Discussing Cultural Appropriation
by: Shoshana Portnoy
If you logged on to social media at all this week, it was impossible to avoid the issues of race and culture in performance. First came Mr. Hick’s decision to perform in Black Face at the Slipper Room and the resulting social media backlash. His defense of his actions was as bad as the original offense. This resulted in Tangerine Jones’ response . “I’m weary of the assumptions and inferences that performers of color are oversensitive, bitter, histrionic or tilting at windmills of imaginary racism. I’m weary of being told my response to someone’s passive racism is aggressive or graceless. I’m weary of having our bodies or cultures being someone’s punch line or costume.” Then came Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers and the equally harshly written response: Why I Can’t Stand Neo-Segregationists.
Over the week, countless burlesque professionals debated various issues of culture and cultural appropriation in the Fringe Forum, a closed Facebook discussion group started by Lula Houp Garou. The comments ranged from Scarlett O’ Hairdye’s:
“American society is still incredibly intolerant of non-white immigrants attempting to keep their culture intact. They are expected to speak English, take off their traditional clothes, convert to Christianity, and basically assimilate as quickly as possible into what is considered American culture. While they’re being expected to do that, the dominant culture feels free to take anything that it wants and make profit off of it with no recompense to the immigrant culture.
Hey, come live in America! We’ll shame you for not speaking English and make fun of your clothing choices, while at the same time we open restaurants that are crappy imitations of your cuisine and steal your fabric designs to put on our t-shirts at Target!”
to Sincerely Yours in response Why I Can’t Stand White Bellydancers:
“I can’t help but find this nit picking. Why even add salt to the wound? So every race has to stick to his or her cultural background? I guess I can only do St.Paulie girl and Italian women acts. Only French women can perform as French Maids and Westerners can only dress in Madame Pompadour and Victorian theme costumes. See the absurdity? We are a melting pot. If you are performing in celebration, in tribute, why does it matter?”
This was when the conversation was going well. At its worst, the reoccurring theme in all of the threads is one in which a person who feels marginalized speaks up, and the dominant culture rushes to attack or silence the argument. “This is stupid!” was a quote seen over and over. Everyone is talking, but is anyone really listening? Part of the problem is certainly the nature of social media. Talking in real time gives very little time for reflection, no inflection or body language to judge tone, and rewards fast reactions. When you combine that with the “like” factor of Facebook, which allows people to quickly make certain comments more valuable than others, it is not a conducive environment for actually listening or learning anything. Or as Vivienne Vermuth puts it: “How can you have insightful discourse and witty banter in a world of cute cat pictures?”
This isn’t the first time this issue has been brought up in burlesque. In February 2013 Tomahawk Tassels was the center of controversy. Before that, social media was in an uproar in May of 2012 when Shanghai Pearl made her feelings known about a specific act, resulting in this Racialicious article. Part of the uproar then, is that the person Pearl was citing was a fellow performer, and the mighty Dita Von Teese at that. In the “Culture of Nicety” that is burlesque (the subject of a series to be published later this month), does not see behavior like this often. It is rare for one performer to call out another performer so directly and publically, especially one so successful. The result was a social media storm that quickly became personal and comments ran the spectrum of attacking to dismissive, with limited actual dialogue about the issue itself occurring. La Chica Boom knows this pattern all too well as she has been “questioning sexual/racial representation, queer formations, and compulsory whiteness” since 2002.
The issue of cultural appropriation is a complex issue for sure, and we can debate whether we find specific acts to be offensive or oppressive, but we can’t dismiss the issue all together. “To be offended at the fact that someone else feels offended is offensive in and of itself” Divertida Devotchka. Shanghai states it a little differently: “It’s a privilege to not have to think about it.” At this point, to deny that the issue exists, or is relevant to burlesque is not possible.
- Educate Yourself– You cannot debate a topic you do not understand. Here is a great article that will start you off: The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Appropriation. Want to read more? There’s an entire list of helpful links at the end of It’s Complicated: More on Cultural Appropriation. Since everyone on the internet is in a hurry, here are some highlights from Jarune Uwujaren:
One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.
So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.
This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.
That doesn’t mean that cultural exchange never happens, or that we can never partake in one another’s cultures. But there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange. That’s what cultural exchange can look like – engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only.
Where Defining Cultural Appropriation Gets Messy: There are so many things that have been chopped up, recolored, and tossed together to make up Western culture that even when we know things are appropriative in some way, we find them hard to let go of.
2. Stay Open to Having the Conversation
It’s easy to become “worn out” with the issue, but it is one that will come up again and again and needs discussion on a case by case basis. Try to remember that even though you’ve had the discussion a hundred times, it is a current issue and need for whoever is bringing it up for discussion.
3. Discuss the Issue, Not the Individual
It is easy and reasonable to become defensive when you feel offended. The Six Rules for Disagreeing Agreeably
“We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.” – Jarune Uwujaren
5. Avoid Snap Judgments
This discussion has a million shades of grey; there is plenty of room for *respectful* discussion. This also isn’t about who’s on who’s side. Stick to the issue and avoid rushing to “defend” your friends.
6. Avoid the Slippery Slope Argument
Stick to the one act or topic in question.
7. Avoid Being Dismissive
8. Learn and Grow