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The Appropriateness of Appropriation

In the wake of unusualmusic’s ever-so-fun linkspam, let’s talk about cultural appropriation! Again. (C’mon, you know you love it.)

Or not. I’ve become aware in recent months of a growing movement in the creative world that I’m going to call, for lack of a better term, anti-appropriation. I’m seeing this mostly among fellow writers (probably because those are the circles I run in), some of whom are arguing that white writers should write only about white characters because they can never fully comprehend the experiences of PoC. But I’m seeing mutters about it in the filmosphere too, mostly in response to events like the amazingly racist casting of the Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender films, which take stories designed with PoC leads and replace them with white actors. (Except the villains.) There was some discussion along these lines in the comments of my last post on the Airbender film, suggesting that since no appropriation is without problems, maybe white TV and film producers just shouldn’t appropriate PoC cultures — instead they should open up their field to let more PoC creators in. I hear similar talk in the gamesphere: get more black people into game design, anti-appropriation folks argue, and that will prevent debacles like Resident Evil 5. We just can’t rely on white people (or Japanese people influenced by American culture, in the case of RE5) to do black people right. We have to take care of this ourselves.

This kind of thinking sounds good until you examine it more closely and notice the underlying assumptions. Namely:

  • That the responsibility for incorporating PoC into white-dominated media — and stopping racism in same — lies solely with PoC.
  • That all of us creator-types, despite being, y’know, creative, are incapable of understanding the experiences of people different from ourselves, so we shouldn’t even try.
  • That there’s no need for consumers to see complete, multicultural worlds. Unless they’re designed by committee, anyway.

Here’s one big problem with insisting that it’s never OK to appropriate: the result is segregation. And here’s another: it’s a cop-out. The anti-appropriation argument applies a simplistic solution to a complex and nuanced problem — doing a good job of depicting The Other in fictional representation. It can be done, but it requires hard work. Research, self-examination, strategy. Rather than come up with this strategy, however, the anti-appropriation argument is a punt. Let the PoC handle PoC, while the white people stick to white people. Problem solved, the Jim Crow way.

(And yes, that’s a deliberate appropriation of “Jim Crow”. The same kind of thinking underlies the whole principle of separate-but-equal, anti-miscegenation laws, and so on.)

Now, I don’t mean to accuse the anti-appropriation movement of malice. In some cases, yes, adherents are simply trying to coat old racist notions with a veneer of thoughtful liberalism. But in many cases — particularly among PoC adherents of anti-appropriation — I think the problem is genuine misunderstanding. It’s the term “cultural appropriation” itself which causes this, I think. “Appropriation” just doesn’t ever sound like a good thing, especially not to those of us from individualistic, materialistic cultures, and certainly not to those of us whose cultures have had far too much appropriated in recent centuries. We’re still a little raw about it. So the logical assumption on the part of people who want to do the right thing is that appropriation is bad, period full stop.

But here’s the problem. If you’re reading this blog post, you’re doing so from an inherently polycultural position. (Avoiding “multicultural” here for clarity’s sake, since that term usually gets used in a very different way.) You’re reading it in English or a translation thereof, which has been exported all over this planet thanks to British imperialism and economic necessity, and which is itself a kind of lingua franca cobbled together from Germanic and Latin and some other tongues. You’re reading it on a computer, which probably contains components designed in Japan and manufactured in China and financed by Europe or the US. You might be listening to it or feeling it with software designed to make the web accessible to visually-impaired people as audio or Braille; whether you are or not, I’m using a text markup protocol (WordPress, which uses W3C-standard HTML and CSS) designed to work with that kind of software, because I want my words accessible to all. Because that’s one of the values of the cultural matrix in which I live — American/progressive/pro-diversity/blogosphere. And while we’re at it, you’re reading the words of a writer who is, like 80% of African Americans, not 100% African. So every word I speak is laced with the multiplicities of my heritage — some of which I don’t even know.

Every culture that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph — and probably quite a few that I didn’t mention — contributed to this blog post in some way. It’s impossible to separate them; they blend and impact one another in infinitesimal and profound ways. There are all kinds of power dynamics and codependencies tied up in these interactions. So by writing this, I’m appropriating from nearly all of them. And by reading this, so are you.

Should we stop? I don’t think so. But if you go along with the idea that cultural appropriation is always wrong, no matter what, then you should.

Go ahead; I won’t be offended. Click elsewhere. I’ll wait.

Not gonna? Good — though obviously I’m biased. Because I think a healthy polyculture is critically dependent on trust. (How many of you have noticed that I’m appropriating the language of both biodiversity and polyamorous relationships here? But I digress.) The citizens of a polyculture — you and me and everyone else reading this — must make certain basic assumptions regarding the equality and good intentions and mutual benefit of all the people involved, and these assumptions must be borne out for the relationship to function. This is tough for a lot of us because those assumptions have been repeatedly violated in the past thanks to colonialism, racism, and so on. But the problem here is not appropriation; we all appropriate. The problem lies in how we do it.

So I think we need to get away from the simplistic question of whether to appropriate, and get back to the nuances of when and how to appropriate correctly. Because it can be done. We’re doing it already. We just need to do it better.

Speaking of which, I’m fond of Nisi Shawl’s take on appropriate appropriation, which you can find in abbreviated form here, and in highly-recommended longer form here.

6 thoughts on “The Appropriateness of Appropriation”

  1. unusualmusic says:

    I really love Nisi Shawls article, thank you:)

  2. Rosa says:

    This is an important argument, which is why I would suggest finding another term besides “appropriate” to use (as you do with “multicultural/diverse”) What I mean is, I feel that cultural appropriation is always bad because it implies a lack of respect and understanding, it implies arrogance and the constant push toward colonialization. But is appreciating, respecting, and learning from another culture bad? No. But that is not “appropriation.” There must be another word for it. (Though I can’t think of what it is or what it could be. Maybe “cultural appreciation”?)

    The problem is not with those of us who see cultural appropriation as being always bad, because it is. (By the very definition of the word, appropriation is bad.) The problem is with those who strip our culture(s) for their own gain. Suggesting that those of us who see cultural appropriation as bad are causing the problem is much like suggesting that people who point out racism are also causing a problem.

  3. says:

    This is something that I’ve struggled the most with since learning and privilege recently – when is it okay to appropriate? My current stance to remind people that they *are* appropriating and let them mull over their own intentions rather than tell them what they should do.

    One of the things I struggle most with is dreadlocks. I don’t have them personally, but I have difficulty in seeing them as negative appropriation though I know a lot of people disagree. Is the mere internal knowledge of histories enough to be respectful, or does there need to be something else?

    Anyway, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this post and subsequent comments. I’m interested in what people have to say.

  4. black yoda says:

    I enjoyed the article and the comment.

  5. Audrey P. says:

    As a white writer the cultural appropriation argument is one I’m always trying to stay abreast of. I’m not going to not write black, Asian, Indian and Arab characters because I don’t live in a world where I don’t talk to somebody black every single day and somebody Indian, Asian, or Arab (this is particularly easy where I live in Atlanta since whites are way in the minority.) So, on the one hand I’m always going to say “Don’t tell me I can’t write my lived experience, because I’m not even reaching here.”

    On the other hand, obviously I don’t want to write white characters experiencing the Hindu gods, or Islamic themes, or Japanese culture without characters of color around. And, honestly, when I see appropriation in fiction or movies I’m enraged. I’m not going to stop being enraged because I’m white. All I think of are the children who tear around my neighborhood and the local YMCA where I work out and how, although I’m a dyke, myself, and won’t be having wee’uns, I want to stamp out the pernicious influences before they’re exposed to them. Before another little girl has to ask “Why don’t I have ‘good hair’?” or “Does this mean I can’t be Sokka anymore?”

    When I write, I’m not going to be like “lulz I will write for wite people” because I see the dominant white narrative as damaging to my community and I can’t cotten to that. The growing majority of children in this country are children of color, and we can’t write white narratives anymore because people don’t live “white narratives” even if they’re in a segregated suburb. Odds are, at some point, they go use a public space. A book with only white people is a boldfaced lie.

  6. Bobbie says:

    When we tackled this one in a creative writing class, we covered everything… race, sex, age… even species. (Hey, the rare and daring writer will try to tackle a story from an animal’s point of view on occasion – Charlotte’s Web, anyone?) Even though I was once a six year-old girl, I’m not anymore, so what happens when I try to write a children’s story from the PoV from a six year-old girl?. Even though I’m native american, I can’t write you a story about what life as a Crowe is like, and if I wrote from my own PoV you definitely wouldn’t call it a “native american story” the way people coin “black movies” or “white music”. I’m pretty sure E.B White was never actually a pig.

    The example that immediately jumped into my head is Deon Richmond’s role in Not Another Teen Movie. It pokes fun at the way white writers write black characters. He even says, “All I’m supposed to do is stand around and say things like, ‘that’s whack’.”

    Writers (filmmakers, graphic designers, etc. etc.) who try and fail fall into risky territory. They can get it all wrong, they can stereotype, they can further misconceptions. It can be insulting, it can be demoralizing, and it can be damaging. Writers who don’t try segregate and alienate, although it’s usually unintentional. But writers who try and get it right do something significant. They remove all expectations and open doors for other people to want to try and do it right. It can be beautiful and amazing, and as much as the failures make me grit my teeth and roll my eyes, the people who succeed do inspire me.

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