But with all this love came a river of hate. Because she’s Black.
“If white people can’t have corn rows you can’t do this kind of dance,” one commenter told her on TikTok just last week, where her dance videos went viral.
It’s cultural appropriation, too many people told her.
This particular battle of America’s culture war can be a confusing and explosive one. From Zac Efron wearing dreadlocks to Selena Gomez and the Hindu bindi on her forehead — both were panned for the looks — cultural mash-ups can translate into train wrecks when done poorly.
But when is it wrong? America isn’t a melting pot — where individual flavors can get lost — but more like a salad bowl, with various cultures mixing and enhancing one another, while holding on to their unique identities. Appreciating, not appropriating.
Let’s look at what happened last week when four White guys opened a wine bar in D.C. called Barkada, which the dictionary describes as the Filipino word for a close-knit group of friends. Brilliant, right? It even has the word “bar” in it!
Oops. The wine bar doesn’t serve any Filipino fare, nor do the entrepreneurs have any Filipino friends or partners involved in the venture, unlike the Barkada in Hollywood, which serves Filipino tapas. If the D.C. group had any connection to Filipino culture, they’d have learned the deep origins of that word. It came from the Spanish word for “boatload” — barcada.
“Yes, the original barkadas were boatloads of Filipino prisoners shipped away from their homes by boat,” explained the National Federation of Filipino American Associations Capital Region in a letter published by the Washington City Paper explaining the group’s objection to the wine bar’s name. From these “barkadas” of prisoners, the letter stated, “our ancestors formed bonds that would help them survive colonization, imprisonment, and enslavement.”
So no, it’s not just a bunch of drinking buddies.
The wine bar squad apologized and said they understood their mistake, promising to change the name, even though their Facebook page is filled with folks urging them to keep it.
Bullock said that the problem for Barkada was using the name with no homage to Filipino culture.
“I’m not calling it Morgan Dancing,” she said. “I’m not taking it and calling it my own. It’s Irish dancing.”
She has been a marvel of grace and patience as she bore criticism on social media over a post showing her Irish dancing to hip-hop music — something White Irish dancers have also done, she said.
“Quick PSA: Cultural Appropriation is when an element of a specific culture is stolen and renamed without giving any recognition of or credit to its origins. An example of this is Fulani Braids being called ‘Bo Derek Braids,’ ” she wrote in response.
Bullock has always been a dancer. As a little kid, she started with the usual dance classes, ballet and tap, and then moved on to jazz and hip-hop.
“I was hopeless at it,” she said. “It just didn’t feel natural to me.”
She saw Irish dancing for the first time when she was 10. “I was mesmerized by it.”
And she asked her mom to sign her up for lessons.
“My mom never sugarcoats anything,” she said. “And she told me: ‘This is not something Black girls do.’ ”
And Mom was right to be cautious. I’ve heard the hatred that the Black players face on my sons’ mostly White hockey teams. That’s seen from local rinks to the NHL, in a sport that continues to be predominantly White.
With that warning, Mom signed her up for classes. And Bullock flourished.
“I was Irish dancing around the house all day,” she said. She quit all her other activities and sports, and immersed herself in the dance and Irish culture.
In Irish dance competitions, there are usually three dancers onstage all doing their own routines. It’s fast and flashy and the goal is to catch the judges’s eyes, which explains some of those flashy, sparkly costumes and bouncy ringlets.
“I have the ‘built-in standout factor,’ my skin,” she said. And her teachers told her: “The judges will look at you — just make sure they don’t look away.”
At competitions, other dancers noticed her too, sometimes comparing their leg color to hers (tanning one’s legs is a thing in Irish dancing — darker skin is believed to highlight muscles and movement).
“They’d say, ‘Oh look! I’m darker than you!’ or something like that,” Bullock said. But she didn’t take offense to those comments, or to the hair-touching that’s all too familiar to Black women. She’s a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying to be a teacher, and where others may see microaggressions, Bullock said she saw teaching opportunities.
She didn’t face real hate until this summer of Black Lives Matter protests, when Confederate statues in Bullock’s hometown tumbled and the usually cheerful comments on her dance videos soured.
“But if a white person was doing an African dance it would be the end of the world,” someone wrote beneath Bullock’s most popular TikTok video, where she dances to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage Remix.”
Bullock took some of those haters on, explaining her decade of study and dedication to Irish dance, her respect for the culture and connections to the Irish, her visits to Ireland.
“When I have a direct response to something, I consider that to be an educational conversation,” she said. “I’ve always been taught that culture is something to be shared.”
Sharing, not taking. That’s the difference.
Dance on, beautiful woman. And hey, Barkada boys — maybe hiring a Filipino chef to serve up some lumpia and a glass of Tapuy at your place would’ve made that American mash-up a little more authentic?
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