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WisCon 31 – Cultural Appropriation

So. This one is going to require a lot of explanation. Get a drink.

Now that you’re back! The Cultural Appropriation panel at this year’s WisCon was specifically a response to what went on at last year’s CA panel and the aftermath on the Internet. Apparently there have been other panels about CA at WisCon and other cons, but there was something about that last one. Something that really pissed people off. If you ever have a free afternoon, you can read aaaaaaalllll about it through various posts. To summarize, many people came away from that panel feeling a range of things from discomfort to outright disgust. So there was a real desire this year to avoid many of the evils of last year and to address that which was not addressed at WisCon but brought up afterwards.

This is a good thing.

It meant, first of all, having more people of color on the panel. Last year 4 of the 6 panelists were white and this caused some of the problems. The moderator was Nisi Shawl, who knows a great deal about the subject, but it’s hard to have something to say when you’re trying to moderate. (Well, for some people. For me, I just talk and talk. When I breathe, other people get a chance to speak.) And apparently there was an audience member or two who took it upon themselves to hijack the discussion.

But this year, none of that. Partially because the panel took place in two parts. One where just the panelists discussed, then a whole program section devoted to discussion with the audience. I had to leave for (yet another) panel after that first part, so I couldn’t tell you what went on in the second half. But the first half was, I felt, a very useful discussion.

If you want to know what we said, go read the people who actually wrote down what we said, Liz and Oyceter. Cuz Lord knows I can’t remember.

Mostly what I had to say was that Cultural Appropriation works on many different levels. There’s CA when it comes to academic disciplines, such as anthropology, and there’s CA when it comes to the kind of media people consume and how it affects their choice in clothing, hair, speech, etc., and there’s CA from the artist’s side, be they a writer, musician, dancer, whatever. As a writer, I’m most interested in that last one, but the other kinds have implications and tendrils and connections in artist appropriation.

I also feel that Cultural Appropriation does not have to be a pejorative. There is such a thing as appropriate cultural appropriation. However, that does not happen by accident, or by luck. It only happens when people are aware and educated and willing to listen to the views of others not like them. It takes work.

I said at one point that I sometimes feel like an outsider to “Black Culture” mainly because when I was growing up other black kids told me that I was not black enough. And as crazy as that notion is, I carried it with me into adulthood. I mean, I’m a geek. And it’s sometimes easy to feel that black geeks are really rare (we’re not all that rare, though. You just need to know where to look). It’s not hard to feel like there’s not that many black people into SF. Geekness and SF love is a White Thing. And therefore I must not be Authentically Black because I am an SF geek.

For the longest time all the characters I wrote about were not racially defined, which, in essence, meant that they were white because white is the default. I felt kind of like I couldn’t write black characters because I knew nothing of black culture. When I took stock and noticed that all of my characters (with a few exceptions) were kinda me, I decided that I would just write about my experience as a black person. Which is to say, my life is not all about Being Black, and neither are my characters’.

But that comes back to something Victor Raymond said on the panel, that you have to know where you’re starting from before you can know where to go in order to understand the “Other”. Now I have every confidence that I can create convincing black characters and it doesn’t at all feel like appropriation. But then I can write convincing white characters and it doesn’t feel like appropriation.

Should people avoid the whole issue of Cultural Appropriation by just writing characters like them? No. It’s hard work, to be sure, but not impossible work. Just don’t be afraid to make mistakes and then don’t be afraid to have someone correct you on your mistakes. The knee-jerk reaction surrounding this whole issue, the desire to jump up and proclaim “I’m not racist!” does not, in any way, help the situation. Let other people tell you about your mistakes so you can learn from them.

Reading Oyceter’s post about this year’s panel, I noticed that she keeps saying, “They didn’t bring up this point or that point,” which is true. We only had 75 minutes and this issue is more than a 75 minute issue. I had an idea, though, that might help us move beyond Cultural Appropriation 1.0 to 2.0 or even 2.5. Why not have a roving panel discussion over the next, say, two months, on the topic? Each week, two or three bloggers bring up specific issues about CA that they felt we didn’t cover or they have more to say about. Then folks address those issues in the comment section of each person’s blog. As we move from blog to blog, the conversation will become richer, more nuanced, and more in-depth. At least, I hope it would. Am I on crack here? Does anyone think this idea will work?

14 comments to WisCon 31 – Cultural Appropriation

  • I think it would work, but then again I’m biased and have to admit that I just want it to happen so I can pretend I didn’t miss out on all that much :p

  • Emily H.

    I really like that idea! As long as everyone could just patiently ignore the trolls– because I feel like sometimes this discussion gets bogged down by trying to argue with people who have absolutely no desire to progress beyond I Am Not A Racist 1.0.

  • I’m glad you moved to wordpress. it was a lil lonely in the African American tags!

  • I’m sorry I missed these panels – though like all Wiscon’s there were almost always multiple panels I wanted to sit in on in every session.

    A comment – cultural appropriation can also be difficult to judge. For example, I’m a “stealth” Jew (even my friends who are also Jewish find it easy to forget I’m also of the tribe – I think it is my seriously Irish name).

    As an extreme example, I’ve forgotten this myself – I recall as a kid (about 9 or so in 3rd grade I think) having a worldview that everyone was Catholic – I was attending a Catholic elementary school at the time. However, in a more rational moment I also knew this was not the case – my own mother not being Catholic (along with all of her family, and for that matter most of the world).

    But it is very easy to whether young or old fall into habits of perception that what is familiar to you, what is usual & “normal” is, therefore, also universal.

    Shannon

    oh, a side note – if you haven’t yet seen the recent Human Nature episode of Doctor Who – go see it (and I’m waiting eagerly for the second half this weekend). It explicitly deals with racism – directly and consciously on the part of the actors, script writers and directors. I’d also suggest watching the Doctor Who Confidential from this week where they have a long segment discussing how they addressed racism.

  • “you have to know where you’re starting from before you can know where to go in order to understand the “Other””

    Very true.

    Re: the discussions–I think that would work very well.

    Re: white appropriation–when you said that, I laughed, remembering the show ‘Black/White’ where the Black woman in whiteface with the group of white women said her interests were “clothes, shopping”, as though she thought that’s all white women were interested in. My daughter and I were watching the show together and we burst out laughing.

    Although I’m not an expert on the subject, I can confidently say that the majority of white women are not nearly that shallow. ;)

  • I’ve been reading the panel notes, and I had a question that might be pertinent: How to convincingly place POC in a future society where the prejudices are different than today (eg. not along racial lines).

  • Tom

    I would love to read more blog posts about CA.

  • blackromancereader

    Re: pllogan

    In response to that question, I have to ask how authors currently rationalize the absence or near-absence of other races in the future (if they do at all)?

  • blackromancereader,

    Good question. They don’t. And it’s so accepted as the default state that no one calls them on their shitty worldbuilding. It’s just as bad as having a planet with only one climate. (“It was raining on Betelguese 9 that morning…” Really? The whole planet at once?)

    Y’know, though… part of the problem may lie in the fact that most of the “teaching” books on writing that I’ve seen have failed to address diversity as an element of worldbuilding. Aspiring writers are often taught that Planets Don’t Work That Way, but not that Languages Don’t Work That Way, or Religions Don’t Work That Way, and certainly never Races (or physical adaptation to varied environments, or whatever you call it) Don’t Work That Way.

  • mollykake

    i’m def no expert, but i feel like there are some SF shows/books that bring race into it. it’s often a area of contention or intrinsic to plot points (star wars, star trek, firefly, octavia butler in her shorts, PKD, neal stevenson). although, maybe they are just playing with concepts of “other” rather than the actual intricacies of race directly. i mean, different races (and perhaps implicitly, cultures) living together are always going to combine and mix ways/information. SF is kind of a neat way to do that without getting ‘real life’ nuances/histories involved.

    i had a teacher once who said that the coolest thing about star trek was that they didn’t tell you how everyone started getting along, they just did. like, the default culture was this wonderful melange of previously distinct cultures that brought about something new, and more human- bc at the root of all culture are humans trying to figure shit out. this idea of realizing and validating differences but connecting on similarities- makes me kind of go all warm and fuzzy.

  • blackromancereader: what Nora said, as far as not thinking of it.

    It’s (I think) part of the white privilege thing. Race doesn’t cross the typical white person’s mind. Since whites are most of the writers, agents, editors, publishers and movie directors/producers, well, then, it doesn’t cross their minds.

    But when a character is clearly described as of color and the person is cast by a white person (whether on the cover of a book or in a TV show), I just don’t know what to say. I hate to call people racist but I’m not left with too many choices there.

  • pllogan,

    I call it racism, because it’s often done not out of a desire to be “colorblind”, problematic as that is, but because of an outright belief that actors/characters of color are unattractive, unappealing to a mainstream audience i.e. white people, and incapable of carrying a story by themselves. Pam Noles talks about the latest example of this re the Wounded Knee film by HBO.

  • I attended both of these sessions at Wiscon this year, and I thought that the panel in the first part was generally rather good and that the discussion in the second part was largely off-topic (though, I think, for understandable reasons).

    I raised some concerns about the panel with people on the concomm. First, it seemed to me that there was a multi-level discussion going on in at least two senses. First, there were people in the room who understood difference, oppression, and power and then there were a number of folks who did not. It was really tough for people in Group B to grok much of the discussion coming from Group A because of this lack of a common language or understanding.

    Second, Cultural Appropriation is a pretty Deep End of the Pool conversation as well as holding a lot of subtopics under its umbrella. I find myself inclined rather strongly to want to break it up into Oppression 101, The Psychology and Sociology of Writing Authentic Characters from Oppressed Groups, World Building with Authenticity, and Writing Authentically and Respectfully from Cultures Not One’s Own. Or some other sort of breakdown. Feels like a lot for one session to me.

    In response to my concern #1 the concomm folks answered, not unreasonably, that it is tough to get the people who need to go to them into the basic info sessions, and that topics that are rather sexier (my words, not theirs) are more successful at pulling them in. My thought there is that it is awfully hard to start out successfully in a Physics 400 course if you have never taken Physics 100… That is a stronger analogy than most people might think!

    Victor R. pointed out that there was an effort in the past to have separate discussions for poc and white folks at Wiscon for some or all of this, followed by a “What Have We Learned” about our different understandings piece afterward. This is an excellent idea which I hope can come to pass in some form. I used to help organize National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s annual conference, Creating Change, and that is part of the very successful format that we used there for many years in doing education on racism.

    I’m giving some thought to ways that some more basic info about oppression and power might be worked into the program at Wiscon successfully. In know that it has been done there before in some form. This was pointed out to me along with the fact that there are a lot of new people at the con each year, thus making such education a bit of a moving target. However, that is an even stronger argument, imho, for having such info available at the con every year.

    Otherwise you’re gonna have even more people talking past one another than usual! :-) What fun!

  • [...] we’re having that discussion again (this link is from 2007, probably around June). Cultural appropriation discussions are very [...]