Cultural Appropriation Can Win You Olympic Medals

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

I guess there are days when I’m thankful for having been an ice-skating fan in my younger days, though I was absorbing some floaty, dreamy, and cornball heteronormative crap against the white-ice backdrop.  So, as much as I did enjoy figure skaters Oksana Domnina’s and Maxim Shabalin’s technical excellence, I can honestly say they should have applied all that technique—and subsequent press–to another routine that didn’t involve offending people of color.

Here’s their original routine, if you missed it:

Bev Manton, a Worimi woman and chair of the Aboriginal Land Council, sums up the outrage:

From an Aboriginal perspective, this performance is offensive. It was clearly not meant to mock Aboriginal culture, but that does not make it acceptable to Aboriginal people. There are a number of problems with the performance, not least of all the fact both skaters are wearing brown body suits to make their skin appear darker. That alone puts them on a very slippery slope.

Australians know only too well the offence that can be caused by white people trying to depict themselves as black people during performance pieces. Last year’s domestic and international furore over the blackface skit on Hey, Hey it’s Saturday’s Red Faces is a recent case in point.

That said, I don’t think it’s the most offensive part of the performance. That honour belongs to some of the claims by Domnina and Shabalin that have accompanied it.

They are not, as they state, wearing “authentic Aboriginal paint markings”. They are wearing white body paint in designs they dreamed up after reading about Aboriginal Australians on the internet. The designs are no more “authentic” or “Aboriginal” than the shiploads of cheap, “Aboriginal” tourist trinkets that pour into our country from overseas.

This is not a particularly difficult concept. For art to be Australian, it must be painted by an Australian, and for art to be Australian Aboriginal, it must be painted by an Australian Aboriginal. Russian art is not painted by Italians, and I doubt Russians would be impressed if someone tried to pass it off otherwise.

And just as the designs are not Aboriginal, nor is the music to which the dance is being performed.

I acknowledge that Aboriginal people do not own the sound of the didgeridoo. That is one of our gifts to the rest of the world. Everyone is free to use it. But that does not mean it should be sampled and then presented as something it is not — traditional Aboriginal music.

Al-Jazeera English reports :

“The dancers have defended the routine, saying it’s not intended to represent Australian culture, but a mélange of ethnicities.”

Before anyone starts in with “but Domnina and Shabalin are racially ignorant exceptions” or that they don’t “get” racism because they’re Russians (or globe-trotting sportspeople), I’d say that, like many other human societies, Russia isn’t an othering-free country, though people of color in that nation may not call what they’ve experienced “racism” as how USians understand it:

But black skin remains extremely rare in Russia. One estimate says that there are between 40,000 and 70,000 Russians of full or mixed-African heritage.

That distinction has singled many black Russians out for treatment that they say swings between curiosity, at best, and open hostility, at worst.

Grigory Siyatinda, an actor at the Sovremennik Theater in Moscow, grew up as the only black man in his hometown of Tyumen in the 1970s. His experience was that of an object of fascination in an isolated Soviet society where foreigners, and especially black foreigners, were exotic.

“How to put it? It wasn’t racism, what I experienced during my childhood in Tyumen,” Siyatinda says. “I was the only black person in Tyumen — Tyumen is a Siberian city and there were no black-skinned people at all. No one had ever seen one. That’s why there was simply this heightened curiosity toward me. It was heightened so much at times that it crossed over the borders of tact.”
Racism, long officially denied under the communist regime, is a reality in modern-day Russia, where nationalist groups and xenophobia are on the rise.

Russia’s Sova center, which tracks issues related to race and ethnicity, reports that 97 people were killed in racist attacks in 2008. Statistically, Central Asian migrants have become the primary victims of attacks in recent years. But African-Russians and African students remain constant targets as well.

Khanga notes that there was a very small percentage of mixed-race and black people in the Soviet Union.

“I was part of the first generation — now, of course, there are a lot more,” Khanga says. “But…we did not have the history of racism as they did in America. Not everything was easy, and I can be the first to tell you what kinds of problems we had. But, of course, you can’t compare them to the kinds of things that happened in America.”

Still, the few black Russians who have risen to prominence in their country have done so through sports or the entertainment world.

Of course, Domnina and Shabalin offered the usual no-intention-to-offend, we-swear-we-researched-this fauxpology and attempted to “lighten” the “tone” of their costumes:

”We heard some opinions about it being offensive, and we tried to do it lighter,” Shabalin said last night. ”We changed it a little bit to make it more authentic and less theatrical.”

The pair lightened the ”skin colour” of their costumes and slightly changed the attempted tribal markings daubed in white paint. The red loincloths were retained but more fake leaves were used.

”We changed our routine about 5 to 10 per cent, but we always do this after every competition to try and improve,” Shabalin said. ”Our whole intention when we chose this music was to be fair and friendly, we didn’t want to offend anyone.”

Domnina and Shabalin said earlier this week that they had wanted to ”pay tribute to the culture of South-East Asia” and said their routine reflected an indigenous culture that was ”1000 years old”.

Shabalin said after performing the routine last night that it had been well thought out and coach Natalia Linichuk had researched the topic thoroughly.

”Natalia had a lot of research with people who know this culture. We did big research in the beginning of the season,” he said before adding: ”You can’t be 100 per cent authentic.”

So, the Russian skating pros aren’t going to apologize sincerely for the mush-mess that is their routine…or for lumping and coding “ethnicities” (and Aboriginal, really) as “You colored folks look and dance alike, all ‘tribally” and stuff.  Ethnic enough for us!  Let’s daaaaaaance!”  And sorry, but lightening the costumes’ skin tone doesn’t equate to an apology…..

…oh yeah, Domnina and Shabalin won the bronze for their interpretive routine.

Now, before we go on (and on and on) with tirades about “those Russians,” Jennifer at Mixed Race America mused about the silver-medal winning American pair, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who incorporated an Indian folk dance and a Slumdog Millionaire track:

Davis and White Indian folk dance routine

Jennifer sums up my initial feelings:  What’s the difference, really?

And I guess one question I have is, how authentic can any of these skaters actually be? I mean, I’m not trying to quibble for the sake of quibbling–we’re talking about ice dancing after all–not exactly a natural thing. And I do think it was smart for [Davis and White] to hire someone who knows Indian culture intimately and who could provide them with some guidance. But is this authentic? And is this appropriation? I mean, clearly the Russian pair is completely and clearly inappropriate, but the American pair? What do you think?

Because, as Jennifer points out, the potential for the racialized foolishness that Shabalin and Domnina exhibited—and were awarded for–is built into this competition:

…one of the things you have to know is that all the pairs competitors around the world had to develop a routine for their national finals around the theme of “folk dance or ethnic dance.” OK, right THERE is the root of the problem. Because it’s a fine line between honoring a folk or ethnic tradition to parodying that tradition, especially if this is something you are learning rather than something you were raised with.

A while ago, Latoya introduced a series on cultural appropriation by discussing global hip-hop.  While other commenters focused on the who/what/when/where/how/why of global hip-hop—especially the use of the n-word—contributor and frequent commenter atlasien offered an insightful working framework for dealing with cultural appropriation itself, which I think answers Jennifer’s question:

I think it’s much better to define cultural appropriation based on the people it affects. Does it hurt them in some way? If so, it’s probably cultural appropriation. If not, it’s probably just cultural borrowing or cultural drift.

There’s never going to be a 100% sure way of deciding that something is cultural appropriation, because the people being stolen from/borrowed from aren’t always going to agree. But you can make decisions informed by their arguments and weight of numbers.

There was a good conversation about this a while back at Rachel’s Tavern… someone who didn’t believe in cultural appropriation came up with the example “what about cooking Italian food if you’re not Italian?” The counterargument was that there’s nothing wrong with cooking Italian food if you’re not Italian… but if you go to Italy and start lecturing Italians that their way of cooking food is inferior to your more authentic Italian cooking style, then yes, you’ve crossed the line and turned into a rude and obnoxious cultural appropriator.

If you use this standard for global hip-hop, you could ask a series of questions… how is it hurting the group of people from the originating culture? How are these people being damaged or insulted or disrespected or taken away from, and to what extent? Are the people who view it as appropriation versus borrowing a minority opinion, or a majority opinion? And what is the level of power disparity between the originating culture and the appropriating/borrowing culture… the power disparity that determines the relative attention being paid to people who complain?

So, by this standard, Domnina and Shabalin screwed up, full stop. As for Davis and White, wellllll…

Thanks to readers Vanessa and Zora for the links!

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

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