Cultural Appropriation in Burlesque: Think About Cultural Sensitivity (Burlesque Performance)

I talk to hundreds of people about their ideas for burlesque acts, and I have to talk to them about cultural appropriation all the time. Having had so many of these conversations, I've reached a conclusion: cultural appropriation isn't always the problem.

To be sure, cultural appropriation is as much of a problem as many people say it is, and I absolutely do not endorse it, and won't knowingly help anyone develop an act that I understand to be appropriative.

However, I think the issue -- and the range of accountability -- is much, much bigger. I've started to use the term "cultural sensitivity," a term I learned while studying decolonizing fashion history.

Cultural sensitivity includes understanding and eschewing cultural appropriation, but it includes so much more. A simple example is the Confederate flag. For a white southerner whose ancestors fought under that flag in the US civil war to wear a costume that incorporates it is NOT cultural appropriation, but it is culturally insensitive. The flag's history has been misrepresented for over a century as a symbol of southern pride, but it wasn't flown before the civil war; it was created specifically to fly over armies fighting to defend the right to own slaves (primary source ).

So the concept of cultural sensitivity covers greater ground and demands more of people who are trying to be accountable for their privilege than does the concept of cultural appropriation alone. After all, many have said that if racism wasn't a problem, wearing their culture wouldn't be as problematic. Being sensitive means understanding the impact of our choices.

The concept of cultural sensitivity also helps illuminate why it isn't insensitive for a person of color to dress up like an 18th-century French royalty. The concept of sensitivity demands that we understand that since people of color were not oppressing and co-opting the resources of French royalty, it isn't rude to assume their costumes.

Fatsuits? Using the word "old" as a negative adjective? Rapey numbers? Not cultural appropriation! but potentially culturally insensitive. If it's not an issue that informs your daily life, it most likely is not yours to represent.

Problematic lyrics in a performer's song? Not necessarily cultural appropriation, but potentially culturally insensitive. (Note: always know the lyrics to your song -- if you wouldn't put those words in your mouth, it may be just as harmful to put them on the stage -- again depending on whether this is your issue to explore in public.)

Sensitivity also demands an understanding of context. If you’re not Asian, and all of your friends in Asia who don't live in the US are okay with your Asian-inspired act, that may not tell you about the impact it might have in the US, where Asian people encounter a specific type of racism on a daily basis. Also, there are tensions between countries and cultures in Asia (and on every other continent) that you may overlook when creating an act that combines elements from more than one country. Take into account that if you want to be culturally sensitive you will want to prioritize the impact of your actions over your intent. Know how it will be received in the location and culture where you are performing it. In order to properly express your art, think about communication. Culture is a language, too.

I don't have simple answers to what is and isn't cultural appropriation , but that doesn't mean I won't keep trying. Furthermore, there is no way to prevent everyone from making any mistakes ever, when we are raised with misinformation and whitewashing. People creating art are often influenced by people who are influenced by people who are influenced, and tracing the roots of some things can be confusing. Research is becoming more difficult as Google becomes more likely to reinforce bad information and return the dominant paradigm than to do anything to shift one's paradigm (see Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism). But doing some googling as part of your work is necessary, even though it's occasionally difficult to know what's true. Don't use Google's flaws as an excuse to avoid accountability. Look for articles about these topics written by people who are affected.

I have been learning about how many things that were considered edgy and a form of resistance in one era (during the 1980s, for instance) doesn't apply in another (in 2020, for instance). Eras, too, are culture. My art is occurring where I am now, where people have had access to more knowledge and the ability to disseminate it. The learning process is endless. The goal is not just to be on the right side of history, but to actively work toward a kinder, safer world for all.

I have not always seen my own mistakes, and I have had to change or completely retire acts in which I was very invested. I don’t doubt I’ll learn more. Understanding this is a lifelong process of resisting my training into white supremacy and privilege.  The learning doesn’t end.  

I've been told people have used my saying "Do whatever the fuck you want" to excuse doing culturally appropriative acts. I disapprove.

I believe in being culturally sensitive. I think that being PC means being perceptive and compassionate. I've changed acts and classes, eliminated music, themes, phrases and more from my repertoire over the past several years, and I expect that process to continue as I continue to learn. There will be changes in future editions of The Burlesque Handbook. I will never be harmless, but I want to be, so I will always be working to do less harm.

When I've said, "Do whatever the fuck you want," I meant don't let narrow constrictions of tradition or "expertise" by inappropriately-territorial gatekeepers stop you from doing your art in new or old ways.

When I say "Be shameless," I mean don't let bigoted bullies ("You're too queer/fat/old/disabled to perform") hold you back from doing the art you love because they think you should look or be different than you are in order to get onstage.

When I say, "Don't be sorry," I mean don't apologize for being trans or of color or any other identity that abusers, especially abusers of privilege, try to use against you, or use to make you feel invalid or oppress you.

My encouragement to forge ahead with your art was never ever meant to endorse people being insensitive to issues that affect marginalized people, or ignoring when they may be overlooking racial and other problematic cultural issues.

In the same way that freedom of speech means people have the right to criticize the way others use their freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression means that people have the right to express celebration or condemnation of what they see being expressed. Condemning something for being harmful to marginalized people isn't the same as condemning someone for having a marginalized status. This should be evident.

Listen -- performers CAN do whatever they want. Who's the boss of you? But if someone abuses that right and experiences canceled bookings or loses fans or experiences other career repercussions for being disrespectful or harmful, they need to think long and hard about what they wanted that led them to make those abusive decisions, when that outcome was predictable. And they need to accept that when they do whatever they want, people can respond however they want, and those can include removing career opportunities and community respect. And if someone used my words to excuse cultural insensitivity, they owe an apology -- not to me, but to anyone they tried to manipulate by using my words.

More importantly, I owe an apology. I apologize to all for thinking that my context was clear when I said those things and any harm that my assumption may have caused. That was privileged and arrogant. I'll be reframing my speech in the future.

—Jo Weldon

Thanks to Shimmy LaRoux for reading and input.
See Shimmy's video:
Shedding Layers: Beginning Your Anti-Racism Journey in Burlesque

Here's one I'm working on: what to call Gypsy Rose Lee?
I don't want to use a word that harms anyone.
Am I erasing something if I don't use it, as if this didn't happen?
Is it honest enough to call her G Rose Lee, Miss Rose Lee, or Louise Hovic?
I'm open to input on this, as I want to support.
The G-Word Isn't for You

Are there related articles you recommend? Do you have thoughts or suggestions to help people who may be new to the topic? Please comment here on this post! Your comments can help future students who read this to have a deeper understanding of the issues around appropriation in performance.

A few articles on cultural appropriation and sensitivity in performance, fashion, terminiology, and costume:

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

The Fashion And Race Database

Does Ballet Have a Race Problem?

Fashion's Cultural Appropriation Problem

Culturally Appropriative Halloween Costumes You Should Never Wear

How I Bought Into Gone With The Wind's Mythology

Hannah Brown Slammed for Singing N-Word During Lip Sync

Here's Why Twerking Workout Classes Rip Off Black Women

Virago Nation Indigenous Burlesque Troupe Performs "Burn Your Village"

"We should stop saying people of color when we mean black people."


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