*Amended after a bit of reflection and a few off-line conversations to help clarify. Thanks for your patience.*
I had the good fortune this morning to be feeling guilty over a long gap in blog posts while in the company of my friend and fellow writer Nicole Feldringer. She knows that I’m one of those wacky types who dares to write fiction from the perspective of someone far outside my own personal experience. And we got to talking about the backlash around Cutlural Appropriation.
This isn’t a new topic. In fact, it’s been an ongoing discussion for some time. But just like any debate that has been going on for a long time, it gets complicated. And some people want to jump on the bandwagon because they see it as one more thing they can get irate over without doing their homework. On occasion, these are people from outside the culture who are offended on the part of the culture they feel is being appropriated–which is not to discount that sometimes they have a point, but it also reads as reactionary liberal white guilt at other times, and that muddles the discussion. And another part of that problem is a confusion or difficulty in separating appropriation from appreciation–which can be incredibly fine-grained.
While I can certainly acknowledge that there are many instances where incorporating “exotic” elements is handled poorly, that doesn’t mean that all instances are bad. And maybe, just maybe, hurling vitriol at anyone who wants to stretch the cultural boundaries of their fiction, or their personal lives, is doing everyone more harm than good.
For those new to the discussion here’s the gist in a VERY basic nutshell: Cultural Appropriation is borrowing an element from another culture without understanding, appreciating, or even acknowledging the original context. An example might a person with no Japanese heritage (or language skills or real interest in Japan itself) getting a tattoo that says “Peace” in Japanese characters because it looks cool. Or a sports team naming themselves the Redskins, Chiefs, Braves, Indians…by it’s definition, it’s not a good thing.
So yeah, I will be the first to admit it can be a problem. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen characters in books, TV, or movies that are little more than cultural set dressing–ethnic short-hand done poorly–the stoned Jamaican cab driver or the Japanese tourist with the 3 cameras around their neck. Often, if feels simply like the writer wants to add a bit of flavor, so they toss in a stereotype and call it good without thinking of the impact it has–how it reduces to a culture or group of people down to a handful of “character tags.”
And even the people who want to broaden the scope of their world with the best of intentions can make missteps. And here’s where I think we need to handle this discussion a little more delicately. Because there should be a distinction between someone fetishizing a culture and someone who genuinely wants to explore and work within one respectfully. Because one reduces with no context, and one shares and helps expand the context to other people. One is commercialization and one is growth.
Here’s a completely made up example. You added a wise old Navajo man because your story is set in northern New Mexico and you figured, hey, authenticity. The story needed a Yoda/Merlin figure, so why not someone relevant to the area and culture? And this character wasn’t just a background character. He was actually important to the story. But let’s say that for one reason or another, he was done badly–not reflecting or respective of the actual culture, perhaps.
There are a few ways to address this. Frustratingly, it seems that the prevailing wisdom is to roll up the newspaper and smack the author with charges of Cultural Appropriation. And yes, on some levels the charge is absolutely right. Anything shouted (in so far as one can shout on the internet) takes an ugly tone, like shouting “Liberal” at someone. Is being “Liberal” a bad thing? Objectively, no. It’s a label. Just like “Cultural Appropriation” is a label.
The people who feel their culture is being stolen from them and turned into a commodity have every right to be angry. *(My mistake for not making this clear earlier.) They have every right to call us on it.
But anthropologists recognize that this is how cultures connect, grow, and change. I said it wasn’t a new phenomenon, but I might have under-stated this. Cultural Appropriation has been going on since the first human civilzation interacted with the first different group of people. In the enormously popular game, Sid Meyer’s Civilization (yes, I went there. Deal with it!) this cultural interaction is a key. It keeps our own culture (and yes, the other culture as well) from stagnating. And stagnation is death. Nothing survives in a vacuum–not even cultures. That said, the exchange is rarely, if ever equal. It just isn’t.
Put down those rolled up newspapers. You heard me. Put em’ down. I have the chair leg of truth and I’m not afraid to use it.
But there are, by intention or accident, benefits from this exchange of culture. By being exposed to other people, other cultures, we learn about those people and cultures. We begin to see them as something other than alien. By being intrigued by our differences and looking closer, we learn instead about our similarities. And that ultimately brings us closer together as a people.
When done well, Cultural Appropriation introduces us to something outside our own experience. It makes us curious. It broadens our world. It keeps us from being a planet full of insular societies viewing everyone else with suspicion and fear.
And when we start shouting “WITCH!”–I mean “Cultural Appropriation”–it shuts down the dialogue. It’s like calling someone “Racist,” and putting them on the defensive rather than saying, “What you said sounded racist,” and making them think about it. It’s laying blame rather than educating. And it discourages those who want to be respectful, who want to write the Other, not because it’s cool or commercial (in fact, it’s widely considered to be counter to market trends, sadly), but because they see the value in diversity.
We can’t afford to shut down this dialogue. We really can’t. Because if we can’t talk about it and learn how to do this right, to get along on this damn planet and treat others with respect, then what’s the goddamned point?
Perhaps a better way of confronting this is to treat the dialogue itself with respect. Treat Cultural Appropriation as a dialogue–as a teachable moment. Do those whose culture is being plundered owe anyone this dialogue, or a patient explanation? Absolutely not. They have every right to be angry. And they don’t owe you an education. But the longer the discussion is avoided, the longer it will take for everyone to solve these problems.
If any of you want to open a dialogue on what it’s like to be someone who grew up a white in the American South-West, I’m here for you. And if you see something in my writing that I got wrong, I’d love to hear about it.
Because I have no intention of spending the rest of my life writing about white dudes living in the desert. I write what I know. I know people. I know character. And I have had a fascination with world cultures since I was a child. Blame my parents and my misspent youth growing up in a college library. I know there is more to the world, and I will keep searching, keep learning, and yes, keep writing. And I won’t always get it perfectly right, no matter how hard I try. But I do try to get better.
By way of example, I have two stories coming out in the next few months–one in Medieval Morocco with an Islamic protagonist and one in a mythical fantasy setting very reminiscent of India, with a female protagonist, no less. I encourage you to check them out.
And I encourage you as a writer not to be afraid to write the Other. Treat the subject with respect, an open eye, and be ready to listen to feedback.
But the people who have nothing to offer than shouting you down with a label? Ask them to offer constructive criticism. And, again, they don’t OWE you that criticism. If they DO have something constructive to say, something other than “No!” learn from them if you can.
It can only make your writing better.