Olympic Cultural Sensitivity Watch.

If you've been paying attention to the Olympics, you've probably heard about Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin and their Australian Aboriginal routine. No? Here's the version that they debuted at the recent European championships -- you'll only have to watch the first few seconds to be sufficiently appalled:

In response to the millions of jaws left gaping around the world, the couple toned down the costumes a bit for the Olympics: no more face paint, and Maxim's costume lost its skin darkening, thank goodness. It turns out the reason this all started is that in ice dancing, all the skaters (dancers?) have to follow a theme for one of their three routines, and the theme this year is folk dances. Which made this an excellent opportunity to ask just how offensive this kind of thing is, and why.

While some of the Olympic teams rocked folk dances from their own cultures (the Israeli couple's "Straight Outta the Shtetl" routine, segueing inevitably into "Hava Nagila," was a highlight), others used a folk theme from somewhere else. You had the German couple in Hawaiian outfits, the French couple in cowboy outfits, the Scottish couple in cowboy outfits (apparently a safe choice), and the American couple Meryl Davis and Charlie White in Bollywood-inspired Indian outfits. So why does the last of these only give one a twinge of discomfort -- as in, "Am I supposed to find this offensive? Not sure" -- while the Russian couple's routine is so obviously, terribly wrong?

Let's break down the variables involved here. You've got the culture from which the performers come; the culture they're using; the relationship between the two, if there is one; the degree of oppression the target culture has suffered; and how remote in time the worst of that oppression was. So ask yourself: Would each of these have been more or less offensive than what actually appeared?

A white Australian couple doing the Aboriginal routine

A white British couple doing the Indian routine

A white American couple dressed up as as Cherokees, doing a routine supposed to invoke a rain dance

A black German couple, doing the Cherokee routine (Did you know that American Indian culture is something of an obsession in Germany?)

An American couple doing a routine based on the indigenous culture of one of the countries we've recently invaded

I think a lot of it has to do with the current state of the group in question. If, like Australian Aboriginals, you're still suffering greatly from the legacy of oppression, and you feel that atonement has been long and slow in coming, you're more likely to feel outraged by something like this. And Aboriginals certainly were; one leader said, "We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture, and it is yet another example of the Aboriginal culture of Australia being exploited." And while I know virtually nothing about Aboriginal dance, the Russian routine was so silly, even beyond the costumes, that it couldn't help but seem almost mocking (though that was surely not their intent).

Indians, on the other hand, are feeling these days like the future belongs to them, and they apparently are only too happy to have foreign skaters shushing about in saris. As Gawker pointed out, one major difference between the Russian and American couples' routines is that, like America, India is now in the cultural export business -- people watch Bollywood movies all over the world. According to this report, the Americans' routine "has become a viral hit in India and among people with ties to South Asia...and it's gotten high praise on several Web sites celebrating Indian culture." If you're feeling powerful, this kind of thing feels like a tribute; if you're feeling powerless, it feels like something is being stolen from you.

-- Paul Waldman

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