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Cultural Appropriation

I told you before that I’m a Science Fiction and Fantasy fan. I also write in that genre. You probably wouldn’t know me if I told you who I am. At any rate, last month I attended the WisCon Feminist Science Fiction convention, which is one of the best conventions in the world. I never miss a year. Not only do I get to meet and catch up with fabulous people, I also get to engage in intelligent conversations about the genre. Literature, media, fandom, all of it.

This year the most heated post-con discussion radiated from the Cultural Appropriation panel. Participants and audience members alike have a great deal to say about what was and wasn’t discussed and the behavior of the panel participants. It’s a huge, far-reaching conversation that I haven’t followed as closely as I should have. One: I only have so much online time to devote to blogs. Two: I haven’t worked out my own feelings on the subject. Three: For every wonderful post and pursuant discussion there is twice as much wankery.

I came across one post that encapsulates most of my feelings on the subject. Shocker – it was written by Pam Noles. If you aren’t familiar with Pam’s excellent blog, make yourself so. She’s an intelligent, funny woman who says what needs to be said.

I could quote so much of this long post, but I’ll confine myself to the points that I’ve been thinking about myself.

This issue of cultural appropriation and representation is not about validating you as One Of The Good Guys, nor is it about denying an artist the right to harvest from many fields during the Quest.

It’s about the fact that for all your proclaiming of I Can, nine times out of ten? You Don’t.

You give us white males. You give us white women. You give us straights. You give us enough Heinlein Coloreds to populate a multitude of multiverses for several generations. (That’s a character who is of pigment on the surface, but in all other respects is as culturally white, Western and as middle class as yourselves, who also tend to exist in a speculative or fantasy world curiously free of any ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic nuance.) You give us fantasy systems based on standard Brittania tropes. You don’t like dealing with the poor every much. Why are your vampires so very pale and so very rich? Why do so many of your fantasy tropes pull from the Western European traditions? Why for the love of god aren’t you yet sick of elves? To borrow another Absolutely True (for me) line, why are werewolves always men?

What sets off my Pavlovian Response – okay, one of the MANY things that sets off my Pavlovian Response when it comes to this general issue – are those writers and fans who say Well, i’m not X so I can’t write about X. I don’t feel COMFORTABLE writing X. I don’t KNOW people who are X. I can’t RELATE to being X. Odd how X often tends to NOT be a astronaut, an elf, a physicist, a vampire slayer, an S&S sorcerer or barbarian, a robot or any other artificial lifeform, a multi-armed creature from Mars, or a hyperintelligent shade of the color blue.

Isn’t that interesting? These writers and fans can put themselves into the psyche and shoes of every OTHER ‘other’ save the one that lives on the other side of the tracks. Yet there’s much demanding for the right to appropriate, even as the geek sphere has consistently exhibited a vast level of disinterest in all sorts of cultures beyond the default.

1,000 times yes. I ran across the “when writers aren’t X they don’t feel comfortable writing characters who are X” crap during my ill-fated discussion of race portrayal and CSI. It’s amazing how often this excuse get trotted out. My answer then was similar to Pam’s. You can’t write convincing black characters but you can write convincing murderers, psychopaths, rapists, and evil children? No, just no.

The elusive other is apparently very hard to write. This isn’t just a problem in genre, but a problem in our culture’s media at large. Yet those who are the ‘Other’ are never given the same leeway – you won’t hear a black writer claiming that she can’t possibly write white characters for fear of getting it wrong. The producers or publishers would laugh in her face for such silly statements. Of course you can write about white people, they are the Norm. It’s you blacks that are weird/difficult/impossible.

Here’s my thing – as a writer, I can appreciate the difficulty of writing a character that doesn’t exist in similar personal space as you. Writing is hard. Characterization is hard. All true things. To be good takes work. And that the majority of white writers flatly refuse to do the work needed to create characters that fall outside of their personal norm tells me that they don’t care about being great writers, but about getting it done and paid for.

This is not an impossible task. Writers are not Sisyphus rolling a boulder in hell. We’re sponges, absorbing the world and squeezing it back out in interesting ways. One can learn to write the Other if one commits to it.

I don’t hold out high hopes for this day. Especially not in mass media. Television writers practically have guides on 10 easy steps to creating minority characters on their reference shelves for all the stereotypes and cardboard set pieces on the screen these days. As a genre writer who loves the genre, I want more for my corner of the culture. I fear that I will not live to see this dream realized. Sadly, I won’t be the first.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation”

  1. brownfemipower says:

    What a great post!!! I *love* fantasy (and am an “interested” sci-fi chick) but goddamn I’m sick sick sick and tired of a hero’s journey being about white men running around the world performing acts of heroism. what, a poor woc never went on a hero journey? goddamn if poor woc aren’t the biggest damn hero’s on the planet. you know?

    anyway, thanks for a great post! spoke my mind but exactly…

  2. dem says:

    “You can’t write convincing black characters but you can write convincing murderers, psychopaths, rapists, and evil children? No, just no.”

    But the people reading aren’t murderers or rapists either. If I were to make them stereotypical or wrong most people wouldn’t really care because they don’t know the truth anyway or are willing to accept it for the story. However, writing about a person with a complicated culture that is not my own is much more difficult. If I were to make the minority stereotypical just like I did for the evil child I would be called on it as being a racist. It is easier to make them race-neutral or the race of the majority of the intended audience.

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