M-A’s leadership program hosted the annual winter formal last Saturday, a night of dance themed ‘Midnight in Morocco.’ To many students, this theme was refreshing and more engaging than those of previous formals, allowing students to pose with decorative props, have their fortune told, or listen to ‘Moroccan music.’ What was a seemingly innocent choice is more accurately a vehicle of cultural appropriation, in the form of orientalism.
Orientalism is defined as how the ‘West’ perceives the ‘East,’ or the fascination with or adoption of ‘Eastern’ or ‘Oriental’ elements of exoticism, mysteriousness, and even danger. One does not need to overtly denigrate another culture to be orientalist—simply using cultural elements based on a twisted perception is appropriation and wrong.
Some may insist, “We mean no harm by choosing Morocco as our theme, our intent is not to denigrate their culture, in fact we respect it.” Yet however our fascination is intended, even if it isn’t explicitly negative, fascination with a false reality is harmful nonetheless.
It is clear our fascination with the apparent mysticism and intrigue of East is not new, in fact, it likely stems with the beginning of European imperialism in the ‘Orient’—parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
In Orientalism, published in 1978, Edward W. Said discusses the false view the West has crafted, beginning in the sixth century, to represent the East as one of mystery and danger. This relationship not only inaccurately conflates all Eastern cultures, but also serves to define the West as a land of good and the standard of order. Said argues that this distortion is directly caused by and thus conducive to the political power Western colonialists wielded over their supposedly primitive Eastern subjects.
Thus appropriating Eastern culture is not the same as simply appropriating Western culture; the way in which we present Morocco is dependent on the power imbalance of imperialism, and that forms our vision still to this day.
It’s one thing to pick and choose from another culture its style of dress, genre of music, or artistic style without permission or understanding. It goes further when we do so without authenticity. In an article on artistic representations of Morocco published in Intersections, a University of Washington publication, Isabella Archer addresses authenticity as it “is complicated by the observer and consumer‘s preexisting-ideas and expectations about North African culture.”
For the most part, our artificial perception of the East is dependent on media. From the 19th century artwork of Eugène Delacroix to the costumes and lyrics of Nicki Minaj, we categorize and label. These visual and auditory associations thus come to mind as soon as we think ‘Middle East’ or ‘Morocco.’
Leadership chose to adhere to this theme by including an ornately designed rug and a ‘genie’ lamp as photo props, and a ‘fortune teller’ to entertain students. What inspired these decisions? The idea of the genie lamp likely came from our familiarity with the Disney movie Aladdin, a clear adherent to the idea of ‘Arabia’ as a land of danger and the unknown. A highly decorative rug brings to mind the flying carpet of Aladdin or perhaps the ubiquity of rug stores we call ‘oriental.’ Neither of these bear any distinct connection to Morocco as a country.
To make matters worse, students later posted pictures of themselves making a false prayer gesture with clasped hands, as they laughed in front of the rug backdrop. For as much as we claim religious openness, in self-congratulating proclamations in person or online, it’s clear we still need to question our actions.
The theme’s orientalism is a problem because dances are casual events for students’ entertainment, because we are a high school in California; these elements reveal just how far we are from truly attempting to actually understand Moroccan culture.
With what credibility can we espouse openness and progressivism on our campus when we simultaneously take part in appropriation?