WisCon 31 – Cultural Appropriation
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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.
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?