (I read the Wikipedia article that makes that claim, just like you may have) but that’s a vapid, self-serving description of a complex social relationship between the politics of self-preservation and material culture bound up in clothing. All clothing has social meaning. My point is that, as a privileged white, Anglo-phone, Westerner it’s not my place to try to dictate what that meaning is to other cultures. It’s not my place to be offended by their use of our emblems the way Jarrar is offended by the use of one of her culture’s traditional costumes. My privilege negates it.
And, brother or sister Anonymous European Scottish Person, you might want to think a little harder about the pitfalls of your own privilege.