SPEAK: What’s the Big Deal with Cultural Appropriation, and What’s the Path Forward?

By Parya

October 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Black & white headshot of Parya

Photo by Rachel Duff Photography

Cultural appropriation is considered to be the taking of one or more aspects of a culture other than one’s own and using it for personal gain (financial or otherwise). Cultural appropriation has roots in colonization, racism, and capitalism.

The reason why cultural appropriation is important is that privileged and less privileged cultures are not on an even playing field. Marginalized peoples from less privileged cultures have less power, less media voice and visibility, less buying power, greater difficulties in moving up the socio-economic ladder, and are historically robbed of credit for their artistic innovations. By virtue of having the financial and political resources to travel or take classes, privileged cultures are at a significant advantage over millions who, for financial, political, societal, or cultural reasons, cannot afford to partake in these learning opportunities.

If you’re from a privileged culture or a high income country such as the United States, Canada, or many European nations and have profited from the art and culture of less privileged cultures or low-middle income countries (such as countries and cultures in South America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, or the Middle East [the term “Middle East” has Euro-centric origins; however, I will use it here given that it is the commonly used term to refer to this region]), you may have had a hand in cultural appropriation. From Madonna and Beyoncé, to Katy Perry and Coldplay, to Marc Jacobs and Gucci, to Coachella and Burning Man, and to the chef Rick Bayless there are many examples of the pervasive nature of cultural appropriation.

Perhaps you teach belly dancing, Persian dances, salsa, or any other exercise or art forms from less privileged countries and someone has called you out for cultural appropriation. You may have felt attacked, bullied, and defensive. Maybe you’ve thought about all the work you’ve done to get to where you are, remembered your bills, shrugged your shoulders, and moved on. However, maybe there’s still a part of you wanting to understand what the big deal is and consider alternative ways to move forward with a clearer conscience. I hope to provide some clarity on why cultural appropriation is a big deal and offer some ways to move forward. I don’t intend to shame anyone about their life choices, but I hope to bring awareness to this issue, open a dialogue, and share my perspectives.

As a dancer born and raised in Iran, I believe that it’s the years of surviving the Iran-Iraq war, secretive dance classes, performances in dust-filled basements, using my shadow to “perfect” my dance moves during air raids, teaching myself Western dance forms using scratched up VHS videos, fear of being caught dancing, shamed by being compared to a sex worker, being harassed and bullied by self-loathing teachers who mindlessly perpetuated the cycle of hate, shame, and guilt, and teachers who ruthlessly punished and ridiculed students for expressing an interest in the arts by enforcing “religious” censorship codes of an Islamic dictatorship for fear of being prosecuted themselves that enriches the beauty and pain of dances from my culture.

I see friends who have taken years of ballet and modern dance classes since a young age, attending dance performances, and expressing themselves artistically in public. I compare that to my experiences and I envy the fact that we didn’t have a level playing field. That, despite my mom’s best efforts, my growth was impeded due to a lack of access, knowledge, and finances.

This is by no means a defeatist message of self-pity. I just want you, the reader, to know that cultural appropriation without these shared cultural experiences may be hurtful to those who have lived the pain, have overcome many obstacles, and are trying to express it through their art. There are a multitude of experiences from many cultures, and I’m only sharing my own. However, it is all of these experiences that inform my embodied experiences and impacts my art. And without these experiences, one may go through the movements without an anchor in the powerful reality of life in Tehran, Cairo, or Cuba.

I’d like to emphasize that cultural exchange and learning about other cultures are not the activities under scrutiny here. Sharing cultural knowledge, seeking to understand and learn about another culture, and connecting with others cross-culturally is a beautiful thing and much needed in the world. It helps us learn about others and ourselves, and it unites us as human beings. Rather, the focus of this piece is the personal gain (financial or otherwise) from others’ cultural knowledge and practices.

To be clear, acknowledging, calling attention to, and working to minimize the impact of cultural appropriation is not about creating “gated cultures” to help promote social justice, but it’s about helping to break down barriers so that communities and cultures can promote their own art, speak for themselves, and profit from their work. I believe that it would be silly and pointless for me or anyone to say that White Americans or Europeans shouldn’t belly dance or participate in other art forms with roots in less privileged countries/cultures. However, I would like to invite you to consider a different approach to this cultural borrowing.

I believe that the first and most difficult step to addressing cultural appropriation is to acknowledge your privilege and the role you may have played in appropriating someone else’s culture. I realize that this is challenging because you have to recognize your privilege and come to terms with the fact that you’re likely more privileged than many others who did not have the opportunity to travel, take classes, explore their artistic side, and gain financial opportunities for their art.

But what can you do about it beyond humility?

A central question to consider is how you can reciprocate to the culture from which it came. I would like to emphasize that these restitutions do not necessarily have to be monetary.

Some examples of these reciprocations can be:

  • attending classes taught by people from that culture and supporting their growth
  • attending screenings of movies, cultural celebrations, concerts, art galleries, book signings, etc. of artists from that culture
  • involving people from that culture in your art work, asking them for feedback on your art work, and interviewing them on your podcasts and blogs
  • taking classes to learn the language and music of that culture
  • researching, writing, audio/video-recording, and documenting scholarly work on that culture (this does not mean speaking for the marginalized culture, but objectively documenting your experiences)
  • sponsoring other artists or movement experts from that country or culture by assisting them in traveling to your country, allowing them to stay in your home, inviting them to teach with you, and/or inviting them to create art with you
  • traveling to that country and providing free classes on your culture or other types of classes (e.g., free English language classes, ballet classes, etc.)
  • organizing educational tours to that country with local tour guides

These exchanges are sure to enhance your understanding of that culture, provide you with a deeper empathic response for the people of that culture, and give you more tools with which you can educate others.

There are many more examples of good-will gestures of restitutions to begin a dialogue of healing and making our world more equitable.

This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of In Dance.

Parya is a graduate student in the MFA in Dance: Creative Practice program at Saint Mary's College of California. She is also Associate Professor of Medicine at a top ranking Bay Area university where she conducts clinical and behavioral HIV research. At the age of 7, Parya began studying Persian classical and folk dances in Iran and later trained in New York Style Salsa and belly dancing. She is currently a dance instructor at the Salimpour School of Dance and a member of the Suhaila Dance Company.