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What Is Cultural Appropriation?

A few years ago at WisCon (the feminist SF convention) there was a panel about Cultural Appropriation that sparked an online discussion about the topic that is generally referred to as the Great Debate of DOOM. This was partly due to the wide-ranging nature of it (over 20 blogs, I believe) and due to the great abundance of wank, ignorance, and utter fail on the part of some participants.

At every WisCon since, there have been other CA panels that attempted to fix the issues raised by the first. But it was clear to those of us who have these conversations and panels all the time that a 45 minute or 90 minute debate/discussion/whathaveyou was not going to get really deep into the topic. Judging from the stunning amount of ignorance and defensiveness associated with such discussions, obviously a longer, more in-depth treatment of the topic was necessary. Thus, this series of posts on the ABW.

At first I thought that we could contain everything in one post. But this topic has so many facets and aspects that I quickly realized this could never be. That’s fine with me, because it will help us get really deep into the issues in the comments (which are slightly unwieldy due to the lack of threading).

I thought it would be appropriate to first define what we mean when we talk about Cultural Appropriation. What is it? What do you mean when you apply that term? If we can all express that and put up a few loose boundary markers around the subject, that will make discussing its effects and manifestations a little easier.

As a writer of color, I’m used to discussing cultural appropriation in the artistic sphere. Remember, though, that the issue extends beyond art – spirituality, style/fashion, speech, attitudes and more. Let’s bring them all in.

A note on participation:

Everyone is invited to contribute to this discussion. But if this is your first time here, I suggest you read The Rules (linked at the top) before wading in. There are bannable offenses here, and I will not hesitate to bring the hammer down if you bring bullshit to the table.

A note on comments and moderation:

By default, all comments by first-time participants are automatically moderated. This is a measure to keep the drive-by crazies out, not a tool to suppress anyone’s voice. If your comment doesn’t show up by midnight or so, please use the contact form to query about it. It may have ended up as spam. To avoid being put in the first-timer box, please use the same name/email combination every time you post. That way WordPress will recognize you.

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106 thoughts on “What Is Cultural Appropriation?”

  1. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation Debate | K. Tempest Bradford
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  3. Geek says:

    The connotation, to me, in America, is taking something that is not your own (culturally), and pretending to make it your own while at the same time denying it’s source.

  4. Geek says:

    Lousy enter key, posting me prematurely.

    The actual meaning isn’t so cynical, but I think the US has managed to culturally appropriate (eg) anime without denying it’s Japanese nature and without denying the link to Japan, but white Americans do Yoga and don’t always link it to India.
    I think there is nothing wrong with integrating elements of other cultures into your own, but it would be good to acknowledge the original culture for the first couple hundred years for more than just white cultures. We acknowledge the Italian roots of Olive Garden even though it’s supposedly nothing like Italian food, but not the black roots of jazz.

  5. JoSelle says:

    I don’t really have anything of value to add as someone who has much to learn. But I wanted to thank ABW for hosting this debate, and thank all of the commentors who have posted and who will post for their time and words.

    *lurks moar and reads*

  6. Lilian Nattel says:

    This subject is really important to me because I’m a writer. I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, and I don’t want to take over anyone else’s story. That’s part of the moral baseline that I write from. And I would see cultural appropriation as the telling of other people’s stories, or the assimilation of a minority culture into the dominant culture with some kind of negative effect on the culture of origin. So then–what to do? My own family is multiracial and so is my community. To take it a step further, the city where I live is on land that has a history that extends way beyond the arrival of Europeans. It seems wrong to me, as a writer, to act as if the history that informs my place started with the British, or even the French. They aren’t my ancestors either. And if I am only limited to my ancestors, then doesn’t that make genetic ties into some kind of sacred icon? For someone in a mixed family, with bio & adopted folks, with relatives that we are in contact with and some we aren’t, it gets very confusing.

  7. Matt Smit says:

    One of the questions about cultural appropriation I’ve never heard answered satisfactorily (if there is any single answer that can approach being satisfactory, which I am *not* assuming) is- where is the line drawn? I try to make the sources in my writing multicultural, to do research and consult to make sure I’m getting it right, and to attribute, both in and out of the text, the source of what I use. I’ve seen some authors ask permission, but obviously you can’t ask permission of an entire culture. And obviously some cultures are more ‘mainstream’ than others – but does the frequency of appropriation from, say, Japanese culture make it more or less acceptable? Does the current economic and artistic power and influence of Japan make a difference? Likewise, some cultures are much more aware of and sensitive to appropriation than others – primarily, here, I’m thinking of Australian Aboriginal peoples, who, I’ve heard, have repeatedly object to any outside attempt to use elements of their culture or mythology in stories.

    So. That’s a lot of questions and no answers, and certainly I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer, but I thought that at least they might provide some food for thought/discussion.

  8. Emma says:

    When I think “cultural appropriation,” my first example is always the paisley keffiyehs that people in Berkeley wear all the time. Apparently you can now get them in every color of the rainbow! Which is just fantastic, considering that it was first a religious article of clothing, then a political statement, then a fashion statement. And by fantastic I mean “please stab me in the face.”

    For me that’s what cultural appropriation means — something from another culture that you’re using with no knowledge or understanding or care for its initial significance. It almost makes me more angry to see people politicizing these cultural markers than just stylizing them — like, when you see hippies with dreads making a big fucking stink about them, pun intended, as though intentionally making your hair dirty is the same thing as dreads in hair that naturally holds them.

    It always surprises me how deep my emotions run when it hits my own culture — I used to be pretty laid back and “melting pot” in my thoughts, but I get pissy when Gwen Stefani jacks Fiddler on the Roof, for God’s sake, which is not even a big deal. No one’s being erased from the historical record; I’m just an angry person. I get angrier when people imply that Old Testament figures are there to foreshadow Christian figures, that Jewish mythos is a background to anything but Jewish life. I get angrier when people treat us as a mythical creature ourselves, which is a little closer to home. And this is just as a member of a minority white culture, growing up among many members of a minority white culture! It’s not like there are no books about me, no myths in which I am the subject and not the object — fewer, but certainly not none. And it’s not the same thing as the wholesale ravaging of other cultures for local color.

    You hear people saying “but I think music should be free” in the context of cultural mixing, or “I think literature should be multicultural,” and it should, but if that means being Vampire Weekend and believing that it’s totally cool to be the only exposure to ‘African music’ anyone’s heard since Graceland, I would rather just listen to klezmer every day and play it safe. Maybe “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, but shitty artists are the ones that plunder and pillage and pretend that is a-ok.


  9. 2fs says:

    Geek writes, “We acknowledge the Italian roots of Olive Garden even though it’s supposedly nothing like Italian food, but not the black roots of jazz.” I’m not sure on this: how exactly do “we” not acknowledge the black roots of jazz? I mean, yes, the adjective “Italian” in front of “food” is likelier to appear in a description of what Olive Garden serves than “black” is to appear in front of “music” in describing jazz…but that’s at least in part because we more typically describe foods in terms of ethnic origins than we do music in terms of racial origins.

    To put it another way: does anyone with an interest in jazz deny its roots in African-American culture? Even though jazz has, by this point, clearly gone beyond that culture and incorporated multiple influences, its origins (and, still, much of its sound) are traceable to those origins, and except for people who think Kenny G is “jazz,” who would deny that?

    The issue of “appropriation” is tricky…since a pitfall is assuming a pre-existing purity or homogeneity that is rarely if ever the case. Cultures tend ultimately to be creoles, blends, mixes, with elements and approaches taken from whatever source is available. The flipside of that, though, is the use of such a view to deny rightful claims.

    It’s obvious, for example, that when culturally powerful people finagle culturally disadvantaged ones into signing contracts that deny them credit and payment for their work (the musicians who recorded most Motown records, for example), some level of appropriation is going on. It’s not so obvious when, say, Paul Simon uses African music and musicians, with full credit, acknowledgement, and payment (to the extent that several musicians appearing on Graceland were able to release recordings in the US that sold reasonably well, something that would have been unlikely had they not appeared on Simon’s album).

    Creative Commons has a series of licenses to be used to open up the excessively owner-oriented traditional copyright model: some of these allow reuse so long as credit is given and so long as profit is not generated on the derivative material. I think cultural appropriation should work on a similar model: borrow what you will, but acknowledge its source. The issue of “profit” is trickier, though: where does stealing leave off, rearranging begin, and creating anew follow after that?

  10. vito excalibur says:

    Cultural appropriation: when a member of a group in authority uses that authority to tell or use stories, icons, myths, art, etc. that belong to a group which does not have the power or authority to tell its own stories etc.; especially in inaccurate, insulting or self-serving ways, and especially without giving attribution or context.

    One possible definition, anyway.

  11. other orange says:

    For me personally, I feel like cultural appropriation has a lot to do with authority- to whom do we defer, to whom do we listen, to whom is given the credit ? Do we treat Native, African or African-American, or Asian (etc.) writers/artists dealing with their own cultures in the same way (and with an equal respect) that we treat caucasian or Euro-centric writers/artists dealing with those cultures ? I’m thinking about Memoirs of a Geisha versus Geisha, a Life or other firsthand accounts. If media silences authentic cultural voices while lauding individuals from a different culture for their “authenticity,” then I think there’s a problem.

  12. Jace says:

    Cultural appropriation is just the incorporation of elements of one culture into a different culture. That’s all. The term may have different connotations for different folks, but that’s still what it is, at its core.

    It’s like trading – exchanging baubles for ownership of land with a culture that doesn’t natively recognize land as being something that can be owned and European merchants in Japan after Perry’s fleet are two examples of the exploitative side of trade. But trade is also what can provide vital agricultural and medical technology alongside education to resource-rich but undeveloped countries, improving standards of living.

    When it comes to presenting the appropriated cultural elements as fact – say, in a textbook or report – the highest priority is accuracy. But when melding them into the larger culture, in the form of fiction or simply everyday life, the only consideration is avoiding mislabeling.

    Example: If someone takes some style of, say, yoga and teaches it as a school calling itself “X’s Yoga”, then there’s the possibility that people might misinterpret what is being presented there as original, ‘true’ Indian yoga. Calling it “American-Style Yoga” or just using the physical elements without calling it yoga, however, is fine – it makes it clear that it’s something new, not the original form.

    Further example: If someone writes a story using Catholic confirmation and gets the details wrong, that’s an issue for correction. They were trying to write about X specifically, they got X wrong, they failed at what they were trying to do. But if they use the same elements as inspiration for, say, a Zambonian religious ceremony and some aspects of that are different from the ‘true’ Catholic confirmation, there’s not necessarily a mistake. (There still is if they didn’t write it out how they wanted to, but there could not be.) That’s a re-interpretation of the cultural element, the use of the same palette of colors to make a new painting.

  13. Angie says:

    As a writer, I think of it as a non-thoughtful inclusion of material from a culture not my own. Which is really vague [duck] but I’m trying to wend my way between “Your science fictional future should include everyone!” and “How dare you claim to understand my culture after reading a few books?” Obviously leaving everyone who’s not like me out of my fiction isn’t the way to go, but just as obviously some thought needs to go into what to use and how.

    To give a couple of boundary markers to the extremes, at least, I think having an SFnal planet some time in the future where all the characters are white and most of the cultural markers are clearly descended from middle-class white American culture, but some group of characters started traveling to “Dreamtime” and had adventures there, especially if they met a short, dark “alien” who looked amazingly like a native Australian and acted as their guide and mentor, even though everything else in this place came out of European cultural traditions, that’d be an inappropriate appropriation, to say nothing of pretty lousy worldbuilding.

    OTOH, giving that planet a multi-cultural population from the beginning, showing how different groups who emmigrated from Earth brought their cultures with them, and how those cultures were changed by time and hardships and adaptation to new conditions — because they’re living cultures and they will grow and develop and adapt, that would work. Especially if the Perilous Situation they face is something appropriate to the alien setting, rather than a rip-off of something from a very Terran culture. And if the the main characters are from different cultures, and the only white dude doesn’t just “happen” to be the leader/protag.

    At least, that’s where I’m coming from at this point. The idea is to use some thought about what’s being borrowed and how it fits into one’s setting or character. Smoothly and without a hammer or duct tape, one would hope. It’s a minefield, though, and it’s hard to know where it’s all right to step. And knowing that no matter what one does, someone else is going to be upset makes it harder, if more realistic.

    Looking forward to reading more discussion and opinions.


  14. Katherine Farmar says:

    I like Vito’s definition, but I would probably use “power and/or privilege” rather than “authority”. (“Authority”, to me, implies a more formal relationship than is usually the case in cultural appropriation situations.)

  15. Shveta says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Someone mentioned the example of yoga above, and that raises the question of how much and for how long does a culture “own” something? And where is the line between adapting and dismissing?

    I remember a few years ago when images of Hindu deities had suddenly become all the rage, and they were plastered on T-shirts, lunch boxes, and even flipflops (the feet should not be anywhere near a god’s likeness in Hindu dharma). Or Aerosmith’s *Nine Lives* that had the Hindu god Krishna’s body with a cat’s head. Or how about the novel *The Song of Kali*, which was the author’s diatribe of how horrible India is, so he made the goddess Kali into a monster and turned his Indian characters into terrible people. All of them. To me, all of these are examples of cultural appropriation gone wrong.

    It’s not that I mind people taking an interest in my heritage–not at all! It’s the dismissal inherent in taking something and completely ignoring the meaning behind it and the cultural context from which it comes which I find troubling and deeply disturbing. On top of that, being told, “Just relax; it’s just a CD. They don’t know what they’re doing!” leaves me feeling alienated and even angrier and more frustrated. That attitude tells me that my culture and my feelings about it really don’t matter, because hey, it’s *just* a CD, *just* a pair of flipflops. By extension, I’m *just* a silly brown girl looking for reasons to get upset and ruin things for everybody else.

    In a previous post, Nora mentioned the difference between “good” and “bad” cultural appropriation. I would agree with her definition. I am fine with people expanding the bounds of what they know and trying to learn something new. That’s how we grow as people; we move beyond what we know. As a writer, I would be limiting myself if I could not do that. But it needs to be done with respect, understanding for, and acknowledgement of the source material. If someone wants to wear an “om” pendant, for example, that person should know what the syllable stands for. Same as with a bindi. If the wearer appreciate the beauty, that’s awesome. Just know what you’re wearing, don’t dismiss its origins because you can, and worst of all, don’t pretend it’s something you came up with it all by yourself–aren’t *you* clever?

  16. Anna Feruglio Dal Dan says:

    …and perhaps we should not acknowledge the Italian roots of Olive Garden, because Italians might not be that happy to be the guys whose only contribution to the wider culture was garlic bread. (Which is of course unheard of in Italy).

    I’m joking, but only a little bit. I’m not saying that I am offended by the Sopranos – actually, the thing is, the Sopranos like the Godfather books and movies are actually from _within_ one part of the Italian culture, even if a particular one, and the one that ended up in America. If that were cultural appropriation, it would be a positive one. It isn’t of course because it’s done by people who are speaking about their own culture. (In the case of Cimino, the bits of the Godfather set in Sicily are actually uncannily on the spot, as testified by the shocked reaction of my Sicilian ex-boyfriend who started watching the Godfather thinking it was going to be offensive and instead found himself in front of real Sicilian culture.)

    But, yes: if the Godfather were good cultural appropriation, The Olive Garden would be bad cultural appropriation. As would be Costa Coffee (acutally a Spanish firm, I believe) and fetuccini Alfredo.

    But of course, there can be a good injection of “Italian” culture in mainstream American culture because, when we come down to it, we are white-skinned. And no matter how much the Columbus people whine about it, “Italians” integrated fast and well and are as privileged as the rest of the WASPS. Which is why Tony Soprano is not played by somebody called Edward Fitzpatrick.

    (Thinks about inserting joke about Sacco and Vanzetti, recognizes that she is too tired).

  17. Geek says:

    “I’m not sure on this: how exactly do “we” not acknowledge the black roots of jazz? I mean, yes, the adjective “Italian” in front of “food” is likelier to appear in a description of what Olive Garden serves than “black” is to appear in front of “music” in describing jazz…but that’s at least in part because we more typically describe foods in terms of ethnic origins than we do music in terms of racial origins. ”

    Not a great example. I’m trying to say something and I’m rather inelegant. I’m a computer geek, not a writer geek. … It’s like… rich white ladies doing yoga to stay skinny. Is that really what it’s for?
    Rich white kids from the suburbs listening to rap and dressing up “gangsta”… cultural appropriation that causes something to lose it’s original meaning, or feeling? That reduces something to just an action, instead of retaining the significance. That twists too far and steals.

    Jazz is probably ok now, but at one point wasn’t it more like theft? Olive Garden could be said to inappropriately steal the Italian food/family thing for the sake of profit, so maybe I had it backwards.

    Inelegant, as I said. Cultural appropriation is natural and positive. Cultural appropriation as I tend to think of it is theft.

  18. bankuei says:

    Appropriation- taking, remaking, remolding as an outsider, yet claiming it to be authentic.

    Is yoga an exercise fad or a religious practice?
    Is Elegba an orisha or decorative keychain trinket?
    Is Powwow a religious and community gathering of specific peoples or a brief work meeting?

    The appropriation is the way in which anything, no matter how holy, no matter how serious, can be revisioned, reused, remolded for entertainment. It’s the way in which white people can suddenly become martial arts masters or claim lineages of spiritual teachings, even though no one from the place of origin can verify it.

    And at the end of it, it’s the way in which white people not only become the authorities above the actual practicioners, but also become the primary ones to profit from it.

    It’s like if I made a folk dance called the Holocaust, and said that it was really an old jewish dance to celebrate happiness, and sold videos and special clothes and set up schools where you, too, could become a Holocaust Dance Master (TM).

    And then wondered why people are getting all upset and didn’t they know I –really learned it- from my master who’s 1/64th Jewish and really can’t we all get along and why do you hate on someone trying to do something positive and what you have to say doesn’t matter because I’ve got a 10 year old Holocaust Dance credentials and you don’t have anything, so who are you coming to tell me about it anyway?

    It’s the trivialization of history, of voices, of suffering. Of civilizations turned into toys. Cultural genocide, information warfare, white supremacy indoctrination.

    That’s appropriation.

  19. Foxessa says:

    As for Jazz, we do have divisions in terms of catalog and division — the biggest one is “Latin Jazz,’ and the practicioners of same will say “We’re the n*ggers of Jazz.’

    When we still had record-CD stores often even Eddie Palmieri would be in ‘World’ music, not in the Jazz bins. At least here in NYC, with the efforts of Arturo O’Farrell (yes, he and his father are Puerto Ricans!) and their work with kids, like Donald Harrison does both here and New Orleans, that is changing. Of course what the world knows at this point mostly is Jazz = Marsalis period.

    But woo, the younger generation of Cuban musicians who came here about 8 – 10 years ago — they are burning up NYC with their work.

    You have entire jazz histories that never mention Puerto Ricans and Cubans, for instance. Just like histories of music can manage to not mention ‘drums,’ Africa and rhythm once.

    Personally, ‘cultural appropriation’ means using something or someone who is not the author, for ornamentation and / or flava, without the rip having any organic function to the story, and no agency and autonomy as a character. A prop = Appropriation. Usually the person ripping doesn’t have a deep understanding of who or what either.

    But then, mash-ups don’t generally appeal to me. I’m a classicist. So to speak. :)

    Love, C.

  20. 2fs says:

    Geek: Thanks for clarifying your example. Ultimately I think the issue comes down to respect: respect that the material you’re working with comes from another culture not your own, respect for the material to know enough about its place in that culture to understand what it is you’re using, respect enough to acknowledge it, and so forth. This doesn’t mean freezing the culture in place and turning “culture” into a static series of costumes, wooden flutes, and curious knick-knacks…but it also doesn’t mean trivially taking bits and pieces without bothering to understand them, or to recognize that what might be “weird” or “funky” or “wild” or “fun” to you might be deeply meaningful to someone else.

    It’s sort of amusing to me (where “amusing” means “slightly surprised that I haven’t heard of anyone being pissed off by this”) that there’s a brand of car called a Mazda (we own one, in fact), when “Mazda” is the name of a god… Granted, there aren’t that many Zoroastrians in the world today (a couple hundred thousand, if Wikipedia is correct)…but imagine someone deciding to name a car the “Jesusmobile”…and if you’re a devout Christian, that might well rub you the wrong way…

  21. the angry black woman says:


    You don’t actually get to say “Cultural Appropriation is X and that’s all” in this discussion. Not only because you’re wrong, but because then it’s not a discussion. And as we’ve already determined in earlier posts, any definition of a complex issue that is simple and boils down to just a few sentences is woefully inadequate and incomplete.

    Perhaps you should sit back and listen instead of exploding your ignorance all over the rest of us.

  22. anna says:

    I’m glad you’re doing this, Angry Black Woman. Thank you for setting up this space and I look forward to the discussion.

    I don’t really have any definitions or anything right now, but I’m interested in the topic and hope that everyone is respectful… anna

  23. Randy Henderson says:

    In my opinion, discussions about “cultural appropriation” often get blurred across three different areas.

    The first two, in and of themselves, are not inherently harmful or bad (although they can be insulting to the source culture if done incorrectly), but because of their confusion with appropriation they can sometimes get harsher treatment than they deserve.

    1. Cultural Adoption

    2. Cultural Depiction

    3. Cultural Appropriation

    1. CULTURAL ADOPTION: Christmas trees are cultural adoption. Frozen burritos are cultural adoption. Sunday being a “day of rest” is cultural adoption. They are items, traditions, philosophies, ideas, etcetera that are enjoyed by more than a single culture, because persons from different cultures can all appreciate them (perhaps on different levels, but appreciate nonetheless) and share them and they are not rooted in a geographic dependency, or inviolate source, etc. White Americans eating frozen burritos does nothing to prevent Mexicans from enjoying burritos, and it is well known as being “Mexican food.”

    Note that there is also forced cultural adoption, which is another beast altogether. Forcing Native American children to attend “white” schools and wear “white” clothes and forbidding their native language, for example, is obviously not a good thing. It is cultural appropriation in the reverse direction (but not in the reverse pole of morality).

    2. CULTURAL DEPICTION: A story that features a Mexican character. A movie centered around a Greek wedding. These are depictions of culture, whether the person who created the depiction is of the depicted culture or not. Again, not inherently bad, just bad if done badly, or to the exclusion or detriment of the depicted culture.

    3. CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: Herein lies the rub. Appropriation implies taking for oneself, to seize possession (or “adopt”) without consent or consideration in a way that detracts from the source culture’s ability to access or enjoy that which you have taken. It is stealing. It is inherently negative. Unlike cultural adoption or depiction, there is no good kind of cultural appropriation.

    Really there are two levels of appropriation – the GENERAL, and the PERSONAL. At the general level, it is one culture stealing from another. At the personal level, it is one person violating the rights of a culture.

    Depiction can be seen as personal appropriation if you take the stance that only a person from a specific culture has the authority or right to depict that culture. So you have to define if that is the assumption that you are working under or not.

    Since probably not every person of a given culture will agree on whether persons of their culture should have exclusive rights to cultural depictions, such depiction would rarely be appropriation in the general sense, though you may feel it is as a matter of personal opinion and feeling. And that makes it real at least for you, since if it makes you feel as though your culture has been appropriated, then for you it has. Tricky stuff.

    Depiction can in fact be general appropriation if you depict a culture against the collective will of that entire culture, or basically exploit or take something from that culture through your depiction that lessens their total health, happiness, freedom or value. I can think of obvious examples in stealing natural resources, but with depictions of culture in the arts, it gets a little more difficult.

    I would say that to show general cultural appropriation of African American culture in American fiction, for example (rather than exclusively ignorance or racism (conscious or otherwise) on the part of the writers), you would, in my mind, have to show not only the consistent pattern of exclusion and false depictions of black characters that have been well documented, but also the systematic denial of black artists (or, depending on your view, any artists) from sharing true and positive depictions of black culture. This would result in white persons (as one example) taking complete control of and defining “black culture” in the American consciousness, which would be a form of appropriation. Of course, you can also get into the debate of how much appropriation there is – to what _degree_ do non-black persons control public perception of black culture. But then you have to debate whether that is a case of reinforcing existing social inequalities and hurtful practices, or is it in fact taking away black Americans’ ability to define their own culture. You’d run into questions like “Are not white suburban kids influenced by black artists?” etc.

    Personal cultural appropriation would be easier to prove. If an individual writer deliberately depicts a culture in an inaccurate, negative or harmful way, for example, then that writer has essentially stolen a small piece of the impacted culture, in the sense that his/her readers will now have this negative bit of cultural depiction added to their collective perception of that culture, where a positive and accurate depiction might otherwise have existed. This is stealing or damaging a small piece of that culture’s cumulative total image in the mind of that reader.

    On the other hand, the general exclusion or the lack of positive and accurate depictions of PoC in fiction that are due to passive (rather than intentional) causes such as ignorance, lack of awareness or consideration, or unconscious prejudices on the part of the writers is arguably not appropriation. These are problems that needs to be addressed through education, discussions like this, and a saturation of the media with accurate and positive depictions of PoC (either including or exclusively by PoC artists, depending on your view) until it becomes as natural as it really should be already to commonly see them. But that, again, is a different discussion. Or several.

    At least, that’s my quick thoughts on the matter ;)

    Hope I didn’t fill in too many of your Bingo squares, and I’m completely open to the possibility that I am mistaken.

  24. whatsername says:

    Bring it on!

    This is a topic I’ve been troubled by in fantasy literature as well, but never really dived into trying to analyze it.

  25. claire says:

    wow, what a great discussion already! i wrote up my own post ( before i read any of this and i have a different take on it.

    but I really like randy henderson’s distinction between adoption, depiction, and appropriation. i organize it differently, making appropriation a subset of adoption.

    what else?

  26. Rebecca says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Thanks, ABW, for posting this and opening this up as a public discussion. Cultural appropriation – what it is and how it works – seems like such a multifaceted and nuanced idea; in my efforts to understand my own privilege, it may be the one I’ve struggled most to really wrap my mind around.

    I won’t have much to say here, but I wanted to let everyone involved in the discussion know how much I appreciate the opportunity to listen. I’ve learned a bunch already. Thanks. :)

  27. Debbie Smith says:

    I’m very interested in this subject and have been since Larissa Lai brought it up at Clarion West 2004.

    I write a lot of stories using myths from other cultures. I use them as metaphors for whatever my message is. Is that wrong?

    I just blogged about Sandra McDonald’s “Outback Stars” and one of my friends commented that she resented the Austrailian mysticism be in there when it is to sacred to the people.

    Personally, I had a script under option that was based on an archeologist finding a Pacific Northwest Mask and, while I presented my greatly researched material about the actual ceremony and use of the mask, and while I was making a point about messing with other people’s power objects, a member of the tribe the ceremony belongs to was outraged that I used the Mask in a horror script. I mean it’s one of the cannibal birds and cracks skulls and eats brains so I just went there.

    I don’t want to insult anyone. I’ve written things about Christian ceremonies in a horrific way. I’ve written mythic stories in a very spiritual way.

    We, as writers, are always looking for ways to convey our story. Is it wrong to take these stories and make them into fiction? Because truthfully, that is what we are talking about. I’m not talking about presenting a people in a certain way, by the way. For me that’s a whole different area. I’m talking about using traditions as a part of our stories.

    I’m really torn over this. Native Americans believe that it is their sacred right to own stories. I wasn’t raised with that concept. And now those sacred stories are everywhere on the internet. I even saw a video of the ceremony I used int he script.

    I’ve pulled the script for now. I’m not sure what to do about the objection (and it was from one person).

    So what do we do? Do we limit ourselves to writing only about our own ‘traditions’. Someone suggested this to me at a panel I was on at Wiscon. But what are my traditions. I was raised Christian but no longer practice. Does that mean I can’t even use Christian traditions in my story.

    So my thoughts are that writers have always gained inspiration from other sources. I don’t think that will ever change. As long as we aren’t presenting the information as “the truth”, and again I must remind everyone we are writing fiction, then what is wrong with borrowing from myth, legend, religion etc?

  28. Latoya Peterson says:

    Beat me to the punch!

    We’ve been talking about doing a series on cultural appropriation on our site for a while now, it’s just been taking some time to finalize contributors.

    Great discussion here – and I am getting the impression that for some reason, there won’t be much overlap in what we discuss.

    Anyway, kudos for starting the discussion.

  29. Keyan says:

    I was raised to respect all religions, whether or not I subscribe to them. So I’m not really comfortable with religious icons being used in an irreverent way: Buddha garden decor, Saraswati socks, the evil flying monkeys in Oz when actual flying monkeys in the Ramayana are the good guys.

    And of course the most egregious of all was the appropriation of the auspicious Hindu swastika symbol by the Nazis.

    I guess for me, cultural appropriation is when something meaningful to one culture is used in a frivolous or trivial way. I think it’s a matter of respect. When you take something people care a great deal about, and use it for humor or effect – and especially if you distort it – it seems disrespectful.

    Of course, if it’s totally over the top, then I think even the culture being spoofed can laugh. I’m thinking Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where they fall out of an aircraft in the Himalayas, make it safely into a river that takes them all the way down to … Sri Lanka. Where they find an evil Raja eating monkey brains.

    (Given that monkeys are considered sacred by many Hindus, this should have offended me, but it was so crazily OTT that it didn’t.)

  30. vito excalibur says:


    A thought experiment.

    How would you feel if the next big breakaway Studio Miyazaki film, say, featured Jesus as a pathetic, shambling zombie revenant, who tried to destroy the world and was eventually banished by a powerful Japanese guardian spirit, to huge acclaim? If for a long time thereafter the internet featured non-Christians earnestly discussing America’s primitive belief in gods that rise from the dead and demand that you eat their corpses, and asking you about whether you feel that these superstitions have held your country back?

    The situations are not the same, because Christianity is a huge, powerful, well-known belief system, and for every Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter there are a thousand respectful, popular, and well-known depictions of Christianity. So also try to imagine that almost of the people you run into have never heard of Jesus, and when you say you’re not a practicing Christian, they congratulate you for freeing yourself from the morbid superstitions of your culture and ask you how your parents could teach their children cannibalism.

    Now having said all that, I’m not telling you what’s the right thing to do. Me, I loved Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. I’m just saying, be aware that what you write may well have this effect on a bunch of people. Ask yourself if that is the effect you want to have.

    Consider, also, whether if you don’t think you’d like this scenario very much, you would conclude that Studio Miyazaki should never do a movie with Jesus in it; or whether you would consider that maybe they could have used the idea of Jesus in a better way.

  31. Shveta says:

    Hi, Debbie,

    I’ve spent the last couple hours thinking about your questions, and I’d like to try to answer them here.

    You said, “I must remind everyone we are writing fiction.”

    But the thing is, it’s not just fiction. What we write and put out there to be consumed by others either reinforces current stereotypes and ways of thinking or challenges them. It’s never just a story. Whether you intend it or not, your fictional piece adds to the discourse of how we see that particular culture or people and the related beliefs.

    Also, I’d like to ask you to consider this: Can you see how asking this is a part of Western privilege? “. . .then what is wrong with borrowing from myth, legend, religion etc?” Those things are the culture, the foundation, the learnings and truths of other peoples. It’s not wrong that they don’t want those things that are so valuable to be scooped up and appropriated into a Westerner’s story, especially when they’ve seen again and again that many writers will not take the time to think outside their own experience and write a story that respects this source material.

    It’s also part of Western privilege to be able to say, “Native Americans believe that it is their sacred right to own stories. I wasn’t raised with that concept.” Does that invalidate the Native Americans’ desire not to be stripped of even more than they already have been? In addition, there’s a mentality in the West that we can take whatever we want, as we deserve it all. I’m not saying you do this consciously; it’s ingrained in how we’ve been taught to think from day one. It’s something to think about.

    You mention you’ve written stories that are not flattering to Christianity. But the problem with equating that with other religions is that Christianity is the dominant faith of the West, and it’s not in any danger of being misunderstood. Sure, it has its share of detractors, but it’s what’s considered “right” in America. It’s the unspoken default for morality. The same cannot be said of other faiths, plus you run the risk of simplifying, exoticizing, or simply misunderstanding the philosophies inherent in other religions, and thus implying that they are somehow lesser or savage.

    For example, you said, “While I was making a point about messing with other people’s power objects, a member of the tribe the ceremony belongs to was outraged that I used the Mask in a horror script. I mean it’s one of the cannibal birds and cracks skulls and eats brains so I just went there.” This is a perfect example of what I mentioned above.

    Note that I am not saying I don’t want to see anyone write outside his or her personal experience. Rather, I am trying to give you something to consider. As I said my other comment, I think it involves a great deal of research and willing to think in someone else’s shoes. Yet while I would be happy to see what non-Indians can–respectfully–do with Indian lore (and keep in mind there are many different faiths and cultures in India!), I cannot speak for everyone from India and the diaspora. Some do not want to see non-Indians writing Indian stories, and that is also perfectly legitimate. Whether you ultimately write using another’s mythology is up to you, but I think first examining why you think it’s okay to do so will help clarify whether you “should” or not.

  32. Foxessa says:

    This would result in white persons (as one example) taking complete control of and defining “black culture” in the American consciousness, . . .

    Naw. All those years of the dominance culture defining what is African American, such as Aunt Jemima, black jockey hitching posts, separate and not equal as divisions into ‘colored’ and ‘white’ seating sections of movie theaters — or more recently pushing depictions of gangsta life as a model via what gets played on ‘urban music’ programming on radio stations, allowing no other image than this violent, dead-end future to aspire to — that’s called oppression, not appropriation.

    Appropriation is white men dressing in black face and singing plantation songs.

    Burritos, by the way, are not food of Mexico. They were created to be a complete hot dinner (noon) that could be eaten quickly without plates etc. in the California produce fields. They are an adaptation in that sense, since they use ingredients typical in a Mexican diet, such as beans, rice and chicken or other meat if lucky enough to have it.

    Love, c.

  33. Foxessa says:

    The earlest example that I came to personally as how it works in fiction when it isn’t cultural appropriation is, appropriately enough, from an African American historical novelist, Frank Yerby. Frank Yerby was an enormously popular fiction writer in the 40’s and 50’s. Movies were made from his novels, just as they were made from other popular historican novelists of the time.

    The thing is that hardly anyone realized Frank Yerby was African American. He didn’t hide the fact — he didn’t try to pass. It’s just the default presumption of the novelist who writes this kind of fiction was white (very like the default, unexamined presumption by readers, other writers and editors and illustrators that the author of Fantasy and SF is white also — and probably male).

    My mom had a lot of his books on her shelves via her book of the month club membership and my grandmother’s book of the month club membership. Once I’d read her copy of The Golden Hawk — the best swashbuckling you’re gonna find; pirates! gold! hot women, both as pirate and as good demure Catholic — guess who gets the guy? — invasions! incarcerations! it’s got it all. I loved this book and went looking for others by Yerby.

    At some point, young as I was, I noticed something that was different in Yerby’s books from other novelists’ books. There was always a black companion to our Hero, who was equally powerful, if not more, equally attractive to women, equally intelligent, equally skilled, equally autonomous and with his own agency. He wasn’t a sidekick, or a servant. He was a partner. Yet there was never anything historically anachronistic in the realities of what the black man would confront outside of certain safe spaces, such as their ship, a pirate enclave, etc. I never saw this anywhere in any other fiction, and I wouldn’t until many years later.

    And that’s the point: each character is a person in his and her own right, behaving as they would, whether they are exceptionals, like the heroine who is a pirate, or as the ideal of what the good woman of her time should behave as, when her upbringing and religion crash on the conflict of what her body wants.

    Yerby was perfectly capable of writing more than one kind of believable female character, white characters as well as black characters — and writing them all as heroes and heroines fit for historical adventure fiction. He condescends to none of them. He believes in all of them. His historical research was impecable (I’ve researched him so I learned this was certainly so — though it reads like he knows what he’s writing about, without, of course, giving you any lectures).

    Love, C.

  34. JoSelle says:

    Vito_Excalibur, that was a fabulous example! As a white Catholic (although one who lives in a place where you’re a religious minority if you’re Catholic, or any other stripe of Christian that isn’t Mormon), it’s often helpful for me to use such hypothetical situations when approaching a cultural representation I don’t know.

    You rock!

  35. Randy Henderson says:


    Thank you for your response to my post. It brought a couple of things to my attention.

    First, a reminder to not use cultural attributions lightly, but actually research them first. I just assumed burritos were Mexican because they are always referred to as such in Mexican restaurants, etcetera, which in retrospect was potentially offensive on my part if it were not true. So after your post I did the proper research, and as it turns out, I was correct (though by luck, not by virtue of proper research in the first place). They are in fact Mexican. What you are talking about that began in the fields of California is a later developed, specific variety of burrito called the San Francisco or California burrito.

    Second, early American white culture could be said to have both oppressed AND appropriated black culture, not just one or the other, since the depictions of black persons in art, literature, and performing arts was pretty much exclusively negative stereotyping, caricatures, and propaganda by white persons (appropriation of the public perception of black culture away from black persons themselves) that helped facilitate the continuing severe oppression through first slavery, and then segregation. At least, that’s one way of looking at it.

    But then African American figures like Sojourner Truth and white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, and writers like Phillis Wheatley, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington began to put a countervailing influence out there. And today black artists are freely able to write and perform songs, plays, television shows, movies, dances, and fiction that represent aspects or personal experiences of African American culture accurately and positively.

    I’m not saying such depictions are equal to or unaffected by all the negative or inaccurate depictions of black culture that remain, nor that exclusion and exploitation and stereotyping are things of the past, nor that PoC artists don’t face real “behind the scenes” challenges in terms of accessibility, support, treatment etc. by those who control access to the mainstream media outlets or media trends in general.

    I’m just proposing as a point for debate whether the exclusions, suppressions, exploitations and inequalities that exist today in, for example, American fiction are really the same thing as appropriation? And again, keeping in mind the difference between saying that appropriation is occurring in the general cultural war sense, versus identifying specific individual cases where you feel appropriation has indeed occurred.

    I also don’t want to do the “American” thing and pretend like this issue is all about American writers and American issues, by the way. What of an Indian author portraying Pakistani characters, or a Chinese author portraying Tibetan culture, or English portrayal of Irish culture? Again, depending on the timeline, on the level of control and visibility and exploitation, what is “appropriation,” what is simply “depiction,” and what is negative propoganda or exploitation or stereotyping, etc.?


  36. JoSelle says:

    Also, as a Catholic I can tell you that Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter sounds awesome, and I doubt it would offend me, especially as there are more accurate portrayals of Catholicism to be found all around me ;). I wish I could find a copy to rent, though.

  37. Randy Henderson says:


    I agree with your excellent example. I think perhaps it is not simply enough for a depiction to be negative for it to be called “appropriation.” It requires that the depiction inform the perception of the viewer to the exclusion of the truth and/or the culture being depicted. This is usurpation of power and control. It is stealing the depicted culture’s right and ability to define or share itself. At least, that’s how it is coming to be defined in my mind as I work through this discussion.


  38. Randy Henderson says:

    JoSelle — if you have access to Netflix, you can view it on Instant View. :)

  39. the angry black woman says:


    By all means, please also have a discussion on Racialicious! After all, this is taking place in stages, and there’s no reason other parts of this can’t happen on other blogs. In the end I hope to gather all of the links for one big post.

  40. Mary Dell says:

    Thanks for hosting this discussion, ABW.

    I think of cultural appropriation as helping oneself to the cool bits of someone else’s culture. When there is a power imbalance between one’s own culture and that other culture, the appropriation is problematic, at least potentially.

    If culture A has the power, appropriation of cool bits from culture B by members of culture A often follows in a tradition of helping oneself to actual stuff, land, or persons belonging to culture B. So it perpetuates social injustices sometimes; at the very least it can add insult to injury.

    If culture B has the power, appropriation of cool bits from culture B by members of culture A can erode and damage culture A, replacing its own cool bits with imported ones. This often follows on damage done to actual stuff, land, or persons belonging to culture A by culture B in the course of creating or exploiting the power imbalance. Western ideals of beauty taking hold in non-western countries might be an example of this.

    When there is not a power imbalance between the two cultures, it’s not a problem (in my opinion), but finding two cultures with roughly equivalent power is difficult/impossible, and power isn’t easily measurable anyway. Every member of every culture will experience the imbalance differently.

    Even when there is a power imbalance, cultural appropriation can have good effects; culture shouldn’t be static, and this is one of the ways cultures can change for the better. But I’m free to think that; my culture (white American) is in no danger of being diluted or eradicated.

  41. Mary Dell says:

    Debbie Smith:

    Instead of comparing it to writing a horror story about Jesus, think of how you would feel if someone wrote a horror story about your grandmother, based on reworking her diary after it was posted on the internet.

    For some people, religion is *that* personal. It’s not just a story.

    That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to write about masks, or that all myths are off-limits. But writing about a real object that’s sacred to real people is something that, I think, should be done as respectfully as possible.

  42. JoSelle says:

    I also don’t want to do the “American” thing and pretend like this issue is all about American writers and American issues, by the way. What of an Indian author portraying Pakistani characters, or a Chinese author portraying Tibetan culture, or English portrayal of Irish culture? Again, depending on the timeline, on the level of control and visibility and exploitation, what is “appropriation,” what is simply “depiction,” and what is negative propoganda or exploitation or stereotyping, etc.?

    Randy, thanks for asking this. I am REALLY curious about this, too–and about another U.S. question, how cultural appropriation works between POC communities here (if it happens?).

    I hope that’s not an offensive thing to ask, on the second part, I apologize sincerely if it is. It’s just been on my mind since I began reading articles on yesterday.

  43. Randy Henderson says:

    I liked Vito and Shveta’s response to Debbie. I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate just to stir up some further debate on the topic.

    If you were to write a fantasy or horror story centered around a Native American mask, AND you were to be non-specific (or fictional) about the tribe and the ceremony involved or the actual spirit names, etc. then where is the line between cultural appropriation and creative writing? Is there a degree of fictionalization that takes it from the realm of personally offensive to just being in bad taste, or perhaps not offensive at all?

    Now, if you added Native Americans sacrificing babies over the mask and having naked orgies to call forth demonic spirits, that would be something different. But in itself, a mask with power in it that might be unintentionally released is something I can imagine coming from any culture (say, Norse culture in “The Mask,” which did not shape my views of Norse mythology by the way), and is not itself something that needs shape my view of actual Native Americans.

    What about including a disclaimer up front saying this is completely fictional and untrue and not representational or accurate of any true culture, that you respect the cultures that inspired the story, and for real information go to X, or something like that?

    Finally, there is the fact that, I assume, what Debbie is depicting is magical or supernatural in nature. So are we saying that the readers may actually believe that Native Americans believe that the magical or supernatural events in the book could really happen as depicted? Should a line be drawn at “plausible” depictions as being taboo, but clearly unrealistic depictions being acceptable if done correctly?

    What do you think? Does the problem of influencing the reader’s perception remain if you actively work to make it clear you are not depicting reality?

    And here’s the relevant question for this blog — if it does, is it still appropriation, or just potentially in bad taste and inconsiderate?

    Obviously, all of this is dependent on, overall, what sort of message or image you are giving through the depiction. This is where that “altering the reader’s perception of the culture” comes in. Again, portraying negative stereotypes that can clearly be traced to a specific culture is bad, whether you say “just kidding” or not.

    For example, even if she fictionalized the mask ceremony and made it clear the story is fiction, that wouldn’t excuse then depicting the main Native American character in the book as a drunk elder who lives in a trailer on the “res” and will speak to the spirits if you bring him a pack of smokes. Or his granddaughter, the beautiful and fiery woman with raven hair who went to the city and then returned to the reservation to teach the poor children rather than pursue a lucrative career (but can relate to the protag because, you know, she’s been to the city and seen “real” life).

    But if, say, Debbie were to adequately obscure and fictionalize the exact origins and nature of the mask, but portray any Native American characters in her book in accurate and positive ways, and make the theme the need to respect the power and legitimacy of the Native American beliefs, does that make a difference?

    Finally, she is writing a horror (?) or fantasy novel. So not only should we expect that she would fictionalize or exaggerate the supernatural elements of the mask, but is it potentially a good thing that she is exposing these readers (who might instead have bought yet another McEuropean epic or urban vampire novel, NOT a Sherman Alexie novel) to characters from a different culture, and perhaps piquing their interest in learning more about the real ceremonies and traditions of Native Americans? Or not?

    Please keep in mind I am posing questions here to spark debate, not really defending or justifying (or criticizing) Debbie’s choices. I am honestly curious to see the responses and ready to let them inform my opinion.


  44. Julia Sullivan says:

    Debbie Smith wrote: ,a member of the tribe the ceremony belongs to was outraged that I used the Mask in a horror script….I don’t want to insult anyone.

    But you did insult someone, probably very profoundly.

    And you need to sit with that and make your own decisions about what to do with your story in the light of that reality.

    That’s the thing: other people’s pain and hurt isn’t going to go away just because you’re a nice person who didn’t mean to be offensive.

    And you can decide, if that’s your decision, that the risk-to-reward ratio of telling your story that way is still worth it, even though some people are going to be hurt. Or you can decide to tell your story another way, and seek input from people who were hurt by Story Mark I so that you can make Story Mark II better. Or you can drop the story.

    Those are the things you have control over. What you don’t have control over is other people’s perceptions of their rights and boundaries.

  45. Iain Coleman says:


    As a Scottish atheist of Catholic extraction, I am massively unqualified to comment on isues of Native American culture. As a writer, on the other hand, I think I can comment.

    What matters in writing, what really matters, is that it’s true. Not that it’s inoffensive, not that it’s consistent with some ideology , but that it crystallises some fraction of truth and hands it on to others who can understand and assimilate it.

    So, regarding your mask story: is it true? Do you understand the meaning of the mask in this context? Do you use it to expose or illuminate universal human truths? If so, go for it. If some people get offended, tough. You’re telling the truth. But if the honest answer to any of these questions is no, then discard the story. Not because it’s offensive, but because it’s untrue.

  46. Shweta Narayan says:

    @ Randy:
    “What of an Indian author portraying Pakistani characters,”

    Speaking only for myself — If a story really needed it I’d include Pakistani characters, but with probably at least twice as much research as I’d give any other group before I felt comfortable at all. It’s just too fraught. And I think I wouldn’t dare focus entirely on a Pakistani character.

    Here’s the fear: that even if I got something right, the very fact of me being an Indian Hindu writing _about_ a Pakistani main character would contextualize the story so that it was either poking at an open wound (if I wrote about the troubles) or escapism (if I didn’t).

    The closest I’ve come so far is a story set in a secondary world; it’s ambiguous whether the inspiration is India or Pakistan (and it is in fact a little bit of both). While part of the motivation was the magic of the secondary world, another part was… hm. To avoid pointing fingers at any particular group for a terrible thing that many groups have done.

    Is that a cop-out? I could see people thinking so, and maybe finding that offensive. But I saw it as a way to poke at something that had me in angry tears, but with enough distance that *I* could get beyond fury and judgment.

    On that note, and playing off a couple things I’ve read here, I wonder — how can we best think about Cultural Appropriation in the context of secondary worlds with real-world-inspired cultures?

    I ask because accuracy has come up a few times, and I think in a secondary world, accuracy can sometimes backfire. I am very tired of secondary worlds that have a default Euro-based culture unlike anything historical interacting with non-Euro cultures that are Exactly Like They Were Here. That seems to me to be a form of exoticization, though it probably is well-intentioned.

    It just seems to me if the world is different all the cultures should be different.

    On the other hand if one changes around a culture not one’s own (not that I’d be doing ANYTHING like that), especially to the point where it’s “inspired by” rather than “derived from”, how can one be as respectful as possible in the process? When does it become bad appropriation? Are there things to watch out for that are specific to the ways we change cultures in secondary/alternate worlds?

  47. Randy Henderson says:

    Altogether, this is where I am at so far:

    Cultural Appropriation: The use or depiction of something from another culture in such a way that it harms or detracts from the cumulative and accurate knowledge, experience, perception or existence of that culture.

    One of the problems is that the level or degree to which a person feels something is harmful or detracts from their culture may be subjective. So while one person may feel that something is appropriation, another from the same culture may feel it is merely in bad taste, or that it is someone outside their culture depicting their culture, period. And part of discerning depiction versus fiction versus appropriation is dependent on the intelligence and perception of the audience.

    Where are the lines between adoption, depiction, and appropriation?

    How does the level of fictionalization affect the question of what is appropriation (i.e. the difference between a true depiction, or depicting something “inspired by” a real culture)?

    And related, how does the level of obviousness that something is fictionalized affect the question of what is appropriation?

    How does the degree of influence a depiction is likely to have on the overall impression or perception of a culture affect the question of what is appropriation?

    How does the setting (e.g. set in our “reality” or an alternate reality) affect the question of what is appropriation?

    How does the timeline affect the question of what is appropriation (e.g. alternate histories, possible futures)?

    When it comes to character portrayal, how does the level of character affect the question of what is appropriation (e.g. in Shweta’s example above, what if the main character is Indian and merely interacts with a secondary Pakistani character as might be expected in the real world)?

    How does the “message” or theme affect the question of what is appropriation (e.g. depicting a culture as the “bad guys” versus a story meant to enhance appreciation and awareness of that culture, etc.)?

    How does relative cultural dominance/power/authority affect the question of what is appropriation (e.g. the difference between a dominant culture portraying a dominated culture, and the reverse)?

    In short, what conditions must be in place for a depiction of culture to be considered appropriation?

    And the obvious related question is what must a person do in order to make the use or depiction of something from another culture okay, and not appropriation? But I think that question might be for later threads, since this is just supposed to be about defining appropriation.

  48. eriktrips says:

    This is a really interesting discussion, and I’m seeing lots of responses that are making me think really hard about what appropriation might be. As a researcher and cultural theorist who is interested in Almost Everything, I often ask myself when I am and am not in danger of cultural appropriation if I write about what I am studying, and I try to err on the side of caution because as a white guy (even though I am a queer transman, I still ended up in the position of white male intellectual as far as most people are concerned) I think that the excesses of my influences and forebears leave me responsible for some sort of compensation and restraint–to try to balance the books, if that were possible, but also out of simple ethical demand.

    My working definition of cultural appropriation is open to change, but it is something like the following. If I am to write about, create, or even buy objects bearing another culture’s symbols, stories, or artifacts, then I have to ask myself whether I am willing to put in the time and effort to learn about what these things mean to the people for whom they are sacred, life-giving, familial, and/or knowledge itself, and whether I am willing to commit myself to handling the symbols with respect, understanding, and whatever restraint the people to whom they belong might want them to be handled. If so, then that time and effort is due immediately. If not, then I need to leave aside whatever it is that I am considering.

    While it is true that cultures that come into contact with each other invariably influence one another, anytime there is a power differential between them, I think that those on the more powerful side have an ethical responsibility to respect the wishes of those on the less powerful side as to how they want their culture portrayed (or not), handled (or not), approached (or not) and generally whether or not they even want their cultural icons to be exposed or offered for public consumption in the global market at all.

    Those of us who by accident of birth are members of the dominant culture in global capitalism are unfortunately able to get through twelve or more years of education without ever being told that our way is not the universal way, and that the market does not have an inherent right to capture, remake, and sell whatever it wants. One of the reasons why postmodernism is so often critiqued for having no ethics is that bad (in my opinion) readings of it result in white intellectuals who believe that they have the right to go wherever they want, take whatever they want, do whatever they want with what they’ve taken, and sell whatever they’ve made out of what they’ve taken.

    It shouldn’t be this way–theoretically, postmodernism does not accommodate global capital so well and in fact tries to be an intervention against it–but many people who study it miss that part, in part because it is difficult for many to understand why, in a philosophy that is supposed to do away with rigid categories of thought, one then doesn’t have license to run rampant all over everybody’s categories everywhere without due respect.

    I’m getting all theoretical. I didn’t mean to. The short version is that there is an ethical problem being worked out in postmodern thought that deals precisely with how NOT to appropriate, and actually how to do away with the appropriating ego and super-subject of Western culture itself. It doesn’t get enough play, in my opinion, possibly because ethics seems like such a drag when we thought we were free to play with signs however we damned well pleased.

    Practically speaking, though, I think that in order to avoid cultural appropriation, one is bound to LISTEN, above all, to the members of whatever culture one is in contact with and proposing to handle the symbolic and concrete works from. Since we have entered the internet age, this is easier than ever to do, in those cases where members of a culture have developed an online presence of any kind.

    The second thing one must do, in my opinion, is study whatever is available about a culture one is in contact with, but with an extremely critical eye; there is much in western anthropology, for instance, that is complete rubbish due to its profound enlightenment bias, which, among other things, places Euro-derived culture at the top of a development ladder and arranges all others at varying levels underneath.

    Not only that, but in studying, one is going to have to confront the history of whatever contact has already occurred between one’s own culture and the culture one is interested in, and find historical accounts that originate within the culture one proposes to find out about. If one is white, that can be an unpleasant and eye-opening exercise, and it is all the more necessary because of that. Having learned what one can of the history of how one’s culture has interacted with another culture, taking accounts from all sides, then one is in the position of trying to reckon how best to continue to produce that history. What has happened already? Do things need to change? What are you willing to do to change them?

    And there will be times when members of an oppressed culture do not want to be studied at all. If that is the case, I think one has to turn one’s attention elsewhere. Otherwise, whatever work you produce will be wrong: factually, because you will not have gotten the story from its originators, and ethically, because you will have taken it after being asked not to. Western curiosity does not have a right to whatever it wants, even if one believes one is working for the betterment of “human knowledge”–far too often this means “narrative of western supremacy”; even at its least offensive it means “putting your nose in someone else’s business.” There is no Platonic ideal of Knowledge that absolves one of butting in where one is not wanted.

    (Almost done!) When it comes to fiction, I think that it is necessary to proceed very similarly. As has been pointed out, fiction creates realities, and not only in the sense of the fantastic reality in the reader’s mind while s/he reads, but in the sense of real world consequences of being read and then acted upon. There is no such thing as “mere” fiction, any more than one can find instances of “mere” myth. Both create consequential realities of multiple kinds. If a fictional book moves a reader, s/he will act on that inspiration, even if only in small ways. I think it is important to keep that in mind as writers of fiction as well as of nonfiction. If you are read, you will have an influence.

    So, um, yeah. Whatever that is worth.

  49. Deoridhe says:

    One of the places where I identified cultural approrpiation within one of my (few) marginalized identity is the approrpiation of “karma” (and other non-Western concepts, but karma gets the most play) to mean “sin without using the word sin because I’m not Christian” (e.g. ‘oooo! so and so has bad karma now!!!’). The act seems to be about someone objecting to part of their own cultural experience, and so taking something from a foreign culture, reforming it to fit the space left when the thing they objected to was removed, then acting with business is usual. In short, they seem to be saying, ‘Nevermind that karma is tied into concepts of dharma and enlightenment; I need a substitute for sin!’ The issue of riencarnation itself within a Western culture is also an interesting one, but only marginally related to how I see karma used.

    This type of an action also rests on the conviction that one is right and has a right to use foreign cultures to ones’ own ends, which is a type of entitlement which is bolstered by, and well nigh demands, privilege blinders.

    It seems, to me, like there are gulfs of misunderstandings between cultures which can only be bridged by leaving your own culture entirely behind – not necessarily literally but figuratively – in order to relearn the world through a different paradigm. I don’t personally think this is a common thing, but then as someone who likes to think I can do it, I would want to think that as it bolsers my own self-importance.

    And I think there’s also a strong, “oooo, that’s neat” response that is natural to people, which when combined with an assumption that ones’ worldview is universal leads naturally to these insulting and appropriating ends. After all, in one’s culture contains all other cultures without question, one must be right about how one is using a foreign word.

  50. Foxessa says:

    Have any of you watched the HBO series, Generation Kill and / or read the book of same title* on which Simon and Burns based their series (the same team that brought us The Wire)? The book was first published in three parts in Rolling Stone. The author, Evan Wright was embedded with the First Recon Marine Battalion during their spearhead of the Iraq invasion back in March, 2003.

    If you have seen the HBO series based on the book — which depiction fictionalizes to a degree the book, despite Wright consulting and advising and writing, and that some of the marines he rode with play themselves in the series — what do you think of all these white boys 100% infused with ‘black’ expression, physically and verbally? Speech patterns, body gestures, all urban black.

    Surely there are black marines in the First Recon (an elite of the elite), but there aren’t any in the series, other than the chaplain, who nobody likes due to the circumstances that they are trained legal killers and killing is what they are looking forward to doing and religion just now kinda f*cks with their current worldview. But the First Recon is all dawgs anyway.

    So how should we look at this cultural phenomenon?

    I’d love to know what others think since this has me all over the place.

    Love, C.

    *It seems that the First Recon is owed a close reading of the book as well, if we watch the HBO 7 episode series. Another thing about the series, which I understand, but is very jarring, is that it isn’t filmed in Kuwait or even North Africa, as one might assume. You figure out very quickly that it is filmed south Africa — Namibia and Mozambique, because of the architecture of the towns and cities they roll through, the kinds of palms and other vegetation, and most of all — those people who are supposed to be Iraqis, they look like Africans.

  51. Foxessa says:

    Deoridhe — It must be so frustrating to see ‘karma’ so consistently misunderstood and employed incorrectly.

    One of my personally most disturbing mis-uses is the ancient white traditon of the so-called ‘voodoo doll.’

    I keep telling myself that the orishas and loas were so strong and powerful they survived the Middle Passage and have transplanted, syncretized and continued to develop over here, so like Shakespeare, despite being appropriated for margarine commercials, they will survive all this.

    But there’s so much WRONG information and usuage out there! :)

    Love, C.

  52. Avalon's Willow says:

    I saw this last night and went to bed instead (ended up there all day – damnable illness). But I come back tonight and find people actually replying to RANDY instead of telling him that this conversation is NOT theoretical to the people of colour who are hurt and hungry for more like themselves that’s not utter crap.

    He seems voyeuristic to me in his not quite PROVE TO ME that you people have thought this all through down to every last step.

    RANDY, was that your intention? A way to get around being schooled in 101 to try and be schooled in 204?

  53. Maureen says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. I’ve been thinking about it and the problem I see is this…Cultural appropriation has been going on for thousand upon thousands of years. Like the fact that Mazda was a God. How much of our present cultures rest on the bones of dead Gods? Not is it right or is it wrong, but is it possible to control the spread of ideas? I don’t know what to think about cultural appropriation really. In many ways I can see that it is harmful to people, but the conclusions that this group seem to be reaching. Don’t do it, be completely informed, are I think the wrong answers simply because they are unworkable answers. So how can it be forced into a less harmful form? The only thing I can think of is awareness, but there must be more.

  54. 2fs says:

    Regarding Deoridhe’s comment re “karma” (and Foxessa’s followup): It’s interesting to me that this conversation is now coming back to some of the issues that arose during the “dictionary” conversation. The point of comparison is that cultural concepts often get expressed in words, of course…and that the argument then becomes “what’s the proper definition of this word?” or, more pointedly, “whose right is it to define this word?” What the term “karma” might mean in its culture of origin may well differ from the way it’s used in other cultures that have adapted it…because that’s the way words work: they travel, they change, they shift shape. I disagree, btw, with the notion that “karma” is merely a synonym for “sin” used by people who aren’t Christian (whether they’re of another faith or no faith). “Karma” (as used in the West) includes the notion that your wrongs will come back to affect you in this life…whereas the concept of “sin,” in most cases, has no such specification. Sure, the Christians tell us, we will pay for our sins…but not necessarily in this world.

    In other words, I think we have to be careful here not to set up originating cultures as a sort of académie française of concepts, given the right to limit the application and adaptation of any concept. If the way people in the West use the term “karma” is different from the way it was originally use, that’s in the nature of language and culture (generally, plurally). Fact is, plenty of people probably use the word “karma” without even knowing that it’s a word foreign in both origin and culture: it’s just part of their vocabulary.

    I think an associated danger here is once you start granting cultures rights in perpetuity over the use and definition of concepts, of necessity you have to also start defining who counts as belonging to that culture in the first place. We saw this in the limiting and insulting debates over, for instance, “is Obama black?” (the snippy answer to which is, can he catch a cab in Manhattan? If he has trouble…) It’s one thing to point out blatant appropriations and disrespect – that should be done – it’s another to try to wall off cultural change and adaptation and grant perpetual naming rights to a culture you’d have to limit and define first. (And who does that limiting and defining?)

  55. Shweta Narayan says:

    @ 2fs:

    Sort of interesting, I think, and on that topic — I seem to have two different words in my lexicon that are spelled “avatar”. They are pronounced differently. One means an incarnation (f’rex, of Vishnu), the other, pronounced in an Americanized way, means an online icon.

    I know the second comes from the first (via video games is it?), and it’s a lessening and disrespectful-though-not-hostile use, and it used to annoy me a whole lot, but at some point it moved beyond appropriation/mangling into different words in my mind.

    So there’s a question. Am I just weird, or do some forms of appropriation have a best-by date after which they’re more acceptable by virtue of familiarity? Or is that a compromise that simply allows appropriation to keep happening with a “They’ll get used to it” mentality?

  56. Rob Hansen says:

    Shweta Narayan asks whether cultural appropriation has a best-by date, a statutue of limitations beyond which we should perhaps accept it and move on. I wonder.

    I’m an atheist but a fair bit of my dislike of Christianity involves cultural appropriation that happened a long time ago. Even being an atheist you can still find value in the specific cultural forms embodied in a given faith. When I was told about an observant Othodox Jewish atheist by a friend, I immediately understood the concept. I’ve never felt the slightest cultural resonance with Christianity, but when as a child I first learned about the native northern European practices it had appropriated and over-written, I immediately felt something for them. They just seemed more appropriate somehow. It gets dark and cold here in the winter, so the idea of a big festival on the solstice – the shortest day of the year – makes sense. Indeed, the blacksmith I work with still lights a big bonfire on the solstice every year, one that will last through the night, a tradition passed down to him by his father that he’s now passing on to his young son. Scholars seem to agree that Christ would not have been born at that time of year, yet Xmas has been laid down on top of the feast of Yule and appropriated many of its trappings. With Easter, they barely even altered the name of the goddess Eastre, turned her sacred hare into the Easter Bunny, and made the egg a chocolate candy.

    When the Romans slaughtered our religious leaders the Druids on the island Anglesey in 54AD they beheaded an entire culture and knowledge of it was lost. What passes for Druidism now is a modern invention, created from whole cloth and with little connection to the original. So all we’re left with is fragments, yet I still feel more culturally connected to them than I ever have to Christianity. Should I feel resentful about something that was done so long ago? I don’t know – but I do.

  57. Rob Hansen says:

    Oh yeah, I meant to say something about the phrase I’ve seen used above “white European” as if it applied to a particular culture. Really? The phrase obviously means something to the person who used it but to me it’s almost meaningless. I know the European Union would like there to be some sort of European monoculture, but there isn’t. I’m British, but even within that I’m Welsh, not English. I don’t speak it, but we have our own language. In some parts of Wales it’s still their first language. The reason I don’t speak it is in part because of a deliberate process of cultural eradication by the authorities more than a century ago. One of the more ingenious methods they used involved the school system. At the start of the day, the first kid a teacher heard speaking Welsh rather than English would be handed a special stick which he would have to hold onto until he heard another kid speaking it. He would then pass the stick on, and so on. Whichever poor child was holding the stick at the end of the day would then be beaten. Nice.

  58. Foxessa says:

    Rob Hansen speaks of the beheading of his culture by the Romans on Anglesey in 54AD recalls how systematicaly Julius Ceasar did the same in Gaul.

    As Rob surely knows — I’m not in any way attempting to instruct him certainly! — later, Edward II did it again in Wales, with deliberation and system, back in the 13th century in a pattern that was followed remarkably exactly by the Spanish in the New World, as theindigenous culturess were smashed in every way.

    This determined destruction of cultural identity has always been the second great weapon in the arsenal of conquest, and rests on the first arm of conquest, military might. An accompanying cause is gain, as Hitler’s commanders looted Europe’s art treasures for themselves, as the European colonialists not only destroyed Benin City of the long-lived Edo state, but also scrambled to possess the masses of brass and gold and other objects belonging to the Oba, and every other official’s ritual objects — this in 1897.

    With the religious and state officials’ loss of the tools and objects of their positions, and the Brits’ forced scattering of the officials into exile, there was no one to keep the old ways functioning. Very slowly they’ve been regenerated. I think the British Museum returned the Oba’s regalia at least, in 1938. When the Edo monarchy was allowed by the Brits to be restored in curtailed fashion, the first priority fo the invested Oba was to re-create and replace the objects stolen in 1897. At this time the Edo’s cultural and political life is vitally alive and active.

    Invaders loot for all kinds of reasons, and are allowed to do so by their commanders for all kinds of reasons.

    Rape is the third weapon in their arsenal. We are seeing that one in ever increasing use in the last 30 years. Like everything else about war, this makes women and children take the fullest brunt of the consequences of invasion. This is a very effective way to destroy cultural identity and cohesion of every other fuctioning part of a culture and society.

    Love, c.

  59. Shweta Narayan says:

    I clearly spoke unclearly :)

    I was trying to ask whether there might be *cases*, for example the appropriation and change of vocabulary, which is only demeaning//disrespectful/worth getting mad about for a period of time.

    Clearly there *are* examples of appropriation and oppression which upset us hundreds or thousands of years later — my question was intended to assume that and ask whether there are *other* examples that do not.

    We’re dumping them all under one term, but the English use of the word “avatar” (or, hey, “juggernaut”) does not seem comparable to the wholesale Christian appropriation of solstice traditions, to me. So I’m wondering how those cases vary with how much damage they do, whether the original can still exist, how much the appropriated thing matters, etc.

  60. Matt Smit says:

    I have a couple questions about the appropriation of language, specifically, as distinct from the appropriation of customs, symbols, holidays, and other pieces of culture.

    It’s my understanding that in the construction and evolution of language, vocabulary regularly changes by the adoption of new terminology, often in the form of loan words from other cultures. I fully recognize that there is a political and cultural dynamic in the way that this happens, from the way modern English borrows from other language to the way the English language was originally shaped by multiple invasions and occupations of Great Britain. It is not my intention to in any way excuse the damage more powerful and militant cultures have inflicted on others, but when it comes to the shaping of language and the appropriation of words- isn’t that process inevitable? Certainly it can be consciously shaped to more positive ends, but when an idea is found in a foreign culture that cannot be adequately described in one’s own language, to me it seems more likely to promote understanding if that word or concept is shared. Is it possible for language to grow and develop without appropriation, and is the process of linguistic appropriation comparable to that of cultural appropriation, when and if the two can be disentangled?

    I’m not sure of the answers, and I’d appreciate other perspectives. These are meant to be serious questions, not rhetorical ones. I am a white male, and if I’m speaking out of the blindness of privilege, I apologize, and would appreciate being told- I know it’s no one’s responsibility to educate me but my own, but if I am being wrongheaded I’d like to know.

  61. Shweta Narayan says:

    A Matt: I seem to be real good at mis-speaking today, but let me try to answer this. I think the effect of appropriating language is not just caused by language change being inevitable, though it is. Lots of things are inevitable, including the powerful screwing over the weak. But we don’t accept them anyway, because what’s inevitable in the social domain can be changed. If not totally, at least somewhat.

    I think there are situations where linguistic appropriation(?) is as bad as the rest:
    – when whole languages and/or speech communities are threatened
    – when a speech community is… weakened, I guess, to the point where they lose a lot of their vocabulary and have to pick up loan words from a higher-prestige language — well the linguistic process doesn’t bother me so much as the cultural/social/political causes that make it happen. Those can be vile.

    Then, floating somewhere in “I don’t like it but it’s not the worst thing”:
    – when languages borrow new vocabulary items (from English) because of prestige and power dynamics — maybe all the young people think the English word is “cooler”, or they’ve heard nothing else on TV or read nothing else

    So those types of appropriation bother me deeply. Whereas borrowings mostly don’t, or do only for a little while (not making any claims to this being right, just my experience), even when they change pronunciation and meaning in weird ways. I think it’s because unless the nasty things above are happening, languages normally keep pretty tenacious hold of their own vocabulary even when other languages steal them. Words aren’t physical objects. Taking them into one language doesn’t necessarily harm the language they came from, especially when they start being pronounced “foreign”.

    And I guess I just don’t have quite as personal and deep a link to individual words as I do to art…?

    I don’t know. This is mostly thinking out loud.

  62. Matt Smit says:

    Makes sense to me. I’m not feeling terribly articulate myself- when I tried to compose my last post, I was wracking my brain for more specific examples than the ones I used, and the ones you presented really help me find clearer distinctions of degree in my own head. I *definitely* agree that the causes driving the strip-mining of languages and the classist/racist conflict of lower and higher prestige dialects and languages are damaging and… well, I think ‘vile’ sums it up pretty well.

    From my perspective, I think that the communication and exchange of ideas between languages and cultures, and the way they affect vocabulary, *ought* to be a positive thing, or at least have the potential to be a positive thing- but very often it’s part and parcel of cultural warfare, rather than a method of broadening understanding and freshening the way that we perceive the world around us. While it isn’t the same thing, exactly, I’m thinking here about the ways I’ve been able to engage in discussions like this – conversations I could not have had four or five years ago in part because not only my experiences but my vocabulary weren’t sufficient to really grasp the implications of cultural appropriation, institutional racism, and my own privilege.

    Being a linguaphile, it’s tough for me to admit that as much as the usage of language can be part of the solution, it was also be part of the problem. Anyway, I think I’ll stop for the moment before I drift too far off topic. Thank you.

  63. Matt Smit says:

    *can* also be part of the problem, not *was* also be…

  64. Shweta Narayan says:

    Apparently my writing brain doesn’t entirely agree with my analyst brain on this.
    And things that I think are probably fine do not feel so fine when coupled with ignorance.

    It gave me this, today.

  65. Matt Smit says:

    Your writer brain is sharp and incisive. I like the poem.

  66. Adam says:


    As you may know, I have been a regular reader for more than a year and an occassional commenter.

    As I read your post I thought, “Well, here is another conversation I will probably not be able to contribute meaningfully to. ”

    Yet, I have failed to Thank You (and Nora) properly for the many thoughtful posts and ideas you have presented which have only prompted me to read further and better educate myself.

    Doing some further reading on Cultural Appropriation has been no exception.

    Thank You.


  67. badgerbag says:

    I’ve been struck by how people conflate cultural misrepresentation with appropriation. So you get people saying that their appropriation is okay, because they did their research well and didn’t misrepresent. Being accurate or even respectful doesn’t mean you’re not appropriating.

  68. Shweta Narayan says:

    Hm. I certainly have been thinking of misrepresentation as a subtype of appropriation. Is that just wrong?

    …Answering myself: sure it is, because we can misrepresent our own cultures too, and that’s not appropriation to anyone who accepts our in-culture status.

    So then I guess, I was thinking of misrepresentation-by-others as a subtype of appropriation. Is that wrong?

  69. 2fs says:

    Badgerbag: I believe that what appropriation is is exactly what’s under question. So: your last sentence might be correct…but, care to explain?

    I don’t think that every use or adaptation of something from another culture is necessarily “appropriation,” and I think knowledge and accuracy (“[doing] their research well and [not] misrepresent[ing]”) is a big part of it, because “to appropriate” means, more or less, to present as one’s own what is proper to another (“proper” is from the same root as the middle syllables of “appropriate”). So acknowledging that something originates elsewhere, presenting it accurately as such, makes it rather difficult for the act to be “appropriation,” because quite clearly the cultural item is being presented not as one’s own, at least in origin.

    The stickiness of the situation still arises, though, because in order for something to be “properly” belonging to “someone else,” that “elseness” needs to be defined. And cultures are much more malleable, flexible, and fuzzily bounded than that.

  70. Angie says:

    So acknowledging that something originates elsewhere, presenting it accurately as such, makes it rather difficult for the act to be “appropriation,” because quite clearly the cultural item is being presented not as one’s own, at least in origin.

    Wait, this is clicking. So… what if we think of it as “cultural plagiarism,” then? Not necessarily to try to get people to change what they call it, but rather as a way of explaining it.

    So if you “quote” something, or closely paraphrase, you need to acknowledge where it came from somehow. If you take small enough bits and add in a lot of your own material (whether strictly from your culture or from your imagination or whatever) and blend thoroughly, and come up with something which is clearly not trying to represent the other culture(s) the “bits” came from, then that’s not plagiarism (appropriation) but fair use. And if you’re going to quote, you need to quote accurately and not give the wrong impression by word or by context, or people will smack you for being an ignoramus. Or at least point and laugh.

    Does that work at all? Because if it does, I think that sort of explanation could be something writers could work with pretty easily.


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  73. Lilian Nattel says:

    The dilemma for me, as a writer, is when cultural appropriation means writing anything about a culture that isn’t mine by biological heritage. There is that definition of appropriation that says that white people, being privileged, have an easier time getting published, and so writing about Native peoples or African-American(Canadian) peoples or any other culture that is not seen to be similarly privileged is taking advantage of them, because writers of those backgrounds have a harder time getting published. But I would find that very limiting because my own life in reality includes family members and friends and a neighbourhood that consists of a lot more than just my own (uncertain!) biological heritage. So if I’m writing a novel that reflects the life I live and the neighbourhood I live in and the history of the place I live, then it’s going to include a lot more than my own narrowly defined culture. So then what?

  74. Randy Henderson says:

    I think the comparison to plagiarism is a shaky one at best. How could a white author “attribute” or “acknowlede” the depiction of an African American character in their book? “The character Randy Smith is likely based on an unconscious amalgam of aspects of my friends Andre, Reggie, Steven, Robert and my neighbor Eric; My third grade English teacher Mr. Johnson; on Nathan McCall based on his autobiography “Makes Me Wanna Holler”; the following characters from the “Friday” movie trilogy: X and X, the following characters from the movie “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”: X and X, etc. on and on?

    True, in the case of the Native American mask and rituals discussed earlier, you could acknowledge and attribute to the specific source mask and ritual that you based your fictional one on (or that you are depicting accurately within a fictional setting). So it sort of works in some cases. But certainly not all.

    Again, I feel appropriation implies that by depicting or using something from another culture you somehow harm or take away something from that culture.

    So I think attribution and acknowledgement is a good step towards reducing the risks of cultural appropriation, but more important is inclusion of accurate depictions of the source culture that do not unfairly and negatively impact the views of the audience (to the exclusion of alternate views, etc.). Not to say depicting Nazis as negative is cultural appropriation, but to depict an Amazonian tribe that the audience has no real knowledge of or access to exclusively as generic savage cannibals would be, in my mind.

  75. Randy Henderson says:

    Avalon –

    At no point did I say this is theoretical, or crap. I think I stated pretty clearly that exclusion, oppression, inequality, they are all very real and NOT at debate here. This thread is not about that.

    What this thread is trying to do as far as I am aware is to DEFINE cultural appropriation, a term that holds different meanings to different people, and is a very serious and emotionally charged topic. That means asking questions, and to do it justice it means trying to be thorough, and as we propose a definition, to test that definition against a number of scenarios and what ifs in order to see if it truly covers them, etcetera. This is not meant to dismiss the importance or impact of cultural appropriation in real lives – it is taking the topic seriously enough to give it the greatest and deepest level of consideration, to the point of trying not to miss any aspect of it.

    And rather than asking why nobody else told me what you feel personally and making this a thread vs. Randy issue, you can just say, “Randy, I feel you are coming from a voyeuristic approach,” etc. But I hear what you are saying, that you are offended and angry at my approach to the topic.

    I apologize if I made you feel this way. Nor is it my desire for you or anyone on this thread to take on the “burden” of “educating” me. I was only trying to participate and contribute to a very meaningful and important discussion. I don’t want to weigh down Tempest’s blog with a back and forth on this issue, so if you have some specific examples of things that I said that you feel are in any way hurtful, ignorant, etcetera than please do email me at randy.henderson (at) and we can discuss why you interpreted them as such and how I might have phrased things differently.


  76. Randy Henderson says:

    Foxessa, your Generation Kill example is a great one for debate. Obviously there are plenty of white persons in America who, as you put it, are infused with ‘black’ expression, physically and verbally. Offensive or sad, depending on your personal view, but not something exclusive to this show. And we pretty clearly know where they took such attributes from, what inspired it, etc. so attribution is not an issue. The real problem is that the show does this to the EXCLUSION of depicting actual African Americans, which is both hurtful and fails to reflect reality.

    But again, is the crime here “cultural appropriation”, or is it harmful exclusion? Is the audience being given false information about African American culture that is unlikely to be corrected or contradicted by other things they are exposed to? Is African American culture or African American persons being harmed by their depictions? Does the audience perceive this as being a depiction of African American culture, or as a depiction of more white boys trying to act “black”?

    I would call it cultural appropriation, because by depicting these white boys acting “black,” the show is defining “black” culture in a vary narrow way for its audience (the “urban” culture that white boys pick up from MTV, etc.) and reinforcing stereotypes, without including actual African Americans and depicting a wider and accurate view of the culture in contrast. It is harmful both culturally, and hurtful on a personal level. It is trying to take ownership (within its universe) of how “black” culture is defined — appropriation.

    Have you seen The Unit by comparison?


  77. Foxessa says:

    The marines, as we all know, is filled with many African American men. This particular battalion of the marines, the elite First Recon, does not have women in it. Not at all . Nor is this fiction. This is from the book written by the reporter embedded with the First Recon, who rode with a very particular team that did not include any African Americans. Wright could only report on and write about what he saw. In war and battle conditions, at the best of times, with the best of intelligence, it’s difficult to know certainly what is happening or to see the Big Picture. As Wright in his book, and the HBO series adapted from his journalism, make clear — it’s a continuing theme — because chaos rules war and battle, and because of the atmopherics and weather patterns of the desert and the Middle East, even with the very best of contemporary communication networks and intelligence devices, you can’t see sh*t.

    So your approach here isn’t useful for the discussion. This isn’t fiction. It’s what he saw. The one African American who has a role in that very limited view from an undefended humvee was the chaplain, that most of the marines would prefered would leave them alone. Evidently in a fox hole (they dig versions of fox holes constantly — like shallow graves) there are no men of faith in the First Recon.)

    The question is why these military guys, who repeat over and over that they are killers, legal killers — as in Jarhead, also both a book written this time by a marine, and movie — what does it mean that these men have taken over entirely as their personal expression vocabulary, rhetoric and physical expression that is out of the ‘Urban” demographic, why they model themselves on a culture created in rap?

    Love, c.

    The quest

  78. Angie says:

    I wasn’t thinking of specific characters so much as pieces of the culture itself. Nor was I thinking of an actual bibliography type of acknowledgement, although that’s a good point, and a list of sources consulted would be interesting, whether in the book itself or on the writer’s web site.

    Rather, I was thinking about context. Cultural plagiarism would be something like lifting the Sun Dance and giving it to the characters in my made-up fantasy culture, completely out of its proper context . Extra points lost of my fantasy characters are white. More points lost if I actually call it the “Sun Dance” while describing what it is and what it means incorrectly.

    Correctly quoting, as it were, would be writing a story about a Lakota character who witnesses or participates in a Sun Dance ritual, and doing enough research to get the details and significance correct.

    Legitimate adaptation would be more like, learning about the Sun Dance and its ritual significance, and thinking, “All right, here are people who voluntarily undergo a ritual which causes them great pain, and leaves a lasting mark on their bodies, for a religious purpose.” I could take that idea and make up something which fits the idea, but the details of which are completely different. Maybe once a year, before planting, an agrarian people have a ritual where some number of volunteers have the backs of their arms pierced with rings, and ropes tied to the rings, leading back to a harness around a huge clay (stone? iron?) pot filled to the brim with water. They start at dawn, hauling the pot, with their goal somewhere in the distance, maybe over rough ground or ground with some rough patches. The idea is to pull the pot that distance. However far they get before sunset indicates how good a harvest they’ll have.

    They’d obviously need a good crowd of pullers. Being unable to get enough people to do it would have dire significance. As they pull, some of the participants will have rings torn out of their arms; if both arms go, they can’t pull anymore, and that contributes to how far the group gets before sunset. Having to decide to pull around or over a rough patch is part of the ritual, and deciding one or the other, or being unable to decide, would all mean something.

    You could either go scientific, and say that the holy men or women who prepare the pullers have some sort of herbal concoction they give them to help them into the proper trance state to be able to ignore the pain and pull well (and maybe the herbs which go into the drink grow differently depending on the weather patterns, so weaker herbs _will_ mean poor rain and a bad harvest), or you can have the gods or spirits give or withold strength from the pullers, either as a group or individually.

    That’d be loosely inspired by the Sun Dance, but clearly not intending to depict the Sun Dance, and no one would read a scene based on my invention there and think, “Oh, so that’s how the Indians do it.”

    Sorry for going on so long, but hopefully that’s a decent example, just off the top of my head. Maybe the whole “cultural plagiarism” thing only makes sense to me because I’m a writer, but I hope what I’m thinking translates well enough.


  79. C.E. Amesley says:

    Fascinating discussion. This has always been a major issue for me, since I grew up in Hawaii in a multiracial family. It became needful to talk about it with mostly white people, in a church I went to (Unitarian) where there were spirituality enthusiasts who thought honoring all religions meant picking out the pretty parts to use as personal symbols.

    Listening to all of you, I’m thinking of an heuristic which has been useful to me. Simply, self report. If more than one person from another culture reports themselves as feeling affronted or hurt because their culture is being used out of context, even if they can’t explain why, I believe them.

    Culture is like language, only deeper. Native speakers recognize when a noun is out of place, even if they don’t “know” the rules in an articulable way. There is tacit knowing, and we’ve got to trust our informants if we don’t have it. So I shut up, and listen, and then do my theorist’ job of trying to figure out what the tacit rules are.

    If one is an artist, one can then deliberately decide to offend/comment on/steal just as artists make such decisions within their own culture. But they should be aware of what they’re doing, and what the consequences are likely to be — and other people not giving an opinion is simply unrealistic. (Me, for example.Given the opportunity, I try to interrupt racism, or at the very least interrogate it … forcefully.)

    The second idea relates to myself being raised in an emerging culture. Hawaii, when I was growing up, was an integration of several cultures, which meant I understood my home more than I understood my parents. It took me awhile to learn how to be a “speaker of Mainland culture as a second language” and adjust. So I believe it’s not unreasonable to acknowledge interest, and ask to be corrected if I’m offensive, in an egalitarian “people of this place don’t use their middle fingers to point” way. All the isms complicate our lives, but the power relationships which lead to cultures becoming one thing or another or completely new, can’t force us to be deaf if we choose not to be.

    Sorry if this post is dense. It’s hard to summarize a point of view which now seems natural and stay brief.

  80. Randy Henderson says:

    Foxessa — sorry, I misunderstood that it was factual.

    If we were to look at it as fiction, I hope my thoughts still contribute to the larger discussion of what is cultural appropriation where fiction is concerned.

    But as it isn’t fiction, as you say, the issue is very different. Is it clear whether the actual white marines that Wright observed spoke and acted this way? Or was it added for the show?

    If that aspect is real, then as you say it is a larger social question about what it means that all the members of this unit spoke this way, acted this way. Did they do so before joining the military and coming to describe themselves as killers? What in their upbringing and experiences led them to speak and act this way, and what does that say about their view or motives for doing so? What in their minds does it mean to act that way? Is it meant to be defining of their “generation,” or their attitude, or their musical tastes? Is there a relationship in their minds between that and their self-image as killers, and if so what does that say? In general, Wright’s specific example aside, why do white persons adopt “urban” speech and mannerisms, is it a good or bad thing or contextual, what does it mean to them, what does it mean to the culture that they believe they are emulating?

    I feel very unqualified to even hazard a guess to the answers for such questions, but I really do want to understand the answers, and I do think it is important to understand to ensure that writers of both fiction and non-fiction put the proper thought and consideration into depictions of non-black characters who might use “urban” cultural speech and mannerisms.

    If the “black” culture was added to the characters for the show, and not reflective of the reality Wright observed, then that is a different question. That is a question of appropriation by the media, and in a way still a question of fictionalizing real events in a way that can be hurtful to a culture.

    Perhaps it was done as a marketing decision by some white marketing exec in an LA skyscraper somewhere who wanted to target a male youth demographic with the show and seemed to think that having the characters speak in hip “urban” slang would do so. Maybe they did polls and test audiences and came to that decision. Sadly, the subtle and insulting stereotyping/ associations being built between that style of speech and mannerisms, and the self-identification as gun-wielding killers, were probably not even considered — which obviously does not excuse it. Or worse, perhaps it was considered, and in some screwed up exec’s perspective they deliberately wanted it included because they thought it would appeal to all those youth out there who, in their mind, idolize gun-wielding “gangstas”.

    And either way, we can take this real world example and still be reminded of the need in fiction (and even non-fictional depictions) to consider the question of, all things being equal, do you need to portray a character from one culture as exhibiting attributes of another culture — what does it add to the character, is it critical to the story you are telling, is it hurtful or insulting to the depicted culture, is it being done to the exclusion of persons of that culture, is it being done in an accurate and respectful manner.

    As usual, I raised more questions than answers. :) Sorry. I do want to reiterate that in discussing fictional depictions or attempting to further the discussion by asking what I see as important side questions as they come to me, I am in no way trying to separate or distance this discussion from the fact that this is a very real issue with real hurtful and harmful impacts on real people. There is no question that appropriation happens both in real world choices and interactions, and in the way cultures are depicted in fiction, and both forms need to be defined and addressed.


  81. Randy Henderson says:

    Lilian —

    My own unqualified but hopefully correct opinion is that you don’t need to exclude every culture/ race/ ethnicity except your own from your writing. I think that simply depicting PoC in your fiction would not be appropriation, but rather depicting them in a way that is hurtful or harmful would be.

    In fact, the lack of reality in the media, both in terms of representative inclusion and fair and accurate depictions, is the larger problem. This is the problem where every major character on a show or in a book is white (except perhaps for the “token black character”, etc.). And where PoC are depicted, the character or their actions are stereotyped, or disproportionately negative (the sole black character is the thief or killer or violent troublemaker, etc.), and/or culturally insensitive (e.g. the “strong buck” character enamored of the white woman).

    So your depicting PoC in your story is potentially a good thing, as long as the depiction is not a negative stereotype, and you are conscious of the way your depiction of this character will shape the audience’s cumulative view and beliefs about that culture, etc..

    Now comes the more controversial part, I think. What I personally think this means is that if the only black person in your real neighborhood that you want to write about unfortunately falls into a stereotype of some kind, it might be best to change that character for your fiction, or balance that by adding an additional, more prominent black character that counters the stereotype, etc.

    In short, fiction should ideally simply match the reality of diversity in our world, but until the already accumulated negative stereotypes, beliefs, and exclusions of decades of hurtful practices are addressed by an equal level of positive depictions, and until the current inequalities and negatives become a thing of the past, additional caution and consideration should be taken on your part not only to avoid exclusions and negative depictions, but also to deliberately include and positively portray PoC characters wherever it works for your story, setting, etcetera.

    At least, that’s my understanding until someone tells me otherwise,


  82. Randy Henderson says:

    PS – before someone nitpicks it, when I said “deliberately include and positively portray PoC characters”, I did not mean that as “inclusion” of PoC in a “default white” world as an exception or gracious extra step, etcetera and so forth. Again, fiction should simply reflect reality, which is that every society has cultural diversity within it.

    But because of discussions that make authors question whether it is appropriate or not to depict other cultures in fiction, and given that much of current fiction has “traditions” that include predominately white characters (and especially white heroes), right or wrong it does need to be put out there as an imperative to some writers to consciously challenge their first impulse to write the same as what they’ve read (predominately white casts) and/or to not fear the challenge of writing another culture, and to depict PoC in their fiction. For them, it is a matter of conscious inclusion, at least until they break bad habits and traditions and modes of thinking and it becomes natural to depict diversity.

  83. Katie says:

    Randy –

    Just wanted to point out you’re taking up a lot of space.

  84. Randy Henderson says:

    Katie — Point taken :) Hopefully, despite my verbosity, I’ve made some positive contributions to the discussion, but I suppose that assumes people want to hear what I think, which I am increasingly under the impression is not the case ;)

    I will henceforth withdraw from this discussion and merely observe. I think I’ve said about all I could reasonably say on the topic anyway, and quite possibly far more than I am qualified to in some opinions.

    Thanks all, and look forward to the next topic,


  85. Katherine Keller says:

    The difficulty in trying to define Cultural Appropriation is in a useful sort of way is that some ways, the answer is very much like that old joke about defining what’s Pornography — “I know it when I see it.”

    And then there’s that old joke about what’s the difference between Pornography and Erotica? Lighting.

    Yeah, it’s very easy to point to a “Plastic Shaman” or a “Plastic Paddy”*, but not everything is always so clear cut and this is where the problems of who “owns” a Cultural Item and what is “respect” come in.

    A year ago a car passed me on the street. I saw a Rosary hanging from the undercarriage in such a way that it had clearly been mounted there. Sacrilage and tacky misuse of a tool used by devout Catholics for meditation and spiritual insight? Sacrament and respectful use from practitioners of a different religious tradition which incorporated (appropriated?) the Rosary into its practices? Deliberate sacrilage by former Catholics/militant Protestants as an act of “screw you”?

    I can tell you which side of the issue my Father and my Madrastra, who get up at 2am for their perpetual adoration hours would come down on. And who is anyone to say they’re wrong in feeling upset and affronted? But, assuming that the Rosary had been hung there as part of a holy rite or as an act of free speech? Who is anyone to say to the drivers of that car “No, you’re disrespecting the Rosary and what it means, stop now.”

    Or to pose it another way, I can say that Cultural Appropriation is the thoughtless and inappropriate use of elements of Culture/Tradition A by someone from Culture/Tradition B, who has treated Culture/Tradition A as if it were a smorgasbord from which to pick and choose. And yes, that’s a tacky (and even corrosive) thing to do.

    But *who* gets to determine what is thoughtless and inappropriate and appropriative, and how, and when, and why?
    (And if you think you instantly know the answer to that one, *please* reread my story about the Rosary.)

    This is a very complicated issue, Angry Black Woman. This is going to be a long and difficult conversation, but its one we need to have, and I thank you for having the brass ovaries to host it.

    * But keep in mind before you assume “Plastic Paddy” that that Black/Hispanic/Hapa person, decked in green and sporting the shamrocks on St. Patrick’s day might also be an Irish-American, too.

  86. NancyP says:

    Foxessa, thanks for info on Frank Yerby. I will keep him in mind the next time I crave a swashbuckling tale.

    I think that misunderstanding and rudeness are potential in any interaction between people with different cultures. I’d suggest submitting the outline of / draft of the work in question to a reader from the culture from which ideas / styles / words / customs are taken and adapted. This may not be possible in all cases, and in any case the comments will reflect a single, possibly idiosyncratic, opinion of a member of the culture (or descendant of the culture). One would hope to catch the egregious stereotypes, incorrect usages, breaches of polite custom – avoid alienating most readers of the culture and misleading most readers not of the culture – but of course someone is bound to be offended, particularly when it comes to religion.

    I have to admit that I am not offended by fictional portrayals of religious themes that do not follow the orthodoxy. Some are rude and unoriginal – my attitude is that one cannot escape trash in this life, and the Deity can take care of Zieself. Some portrayals are thoughtful, and even though I might disagree, I am not about to take offense as long as I have been given a different way to look at the topic. \

    I’d like to believe that the reader can detect the poorly conceived rip-off, but experience shows that a percentage of readers are dim.

    As for cultural appropriation re: art, graphics, clothing, craft work – I am plenty guilty, but I figure that as long as religion is not mocked and the user does not give the impression that they are trying to BE a member of that culture, it’s probably OK. Dreads on white person – stupid. Kente cloth trim on vestments used by both black and white preachers at a church – fine. I might add that many artifacts are adapted by artisans of the culture for sale in a different culture – Chinese export porcelain being an early example. I visit museums*, too, and I read.

    *(Yes, I am aware of the ethical issues surrounding provenance of artwork – on the other hand, I think that it is a service to humanity if examples of cultures’ and artists’ handiwork can be distributed to museums around the world so that no single disaster could wipe out all artifacts. I would not want to see a repeat of what the US made possible and some Iraqis accomplished in looting the museums and destroying many fragile items. )

  87. J. Andrews says:

    I’m wondering at the difference between conscious appropriation, unconscious appropriation, and subconscious appropriation.

    The first being when you read about a custom that sounds really cool and think it would fit in the world you’ve created, so you port it into your work.

    The second, unconscious, when you use something from another culture without having any clue that you’re doing it. Using a word or other cultural item that you don’t know the origin of and haven’t bothered to track down, probably because you didn’t even think to.

    And the third, subconscious, where part of your brain was appropriating things when you weren’t looking. Maybe you spot it later on a reread, or maybe you’ve got such blinders on for it that someone has to point it out to you. But when they do, it’s pretty obvious to you, and you’re left wondering what part of you conjured _that_ up.

  88. Shveta says:

    To Katherine:

    It’s been suggested that the rosary is an appropriation of the Hindu japa mala. I’ll leave that to the historians, but it makes for an interesting discussion; how much do we assume is “ours” but actually came from somewhere else? :)

  89. Tablesaw says:

    There are so many different kinds of cultural appropriation, it shifts to the context. But that means that people in a discussion can sometimes shift the definition to dodge responsibility. But since the purpose of this project seems to be, initially at least, to incorporate all of these different senses, I’m just going to throw out everything I can think of.

    There’s the kind of appropriation I think of as “classic” cultural appropriation: when a people go somewhere and hauls away physical artifacts of a culture because they can, because they’re scientists, because they’re more civilized, because the members of the culture aren’t able to appreciate it. That’s how the last remaining books of the Maya are branded with the names of the European cities they were sold to.

    Then there’s the related situation where knowledge or information is taken wholesale out of a culture. Corporations learn from healers then place patents on the molecules so that only they can profit. Cultural scientists take photographs where they are disallowed (controlling one’s own image is superstitious when an unknown culture does it, but noble and warranted when a “civilized” libertarian does it), or recording rituals and art that are private.

    There’s cultural appropriation in supplanting representation. This may happen by being the first to present a culture or a cultural aspect to the dominant culture. Sometimes it’s simply a function of being a person that is listened to among a field of people who are not. A university-educated white male is listened to more closely and given more credence than a person who is not. Speaking about a subject may make a person . This is often something that happens when fashion is appropriated, when a “personal” style choice is given more attention because of the body it is on, compared to the culture it is taken from.

    There’s cultural appropriation by double standard, where an aspect of a culture is seen as positive when displayed by the dominant culture, but negative when seen in the oppressed culture. It’s when George W. Bush is called worldly and diplomatic when he speaks a smattering of awkward Spanish, but Latinos across the same country are persecuted for speaking the language fluently.

    And finally there’s a form of passive cultural appropriation that seems to be the focus of many discussions on the subject among writers (and readers). Dominant white, male, heteronormative, cisgendered, etceteraed, American culture is so aggressive and virulent in its appropriation that . . It’s tempting to use that fact to divert responsibility, but unwittingly buying stolen goods does not suddenly wipe the slate clean. And passing those goods on again, unknowing of their true provenance, both obscures their true history and dilutes the personal responsibility for the crime. “How can I be responsible when everyone has done and is doing it? My culpability is infinitesimal, so what responsibility do I have for making restitution?” This last is what I think of when I hear Yoon-Ha Lee’s description of exoticizaton of the Other as writing “that uses the outer trappings of other cultures (and their mythoi) as a shortcut for thinking across the cultural divide.”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories white people tell white people, or that white people tell audiences constructed to be white (that is, an audience that is presumed to be white by default, or which is assumed to be “universal” precisely because it is aimed at the “nonexistent” white culture). This applies to other dominant cultures too. Simply put, stories change when they are passed among the dominant culture, and what results after being passed around bears only a passing resemblance to the reality of the cultures being oppressed.

    The issue of cultural appropriation arose during discussions of Prop 8, when white people were confused to have their usage of the African-American Civil Rights Movement called appropriation. I think the issue was that the narrative of that movement exists in white America in a way that bears little resemblance to the experiences of the people who were took part in it. It’s the narrative of an apathetic nation roused from the sofa by select words of inspiration and select images of cruelty. It is not the story of people working, fighting, dying, all too often unseen, propelled by centuries of history. It’s a story that was appropriated by degrees as it was told among white America until it became a story about white America.

    When white people tell each other stories, things get weird.

    I tried for organization when I started, but this turned into more of a braindump. Hopefully I didn’t miss anything I meant to say.

  90. Nott says:

    Can someone simply tell me what ‘cultural appropriation’ is? I’m really confused. : /

    And also, thsoe DNA genetics/test things CANNOT be accurate. They only track through the mother if you’re a girl…so it’d be like pretending I’m all white. Ridiculous!

  91. Foxessa says:

    Randy, your questions have no application to either the book or the series, or how it was made. You’ll see that once you read and / or, watch — or preferably do both in tandem or in sequence.

    Love, C.

  92. NancyP says:

    Mitochondrial sequences are inherited only from the mother, and are present in all offspring, male and female.
    Certain Y chromosome sequences (outside the “pseudoautosomal region”, which is capable of recombination with the X chromosome) are inherited by males only from the father.
    Both mitochondrial and Y chromosome-only sequences have slow rates of mutation and are protected from sexual recombination, so communities with relatively little out-of-community breeding tend to share nearly identical or identical sequences. These can be used to track population movements from specific regions to other regions: eg, Icelandic people with old pedigrees from Iceland have mostly “Norwegian-like” Y sequences and mostly “Irish-like” mitochondrial sequences, since the island was settled in circa 800 by (often exiled or criminal) Viking men who captured Irish women for slaves and concubines/wives.

    Autosomal (non-sex chromosome, non-mitochondrial) DNA markers can also be used to track likely descent. Many tiny DNA variations occur at different known rates in different populations, so by testing a large number of DNA sites, one can get an estimate of degree of conformity to a “most common” North American Caucasian non-Hispanic, or Japanese, or coastal West African genotype.

    As for appropriation of artifacts, there are two sides to the story. Europeans and Americans may have wanted art and artifacts, but locals were only too happy to go tomb-raiding for profit. Given relative rates of development, *if items were dug up*, it was probably better for Western universities to excavate, rather than local not-always-careful traders, and better to conserve items in Western museums with some attention to climate control etc, rather than to have items squirreled away in poor storage/display conditions by private owners or by local organizations that didn’t get some Western money and technical assistance from conservators. Currently, all countries have native-born individuals interested in archaeology, conservation, curatorship and museums, etc, and conditions in countries at peace are reasonably good for repatriation of artifacts (supplemented by a Western subsidy for their display and care). Many countries have laws against export of important national antiquities, or against import of such antiquities from the country of creation. More countries are standing up in international courts and demanding return of important artworks, and more Western museums are returning items voluntarily.

    I am not talking about bones or mummies, but about handiwork. I think that significantly moving body parts is Just Not On. (Yes, ancient bones get turned up during road construction or whatever, and “can’t” be kept in place. Fine, move them to a nearby burial location. That may be my prejudice that intentionally paving over bones is worse than moving them. I am also not a Catholic into the traditional practice of relic veneration.)

  93. NancyP says:

    P.S. Obviously it would have been best in most instances to avoid disturbing sites or objects until the country of origin was ready to do so with an eye to preservation for the edification and pride of its own people. Exceptions would be in cases where the sites/objects were directly threatened, and the country had no ability or interest in preservation.

  94. Duncan says:

    Katherine Keller, when you mentioned the old joke about pornography, my first thought was the one about how “erotica” is what turns me on, and “pornography” is what turns you on. Which might also be relevant to this topic.

    I’ve often heard, for example, that Christianity appropriated pagan elements after Constantine. But from what I can tell, it could be the other way around: the Romans appropriated Christianity for Roman culture. Christians appropriated Judaism, yes, but it’s virtually a cliche that the Tanakh borrowed stories, such as the Flood, and other elements from other non-Yahwist traditions. Hebrew religion shares numerous practices with other cultures: circumcision, certain food prohibitions, the sacrificial cult, and so on. Were these appropriated, in one direction or another? It’s probably impossible to say now.

    People have been talking about Japan, but long before the West moved in, Japan had appropriated / borrowed many aspects of Chinese culture. And Japanese culture sits on the bones of ‘indigenous’ people who’d arrived on those islands earlier. Ditto for Korea.

    A couple of years ago I saw a thread on another blog in which some people were furious about American appropriation of images of Japanese women in kimonos in the 1920s and 1930s, which was condemned as ‘colonialism’ and cultural imperialism. In those days, however, Japan was a colonialist, imperialist nation like unto the US itself. Is it appropriation for one empire to borrow from another — as the US has from England, and vice versa? Were the Beatles cultural appropriation of American pop? Were the Byrds cultural appropriation of English appropriation of American pop? Is Mexican dance music music an appropriation of the polka?

    Now, I’m an atheist, but I was baptised Catholic as an infant (I didn’t know about the baptism until I was in my 40s, but I did know that my mother’s family was Catholic). I had no religious upbringing, but I was a voracious reader from an early age. In my late 20s I wrote a series of poems on biblical subjects. I think they were not ‘disrespectful,’ though I try to show religion as much respect as most religions show to atheism. (Read the Bible, those of you who call for respecting all religions, and you’ll see that DISrespect for competing religions is a traditional feature of religion. I say ‘religion’ because of the sometimes very bloody conflicts that have arisen between religions in East Asia and elsewhere over the centuries.) In any case, I figure that as an American and a product of ‘Western’ culture, the Christian Bible (which includes the Tanakh) and Christian history are part of my heritage and I can do with them artistically as I see fit. As are European literature and other arts.

    Some Christians have been insulted by my use of Christian themes, characters, and stories; others certainly have not been. I’ll agree with whoever said that if someone says that he or she is insulted or offended by my art, he or she is telling the truth — yes, they do feel insulted or offended. But one right guaranteed by the First Amendment is the right to be offended.

    There is a problem with power imbalances, I agree. Others have dealt well with those issues here, so I’ll shut about them for now.

  95. Shweta Narayan says:

    Is it possible to say or make anything real *without* pissing someone off by making them feel you’ve misused/misrepresented something dear to them?

    Which makes me wonder if the big issue is when there’s a big power dynamic, such that the person being pissed off is not in a position to make their voice heard, either because they mustn’t talk back, or because they haven’t the means to be heard when they do, or because they may be heard but will be dismissed, or because even if they are heard, the overall culture will privilege the first person’s take over theirs anyway.

    And if the big disagreements come about when different people disagree about how much voice that second person gets, whether because of invisible privilege or different focus/experience or… whatever else it might be.

    I realize none of this is new; it’s just my newest attempt at synthesis of what’s been discussed, and may well be totally off as well as totally not new. And doesn’t define cultural appropriation, either. Just trying to figure out what may offend.

  96. Tom says:

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned one of the most obvious and pernicious instances of Cultural Appropriation in America today, the continued use of Native American names, symbols and mascots by sports teams. A thorough discussion can be found here: .

    I would also suggest that not all Cultural Appropriation is created equal. Protests might be a good way to discern the attitudes of the cultural groups that are potentially being impacted by appropriation. For example, I can’t find much vocal opposition from Hindus to the practicing of yoga by Westerners. I can find, however, lots of protest against sacred symbols and the names of Hindu gods appearing on underwear. While the Hindu sensitivity doesn’t appear extreme despite what some would have us believe there is clearly a line that defines the unacceptable. I suspect all people more or less have these lines of acceptability and fiction writers planning to depict different cultures would do well to find and observe them.

    Some of the largest protests over appropriation seem to involve religious symbolism, which is not always culturally distinct. For example, the rosary is a symbol of Roman Catholics comprising such diverse groups as Bolivians, French, Italians, Irish, Polish, Filipinos, Congolese, East Timorians, etc. So exactly which of these cultural groups is being insulted by rosaries hung under a car? The answer is none of them since the intended object of such
    “message” is clearly the Catholic church itself. Perhaps a new term is needed: Religious Appropriation? Those recent cartoons making social commentary about Islamic jihad by depicting Muhammad or Allah as terrorists would fall into the same category. Arabs, Armenians, Turks, Persians, Pakistanis and Indonesians were equally pissed off by such appropriation.

    But getting back to Cultural Appropriation, most instances in the U.S. seem to involve the commercialization or co-opting of African American culture by whites. A good summary in the film genre is provided here: . Perhaps the second and third runner up is the stereotypical treatment afforded to Asian and Arab cultures in the popular media.

    In any case, I would propose the following aspect be included in the working definition of Cultural Appropriation: when the use of cultural symbols or traditions that are not one’s own offends, stereotypes, objectifies or otherwise causes the loss or distortion of someone else’s cultural identify.

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  99. Zahra says:

    Thanks to ABW for hosting this discussion and many of those who have contributed to it (especially Foxessa for convincing me to track down Frank Yerby and the person who made me reconsider my use of the word “karma”).

    I want to get back to Debbie’s story about the mask. I’m not much of an abstract thinker, and tend to work better with concrete examples. And the story Debbie sketched really pings my problem radar.

    I’m trying to articulate why. Honestly, I think it’s because it reminds me of that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode with the Nigerian mask that raises zombies, and then that even worse one about the Native American spirit monster– both of which struck me (a white woman with plenty of her own blinders) as very racist when I saw them. They seemed part of a larger pattern, on that show and in the horror genre generally, where pieces of other cultures get lifted into stories that are primarily about white heroism, white guilt, etc. The culture, like the mask itself, is a prop, and the people who created it are absent, or misrepresented.

    I think what I’m stumbling toward is a sense that context matters, and that your context is the genre horror, which is a genre that has overwhelmingly been dominated by white voices. More relevant to the point, it’s a genre in which native voices have not had a significant and shaping influence. I think that increases the chance that your appropriation will causing harm.

    I’m wondering: is the story primarily about white people, or are people specific to the actual culture the mask came from integral to the story? (And not in the wise-old-Indian-who-warned-you-not-to-do-this or magical-Negro-who-saves-the-whiteys-out-of-the-goodness-of-his-poor-simple-heart ways.) It seems to me to make a difference if the mask’s powers are activated by a conflict _within_ the culture, and all your protagonists are native, than if the prime movers of the story are white with some bit native characters thrown in.

    But I’m not sure about this (it may just be how my mind fills in the “with respect” part), and I can see others still finding this deeply appropriative, since you’re effectively telling a native story for those people.

    It sounded from your summary as if you were interested in a “don’t mess with other people’s culture” moral, which is primarily directed at a white audience. I’ve seen this before, and I think it’s tricky. First, it means you are in some sense using a native cultural artefact to tell a story about white people for the benefit of white people–even if you’re trying to criticize white appropriation through your white appropriation, if you follow me.

    Second, you have to bear in mind what your metaphor means at every stage of the story, especially its resolution, which I think is often where these stories go wrong. Because at the end the monster has to be vanquished, or some other resolution effected, and what does that do to your metaphor?

    That it’s bad to disrespect native culture but if you do (which we all know that our culture, if we’re white, has done), it can all be made OK if you call in an expert with a big enough gun who bludgeons the monstrous, scary representative of that culture to death? I mean, what does that say about ongoing relationships between white people with the people whose culture has been looted? And do those people get a say in the end of the story, or do they just have to react to what the white people do?

    I think it’s hard to end stories like this in ways that aren’t insulting, because of the metaphorical resonance, and because I don’t think we have a good resolution to the aftermath of the native genocide in the US & we’re unlikely to come up with one in stories where white people talk to white people. (If the answer is to separate the mask from its wearer, are you avocating segregation of communities, and what does that say about the reservation system in the US today?) I think too often the moral turns out to be “oh, we white people need to get over our guilt over that whole genocide thing and bash through our obstacles!” (see Buffy) and, frankly, that just makes me cringe. And shudder.

    I can imagine a story in which you have a native PI/ detective who’s trying to solve the mask murders, and has some cultural knowledge or contacts of value in doing so (as in, knows who to go to for information and how to piece it together), but who encounters discrimination and has to use a white character as a front or a blind when dealing with the authorities, and maybe that goes wrong…I could see potential there not just for conflict but for more than one complex and 3D native character.

    But isn’t this still cultural appropriation, especially when native culture is presented as something evil, murderous, and a threat? Isn’t the real horror in white-native relations what white people have done and are still doing to native communities? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to reverse the story, and have a group of native people dealing with a white cultural object/monster/person that spreads disease and death? And how would you end that story?

    I’m still mulling this over, but I’m grateful to this space for giving me a place to think about it.

  100. alumiere says:

    let me start out by saying that in many ways i’m writing from a position of priviledge in that i’m “white”, i went to private schools and college/grad school, and that the mythology of my people was taught in schools (no idea if it still is) in some version

    i’m a first time commenter here, but i’ve been reading for a while now… and while part of me is unsure whether this is an appropriate place for these questions, i also think they’re relevant to the discussion, so here goes

    how is someone whos culture (greek) has been appropriated for so long and whos mythology is now so bastardized as to be almost unrecognizable in many of its current forms supposed to address this issue?

    i was raised in a household (mainly by first generation immigrants – my grandmother, great grandmother, and great uncles all came through ellis island in the 40s) that treated greek mythology with the same respect that christian mytholgy gets from the vast majority of americans

    yet when i got to school and we studied greek history and myths it was a heavily censored version mixed up with the roman retelling of those myths… and my questioning of that version was considered wrong (and i failed a few papers and exams as a result)

    and then when i was a teenager i was lucky enough to travel to greece with my grandmother and see many of the places talked about in those myths – only they’d been torn apart, with large pieces of the temples shipped to museums elsewhere and those that were left in place were often the pieces deemed “inferior”

    i was also priviledged in that my grandmother had made enough of her life in the states that she could afford to take me not only to athens, but on a cruise to the islands where i was able to meet some of my relatives and get another perspective on what i still see as a mistreatment of my history

    but as my cousins pointed out, our history and mythology had been re-told by so many people over so many years that we were lucky to still see the vestiges of it in things like shakespeare’s plays and the olympics, even if they were only distorted reflections

    i guess the questions i’m trying to ask are: do the questions of cultural appropriation become irrelevant at some point? does the fact that my history has been co-opted so often and by so many mean that i should no longer be angry about it? does the fact that the sites and ceremonies of my mythos are still revered in some way make it acceptable that for instance the british museum refuses to return the friezes from the parthenon?

    i suspect that other groups have these same questions and i’m really curious how other people perceive these issues and their relevance in today’s world…

  101. alumiere says:

    and to add – i should have said this from the start – thank you for posting this and opening up the discussion but even more-so, thank you for writing about the subjects you do in general

    it raises a lot of interesting questions, and both today and in past posts has given me a lot to think about

  102. Tom says:


    I’m not sure it makes a difference what the plot is about. In any case, the script is already finished! It either offends/ insults the typical member of this particular Pacific Northwest tribe or it doesn’t. Not appropriate for me, you or Debbie to decide that. If Debbie is concerned about cultural appropriation, she should consult the tribe in some reasonably adequate way (not just one member).

    Native Americans aren’t some super-sensitive babies or ultra-private hermits who have to be handled with kid gloves. They are people like everybody else and coddling would insult them as much as it would you.

    You’re dangerously close to wallowing in white liberal guilt (see ) by projecting “very racist” overtones to Buffy the Vampire Slayer stage props or making comments like “it’s a genre in which native voices have not had a significant and shaping influence”.

    I doubt Debbie is using the mask as a prop, it is the central piece of her story. Otherwise she could just change it to something like an amulet and not have to “pull” the script.

    Native voices in the horror genre is trite — I would humbly suggest we start out with concern about native voices in ANY genre.

    Sorry to single you out as the above could be said about plenty of other comments in this thread.

  103. Frank says:

    “…rich white kids from the suburbs listening to rap and dressing up “gangsta”… cultural appropriation that causes something to lose it’s original meaning, or feeling?”

    Firstly, I’m sure the rappers themselves don’t mind being idolized and having their product widely purchased, by suburbanites or not. Also, I doubt that the imagery of drugs, crime, and misogyny that typify most popular rap are cultural tenets that the majority of African Americans would like to claim as their own. I agree with you that it’s a form of cultural appropriation, I just don’t think gangsta culture is intended to have the same kind of ethnic integrity as, say, religious traditions.

    “It’s like if I made a folk dance called the Holocaust, and said that it was really an old jewish dance to celebrate happiness, and sold videos and special clothes and set up schools where you, too, could become a Holocaust Dance Master (TM).”

    You make a good point, but the Holocaust is the wrong example to use, because it’s not a term derived from Jewish culture. The word existed long before Nazi Germany, and refers to widespread destruction. It doesn’t belong to Judaism any more than Genocide belongs to Sudan.

    “…the evil flying monkeys in Oz when actual flying monkeys in the Ramayana are the good guys.”

    All the versions of the Ramayana I’ve heard of feature wingless monkey-people. And even if they were winged monkeys, unless the witch specifically said “Hanuman of the Vanaras, go and capture Dorothy!”, it would be hard to identify them as derivative of that specific mythos, rather than just a generic hybrid creature. I mean, gryffins, angels, and mermaids were all first invented in Mesopotamia, but their proliferation in European mythology and pop fantasy isn’t ethically problematic. Is it?

    “And of course the most egregious of all was the appropriation of the auspicious Hindu swastika symbol by the Nazis.”

    Actually, Hindus weren’t the first to use that design. The geometrically simple shape has been an icon since the stone age. Who can rightfully lay claim to it? I’ll grant you that the widespread negative associations with the swastika create an unfortunate association for other cultures that use it. But appropriating that symbol is one area in which I don’t the Nazis weren’t particularly unethical. Wow do I feel weird saying that phrase.

    “How would you feel if the next big breakaway Studio Miyazaki film, say, featured Jesus as a pathetic, shambling zombie revenant, who tried to destroy the world and was eventually banished by a powerful Japanese guardian spirit, to huge acclaim? If for a long time thereafter the internet featured non-Christians earnestly discussing America’s primitive belief in gods that rise from the dead and demand that you eat their corpses, and asking you about whether you feel that these superstitions have held your country back?”

    Since you mention it, the studio Hayao Miyazaki cofounded is actually called “Studio Ghibli,” and it’s name is a great example of cultural appropriation. Miyazaki, a fan of aviation, named it after an Italian nickname for a fighter plane. The Italians, in turn, got the word from the Arabic “gibliy”, which refers to south Saharan wind.

    And, while not as overt as the example you mentioned, the anime show Evangelion does feature an analogue of the Biblical God, along with a series of angels, as a destructive force trying to end the world. Judeo-Christian iconography, as well as various eras of European culture, have been broadly incorporated into Japanese animation, and often wildly distorted. But you’re absolutely right that such portrayals in no way threaten to usurp popular perception of Christianity, whereas that danger exists with less dominant cultures.

    For that matter, the internet is doing well enough as it is discussing the backwardness and superstitions of Christianity. That it is such a dominant and widespread power is what makes it a target in this regard. Few internet commentators write diatribes about why tribal Aborigini religions are harmful to society.

    I don’t mean to sound contrarian or dismissive with these responses, I just want to make sure the issues are properly clarified.

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