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What Is Cultural Appropriation? | The Angry Black Woman

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What Is Cultural Appropriation?


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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.

We will try our best to keep up with the moderation queue, but remember that we have jobs and lives away from the Internet!

106 thoughts on “What Is Cultural Appropriation?”

  1. Zahra says:

    Tom,

    I completely agree with you that the question of whether it’s cultural appropriation or not belongs to the tribe in question, and not you or me. That’s actually what was in my mind as I was writing the final rhetorical questions.

    But I don’t really see how deeming a particular piece of pop culture racist is wallowing in white guilt. (At least not as the link describes it.) Maybe you could clarify.

    And in my world, “prop” and “central part of the story” aren’t mutually exclusive terms–in the stuff I read & watch they’re often synonymous. (Nor does something being written mean it isn’t going to be rewritten or recycled in different form, or that I’m done thinking about it.) I don’t see any contradiction between your point about the lack of native voices anywhere and mine about the lack in a particular genre; I’m just making the smaller point.

    As for my thoughts on plot, in my experience cultural appropriation has usually gone hand-in-hand with a certain type of plot that disappears or dehumanizes the people whose culture is being appropriated. That seems relevent to me. You could certainly argue that that’s garden-variety racism, I guess, and a sideline to the question of what cultural appropriation is.

    Is that what you’re saying? I seem to have irritated you with my comments, and I don’t entirely understand why.

  2. cocolamala says:

    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,
    Randy

    yes! sprinkle liberally. especially do not practice the historical alternative: to deliberately exclude and negatively portray POC characters whenever it works…

  3. Tom says:

    Zahra,

    I really don’t know what in your comment struck a chord in me and I didn’t mean to come off as irritated or annoyed. It might have been that I felt important, relevant problems were being trivialized by some of the comments in this entire thread. I did already apologize for seeming to rag on you personally, but I’ll say again that I’m sorry as it was not my intent.

    ***But I don’t really see how deeming a particular piece of pop culture racist is wallowing in white guilt. (At least not as the link describes it.) Maybe you could clarify.***

    Part of white liberal guilt, at least as I understand it, is being so hypersensitive that every possible ethnic or cultural reference is seen as a negative connotation or an intentional insult. As a result, there is a desire to fix or apologize for things that are minor in the scheme of things. Meanwhile, the truly major issues get lost in the details.

    ***And in my world, “prop” and “central part of the story” aren’t mutually exclusive terms–in the stuff I read & watch they’re often synonymous.***

    Good point, but in Buffy the Vampire Slayer would you have preferred that the Nigerian mask was actually worn by a Nigerian warrior or that the Native American spirit monster was raised by an evil medicine man or woman? In any case, my point is that it could have been any other piece of tribal art or practice and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to the Buffy plot. In Debbie’s case by contrast, the integrity of the entire plot appears to rely on the accuracy and authenticity of the mask ceremony.

    ***I don’t see any contradiction between your point about the lack of native voices anywhere and mine about the lack in a particular genre; I’m just making the smaller point.***

    It is a fairly good bet that native voices are not being crowded out of the horror genre — native voices more likely don’t want to be heard in that genre. On the other hand, why does almost every piece of major Hollywood or literary production about native people get originated and told from the perspective of the white male? Lack of native voices in horror – understandable. Lack of native voices in popular narratives about native people – cultural appropriation.

    ***As for my thoughts on plot, in my experience cultural appropriation has usually gone hand-in-hand with a certain type of plot that disappears or dehumanizes the people whose culture is being appropriated. That seems relevent to me. You could certainly argue that that’s garden-variety racism, I guess, and a sideline to the question of what cultural appropriation is.***

    True, it could be racist and/or cultural appropriation, but it should be viewed from the perspective of the culture being appropriated, not the knee-jerk reactivity of white liberal guilt.

  4. Pingback: Appropriation « Aaminah Hernández
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  8. Mer says:

    Cultural Appropriation I understand to be when an “outside” group tells an “inside group” how they should maintain or develop their culture. It usually indicates changing it to suit the “outside groups” idea.

    I am interested hearing more of how “inside group” avoid being affected by it. It seems pretty tough to maintain or revive an cultural in the face of globalization. America is everywhere.

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