The title of this article is perhaps misleading. Now that the dust has settled from January’s #TwerkGate, I wanted to reflect on a few things. For those who do not know, London-based fitness instructor Kelechi Okafor approached a white owned pole studio in Manchester earlier this year enquiring about collaboration. A savvy businesswoman and increasingly important voice in the British twerk community, Okafor had plans to take her popular Twerk n Grind classes on tour across the UK. However, things turned sour very quickly after making initial contact with the studio owner who, seemingly threatened by Kelechi’s skill and expertise, fired back an unnecessarily bitter and catty response.
Kelechi, confused over the hostility, took to Twitter to share her experience. Long story short, the white woman in question, after receiving much deserved backlash, took to Facebook to cry ‘racism’, played the victim, and sought to find Okafor’s ‘boss’ to report her for ‘inciting’ a ‘gang’ of ‘haters’.
Well, well, well. As I said, rather than learning anything new, this incident reinforced what I and so many other black women already know too well. The same scene repeats itself too many times: White woman attacks / disrespects / belittles / assaults / undermines / excludes / offends / all of the aforementioned / a black woman; black woman reacts in the way she sees fit and without fail, the black woman is vilified as an ‘angry’, ‘aggressive’, ‘hysterical’, ‘irrational’, ‘unreasonable’ bully. And true to form this is what happened to Kelechi.
Many were left infuriated that a black woman participating in an art form pioneered by her ancestors should be told her style of dance is ‘too basic’ for a class of culturally appropriating white women, thus, attempting to exclude her from a space she created. Of course there were others (black, brown, and white alike) who accused Kelechi of ‘playing the race card’ – that old dog-eared and tired mantra – and ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. Firstly, it must be noted that at no point in the initial call out did Kelechi mention race or racism. She took issue with the tone of the owner’s response, and after further investigation, the fact that this owner claims twerk originated from Miley Cyrus.
There and then, the minute that shit went up on the studio’s website, it should have been shut down. There and then, red flags and sirens should have alerted every person to the mess in sight. For a person who is making money from a dance originating from West Africa and pioneered by black women in Africa and North America, to be so ignorant of its history is nothing new, but disgraceful nonetheless. Just recently, Sam Smith - who makes his money from singing music of black origin - 'discovered' that racism is a real thing and was utterly devastated, obvs. And David Cameron *finally* realised that his country is institutionally racist. It's a real shame they didn't bother to listen to the millions of black and brown people saying this repeatedly for decades. In the studio owner's case, her ignorance shows the lack of careful research, thought, and time put in to devising ‘lessons' for her students. Thanks to Kelechi, this woman was outed as a fraud and a cultural appropriator of the highest order.
But as is the case with society’s selective sight and hearing, the white studio owner set about to playing the victim and had hoards of sheep caping for her and coming to her rescue. It is imperative to note the language she used when crying ‘racism’. She called the mostly black and brown women holding her to account, a ‘gang’ of ‘haters’. Black womanhood has always been associated with violence and bitterness. So deeply rooted in public consciousness is this trope, that upholding such reductive and toxic stereotypes in every day parlance is commonplace. Rather than take a moment to consider that it might be possible she was in the wrong, her default stance was to play victim. This painful lack of self-awareness and uncritical acceptance of white privilege from white people is also nothing new. For centuries, white people have been accustomed to quite literally taking whatever they want, consuming it, profiteering off it, mocking, belittling, or bullying those that created the very thing they’ve stolen, and then throwing it away once they’re duly satisfied and done with it.
To whiteness, culture is disposable. Twerking is a fine example of this: until recently, it was slated as a low and ratchet form of dance, closely associated with poor black women. It was base and disgusting. Cue Miley Cyrus and what do you know? Twerk is no longer low art but something fun to try and even make money off. Hair swooshes and all. The appropriation vs appreciation debate is on going and ceaseless. As with all complicated and potentially explosive topics, definitions are key but can change. In a society where there is a very clear dominant culture, true cultural appreciation cannot exist because of entrenched structures of power which mean that theft is easy and minority groups can never hold the majority to account. It’s very easy to commodify a bindi, or Native American headdress, food, clothes, sacred objects, and dances with zero accountability when you are the dominant group.
The best article I’ve read on this topic in the recent past is a piece by activist and writer, Noorulan Shahid. In their short essay reflecting on Coldplay’s ‘Hymn For The Weekend’ video, which features Beyonce, they tackle the recent shit storm created when Bey donned Mehndi, elaborate facial jewellery, Asian-inspired clothing and flowers. Many from the Beyhive came to her defence citing that Mehndi and facial jewellery such as that featured in the video are native to East and West Africa also. Indeed, this is true, but there is a valid counter-argument which highlights that Beyonce is an African-American millionaire (not a direct member of East or West African communities), which means she is more able to consume culture – note I say consume not appropriate – in a nihilistic, narcissistic, vacuous way:
"Her involvement in the video is all about the aesthetics, the visuals and movements - mainly her hand and forearm movements. Beyonce’s involvement in the video is very reductive, very essentialist - as are other elements of the video. The two main appearances by women in the video are by Beyonce and Sonam Kapoor, both of whom are heavily adorned and the focus is on their aesthetics and light movement, whereas the men are dancing with the children, and the children are jumping into the river, playing a far more active role. This to me is a reflection of women’s roles not only in Indian society, but also in society as a whole, and how sexist attitudes mean women are still seen and used as visual props for the purpose of consumption."