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August 16, 2004


Do you get it? It's Irony +

Our friend Rungu took notice of a feature piece in today's Times about a group of ladies from San Francisco called Double Dutchess who do double-dutch jump roping. But these girls have a website, on which they sell t-shirts and DVDs. They also perform at hotel parties sponsored by city newspapers. SF Weekly loves them, and they were invited to perform at the Christmas party for Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine. So what has propelled these girls to the art-world A-list, and not the girls who do double-dutch every day at the Stanley Isaacs Playground on 1st and 96th? When black girls do it, it's a non-notable emblem of urban culture. When white girls do it, it's avant-garde and worthy of national press.

Not surprisingly, some people have wondered about race issues when approaching Double Dutchess. The article reports, "The women of Double Dutchess are regularly confronted with questions about their race, often by young black boys at the largely African-American community center in the South of Market neighborhood where the team practices. The women do not treat the issue lightly. "It makes me sad when we get hassled for this race issue," said Ms. Dougherty, a 21-year-old office worker. Ms. Hupp said that the women in Double Dutchess were largely drawn to the sport because it was affordable. "We live in an urban area, and we don't have a lot of money," she said. Ms. Herrera added, "It's just a really, really good friendship thing.""

So they claim to jump rope for the exercise, and for the "friendship thing," but since their earliest days they were performing on stages in front of audiences. And each performance has a theme, usually a sexual theme. Girls, if you wear hot, matching outfits and do your routine on a stage, or if Dave Eggers is in the audience, you are not just exercizing in a way that you and your admin homegirls can afford, you are using someone else's cultural expression to promote yourselves. Just call it what it is.

Well, we'll let Rungu give you his ideas:

The article makes it sound like they are doing some hip, alternate, new-style Double Dutch, but then you look at the videos and it's not. This is regular double-dutch like little girls in black neighborhoods used to do on the streets before children made the lifestyle choice to stay inside and become obese. As far as I can tell, what makes these girls interesting is that:

a) they wear funny clothes,
b) they have bigger breasts than the 9 year-old girls who usually do this stuff (but not substantially, frankly) and,
c) they are white.

And of course, it's c that makes the difference. I hate to sound like a whiny liberal, because I'm not a whiny liberal, but really, if four black girls from Oakland put on a double dutch show, they would not wind up showing it at the McSweeney's/Zoetrope Christmas party. Sure, it's all in who you know, but it really strikes me how blatant an appropriation this is. They're good, but all this hooting and hollering is for run of the mill double-dutch stunts with cool costumes. No wonder the Times talks about some people complaining about their race. I know when straight people get famous for doing things gays see as their turf (disco, fashion, flamboyant magic involving great cats) the gays get pissed, though it's generally more grumbling than anything else. I think black people get more upset about blatant appropriation than gays do, since all we want is to be noticed anyway.

The other aspect of this I thought was fascinating was how superficially European it is. One thing that I find fascinating and bizarre about Europe is the way Europeans appropriate things from other cultures (dreadlocks, Arab music, bhangra, the blues) without any real understanding of where it comes from. Japanese people don't even pretend to care about context, and Americans are so self-absorbed we don't even bother. But Europeans think it's a political statement to wear dreadlocks, when in fact, it makes them look stupid. (Though the Rolling Stones got the blues right, as history has shown, and white Americans who were too racist to perform it were wrong.) Anyway, this Double Dutchess is an obvious case of appropriating an aspect of another culture without paying any attention to where it comes from, but, God love us, Americans do things ironically. So the fun is watching women dressed as criminals, or Catholic school girls, jumping rope. Europeans would just dress as black girls, jump rope, and think it's a statement. Americans dress as Black Sabbath, jump rope, and call it a party.

This all reminds me of those Radical Cheerleader groups that were popular about 4-5 years ago. Except that the RCs use their performance to promote social and political causes rather than promoting themselves and their careers as performance artists; they preach non-ironic respect for actual, non-avant-garde cheerleaders; and they are often recruited from poor neighborhoods, like the squad discussed in this Guardian article.

Outside discussions suggest that people might have some insightful comments to make on this issue. So if you have something to say, feel free to comment.

categories: Art, Culture, Race
posted by amy at 5:37 PM | #


I think the larger point is that people in San Francisco think the dumbest, most pretentious things are cool (like parties on BART). No need to bring racial politics and the like into it.

Posted by: Bing Cherry at August 17, 2004 10:17 AM

Note also that double-dutch is a featured activity in the New Pornographers' "All For Swinging You Around" video. Not sure if these ladies are among the tracksuit and granny-glasses wearing participants.

Posted by: MattS at August 17, 2004 11:18 AM

Halle-freaking-lujah. If I see one more painfully sunburned (formerly white) Dutch kid in a FUBU (standing for "For Us, By Us", need I remind you?) t-shirt and woven West African hat, dancing to German techno while hitting on orange-streaked fake-tanned girls in Sean Paul tracksuits, MAC cosmetics like Lil Kim, and fake neon-colored dreads, I will scream. And the number of times I've heard, "Oh, you're American. You have a big problem with racism in your country..." These people have told their children that Santa had slaves (but it's OK because sometime in the 1950's Santa freed his slaves and he became friends with them and now they help him deliver presents because they love him and the children soooo much) to help give out the presents, and when Christmas comes around white Dutch grown-ups in black-face, Afro-wigs and red lipstick painted far outside their own lips throw candy at children during the Santa Claus parade. And no one thinks that's problematic. I am not kidding.

Posted by: Pamsterdam at August 17, 2004 5:21 PM

I'm happy that someone had the courage to discuss cultural appropriation. I've been grappling with this subject over the last week while watching popular culture (i.e. commercials, major media, etc;) and listening to music.

There seems that cultural appropriation seems to go through stages. There's a 10-30 year period before a form of cultural expression is successfully ripped. At first, ethnic artforms like break dancing, jazz, hip hop, rap, rock, etc; are criticized by the dominant culture. Then in about five years after the birth of the artform, a few emulators from the dominant culture start to appropriate the criticized form of cultural expression to "look hip." They usually fail miserably. See, the earlier days of rock & roll where there would be two releases of the same song released: one for black audiences, one for white audiences.

During the 10-15 year span, someone from the dominant culture gets the criticized art form "right" and becomes a smashing success in dominant culture. The initial cultural bias passes, and youth from the dominant culture begin to "re-discover" the gems from the artforms criticized in the first place. This is beginning to happen now with rap/hip hop culture. Old-school artists are being cited as influences. You see youngsters whose design sites feature graffiti, break dancing, scratching vinyl records on turn tables, etc;.

In ten more years, I have the feeling we'll be seeing Wella Balsam girls flipping their hair to old school hip hop tunes. Or have a young man & woman in a car commercial dancing to old school rap. Then in the 60 -70 year period, the cultural artform's initial roots will be muddied to hide their origins. The "whitewashing" of history. Pictures of major artists will be left out of books. (remember ragtime: - i.e. Scott Joplin who was doesn't have his picture included in some historical overviews of music. Scott Joplin was African-American. But now, since ragtime has been "appropriated" into dominant culture, his race, origins are obscured.) This cover up helps those who are uncomfortable with the beginnings of the artform feel better about stealing - I mean using it ;). This is also happening with Blues & Jazz, where I have read music historians claim that these genres actually derived from Europe first, rather than from African-Americans & places like Harlem.

I do believe that there are exceptions of individuals who relate better to some other culture's form of expression, however. They use the artform because they actually identify with it. But, because we're wary (and rightfully so) of those who'd steal anothers culture for their own gain, we are likely to be suspicious of their efforts. I think Jamiroquai and Monday Michiru, an Japanese-American artist, are examples of this. Michiru, who uses African-American artforms like jazz, Acid Jazz, funk, soul, rap, r&b, and does them well, can't even get a record deal with a major record company in the United States because of her ethnicity. She had to go to Japan to sell big, but in her home - the U.S., she lingers in obscurity.

I completely agree with your belief that the double dutch case though is an example of cultural thievery for monetary gain though. It's funny. The things that I naturally did as a youngster growing up - double dutching, etc; is getting attention by these women in their scantily-clad uniforms, and their boobies hehehe. You know that's the only reason men will play to see older women doing double dutch - to see their boobies jiggling.

Sorry for the long response...but it was a great post.

Posted by: Ariya at August 19, 2004 5:34 PM

I think all of you are crazy. Appropriation of cultural identification is not a bad thing. It is certainly not "thievery". If anything its more of a utopic idea, and calling it thievery just encourages racial difference. And if tou still maintain that attitude then you must spend a large part of your life being angry, because almost everything is appropriated in todays globalizing culture. And i also think that the nature of appropriation is that the thing being appropriated is recontextualized, not stolen or improperly used. Everyones entire identity is appropriated any ways, whether it be from your your own racial culture or someone elses. So quit being so ignorant.

Posted by: nick at April 10, 2005 5:15 PM

How is 2 people jumping rope together racial? Just because someone gave it a name it makes this a "cultural identity" activity?

Understanding one's heritage and being proud of it are important. But why do people have to take them to the extreme of making them divisive? Why do people who say they hate racisim spend so much time pointing out what race they are?

Posted by: dave at August 15, 2005 12:54 PM

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