Coffee Hour

Cultural Insensitivity Comes in More Colours than White

As we all know, Shakira and J-LO performed at the Super Bowl in the US on the 2nd of Feb much to everyone delight. And by many accounts,, it was an excellent performance. But in the wake of that performance, Shakira’s ululation during the show has been on the minds and lips of a lot of people in the media.

Ululation (in Arabic, Zaghrouta) is the English technical and academic term for the practice of creating a high-pitched trilling sound at the back of the throat while moving your tongue up and down at a fast pace. The sound is distinct, and it is a practice that has been performed across the Mediterranean and the Middle East for centuries, at times of high emotion, such as funerals, weddings or just general celebrations.
It is not surprising that a lot of people don’t know about this practice, because if you are not from the culture, you can’t be expected to know the ins and out of a how a culture function. But we all know that Shakira’s a half Lebanese, you only need to look at her last name, (Mebarak) to recognise that that is not a Hispanic or European name, so it is not so far-fetched that she may at times do things or refer back to practices that some people may not know about, and if you are not of Arab descent, it is understandable that the act may initially seem strange to you.

However, as I have said many times on this blog: the internet exists. Google is continuously at the touch of a button. Yet, so many people in the social media comments could not be bothered to use their fingertips to Google or read about the practice, but had that same energy to get on Instagram and call the act “too sexual” and say she “sounds like a turkey”.

And what bothered me the most about these comments was that a lot of them came from black people. Black people and oppressed ethnic minorities in general, both in the US and the UK, love to express their feelings over political correctness. We call out white people who uphold stereotypes, or try to use the N-word; we get upset when white people misunderstand Islam or a particular Pakistani, or West African tradition. And ethnic minorities absolutely have the right to call out these biases and injustices, BUT if you are going to demand that people understand you, you have to be willing to understand other people as well.

I speak mostly about West African, Carribean and Asian cultures in particular because these are the cultures I have grown up around in West London, and these are the people I continuously hear problematic things from more than anyone else. I’ve listened to Muslim Asians make fun of Eastern European Orthodox Christians for not knowing the full details of Ramadan, but these same Asians couldn’t tell you the difference between an Eastern European Orthodox Christian, an African Pentecostal, or Caribbean Baptists, despite having lived amongst them and interacted with them their whole lives. But these same Pakistani’s have the gall to be outraged because a white person or an African can’t differentiate between Urdu and Punjabi. Similarly, Black people feel so violated over other cultures and races finding their customs; their food or their clothes, odd. But the minute a black person comes across Arab or Asian cuisine, dress, or culture, they want poking fun as if they weren’t just crying over other people doing the exactly the same thing to them.

If Shakira was black and her ululation was an African/African- American cultural practice and a white person dared to comment that she “sounds like a turkey” black social media would have been on their case and denouncing them as racist, uncultured, ignorant and all sorts, but seem not to realise that in making fun of Lebanese culture they aren’t any better than the people they are denouncing.

And it’s constant. You can’t live in a big city like London and feel it’s ok not to know anything about the people who live in the city with you, just because the area you live in is made up predominantly of people from the same race or culture as you. One day you are going to leave that comfort zone or that keyboard, and have to deal with new people, new customs and new cultures, and you have to be able to respect and understand them in the same way you would want to be understood and respected.

I don’t know if Shakira meant the act to be a nod to her Lebanese heritage, or if it was just a bit of fun, but to all of you people on social media who love to point out the ignorance and racism of others – take a good look in the mirror, because you can only attract what you put out there.

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