The Fresno State professor who has received withering criticism for her racist tweets as well as her distasteful and offensive remarks about the late Barbara Bush, wrote a column in 2014 for Salon titled, “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.”
Randa Jarrar decried white belly dancing for its “cultural appropriation,” commencing her attack by writing, “Google the term ‘belly dance’ and the first images the search engine offers are of white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness. How did this become acceptable?”
Jarrar continued by asserting that the term “belly dance” was a Western construction, as opposed to the Arabic “Raqs Sharqi.” She noted that back in the 1890s in the U.S., white women were featured belly-dancing. She added, “Many white women who presently practice belly dance are continuing this century-old tradition of appropriation, whether they are willing to view their practice this way or not.”
Jarrar recalled seeing a white woman belly-dance, disparaging her as a “white woman … in Arab drag — because that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra …”
But she then contrasted that with Arab belly-dancers that she preferred, acknowledging that one “used to dance in the expected bra and skirt but later danced mostly in robes that were somewhat shapeless and more traditional.”
“It’s Arab face,” my friend Nadine once said, pointing at an invitation from a white acquaintance of hers. The invitation was printed on card stock and featured the woman and a dozen of her white friends dressed in Orientalist garb with eye makeup caked on for full kohl effect and glittery accessories. We wanted to call these women up and say, “How is this OK? Would you wear a dashiki and rock waspafarian dreads and take up African dance publicly? Wait,” we’d probably say, “don’t answer that.”
Jarrar insisted that white belly dancers were doing harm:
Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.
Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings. This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn’t profit from her performance doesn’t mean she’s not appropriating a culture. And, ultimately, the question is this: Why does a white woman’s sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women’s backs?