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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

H. Bradford

6/4/18

Warm weather is finally here, so I have spent the last two weeks readying my garden for the season.  Since I’ve been planting more, I have plants on the brain. Lately, I have been thinking about plants and issues of racism (and in one case, anti-semitism).  Some plants have some very questionable names. Other plants have racially sensitive histories that social justice minded gardeners should consider. Plants like Wandering Jew, Kaffir lime, Nyjer seed, Indian Paintbrush, and even Collard Greens may be taken for granted by most growers, but contain issues of race and ethnicity.  Thus, the following blog post offers an overview of some of these offenders, so that we can grow gardens as well as a more just world for everyone! (The list of problematic plants is not comprehensive. I also did not cite sources within the text, but a list of links that I drew from can be found at the end).


Wandering Jew:


If you visit a greenhouse, you may find a plant called a Wandering Jew.  There are several plants that bear this name, including three species of spiderwort plants, four species of dayflower, and two other plants.  The spiderwort species are the sort that seem most commonly used as indoor plants. A few years ago, a local greenhouse recommended a Purple Wandering Jew plant for our home, since they can grow in lower light conditions.  The employee assured my housemate and I that there was nothing antisemitic about the bushy, viney plant. Nearly Natural 27 in. Wandering Jew Hanging Basket The term Wandering Jew comes from 13th Century Christian folklore.  The character is a Jewish man who was said to have taunted Jesus before he was crucified.  As punishment for his taunt, he was cursed to walk the Earth until the return of Christ. In some stories, his clothes and shoes never wear out and after 100 years, he returns to being a younger man.  He was a perpetual traveler, unable to rest, but able to converse in all of the languages of the world. This is not based on any actual Biblical story, though it may have been inspired by the story of Caine and European paganism.  Much like Big Foot or ghosts today, Europeans of the time believed that they had actually seen this character. For hundreds of year, even into the present day, this character has appeared in literature and art. Image result for wandering jew art

Gaston Malingue’s painting “The Wandering Jew”

While the character is very fictional, the antisemitic context the character was born from is not.  In 1290, Edward the I expelled all Jewish people from England. During the middle ages, Jews were banned from owning land.  They were also barred from trade guilds. Medieval cities also relegated Jewish populations to certain areas. In the 14th century, Jews were expelled from France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.  Expulsions and exclusion from various economic activities provided a material reality for the idea that Jewish people were outsiders or wanderers. Thus, “The Wandering Jew” represents not only a person, but a stereotype regarding the nature of all Jewish people.  This stereotype has been used in modern times to incite hate, such as the Nazi film entitled “Der Erwige Jude,” which revived and modernized the medieval myth and envisioning modern Jewish people as criminal, lazy, and perverse cosmopolitans who controlled the world through banking, commerce, politics, and the media.  The idea of the Wandering Jew has


With this history in mind, calling a rambling, hard to destroy plant a “Wandering Jew” does not seem like the most culturally sensitive nomenclature, to say the least.   Interestingly, the Swedish Cultural Plant Database (SKUD) has changed the name of the “Wandering Jew” plant as well as another plant with an anti-semitic name (Jew Cherry which we know as Chinese Lantern Plants).  I am uncertain what SKUD renamed the plant to, but perhaps Purple Spiderwort, Variegated Spiderwort, or Wandering Spiderwort might be some good ideas. There are other plants with “Jew” in their title and these should be changed as well.   While not a plant, no one should call a wood ear mushroom a Jew’s Ear. I could find no similar examples of plant names that are unflattering/prejudiced towards Christians or other religious groups, but if there were and even if the group did not share the same history of oppression and genocide, there seems no reasonable argument to use derogatory common names.  If I saw such plants at a local store or greenhouse, I would suggest a name change to the manager.


Collard Greens:

A few years ago, I planted collard greens.  I was curious about this vegetable and wanted to grow it because I enjoy trying new things.  However, my housemate suggested that the name was racist since it sounds like “Coloured Greens.”  The leaf green is associated with African American cuisine, so it seemed plausible that the name may have had a more racist origin.  Thankfully, it doesn’t! The word Collard comes from “colewort” in Middle English perhaps influenced by Old Norse “kal” for cabbage, and earlier still, kaulos, which is Greek for stalk.  The “Col” and collard is found in other words like cauliflower, kale, coleslaw, German kohl for cabbage, etc.

Image result for collard green


While the leafy green is more prominent in the cuisine of the Southern United States, it is also used in Brazilian, Indian, and Portuguese cooking.   It was cultivated in Greek and Roman gardens 2000 years ago as is closely related to kale. Prior to this, it is theorized that wild cabbages were in cultivation in Europe 3000 years ago and up to 6000 years ago in China.  Leafy cabbages were also grown in Mesopotamia. While collard greens in particular (in contrast to other leafy cabbages) have long been consumed by Europeans, the history is not devoid of racism or contention. A controversy arose a few years ago when Whole Foods Co-op suggested that customers buy collard greens and prepare them with ingredients such as cranberries, garlic, and peanuts.  Some African Americans felt that this was cultural appropriation of a vegetable used in their cuisine and food gentrification of a vegetable by white people who have recently discovered it and have now re-imagined it as something trendy. This critique is not unfounded. Afterall, Neiman Marcus sold out of their $66 frozen trays of collard greens in 2016. Historically, collard greens, like many members of the cabbage family were poor people food.  (Though Romans actually esteemed cabbages as medicinal and a luxury.) Members of the cabbage family are cool season crops with mild frost resistance, making them part of winter staples or lean time food. Image result for neiman marcus collard green African Americans came to the United States as slaves and were only allowed to grow a small selection of vegetables for themselves.  Collards were one of them. While the vegetable is not African in origin, the methods of preparation were. West Africans use hundreds of species of leafy greens and prepare them in ways that maintain their high nutrient content.  Enslaved Africans found fewer wild greens here and came to rely on collards, which were brought here by the British. (Depending upon where the slaves were taken from, they may have been familiar with leafy cabbages as in the Middle Ages, cabbages of various sorts were traded into Africa through Morocco and Mali).  They are unique among cabbages in that they can continue to produce leaves over their growing season. They can be harvested for months when other vegetables quit in the cold weather. Collards helped slaves to survive due to their productivity. For this reason, poor white people also grew collards. It is a cheap, productive, healthy plant.  Although white Southerners grew the plant, it was a marginal crop to European settlers and African Americans deserve credit for popularizing the use of greens and their preparation. Image result for collard greens

image from Foodnetwork.com

I love plants.  I love gardening.  I have no problems eating vegetables.  But, collard greens do raise the question of how white people (at least those who aren’t poor and from the south) should approach collard greens.  On one hand, when food is gentrified, the cost goes up for those who have traditionally eaten it. For instance, after kale was deemed a superfood, its cost rose 25%.  If food prices rise, it can drive poor people to unhealthier, cheaper foods. Collard greens are also a problem when they are commercialized and fetishized. Judging by the tone and content of internet articles on this topic, I don’t know that most African Americans would take issue with a white individual growing a small amount of collard greens for personal, private use for love of gardening and attempting to try new vegetables.  In the case of Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus, it represented capitalizing on and changing the culinary traditions of Black people. The foods were presented in inauthentic ways, devoid of history, and for profit by cashing in on a contextless notion of the exotic. Since the vegetable is tied to the traumatic history of survival and slavery and has cultural importance (such as a feature of New Year’s meals) it isn’t something to take lightly.   Collard greens have double the iron and protein than kale and 18% more calcium, so there may be legitimate reasons that many people should grow them. Personally, I am curious about many vegetables. Does my curiosity “Colombusize” the culture, culinary traditions, or agriculture of others? In small ways, yes. My hope is that I can be mindful of my decisions and the history/power embedded in even the simplest things.


Nyjer Seed:


Anyone who wants to attract finches to their yard may be familiar with nyjger seed, which is also called thistle seed.  The seed does not come from the thistle plant and the name “nyjer seed” seems suspiciously like another n word. When I was a kid, the seed was spelled “niger” which also makes the seed a little suspicious.  We pronounced it in a way that is similar to Nigeria or Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, some people did not pronounce it this way and instead thought it was pronounced like a racial slur. The bird seed industry actually changed the name of the seed because it had confused people or had been mispronounced.  Nyjer is the 1998 trademarked name of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Image result for niger seed While the name might suggest that the seed came from Nigeria or Niger, nyjer seed actually comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia.  I found a reference to the seed being called Nigerian thistle, which to me indicates that whomever named the seed must have had some confusion about the geography of Africa or, perhaps generically called it “niger” seed as a stand in for Africa itself.  Nigeria, Niger, and the Niger River are all located in West Africa whereas Ethiopia is in East Africa. The genus Guizotia contains six species, of which five are native to Ethiopia. A distribution map of the species shows that it grows naturally in some areas of Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  It also grows in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The plants found in and around India are believed to have been brought there long ago by Ethiopian migrants, who also brought millet to the region. Therefore, Nyger seed really has nothing to do with the countries of its (former) namesake and represents a sort of “imagined Africa” rather than any geographical or botanical reality. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

  Field of Nyjer Seed plants in Ethiopia

While in the United States, most people feed the oily black seeds to birds, it is used in the cuisines of India and Ethiopia.  It has been been grown in Ethiopia as an oil crop since antiquity and today, makes up 50% of Ethiopia’s oil seed production. Overall, the main producer of commercial nyjer seed is India, followed by Myanmar and Ethiopia.  About 50,000 metric tons of the seed are imported each year into the United States. It is the only commercial bird seed which is largely imported. This seems to be a tremendous amount of seed- which ultimately goes to bellies of wild birds!  The use of nyjer seed seemingly follows the rise of the U.S. as a post-war global power. Bird feeding became more common through the 1950s, which resulted in demand for commercial bird food. As people increasingly fed birds, it became apparent that certain seeds were likely to attract different (more socially desirable) species of birds.  Nyjer seed was adopted as a bird food in the United States in the 1960s. The first tube feeders used for the seed became commercially available in 1972. In the late 1960s, the seed had to be treated with heat, because it was often accompanied by the seeds of invasive weeds. All nyger seed imports must be subjected to 250 degree heat sterilization treatment. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

image from Northwest Nature Shop

Despite small scale experiments, Nyjer is not currently grown in North America, and in an experiment between N.A grown seen and Ethiopian seed, the birds preferred the Ethiopian grown seed.  Reading between the lines, it is important to think about what the import of this seed actually means. Various countries have tried to grow this seed, including the Soviet Union under the guidance of Ivan Vavilov.  However, the plants do not yield enough seeds to make it economically viable. The region of India which produces the most seed is Madhya Pradesh, which is the sixth poorest part of India (per capita GDP). The regions which grow the seed are also home to ethnic minorities, such as Nagar Haveli which is the home of the Warli tribe.  While I could find no articles which specifically addressed the plight of nyjer seed farmers, it stands to reasoning that because the center of production for these seeds are underdeveloped countries (and even greater underdeveloped regions within those countries) that the work conditions of those farmers is probably characterized by low pay, long hours, and hard work.  Since some of these countries actually used these seeds as an oil and a human food, the movement towards exporting the seeds to the West as bird food has likely reduced its use as a subsistence crop. Finally, the fact that it has not been viable in the agriculture of more developed countries means that it is probably a labor intensive crop (and our labor is too expensive due to labor laws, organization) hence, the fact that it is imported rather than domestically grown.


Personally, I love birds.  I want to attract finches to the yard and provide them with a fatty, seed that they love.  At the same time, it certainly represents a lot of privilege that I can buy imported seeds (sometimes eaten by humans) to give to the birds.  The origin of the seed itself is obscured by its name. There seems to be a lot wrong with nyger seeds. I think that my task as a socialist is to learn more about the specific labor conditions related to the seeds (since there is not a lot of information out there).  If there was more awareness regarding the seeds, perhaps there would be more interest in fair trade or better working conditions for those producers. It is also possible that I could try growing my own seeds for the birds rather than relying on expensive imported seed.  Nyger seed as been experimentally grown on a small scale in Minnesota. I think it is a fascinating seed with a wealth of history. At the same time, more should be done to illuminate the history and economic conditions of the seed.

Image result for niger seed

Image from The Zen Birdfeeder

 

Kaffir Lime:


About a year ago, I picked up some gardening books from the library.  One of the books was about growing citrus indoors. It introduced me to the Kaffir Lime.  I really didn’t think anything of this name at the time. It sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, but I didn’t associate it with any particular meaning.  Little did I know that kaffir is actually a racist term. The k-word is a racial slur in South Africa. The k-word was used in Arabic to describe non-believers, but was used by European colonists in South Africa to describe the African population.  The word is so offensive, that there have been legal actions taken against those who have used the slur in South Africa. The name of the lime itself may come from Sri Lanka, where the lime is grown and where there is an ethnic group which self identifies as kaffirs.  It is also possible that the fruit literally referred to non-believers, as it may have been named by Muslims who saw it cultivated by non-Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, because the word is racially offensive in most other contexts and considered hate speech in South Africa, a different name is an order.  In Southeast Asia, the fruit is called Makrut, which has been suggested as a viable name change. Image result for kaffir lime

Indian Paintbrush:


While this example is not as offensive as the k-lime, there are many plants that are named “Indian x” such as Indian Paintbrush, Indian posy (butterfly weed), Indian Blanket (Firewheel), Indian pipe, Indian grass, etc.  There are many North American plants which have common names which invoke something related to Native Americans. However, the way that these common names are used are not accurate, flattering, or supportive of Native Americans.  For instance, Indian Paintbrush sounds quaint. As a child, I imagined that perhaps the flowers were really used as paint brushes by Native Americans. Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie Fire, was used as a leafy green, medicine, and shampoo by some Native Americans.  But, it was not used as a paintbrush. While the flower may resemble a brush covered in bright red paint, it could easily be called Paintbrush plant. Using the word “Indian” invokes something wild, mythical, or even something silly (such as literally using the plant as a paintbrush).  It reduces Native Americans into an idea about something primitive, whimsical, or even non-existent rather than actual, living people, with actual uses for plants. This is true of the other plants as well. Many of the “Indian” plants are wild plants that are not commonly domesticated (though some are used in ornamental or “Native” gardens.  There is also a colonizing tone to these names, as these are not the names that Native Americans themselves gave the plants but imagined names from colonizers and their descendents. There are often alternate common names for these plants, so there is no excuse to call them names which invoke a mythical idea of Native Americans. Better yet, maybe some of the plants could be given names from actual Native American languages.  This would demonstrate that Native Americans knew, used, and named these plants long before the arrival of settlers. For instance, Ojibwe called the Indian Paintbrush plant Grandmother’s Hair (though I don’t know what this translates to in Ojibwe). Since plants were used by many tribal groups for different purposes, it would be difficult to determine which language should take precedence over another. At the very least, I think it is important to be mindful of language and consider existing alternative names (which I haven’t always been, since I was raised calling certain plants Indian Pipe or Indian Paintbrush).

Image result for indian paintbrush

image from Wikipedia

Conclusion:

There will always be some people who feel that these issues are no big deal.  Some of these people feel that there is nothing offensive about using traditional plant names or that they know a Jewish person who doesn’t mind “Wandering Jew” or a Native American friend who likes to call plants Indian Paintbrush or Indian Grass.  The world is diverse and certainly there are diverse opinions on these matters. To those folks, this probably seems like much ado about nothing. On the other hand, others may feel that issues of racism or oppression in general are much bigger than the kind of bird seed we use or what we call a lime.  It is better to focus on the big picture than get caught up in the nuances of language. As for myself, I feel that this is a fascinating topic to think about and that to me, it uncovers subtle and not so subtle ways that various kinds of oppression are built into something as simple as what we call a plant or what we grow in the garden.  For me, thinking about these topics is intellectually satisfying (I am interested in learning more about the history of plants) as well as a way for me to be a better, more mindful activist. At the end of the day, helping to grow social movements is far more important than the plants that we grow and know. Growing as an activist means working with others in organizations towards social change, but also the internal change that comes with challenging assumptions and rethinking what is taken for granted.  With that said, hopefully this post helps others to grow in how they think about plants, but also their place in society.


Sources on Wandering Jew:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49614212_Creating_National_Identity_through_a_Legend_-The_Case_of_the_Wandering_Jew

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/21/wandering-jew-history

https://sputniknews.com/art_living/201709151057426161-sweden-anti-semitic-plans/
https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/anti-semitism/medieval-anti-judaism/who-and-where-were-medieval-jews/

https://www.history.com/topics/anti-semitism
Sources on Collard Greens:

 

http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-cabbage/

A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/18/kale-compared-to-other-vegetables_n_3762721.html
https://www.wral.com/lifestyles/travel/video/13531214/?ref_id=13531197

http://www.crossroadsnews.com/news/lithonia-festival-is-all-about-the-collards/article_68af27d0-9968-11e7-a979-17d10f0b5b05.html

http://www.ebony.com/life/hungry-for-history-collards

http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/01/25/humble-hardy-leaf-defines-national-character/ideas/essay/

http://www.latibahcgmuseum.org/why-collard-greens/

https://weblogtheworld.com/formats/featured/history-of-collard-greens-extends-far-beyond-north-america

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/whats-leafy-and-green-and-eaten-by-blacks-and-whites/424554/

http://abc7chicago.com/food/neiman-marcus-sells-out-of-$66-collard-greens/1589488/

https://www.trulytafakari.com/ate-white-peoples-collard-greens-tasted-like-oppression/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/09/5-foods-from-africa/

http://meloukhia.net/2014/06/hipsterisation_and_its_hiked-up_prices_kale_quinoa_and_traditional_foods/

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/foodie-without-appropriation/

 

Nyger Seed Sources:

https://www.topcropmanager.com/corn/niger-seed-production-is-for-the-birds-13172

https://www.petcha.com/nyjer-black-oil-sunflower-bird-seeds-a-history/

http://www.birdchick.com/blog/2009/12/growing-nyjer-thistle-in-north-america

https://web.colby.edu/mainebirds/2016/02/05/the-history-of-bird-feeding-ii/

http://www.manoramagroup.co.in/commodities-niger-seed.html

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2011/11/30/winegar

https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/139533/SB571.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

Click to access Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

 

K-Lime Sources:

https://modernfarmer.com/2014/07/getting-rid-k-word/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/07/03/kaffir_lime_racist_murky_origins_suggest_a_racial_slur_might_be_responsible.html

White Winter: Racism and Winter Sports

White Winter:

Racism and Winter Sports

H. Bradford

1.28.17

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    This past fall, the Twin Ports Women’s Right Coalition began doing small events called “Feminist Frolics.”  These events were meant to educate our participants about feminism while enjoying the outdoors.  The very first frolic was entitled “Patriarchy in the Parks.”  This talk explored how patriarchy shapes women’s relationship to nature and participation in outdoor recreation.  The original talk discussed how history, gender roles, safety, and leisure influenced how women participated in nature.  Since that talk, I wanted to connect how racism, classism, ableism, and other “isms” shape how individuals participate in the outdoors.  As such, this talk puts a special focus on race and recreation.  In particular, it explores racism and winter recreation.  In my own experiences, when I spend time outdoors in the winter, I don’t often see racial minorities participating in skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking.  This talk hopes to shed some light on why this is.


 

The Myth of Geography:

elvgren_napaskier1   When one considers the racial composition of winter recreational activities, the whiteness of these activities seems almost a given.  In our racist imaginations, it seems natural that white people would participate in winter activities.  Afterall, Europeans live in the northern hemisphere, where there is snow and cold.  Thus, one might argue that geography plays a role in why winter sports tend to be more popular among white people.  But, arguments about geography ignore larger issues of racism and classism.  It is true that many parts of the earth do not receive snow and that these warmer regions are inhabited by darker skinned ethnic groups.  However, geography does not entirely account for participation. For instance, some parts of Africa actually have ski areas.  Algeria has two ski resorts and Morocco has three.  Morocco has participated in six Winter Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Algeria has competed in the Winter Olympics three times, but again, has never won a medal.  South Africa has one ski resort, which operates three months out of the year.  Lesotho also has a ski resort, which is open during the winter months and is located about 4.5 hours away from Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.  Despite having one ski area, Lesotho has never participated in the Winter Olympics and South Africa has never participated in ski events.  In 2014, Sive Spielman, a black South African teenage skier was denied entry into the Sochi Olympics.  He qualified to compete in slalom skiing, but the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee disqualified him on the grounds that they did not think he was good enough.  Considering he came from a poor area of South Africa, was black, and learned to ski through a ski club at his public school, his participation would have been remarkable (South Africa withdraws only athlete, 2014).  Even more remarkable considering that blacks would have been barred from ski clubs and the single ski area until apartheid ended in 1994.   Because under apartheid black athletes could not compete alongside white athletes, South Africa was barred from competing in the Olympics between 1962 and 1992 (they were allowed to return to the Olympics before apartheid had ended).  Thus, four South African figure skaters competed in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and the country did not compete in a Winter Olympics again until 1994.


In contrast to South Africa, Zimbabwe has no ski areas, but had a skier compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.  Their skier, Luke Steyn, was white.  Unlike Spielman, he was quite privileged, as his family moved to Switzerland when he was two years old and he attended college in Colorado.  Furthermore, he was provided financial support by the Zimbabwean government (Blond, 2014).  It is odd to think that Zimbabwe’s athlete was a white skier who left the country around 1995.  Although he was celebrated in the media, the celebration was oddly colorblind.  While many Americans adopt colorblindness as a way to avoid the sticky issue of racism, it actually perpetuates racism by skirting around issues of oppression and invalidating the continued racism in society.  While I am not sure about Luke Steyn’s history, his race in contrast to his country of origin seems like an elephant in the room.  His family would have been among the 120,000 whites living in Zimbabwe in the mid 1990s and likely left, like many did, because the political situation was not favorable for white people.  That is, his family probably left because of land reforms which sought to turn white landholdings over to the largely black population.  This was done to rectify a history of colonization, wherein white farmers were offered large tracts of land in exchange for the conquest of the country in the late 1800s.  It was also done to dismantle the economic foundation of apartheid in that country.  While I don’t know his family’s history, judging by his Dutch surname and his family’s ability to move to Switzerland, I can only assume that they were privileged if not landowners.  The stories of Steyn and Spielman make for an interesting juxtaposition, as it shows how a white man can still succeed in a black country whereas a black man struggled for recognition even though he was part of the majority population in South Africa.  One was privileged by race and class, the other disadvantaged.

 

 


All Olympic athletes are to some degree privileged, but in Africa, and when it comes to winter sports, this is more pronounced.  For instance, in 2014, Togo sent its first athlete in the winter olympics in Mathilde Petitjean Amivi, a cross country skier who grew up in France but has a Togolese mother.  In the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Lamine Gueye was the first black African to compete in the Olympics.  But like Amivi and Steyn, he grew up outside of Africa.  He went to live in Switzerland after the death of his grandfather, also named Lamine Gueye, the head of Senegalese Party of Socialist Action.  Gueye has been an advocate for changing the rules of the Winter Olympics to allow more countries to compete.  In fact, 96 nations have never participated in the Winter Olympics.


While tropical climate is certainly an impediment to participation in winter sports, there are many countries which have snowy areas which have not participated in the Olympics to the same degree as European countries.  For instance, India has eleven ski areas and Pakistan has nine.  Iran has almost twenty ski areas.  Kazakhstan has four ski areas, Kyrgyzstan has three, and Lebanon has six.  Ski areas indicate that the countries have elevations high enough for snow, which lends itself to skiing, along with snowboarding and sledding sports.  Iran has participated in the Winter Olympics ten times, but has never won a medal.  Kyrgyzstan has never participated in the winter olympics and Kazakhstan has six times.  Kyrgyzstan is 94% mountains and has 158 mountain ranges.  The Soviet Olympic skiers trained in Kyrgyzstan Karakol Mountain Ski Base (Krichko, 2016).  Pakistan has participated in two winter Olympics and Nepal has twice.  Chile, which has eight ski resorts, has participated in sixteen Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Argentina has ten ski resorts, has participated in eighteen Olympics, and has never won a medal.


The trend is not so much that a country has to have snow to earn medals, as there are plenty of countries with snow, mountains, and wintry conditions which have not won medals.  Instead, it seems that the countries with the highest medal counts are European and high income countries.  The top ten countries for medals are Norway, United States, Germany, Soviet Union, Canada, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, Finland.  China, South Korea, and Japan each make the top twenty.  These countries have more money to devote to developing sport programs and more citizens with income required to compete at a higher level.  Thus, high income countries tend to be more competitive in the Olympics and high income individuals have more opportunities to participate and compete.  This explains why diverse countries like the United States do not have more athletes of color in winter sports.  Athletes of color have excelled in baseball, basketball, soccer, running, and many other sports.  African Americans have long participated in the Summer Olympics.  For instance, George Paoge competed in the 1904 summer Olympics and won two bronze medals in the 200m and 400 m hurdles.  In contrast, the first African American to compete in the Winter Olympics was almost 80 years later in the 1980 Lake Placid games when Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley competed as part of a four person bobsled team.  The first African American woman to win a medal was in 1988 when Debi Thomas won a medal in figure skating at the Calgary games(Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).


Rather than geography, the reason why few African Americans participate in winter recreation is because winter sports require more money for equipment, training, and coaching.  Facilities to practice winter sports are often far from urban centers where African Americans might live (Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).   While I could not find any recent statistics, as of 2003, 2% of skiers in the United States were African American, 3% were Latino, 4% were Asian, and 1% were Native American.  Among the membership of the National Brotherhood of Ski Clubs, an African American ski organization, 74% of the members are college graduates and 60% live in households with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 a year (Rudd, 2003).  Thus at an international level, but also at the level of individual local participation, access to resources shapes these sports.  This is a barrier to participation among racial minorities.  So, even in places with wintry conditions, there is still the barrier of cost of participation.  On the low end, a beginner snowboarder would expect to pay $500-$1000 for a board, bindings, and boots.  Adult skis can range from $200 to $1200.  A winter season ski pass for Spirit Mountain costs over $400.  Since 27% of African Americans live in poverty, compared to 11% of the general population, these kinds of expensive outdoor activities are beyond the reach of many in their community.


 

The Role of History:

Another reason why winter sports are white is because of the history of these sports.  After all, when an individual imagines winter sports, they might imagine their white ancestors participating in some form of skiing, hockey, or skating.  However, this version of history ignores that some cultures may have their own winter sports.  For instance, Pakistan hosts a Baltistan Winter Sports and Culture Festival wherein participants play Ka Polo and ice football.  Pakistan actually has the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the poles (“Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB,” 2016).  Likewise, every two years, various circumpolar regions compete in the Arctic Games.  Participants from Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Sami areas of northern Europe, and Northern Russia compete in snowshoeing, snowboarding, volleyball, futsal, skiing, and traditional Dene games like finger pulling, pole push, and stick pull.  Additionally, while there is evidence that skiing originated in Finno-Scandinavia with the discovery of rock drawings in Norway and a 4,500 ski in Sweden, Iran also has a long history of skiing.  In 2000 BC ancient people in Iran produced skis made of hides and boards (History of skiing, 2005).  Cree women would play a marble came, wherein marbles carved from buffalo horns were slid towards holes made in ice (Christensen, 2008).  Snowshoeing originated in Central Asia 6,000 years ago, then migrated across the Bering strait to the Americas.  Anishinabe, Cree, and Inuit invented sledding.  The word toboggan comes from the Algonquian word odabaggan.  Sled dogging was an indigenous invention and the Jean Beargrease sled dog race was named after an Ojibwe postal worker who delivered mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais in often treacherous conditions.  The Iroquois also invented a sport called Snow Snakes, or snow darts.  In this game, the players must underhand throw a smooth stick along the snow to see whose stick rolls the furthest (“Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports,” 2011).  Thus, many cultures have robust histories of winter games and sports.  However, these winter games were either lost and diminished by colonization, appropriated by colonizers, or simply not promoted as mainstream winter activities.


Colonialism continues to play a role in winter sports.  The Ktuanaxa tribe of Canada has been fighting the construction of a ski resort for 25 years.  The tribe has argued that the site is sacred to them as it is a place called Qar’muk, where a grizzly bear spirit resides.  The Canadian Supreme court is reviewing whether or not the resort will impinge on their religious rights, as the tribe has argued that the resort will scare away the spirit and render their rituals meaningless (“Skiers v the religious rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples,” 2016).  Even Spirit Mountain in Duluth, was one of seven sacred sites to Anishinabe people.  It was a place for burials and worship and development of the ski area and subsequent golf course and hotel.  Spirit Mountain was a meeting place for Anishinabe and had historical significance as place on their western migration route (Podezwa and Larson).  Environment and culture did not stop a ski resort from being built in Arizona.  In 2012, the Navajos and twelve other tribes appealed a judge’s decision to allow Arizona Snowbowl to use wastewater to make snow for their ski resort.  The Navajo argued that the land was sacred and that the use of wastewater to make snow was a threat to human health.  Navajo people collect medicinal plants from the mountain, which have been contaminated by the wastewater.  Using only natural snowfall, the resort would have a nine day ski season.  However, the artificial snow extends the season to 121 days.  Once again, geography is not necessarily an impediment to winter sports if there is money involved.  As of 2015, the issue was not resolved (Finnerty, 2012).  While it would be unheard of to construct a skating rink in a cemetery or cathedral, the religious and cultural practices of Native Americans have been ignored, suppressed, and mocked.  It is little wonder why they would not be interested in participating in high priced, environmentally destructive leisure activities on sacred land.


While the lack of Native American participation in some winter activities could be attributed to a different relationship to land, it doesn’t account for why Native Americans do not participate in snowshoeing.  Rudimentary snowshoes originated in Central Asia 6000 years ago and moved across the Bering Strait to the Americas with the migration of aboriginal peoples.  Differing snow conditions resulted in various designs, with longer snowshoes developed by Cree people, who faced warmer, wetter snow conditions and shorter snowshoes were developed by Iroquois people (Carr. n.d.).  Snowshoes were developed as a matter of survival, as they allowed indigenous people to travel and hunt during the winter.  The construction of snowshoes themselves was a traditional craft undertaken by both men and women (Boney, 2012).   As with many things, European colonizers adopted snowshoeing for their own uses, eventually converting them to something used for recreation.  Snowshoeing first became a sport in Canada, then the U.S.  By the 1970s, they began to grow in mainstream popularity.  During the 1980s, aluminum snowshoes grew in popularity (King, 2004).  In the advent of manufactured snowshoes, the craft of snowshoe making has been declining.  This has also rendered snowshoeing a profitable industry to companies who make snowshoes.  Companies such as Red Feather, Tubbs, Atlas, and Yukon Charlie are not owned by Native Americans nor do they specifically seek to benefit them.  While Tubbs boasts about inventing the first snowshoe for women in 1998 and donating money to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, there is no mention of how their snowshoes might benefit anyone other than white women.  Likewise, Redfeather snowshoes based in La Crosse, Wisconsin mentions on its website that it hires people with disabilities, but does not mention anything about helping Native Americans, even if its name and company logo invoke Native American imagery.  It is no wonder that a simple google image search of snowshoeing features hundreds of pictures of white people, but no images of Native Americans partaking in the activity.  It has become a thoroughly white pastime.   It is an example of cultural appropriation that is so normal and commonplace that the historical and cultural meaning of snowshoeing is almost entirely invisible. snowshoes-add

The Role of Racism:   

The lack of participation in winter sports may seem trivial, but in many ways it is a microcosm of the larger racial issues in society.  For instance, in 1997, Mabel Fairbanks was the first African American woman inducted into the U.S. figure skating hall of fame.  She was 82 at the time of her induction and was never allowed to skate competitively.  Because of segregation, she was not allowed to practice at skating rinks.  However, she went on to do her own skating shows for black audiences and was a coach to Debi Thomas and Tai Babilonia.  Thomas cited income as a barrier to competitive skating, as she was raised by a single mother and the cost of training can be $25,000 on the low end (Brown).  In U.S. society, class intersects powerfully with race.  African American children are four times as likely to live in poverty in the United States than white children (Patten and Krogstad, 2015).  In 1967, the median income of African Americans compared to white Americans was 55%.  In 2013, this had increased to 59%, but a 4% increase over four and a half decades is hardly impressive.  Looking at wealth, or such things as retirement savings and house ownership, African Americans owned 7% of the wealth of white people in 2011.  This was actually down from 9% in 1984  (Vara, 2013).  The segregation that Mabel Fairbanks faced continues today in the form of economic segregation that relegates African Americans to poor communities and low paying service industry jobs.  It also persists through the criminal justice system.  After all, an African American male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to jail, compared to a 6% chance for a white male born in the same year (Quigley, 2011).


Aside from the racist structures that may prevent individuals to partake in winter recreation to begin with, there is racism within these sports.  Surya Bonaly, a black French figure skater from the 1990s,  was the only figure skater in the history to do a backflip and land on one blade.  This astonishing feat actually disqualified her in the 1998 Olympics.  She did the flip to flip off the judges, who she felt scored her lower because of her race.  At the time, the rule was that a jump must land on one blade, which was meant to deter back flips as this would be a two bladed jump.  However, she landed on one to test the judges, who disqualified her anyway (Surya Bonaly is the biggest badass in Winter Olympics history, 2014).  At the time, critics called her inelegant and more powerful than graceful.  Surya was accused of damaging the nerves of fellow ice skater Midori Ito, which caused Ito to fall in her performance (Du, 2016).  These critiques demonstrate both racism and sexism, as she did not meet the judge’s expectation of what a figure skater should look like.  To them, a powerful black woman was not only threatening to the sport, but to other skaters.  The nine time French National champion, five time European champion, and three time World silver medalist now resides in Minnesota, where she teaches skating lessons.

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There are many examples of more blatant racism against athletes of color.  Irina Rodina, who lit the torch for the Sochi Olympics, posted an image of Barack and Michelle Obama as monkeys with bananas on her Twitter (Myerberg, 2014).  The Northwestern University Ski Team, consisting of 65 individuals, hosted a racially themed party in April 2012, where they dressed as South Africans, Ugandan, Ireland, Canada, Bangladeshi, and Native Americans.  The students participated in a “Beer Olympics” wherein they portrayed various nations competing with each other in drinking games.  The students dressed in a stereotypical and mocking fashion.  This caused a controversy on campus in which the ski team offered an apology but was also portrayed as victims of aggression from students of color who were offended by their party (Svitek, 2012).  Val James, the first American born black player in the NHL, experienced racism when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres in the early 1980s.  Bananas were thrown into the rink and a monkey doll was hung from a penalty box.  He was born into a low income family in Florida and did not start skating until he was 13.  Despite his accomplishment in overcoming racial and class barriers, mocking spectators would eat watermelons with his name on it.  Even today, only 5% of NHL players are black (Sommerstein, 2015).  These blatant acts of racism send the message that people of color are not welcome to participate in winter sports.


Another example of racism is evident in the story of the Jamaican bobsled team.  Jamaica debuted its famous bobsled team in the 1988 Calgary Olympics.  The story was made into a highly fictionalized movie called Cool Runnings.  The national team appeared again at the Salt Lake Olympics and Sochi.  In the Lillehammer Olympics, the team placed 13th and beat the US, Russia, and Italy.  Bobsledding was easier to adapt to Jamaica since it entailed pushing a 600 pound sled as fast as possible, then jumping in.  The Jamaican bobsled team crashed during their first Olympics, but were treated as national heroes.  The team inspired other unlikely countries to form bobsled teams such as Mexico, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, and several U.S. territories (Atkin, 2014).  Nigeria wants to field its own bobsled team in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.  The Nigerian team of former Olympian sprinters has formed to practice with a wooden sled until they can raise enough funds for an actual sled and track (Payne, 2016).


The Jamaican bobsled team could be seen as heroic, considering the challenges of becoming a winter athlete in an impoverished tropical country.  Yet, the team continues to be a joke at best and racist trope at worst.  For instance, two San Diego High School football coaches wore “Cool Runnings” inspired Jamaican Bobsled costumes, complete with black face in 2013 (Walsh, 2013).  In 2015, a group of UW-Stout students attended a private Halloween party as the Jamaican bobsled team, again in black face.  The college made a statement that they do not affiliate with those actions (Perez, 2015).  In 2014, a group of Brock University college students dressed up as the Jamaican bobsled team and won a $500 costume prize.  A critic of these students wrote that black costumes represent the limit of the white imagination to envision black people as anything other than rappers, gangsters, or athletes.  These costumes are also a way to control how black people are understood.  The film Cool Runnings itself represented Jamaicans in a stereotypical way by actors who were not even Jamaican.  Blackface dehumanizes black people.  The Jamaican Bobsled costumes affirm a racial hierarchy by making the athletes a stereotype or joke (Traore, 2014).


While much of this discussion has focused on African and African Americans, other racial minority groups face similar challenges.  Out of 11,000 U.S. Olympic athletes, only 14 have identified as Native American.  Only two of the 14 were female.  One of the two was Naomi Lang.   In 2002, Naomi Lang became the first Native American identified woman to compete in the Winter Olympics.  She is a member of the Kuruk tribe of California but was mocked for wearing traditional regalia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  Skating cost her family $60,000 a year.  To afford this, she slept on a mattress and wore hand me down clothes as a high schooler.   Lang resisted competitions, since she felt that her culture stressed cooperation and community.  Aside from differences in culture and challenges such as racism and poverty, Native Americans face the added challenge of health.  30% of Native American 4 year olds are obese, which is twice the amount of any other ethnic group (Sottile, 2011).  Native Americans are also three times as likely to develop diabetes than white people.  These health problems can be related back to colonization, which removed Native Americans from their land and traditional food sources and created historical trauma that continues to cause stress and health problems.


Conclusion:

The goal of feminist frolics is to enjoy the outdoors while learning.  As we venture outdoors this winter, perhaps we will notice how very white the forests, trails, and hills are.  Hopefully, this can be connected back to the larger racial disparities that exist in society.  It is my hope that this can help us become attuned to other spaces that are largely white.  For instance, one of the critiques of the recent Women’s March in Washington was the whiteness of the feminists in attendance.  Many of the issues that keep racial minorities out of winter sports also prevent them from participating in politics.  For instance, the media and police had an easier time imagining the protests as non-violent because it was undertaken by large crowds of white women, as opposed to Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, which are viewed more negatively and violently by police and the media.  Becoming aware of why certain groups may feel excluded or unwelcome can help us build stronger and broader movements.  So, that is the larger mission of this discussion.  There should be more spring times for oppressed groups than endless, white winters.

 

Sources:

 

African Athletes representing at Sochi Winter Olympic Games. (2014, February 5). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://afritorial.com/african-athletes-at-sochi-winter-olympic-games/

 

Atkin, N. (2014, February 5). The real cool Runnings. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://en.espn.co.uk/olympic-sports/sport/story/280229.html

 

http://www.snowshoemag.com/2007/01/01/from-bear-paws-to-beaver-tails-the-history-of-snowshoes-from-the-first-edition-of-snowshoe-magazine/

 

Blond, B. (2014) Ten things to know about Zimbabwe ski sensation Luke Steyn.  Retrieved December 21, 2016 from

http://afkinsider.com/41662/10-things-know-zimbabwe-ski-sensation-luke-steyn/9/

 

Boney, N. (2012, June 17). Snowshoes and the Canadian First Nations. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.snowshoemag.com/2012/06/17/snowshoes-and-the-canadian-first-nations/

 

Brown, S. L. (2015, August 18). The rebellious, back-flipping black figure Skater who changed the sport forever. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from https://newrepublic.com/article/122561/back-flipping-black-figure-skater-who-changed-sport-forever

 

Carr, K. E. (n.d.). Native American Science. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://quatr.us/northamerica/before1500/science/#topbar

 

Christenson, C. (2008). Aboriginal Sports. Retrieved January 27, 2017 from

Click to access aboriginal_sports.pdf

 

Du, S. (2016, September 7). Surya Bonaly, figure skating’s bad-girl star, makes new life in Minnesota. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.citypages.com/news/figure-skatings-bad-girl-star-surya-bonaly-makes-new-life-in-minnesota/392501041

 

Finnerty, M. (2015, March 14). Compromise complicated in debate over faith, water, land. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://www.azcentral.com/story/travel/2015/03/13/navajo-nation-files-human-rights-protest-snowbowl-snow-making/70214892/

 

Harrison, A.K., (2013). Black skiing, everyday racism, and the racial spatiality of Whiteness. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 37(4), 315-339.

 

History of skiing (2005). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.loveandpiste.co.uk/historyofskiing.php

 

King, C. R. (2004). Native Americans in sports. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference.

 

Krichko, K. (2016, January 13). Skiing Kyrgyzstan’s vast, snowy frontier | VICE sports. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/skiing-kyrgyzstans-vast-snowy-frontier

 

Myerberg, P. (2014, February 7). Skater who lit Olympic flame took racist shot at Obama. . Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/sochi/2014/02/07/winter-games-obama-flame-irina-rodnina-racist/5289869/

 

Patten, E., & Krogstad, J. M. (2015, July 14). Black child poverty rate holds steady, even as other groups see declines. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/14/black-child-poverty-rate-holds-steady-even-as-other-groups-see-declines/

 

Payne, M. (2016, December 17). Move over, Jamaica: Nigeria wants to field the next unlikely Olympics bobsled team. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/12/17/move-over-jamaica-nigeria-wants-to-be-field-the-next-unlikely-olympics-bobsled-team/?utm_term=.85c8bee75cd7

 

Perez, I. (2015, nov). UW-Stout students upset over blackface Halloween costume. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://www.fox9.com/news/44912694-story

 

Podezwa, Kathy and Larson, Tim  n.d. Building a coalition on Spirit Mountain. Retrieved December 21, 2016 from

https://freshwaterfuture.org/services/success-stories/building-coalition-on-spirit-mountain/

 

Quigley, B. (n.d.). Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/fourteen-examples-of-raci_b_658947.html

 

Redd, C. K. (2003, November 09). Giving African American Skiers a Lift. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://archive.boston.com/travel/articles/2003/11/09/giving_african_american_skiers_a_lift/

 

Skiers v the religious rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples. (2016, November 26). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21710857-case-supreme-court-will-set-noteworthy-precedent-skiers-v-religious-rights

 

Sommerstein, D. (2015, February 26). As First black American NHL player, enforcer was defenseless against racism. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from NPR, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/02/26/389284068/as-first-black-american-nhl-player-enforcer-was-defenseless-vs-racism

 

Sottile, C. (2014). Winning for native America. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.chiarasottile.com/winning-for-native-america/

 

South Africa withdraws only athlete. (2014, January 24). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://www.espn.com/olympics/winter/2014/alpine/story/_/id/10343352/south-africa-denies-only-olympian-sive-speelman-place-sochi

 

Svitek, P. (2012, April 26). Aggressive effort’ behind exposing ski team party. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Administration, https://dailynorthwestern.com/2012/04/26/campus/campusarchived/aggressive-effort-behind-exposing-ski-team-party/

 

Svitek, P. (2012, April 25). Ski team apologizes for hosting controversial party. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Campus (Archived), https://dailynorthwestern.com/2012/04/25/campus/campusarchived/ski-team-apologizes-for-hosting-controversial-party/

 

Surya Bonaly is the biggest bad ass in Winter Olympics history. (2014, February 6). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://groupthink.kinja.com/surya-bonaly-was-the-biggest-bad-ass-in-winter-olympics-1517897822

 

Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB. (2016, January 27). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://gbtribune.blogspot.com/2016/01/traditional-winter-sports-festival-and.html

 

Traore, I. (2014, November 20). Blackface, trauma and cultural racism — the silhouette. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from https://www.thesil.ca/blackface-trauma-and-cultural-racism

 

Vara, V. (2014, July 16). Race and Poverty, Fifty Years After the March. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/race-and-poverty-fifty-years-after-the-march

 

Walsh, M. (2013, October 30). Coaches’ “cool Runnings” blackface outrages civil rights groups. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/coaches-cool-runnings-blackface-outrages-civil-rights-groups-article-1.1501735

 

White as Snow – Racism and the Winter Olympics. (2013, January 30). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from https://www.ua-magazine.com/22252/

 

Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports. (2011, December 16). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from Indian Country News, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/winter-workout-enjoy-traditional-native-snow-sports/

 

What is to be Danced? The Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation Question

 

What is to be Danced? The Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation Question.

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“Oh no, someone let an uncomfortable feminist argument out of the bottle!”

I am going to be honest here. I love to travel. I love to try new things. Historically, I have collected hobbies like some people collect Dragon Ball Z Action Figures, stamps, and nail polish colors. Wait, I’ve collected those too. I am curious about the world and cultures. I have worn clothing that was inspired by ethnic styles. In the late 1990s, I wore a bindi a few times, as it was the trend then and because I imagined that it made me look like I was a superhero that could blast magical magenta lasers from the gemstone. I drew a comic book wherein I did exactly this. I suck.

So, when I talk about cultural appropriation, it is not because I am riding on some high horse looking down on people. It is because I have a carbon footprint that looks like Godzilla walked by. It is because I want to partake in cultures. It is also because I don’t want to be a terrible white person who stomps on people of color. There is already a lot of stomping in the world.

Thus, this leads me to my latest quandary. Is belly dancing a form of cultural appropriation? In 2014, Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian American writer, wrote a controversial article for Slate, wherein she argued that it was cultural appropriation. Jarrar expressed frustration that white women were basically performing Arab drag by dressing up in costumes that caricatured Arab women. She said that growing up in the Middle East, the belly dance (Raqs Sharqi) clothing she remembered was more conservative and women who perform belly dances professionally were looked down upon. She viewed belly dancing as a performance of women for women, done at parties and weddings. When men were present, the dancing was less playful. Because of the stigma of public performance, she observed that white women were being hired to perform in Egypt. In all, she mostly felt angered by the shameless Arab face performance of white women, who she said sometimes adopted Arab sounding performance names and Arab inspired costumes.

In response to her opinion, the internet exploded with articles and blog posts defending cultural appropriation, cultural borrowing, and belly dancing. This is not a literature review of those articles, but in reading some of responses I saw a jumbled discourse of the power, privilege, and entitlement on the dismissive end of the spectrum and appreciation, art, expression, and feminism on the apologetic end of the spectrum. For the most part, it was hard to find many voices who agreed with her. Roughly, here are a few common arguments against her argument:

 

Impossible to Avoid Argument: On this side, it seems that a theme was that cultural appropriation is hard to define and no one owns culture. Cultural borrowings are a part of all societies. If a person were to try to avoid cultural appropriation, it would involve extremes like avoiding coffee, potatoes, and algebra. The merit of this argument is that the world is so interconnected by globalization that it is impossible to avoid appropriation. The outcome of this would be extreme isolation between peoples and the policing of cultural boundaries. Main Critique: This is true, but this also evades tough questions about racism, imperialism, and entitlement.

It’s Art Argument: On this side, dance is art. Art is creative and expressive. The rules of cultural appropriation do not apply to art. If belly dance is performed well and taken seriously as an art, then women will grow in their respect of Middle Eastern cultures as they deepen their knowledge of dance, instruments, language, and dance history. Critique: This is true, who wants to censor art and learning? But, art is not inherently benign. Art is political and promotes meaning. What if the art sends the message that imperialism is okay?

It’s Feminism Argument: Belly dancing empowers women by allowing them to express themselves, explore their identities, accept their bodies, spend time with other women, etc. Some pagan feminists believe that belly dancing is an ancient form of dance that celebrates the feminine divine. Belly dancing builds community and sisterhood. Critique: Wonderful. I truly want this for women. But, what if some women feel that the dance does not respect their culture? What if they feel mocked or marginalized? Feminism isn’t about community and self-actualization of some women at the expense of the community and self-actualization of other women.

Unfortunately, what is lacking is a Marxist feminist answer to cultural appropriation. Here I am…a Marxist feminist, trying to make sense of what is a very difficult question. In the spirit of Lenin I shall ask…

What is to be danced?

I have mulled it over and I don’t think that Marxism can really take a position on dance. Dance is part of the superstructure, or the culture that sits on the economy. Dance evolves over time as society changes. It is entirely possible that the pagan feminists are right and there have been gyrating dances since the dawn of time. These early dances might have celebrated fertility, women, female power, etc. This sort of dance might have been characteristic of a matriarchal or matrilineal society wherein women were valued and equal. But, this is capitalism. This is the heart of the beast of capitalism: the USA. Capitalism has reached all over the globe. In doing so it has subjugated other cultures as it has integrated other economies. It is no wonder that in our globalized capitalist society that we would have a taste for the foods, cultures, dances, and languages of other places. We have had a long time to become exposed to these things through imperialism and colonization. Historically, the West has had the power to discover and take. At the same time, we are oppressed by capitalism. We want to escape. We want to travel. We want joy and fun. We want to celebrate and dance!

Without capitalism, we wouldn’t really know about belly dancing. We’d be feudal peasants who perhaps know only of our own village. In the 18th and 19th century, Europeans travelled to the Ottoman Empire and saw dancers perform. Harems really captured the imagination of Europeans. Now, in our Orientalist imagination, harems are places where women dance around for sultans. In my understanding, harems were places for women. Here, women danced for women and most of them never met the sultan. Harems were guarded by eunuchs because men weren’t trusted. Really, it was a female space. To varying degrees it was a way for women to exert some measure of control over the sultan. But, this shouldn’t be idealized as feminist space or power. The women were trafficked from across the empire. Around the same time that Europe was exposed to belly dancing, it was exposed to many things as it expanded into new territories. This era saw a rise in Orientalism, or art, music, literature, and ideas which popularized certain images of the East. The east was exotic and erotic. Having this vision of the east probably made it easier to conquer it, as it was a backwards place, yet exciting places, with strange values.

Belly dancing as an art is deeply connected to capitalism’s global nature. Belly dancing became popular in the United States in the late 1800s through our World’s Fair, at a time when we were just sinking our milk teeth into global imperialism. It appealed to orientalism. Even at that time, it was performance for an orientalist audience rather than a traditional folk art. The dance shimmied across the globe. It was shaped by U.S. Hollywood movies, returned to Egypt, repackaged, returned to the United States through immigrants, and reshaped. Modern belly dance draws from many cultures. It is a simulacrum. That is, a copy of a copy of a copy. A simulacra, according to Baudrillard, is something which has no origin or is a caricature. Of course, real people contributed to the development of belly dancing through teaching, shaping, performing, and costuming of the dance. Some of these people were indeed Arab American.

As workers were are alienated from the production of things. We don’t control how things are made. We buy them in the market place, where they appear magically from far off places. Where did that coffee come from? Who grew it? How was it roasted? What is the process? So it is with the thousands of things we consume. Since capitalism is so global and everything just appears so magically, it is no wonder that there are so many international things to consume. At the same time, being American is also pretty frustrating. For a progressive person, America is a place of religion, racism, inequality, Donald Trump, endless war, professional wrestling, snow mobiles, and Happy Meals. A taste for international foods and activities seems like a lovely alternative.

This leads to the problem.   Miss Progressive doesn’t want to learn square dancing and eat corn dogs at the county fair. These things represent America. OR, maybe she feels bad about her body. Belly dancing liberates her from the fat shaming. She feels sexy again. Or, maybe she meets some friends. It sure is lonely taking care of the kids. And, these women are fun and cool. They have tattoos. They aren’t afraid of the Middle East. They might even deeply respect the dance. Women are oppressed. All women are oppressed. In the land of plenty and scarcity, there is a tendency to escape or try to escape our oppression through consumption and identity. Dance is an escape. Can we blame women for wanting some joy in the world?! My god, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution. Thanks for the perfect quote, Emma Goldman.

 

Okay, so Lenin asked the classic question, what is to be done…not what is to be danced. This is about forming a vanguard party for the purpose of spreading revolutionary ideas to workers. I am not sophisticated nor creative enough to tie belly dancing to the vanguard party. But, I can tie this argument to a basic question which revolutionaries must ask themselves. The question is: how do I make a revolution?

This probably sounds bloody and terrible to my readers. So, maybe a less dramatic sounding question is how do I make significant change in society? From a Marxist perspective, capitalism just has to go. To this end, workers just have to be organized. This is because the entire economic is run by workers and would cease to function without the consent to work. Because of our service economy, maybe workers don’t seem that powerful. Oh nooos who will make the hamburgers?! Think instead, who will run hospitals, schools, drive trains and buses, harvest food, ship the food, can the food, make the weapons, remove the garbage, purify the water, and so on and so on. No other group in society wields the power of workers. But, not just workers. Ties must be made to social movements. A socialist revolution must also be a revolution that wins the hearts and minds of all oppressed people: women, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, ethnic and racial minorities. Capitalism depends upon racism, sexism, and homophobia to function. These things divide people. This divides workers.

Relating to oppressed groups isn’t always easy. There is a lot of false consciousness or bad ideas in the world. I am a product of society and as such, my head is full of a lot of society’s bad ideas. But, if there is one rule of being an ally to these groups it is probably: don’t be a dick.

How do you avoid being a dick?

  1. Listen to oppressed people.

Okay, sounds good. But they say different things! Some don’t even think racism exists any more.

 

  1. Listen to the vanguard of oppressed people.

Listen to the people who you think are in motion. Who are the activists? The radicals? They probably can give you some clues about how to treat them with dignity and be true allies.

 

  1. What if they say that I can’t belly dance? Or Celebrate the Day of the Dead? Or wear dreadlocks?

These are personal choices. There is no golden rule to what is and what is or is not cultural appropriation. But, listen to the arguments. Consider the offense it may cause. Consider how it shapes your relationship with this group of people. If Arab women feel that belly dancing is appropriation, then consider how you could work with them to make it better and more just. Isn’t that the nice thing to do?

  1. Weigh/Learn about the issue:

In the end, Jarrar issued another statement. In this, she said belly dancing isn’t that important. The really important thing were things like the appropriation of Palestinian land. She was upset that her article was given so much attention when she had written more substantive things. The appropriation of a dance is far less important than the detainment of thousands of Palestinians who protest Israel’s occupation of their land or the collective punishment of Palestinians who cannot leave Gaza and the West Bank.

 

  1. Consider Oppression

Since there are no hard and fast rules about how to live one’s life and politics should not be reduced to personal choices anyway, the big question is the movement. The big picture is not the food you eat, clothes you wear, or hobbies you participate in. It is the oppression. The oppression of women must end. To do this, we must build a feminist movement. This is a circle. To build a movement, we need allies. To have allies, we can’t be jerks. We are all oppressed. We all have to work together. It is easy to think that feminism means freedom and choice, but the heart of feminism is ending the systematic oppression of women. This means that some of our freedoms and choices do impact others.

 

Conclusion:

Belly dancing is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. I wrestle with it. Knowing what I know, or thinking what I think, should I do it as an activity? Having been raised in the United States, I like to think I can do whatever I want. I have freedom to choose. The world is a marketplace. It is hard to shake off that consciousness. I don’t want an austere, colorless life that lacks culture. I think the worst offense is probably the racialized costume. In this sense, perhaps I would be comfortable taking classes or practicing it at home, but would not want to wear a costume. I can’t shake the desire to learn and explore. The imperialist urge to sample the world.  I have tried to be involved with a local Palestine group and with an Islamophobia action that happened in Superior. The boundaries of my life are to think about my actions and do the best that I can to be an ally to women. I will do what I can to be the best that I can in those respects. I will dance in the revolution, but my steps will be cautious and thoughtful.

Che of the Dead: My adventures at All Souls Night

Last year, I wrote a blog post about my concerns regarding Duluth’s All Souls Night and the potential for cultural appropriation.  This year, I decided to check it out for myself.   According to the Facebook page: “Today is our 8th annual fall arts event celebrating life: honoring our ancestors, our pain for the world, and our determination for the future with local spectacle arts and community of all ages and backgrounds. Samhain and Mexican Dia de Muertos representations are popular, however, respectful offerings from ALL grieving traditions are welcome. That is why we have reclaimed the title of ALL Souls, lighting up the Night!  Consider dressing in black, or as a skeleton character, or a larger than life puppet!”

Well, alright then.  All grieving traditions.  I don’t really have a grieving tradition, but I am a socialist.  How would a socialist celebrate All Soul’s Night?  As we don’t believe in souls or that liminal time of year where the dead are nearer to us, I think it would be appropriate to celebrate the dead who have struggled for social change.  They may be dead, but their ideas and movements live on in the hopes and actions of activists today. Hence, I attended the event as “Che of the Dead.”

DSCF2382 DSCF2379 DSCF2381

This was a fun costume.  It was fairly simple, as almost everything was from my existing wardrobe, spare the glowing skull shirt I bought for $1.50 on after Halloween clearance, the clearance face paint, and light up skeleton glove.  I wondered if there were any issues dressing up as a Hispanic male, but I believe that because Che is part of a pantheon of socialist heroes, the costume did not highlight ethnic features such as skin color, and I am not aware that his image is used to promote any racial stereotypes, that this should be alright.  In any event, the idea was to wear a costume that represented remembrance for dead revolutionaries.

I arrived at the event at about 6:30 ish and watched some belly dancers.  80% of the crowd was not in any costume or face paint.  There was also a strong spread of ages, with children and elderly, along with families and singles.  The event was free, which was nice, as there are few free events for all ages.  Among those in makeup, some people wore ordinary skull makeup and others wore sugar skull makeup.  Now, I have found evidence that Mexicans and Mexican Americans do feel that the sugar skull face paint  has been marketized and taken out of context.  I do think that the organizers of All Souls Night must have been somewhat mindful of this as they tried to highlight the spirituality of the event, made it very clear that it was not Mexican Halloween, and tried to offer face painting rather than have people go out and buy makeup or facial temp. tattoos.  Most people were not using the makeup in a sexualized or cartoonish way, so I think it is another gray area.  However, I will note that the event did not feel like Mexican Themed Halloween or an excuse for white people to party.  It did feel like a celebration of life and death and from my observation it appeared there were many ages, races, and social classes in the crowd.  Perhaps the fact that it was free and not very focused on buying things, more diverse demographics could attend.  (The only buying was food from a truck and t-shirts).  I appreciated this.

The highlight of the event and part that attracted me was the funeral for bad ideas.  We did a march around the block to the sounds of a brass band.  Then, we threw pieces of paper into a fire.  On the paper, we wrote bad ideas-which were announced by the emcee.  99% of the ideas were political and progressive including war, animal abuse, domestic abuse, pollution, oil, and my own addition-capitalism.  A good portion of the crowd actually clapped when capitalism was announced. There was also a spiral dance, which I declined…as it seemed chaotic and I wasn’t sure of the meaning.  I guess it is a pagan/Samhain tradition.  This was followed by fire dancing.

My original post on All Souls Night may have been a bit curmudgeonly. Having attended, I see that it does seem to have some meaning for attendees and that participants can choose how they celebrate.  There was some definite borrowing from Mexican motifs, but there were also local variations on the theme of death-such as moose and smelt skeletons.  I believe that the organizers made some effort to avoid cultural appropriation.  As a whole, I think it was a fun event and I am glad I attended.

Sinking in a Sea of Cultural Appropriation

It seems that this past year when I go clothes shopping, I find that most of the clothes are inspired by cultures that are not my own.   Aside from the Halloween costumes of gypsies, Native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaiians, etc. are the everyday fashions that seem quite popular now. I have seen a proliferation of “South Western” prints (those inspired by the Native Americans of southwest), as well as feather and dream catcher motifs. Leather, beads, fringes, turquoise, and other Native American inspired materials and patterns are also common. African prints on pants and dresses seemed popular last year. In a way, shopping seems like navigating a mine field of stolen artifacts.

I don’t have a clear litmus test for if a particular clothing item is cultural appropriation.   Different patterns, materials, or motifs may mean different things to different people in different contexts. Some may be sacred and some may be shared. At the heart of the issue though is power.   The most obvious example are the Halloween costumes, which are often a racist and sexualized caricature of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural group. The group that is represented benefits in no way from these costumes, as they perpetuate a hateful image that the oppressed group is not in control of. They dehumanize oppressed groups by making them into a joke, sex object, or even non-existent. For instance, a gypsy costume renders real Roma people as non-existent by depicting them as a fortune telling character of fantasy.

Most things are not so obvious. Fringes, leather, beads, turquoise, etc. may not be uniquely Native American but culturally associated with them and may have specific cultural meaning. Stripped away from their cultural context, it is hard to know what this meaning is. They are just cool, trendy items that look vaguely earthly. Again, power is important. Within capitalism, nothing is sacred. Because we, as workers, do not control production (that is, we are often estranged from the source and process of production) consumer goods appear to us as both mysterious and meaningless. A neon patterned Navajo printed poncho may have been sewn in Bangladesh. The dye and cotton may have come from other countries. The design for it by someone in an office. By the time it reaches Target or Ragstock, it is just one item of many- as mysterious and meaningless as any other.   The pattern may not be recognized as even Native American or southwestern in origin because the history, art, and culture of Native American is not a social priority.  Capitalism functions better if history is disjointed and people are atomized. Even if it is recognized as inspired by Native American motifs, this may not be seen as problematic to the white consumer. Why not? Well, a person could justify that in a global society there is so much exchange that the lines between cultures are blurry. A person might also think that it is a way to express appreciation for a culture. While this isn’t entirely false, the invisible force is power. Why are these things sold in Target or any other store? Why is it popular now? Why is it made in Haiti or Sri Lanka instead of by an actual Native American? How do Native Americans feel about it?

I can’t speak for how Native Americans may feel about the trendiness of cultural motifs. There are some things that have received a lot of attention, such as head dresses and Halloween costumes. So, clearly these things have been identified as either racist, disrespectful, or cultural appropriation. The general trendiness of patterns or materials that may not be specific to a particular tribe or tradition (a generic Native American-ness) gets less attention. However, as an outsider, I feel cautious about these items because A. Native Americans certainly aren’t benefitting from them (at least not when they are bought from mainstream stores that profit white people) B. They aren’t in control of fashion trends. C. It reinforces an idea that looking Native American is cool, but does nothing to actually promote social justice or end prejudice against those who actually look Native American-because they are. D. Culture becomes a fetish (i.e. meaningless and mysterious).

Still, shopping is a mine field.  A solution from some environmental minded, do-it-yourself people would be not to shop and just make your own clothes or thrift (though, these items also appear in thrift stores). Education is perhaps another solution. However, quite honestly, even the best historian probably does not know the history of every material, pattern, or motif (as this would require an extensive knowledge of many cultures over many time periods). Nevertheless, it might be useful to educate yourself if a particular design catches your eye. Another option might be to buy things from Native American producers. This at least connects a person to the production process and supports the livelihood of that producer. Still, these are individual solutions that rely on consumer sovereignty to solve social problems- like racism. Social problems need social solutions.

Focusing on the individual or the product is often difficult because there is no universal meaning on particular cultural items. For instance, there might be some Native Americans who are happy that fashion is popularizing certain designs. There are others that may even partake in selling sacred items in order to make money. These examples can then be used to justify cultural appropriation. The truth is, among any group there is disagreement, as everyone experiences their culture and oppression slightly differently.   Beyond this, because there has been both cultural exchange and cultural appropriation for so long, it is hard to see the difference between the two. For example, does this mean that white people can’t take belly dance lessons, yoga lessons, karate classes, eat tacos, eat sushi, believe in non-Western religions, etc?  What about eating pumpkins, chocolate, or owning Chihuahuas? Some people would argue yes. Some would argue yes for some and no for others. Really, has anything been exchanged or given freely? European people have a long history of colonization and imperialism. Even when things are given, as long as there is unequal power the exchange is at least somewhat coerced.

That leads back to the same question, if so many things have been taken (many so long ago that there is no longer memory or resistance to it) then why bother? Why care? Again, this matters as much as a person wants to build better relationships with oppressed people and wants to promote social justice. With that said, if these are important goals (which I believe they are) then a person should be mindful of how their presentation of self and consumption may dehumanize or render invisible others. And while there is no perfect road map of what to wear and what not to wear or what to eat or what not to eat, mindfulness is important. But, mindfulness is individual. Another idea is to take cues from social movements. What do Native American or African American social movements say about particular items or behaviors? Finally, there is the building social movements component.   Social movements that promote worker rights, environmentalism, indigenous rights, anti-racism, feminism, etc. can each work to solve the problems that cultural appropriation is symptomatic of. We need to know history. We need to be connected to production. We need to be connected with one another. The more that African Americans or Native Americans are treated like full human beings whose lives matter, they less they will be erased by fashion trends, Halloween costumes, police, disease, and poverty.

(As a side note, I don’t proclaim to be perfect on this issue.  I am sure that many of the things I do or wear may be stolen without even noticing it.  Also, while this piece uses Native Americans as the example, it should be extended to any oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural groups)

Duluth Day of the Dead: When is Cultural Appropriation Appropriate?

The short answer is never.

Duluth has a celebration for the Day of the Dead, though it is called All Soul’s Night.  I have not attended, so I am not certain if it is cultural appropriation.  Certainly, it seems gray.  Here’s why:

1.  To my knowledge, Mexicans are not involved in the celebration or planning process of this event.  While Duluth does not have a large Hispanic population, I think caution should be used when adopting images and elements of a holiday.  This is especially true since Day of the Dead, though Catholic, also draws from Aztec beliefs about death and worship.

2. Europeans celebrate All Soul’s Night, but images such as sugar skulls or artifacts such as ofrendas are not a part of this celebration.  Mexicans do not traditionally paint their faces like sugar skulls for Day of the Dead.  This face paint is inspired by the skulls, which are used to honor the deceased.  While these designs look interesting and exotic, what does it mean?  Why is it done?  If it is only because it is artsy, exotic, fun, or interesting, then perhaps it should be considered more deeply.

3.  All Souls Day and Day of the Dead are both similar in that both are holidays that synchronized polytheistic beliefs with Christianity.  This makes the celebration a bit gray.  Duluth, a predominantly white community could celebrate, the former drawing elements from European paganism rather than Aztec/Mexican images.  The Duluth celebration is meant to be mindful of death and put a positive spin on it.  This is not uniquely Mexican.  However, some of the images are Mexican.  In that case, why are they used?  What meaning do they have for white Duluthians?

4. Some areas in the United States do celebrate Day of the Dead and some Mexicans have supported the export of this holiday.  For instance, tourists are allowed to visit Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead and participate in the celebration.  Therefore, it does not seem to be a closed holiday.  Likewise, the Mexican embassy has supported and promoted the celebration of this holiday elsewhere in the world.  Yet, the Duluth celebration, to my knowledge, is not supported or promoted by any Mexican communities or institutions.

5.  Some Mexican American activists are offended by how this holiday has been appropriated.  This year, I saw sugar skulls and Mexican inspired motifs sold in Target.  The meaningless consumption of this holiday does concern some activists.  Others view it as innocent fun and others may think there are more pressing issues (such as immigration and drugs).  So, I am not aware of a united movement against white people celebrating this holiday.  Nevertheless, I think that extreme caution should be used when celebrating it.

6.  I think that Duluth could have a celebration of Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Night, but I think that there needs to be a LOT of transparency and communication on how it is NOT cultural appropriation.  A visible involvement of Mexicans or Mexican Americans might be a start.  I think that perhaps the celebration comes across as a fun time with some artsy and spiritual undertones.  While there is nothing wrong with being expressive and having a good time, it might be more meaningful if it addressed a social issue.  For instance, perhaps it could help fund raise for families or individuals who DIED while crossing the border or who DIED as undocumented workers involved in hazardous jobs.  In this sense, death would be connected to social issues and the celebration wouldn’t consist of artsty, spiritual, fun times…but an attempt at solidarity with Mexicans.

7. The Facebook page for the event mentions that the celebration draws from many traditions.  While I think that celebrating cultures and diversity is good…and it is also good that the point was made that this is not a specifically Mexican celebration, it leaves me with the question, when is it okay to borrow?  I admit it.  Somehow white celebrations and traditions seem boring.  They are familiar.  Even the exotic ones seem to involve too many starchy root vegetables and pickled things.  Where is the color?  Where is the spice?  But….do we have permission to borrow and draw from other traditions?  The world is globalized and society is pluralistic.  The exchange of ideas and culture is almost invisible….but then, so is the theft.  Like the liminal lines between life and death on Halloween (metaphorically speaking) there are liminal lines between exchange and theft (especially when power is hard to see).  Since we are the ones with power….we have to be pretty careful that the exchange is welcome.

I really am curious about the celebration.  I would like to attend.  I have not missed it for any political reasons, but out of a busy schedule.  Because I have not attended, I cannot say with any certainty that it is truly cultural appropriation.  However, it does seem a bit gray and it is something that should be taken seriously.  I want to have fun and I want to celebrate cultures, but….I don’t want to do it in a way that is thoughtless or hurtful.

So, do you think that Duluth’s Day of the Dead is cultural appropriation.  Why or why not?

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