IF *I'M* NOT WHITE ENOUGH?! - Then Yeah. Houston, We Have a Problem.
Updated: Feb 3
I mean, have you not seen my pasty-white butt? Some of you out there actually have. For the rest of you, let me assure you--my skin isn't quite blue-tinged. I’m more peachy tinged, and I can be out in the sun with proper SPF. But I am one pasty-white creampuff.
So when I’m not white enough, there is something seriously wrong.
If you haven't read THE GREAT "WHITE BELLY DANCER" WAR OF 2014, then you may wish to before diving into the rest of this series.
You may have noticed that there was a long chunk of time last summer where I didn't write anything new. Back in June, I finally squeaked up a few more installments of How I Became A Dancer. In May, those posts had been sitting in my Medium drafts folder, ready to go except for the overnight bake and final read-through before publishing.
The next morning, the world around me exploded into rage, grief, and riots.
Eventually, I put up those last two posts, but I had to tap out on the whole dance series. It delves deeply into this hot-button topic, and it is a subtle undercurrent forever present in any of my tales from childhood. (I grew up in 70s-80s Northern Minnesota, don'tcha know?) There were a bunch more dance posts drafted, but it wasn't time to put those up. Instead, it was time to push pause.
To seek and poke and dig things up, asking questions like, "What do you need me to know? What do you need me to hear? What do you wish I understood about you? About myself? About the world?"
So that's what I dove into doing, amongst other introvert projects.
Reading and researching and rewatching shows with new eyes. Working my way through suggestions on Netflix, Google, and Medium. Journaling. A LOT. Having conversations about it all. Letting myself swing from one end of the emotional pendulum to the other and seeing what actually feels right--in private. I'm letting it come to a new resting place in my latest round of freshly updated course corrections.
That's what the whole next segment of my Dance Saga was going to be about. A thirty-year (mis)adventure of course corrections as an American white-girl from mostly rural communities who made a career out of being a belly dancer. And not just any kind of belly dancer, but a hack-bastardizer--I mean, fusion belly dancer.
Some of my initial Muses and Modern Dance she-roes who helped model the foundation of my entire dance trajectory are now hailed as some of the biggest and most notorious cultural appropriators in the biz. That sure would have been nice to know back in 1992 when I was desperately searching for anything to do with the history, culture, and techniques of my new dance obsession. I was a History Major, after all, so I wanted it allllll.
We'll be taking a really deep dive into this subject because...it's complicated. Back in April and May, these posts were already taking way longer to draft, research, and edit than any others I've put up, because the topic is a touchy one, a thick one, and it is an important one.
The world has decided that it's a crucial one.
Can it be fully this time?
As such, this topic must be handled with the greatest care and consideration. I have no doubt that I'll still fuck it up. In another 20 years, I'll probably come back and read these words, cringe, roll my eyes, maybe put in some edits or write my updated thoughts. But fuck it. I built an entire dance career on course correction, and it actually is one of the factors that cost me that career.
The trend was noticeable: die-off in new student interest happened every time a new war or political development occurred between my homeland and places in the Middle East. But it was so much more than that.
Man, I can toss up an old video of me belly dancing in a Moroccan restaurant back in the 90s when I was in my 20s. My social media explodes in squeeees and Lurves. New subscribers at last find my current YouTube channel - the one that is NOT belly dancing. It's me and my Elements System, and I guess I haven't yet found the type of people who super-duper dig what I do now, because so much of my new stuff just gets crickets.
But that's nothing new. That was a continuous evolution of my belly dance career--the steady erosion of fans every time I was able to dig up some more LEGIT (not mythical) information about the history of these dances and the ways they've evolved inside and outside their cultures of origin, and make a shift. Every time things just...didn't feel right, I pulled back and adjusted: My presentation. My costuming. My music. My advertisements and labels.
Eventually, I just went with “DANCER.”
True, each incarnation saw new people who hadn't liked my dancing before but resonated with the shifts, especially those notorious years when fusion was really starting to become A Thing--before we were told by The Authorities that the only acceptable version of fusion is by someone who has "mastered" every style they've fused.
Ummm...if I ever get to the point of feeling like I've "mastered" any style of anything?
I can die satisfied. And kinda bummed. Because then I'll be bored with it.
Anyway, with every attempt to address this issue of being a white-girl playing with non-white-stuff that has been misrepresented, thieved, misunderstood, and outright lied about, the scales have tipped farther and farther in favor of "Meh"-to-downright-"Neh" from my old belly dance audience. Makes sense. I'm not belly dancing anymore--and there's the big question of if I ever truly was.
"I liked your old dancing so much better."
Do you have any idea how many times I've heard that over the past twenty years? I actually take that as a compliment. It means I haven't stagnated. It means I've grown and learned and added and subtracted and refined.
It also means I've been Listening for a very long time, and wondering what the Bleep to do about this big mess, yet still follow my heart and dance the way I'm inspired to dance, write the fiction I'm inspired to write, learn to defend myself through the martial arts that call to me, create and express myself the way I'm inspired to do so, and connect to the Divine in a way that works for me. That's a constant pendulum swing as well. Sometimes I swing too far this way or that, then have to alter momentum.
We'll get to all that. It's such a hefty topic that it will require multiple posts.
This post is a bit different. I hadn't planned on sharing this tale yet. It originally was slated for a different series about my move to Colorado.
Wrong. The Muse has decreed that it actually belongs right here. And when it comes to Her, I hear and obey.
25 years old
He didn’t believe me, so he demanded that I prove it: the longtime theory that I was an ugly duckling growing up. And oh, do I have proof. In droves!
I haul out my photo albums and yearbooks, dumping the whole lot on the couch next to him. I dump myself down as well. “Let’s start here, shall we? This is me in fifth grade.”
His eyes widen. His eyebrows lift.
I chuckle. Ah, yes, the cowlicked hair, the goofy grin, the twisted teeth. Next comes my seventh-grade attempt to be a brunette Farah Fawcett--in my ginormous glasses and braces. I tongue-click off a wink. “I had the headgear, too.”
He cringes. “Oh, man…”
“Yup. And I got to wear it day and night for six months. Rawrrrrrr...”
His head tilts in concession that perhaps there is enough evidence to prove my hypothesis into theory. Dare I say the Law of The Dog? Because that’s what they called me.
Flipping through my photos, we wince and groan and laugh our way up the years, and I have to concede his premise that I wasn’t the only gawky, geeky, homely specimen in my hometown. Not with those hairstyles, makeup atrocities, and fashion statements. “And besides,” he says, “everybody’s ugly in middle school and junior high.”
Looking back at all of us in the 80s, ravaged by puberty, I can’t argue.
When he requests a detour through my youngest photos, he whacks my arm. “Hah. See? I told you. You were a cute kid.”
My face screws up in horror. “In that bowl haircut? They didn’t just call me ugly back then. They also called me a boy!”
“A boy?” His eyes run the length of me. “There is no doubt you are all girl.”
I blush and turn my gaze onto the coffee table. “I did not have boobs or hips back then, and I have always been a tomboy. I was the lone girl who played floor hockey with the boys, and in my youngest years I hung out with more of them than the girls. For good reason. Not many of the girls were nice to me.”
“Pfffft, they were just jealous.”
“They were. But they had a lot of other reasons.”
“What, because you were so ‘uuuugly?’”
“That was one of their biggest complaints about me, yes.”
“Whatever,” he grumbles. “They must have had warped ideas of what pretty is.”
All I can do is twitch off a disgruntled shrug. “Well, those ideas formed a popular and long-standing theory.” One that even getting away from that hellhole high school almost a decade ago hasn't been able to fully combat.
The final yearbook opens to our senior class photos. Now he can examine us in closeup, without junior high pimples and gawk.
After a moment, he drags the yearbook into his lap. His page-flipping slows. I wonder what new hypothesis is burning through his brain now, but I watch in silence. When he reaches Nancy Young, he starts back over at William Anderson. Each face he scrutinizes scrawls ever-deepening confirmation across his furrowed brows and open mouth, quirked up in baffled wonder. “God,” he sighs, shaking his head. “All these faces…” He looks up at me to compare, then cringes again. “Are you…are you from an inbreeder town?”
“What?” I squawk. “What are you talking about?”
“There’s like…one Asian girl, and not one Black kid in your whole class.” (1)
“How observant you are. Jie was our foreign exchange student in senior year, and we had one other Asian girl until we were sophomores. In our whole school we had one Black family with multiple kids, and one other boy.”
His face takes on a cartoonish level of shock. “Wow. And…what? A couple girls who might be…part Mexican?” He points out Jenny Berg.
I shake my own head. “Part Indian. I don’t know which tribe. That was a topic you just...didn't talk about unless the person in question brought it up.” (2)
“Huh. Well, what about this guy?”
I point to his last name, Archambeau. “French-Canadian. Like half of me.” In proof, I rattle off the oh-so-French surnames that dominate my heritage.
“Oh.” He huffs out a laugh and says, “Oui.”
I wink. “Oui.”
“Then that must be it.”
“Must be what?”
“Why they called you ugly even when you were a cute little kid and a very cute little cheerleader. Look at all of them. They all look the same, except for the really obvious examples.” He examines my features again. “Like you.”
I screw up my face. “They’re not all the same. I mean look. Platinum blonde all the way to black hair.”
“I’m not looking at the hair. And besides, some of these girls obviously dye it or bleach it. No, look at the faces. Especially all the noses and the eyes. It’s…” He switches again from the yearbook to me, drawing a circle in front of my eyes. “It’s right here. It's actually kinda creepy how alike they all look. And you look absolutely nothing like most of these people. Your face is sharper. Your cheekbones..." He makes a slashy motion. "And your eyes…I never realized.” His head tilts as he gazes at me, touting his theory once again, now in his expression. You could never have been ugly. It’s all shining through in his smile when he says, “You have almond-shaped eyes.”
I flinch into a hunch, staring at my lap. “Yup.” I've always hated the shape of my eyes. I can never get my makeup right to make them look big enough. They always just look...squinty to me.
I give a hedgy glance at the yearbook, then retrieve it. Upon flipping through the pages, now with his hypothesis in mind, I see for the first time what he's talking about. I blink hard. "Oh, my God..."
"See what I mean?"
Breathless, I nod. I had never noticed how alike so many of my old classmates looked, because...I don't know. I grew up with most of them from my youngest years until I was eighteen and left home for college.
He points to Jenny Berg. "Except the fact that you're as pale as the wall behind you, you actually look way more like her than you do the rest of these girls."
In his smile, I see it: he thinks that's a good thing. When his eyes radiate his desire to exchange gazing for touching, I squirm. I’ve never been good at being called beautiful. Eventually, I lift my eyes again to meet his. They are brown and almond-shaped, too. His skin is much darker than mine. His hair is black and long. His lineage is predominantly Italian, but we’re both American, so who knows what kinds of mutt we really are.
Either way, since I moved to Colorado, I don't ever get called ugly anymore. I had always attributed that to growing out of puberty and getting away from people who hated me in my hometown.
But I'm beginning to suspect it might be more than that.
Me with my dark hair and my brown, almond-shaped eyes.
SOME STUFF ON MY MIND AS I WRITE THIS:
1) I know, I know. I wouldn't have capitalized Black in those days. But...fuck that.
2) I am, however, keeping the term "Indian" the way I would have back then, due to how many times I've met someone or read a piece like this who negates the PC teachings of what I'm "supposed" to do. Rather, they proudly insist upon, for instance, being called Indian rather than Native American, or Gypsy/Gitana rather than Romany, or this one over here who despises when people call zir Latinx. In these cases, I have to adjust according to each individual.
3) Hmmmmm... Treating people as individual people and actually doing it how they like it done instead of making ASSumptions based on what I think their race and heritage and gender and etc. etc. etc. is at first glance? (Now, I personally have other topics I'd like to get to when I interact with someone than identifiers, so if I get it wrong at first glance, I'll be thrilled with a specification of your favored
identifier. I'll also be apologetic if I can't keep track of everybody's individual preferences until we've interacted for some time. With simple human limitation compounded by my Dain Bramage in mind, I'll appreciate YOUR sensitivity and consideration for my disability. Thanks.)
So that's pretty much my policy. What do YOU prefer? Cool. It is done. *clap-clap* If you like ze/zir, I’m happy to learn the mental acrobatics to carve it into my 50 year old automatic vocabulary. If you prefer Lakota, I will be thrilled to be specific. If you like your B capitalized as a sign of respect, consider them all capitalized in my writing and in my mind and heart, even if I miss one out of old habit. If you like your W capitalized as a white supremacist middle finger, consider all my w's staunchly lowercase.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: IF *I'M* NOT WHITE ENOUGH?! - PART 2: Being French Canadian in Minnesota vs. Colorado
--Don't believe I was an ugly duckling either? You can find the tales of my days as The Dog, complete with some of those lovely photos, in these series about my childhood and adolescence.