Cultural Misappropriation

Posted: September 27, 2016 in Writing
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AUTHOR’S NOTE: After posting this I received many comments pointing out several ways this piece undercuts the point was clumsily trying to make (It’s OK to create art using material from other cultures, as long as the results do no harm). I learned that am guilty of tone policing, straw man arguments, centering white authors, and conflating critique with censorship.  I encourage you to please read my follow-up piece, which is an effort to correct these mistakes.  Thank you.

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Svetlana Mintcheva nailed this topic in Salon on Monday.  In case you missed it, the current conversation around the writers’ water cooler is about Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, about “cultural appropriation” on September 8.  And in case you missed that, here’s some of what she said:

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

Lionel Shriver spoke at length.  She cited a case at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where, during a private tequila party in a dorm room, some of the party-goers wore miniature sombreros.  When photos from the party circulated on social media campus-wide outrage ensued, the party-goers were placed on probation, and the party’s hosts were ejected from their dorm and impeached from the student government.  The hats were labeled “cultural appropriation” because people of color, especially those of Mexican heritage, felt their use created an environment where they did not feel safe.

Shriver talked about how this attitude has spread to every minority or disadvantaged group to the point where nobody else is allowed to touch any tradition, experience, costume or way of doing or saying anything — look but don’t touch.  The majority of her talk was about cultural appropriation in fiction.  She said:

The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

Look, there’s cultural appropriation and their’s cultural misappropriation.  One is insensitive, hurtful, unethical, and unfair, and the other is speculative fiction.  In this time when “We Need Diverse Books” is a huge movement, how are writers supposed to write about diverse characters if we can’t touch anything that might fall under the definition of “diverse”?  This begs a vision of the future when books must be written by committee, and when memoirs can only contain a single character.  Because what if a brunette is offended by a dark-haired character written by a blonde author?  The entire children’s market will evaporate until children learn to write novels.  And historical fiction will go the way of the dodo.

I understand why individuals and even entire swaths of society are offended by Amos and Andy or Sambo’s Restaurant or any of the thousands of other cases of cultural insensitivity created for the sole purpose of making a buck.  And I understand that when books misrepresent the details of a culture, it can perpetuate stereotypes.  I have great respect and high hopes for the “Own Voices” movement; share your culture with us so that we can learn the truth about it and have a proper perspective.  But….

There are a few voices out there who loudly oppose Shriver’s view.  As always, the backlash is not representative of the whole and those that lash out in anger often do so because they are truly, legitimately angry, fighting to be understood every day of their lives.  But like waves in a pool after a cannonball dive, one backlash leads to another in the opposite direction.  The conversations I am hearing now are non-marginalized writers asserting their right to write what they want. Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote eloquently about this.  True or not, some writers feel they are being told they should not color outside the box — not write about cultures or events outside their personal experience, because doing so is cultural appropriation.  And maybe it is, but my point here is that cultural appropriation is part of the whole fiction deal.  Yes, Virginia, a white writer can write about the Asian experience, because research.  But if it is done in an exploitative or hurtful or inaccurate way, then it becomes misappropriation.  I think there is a difference.

Suppressing writers — of any culture — is never a solution.  The notion that minority characters should only be written by minorities is a dangerous dead-end.  There are plenty of white writers who stereotype white people in their books.  Read pulp, read romance, read men’s adventure.  Who’s to say that when only black people are allowed to write about black people the stereotypes would stop?  I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest they wouldn’t.  Silencing writers won’t solve that problem.  Because who do you silence next?

I think a lot of the legitimate anger in the diversity movement stems from one very real fact: most of the time, a book about a cultural minority written by a white author will outsell a book written by a member of that culture.  It has happened time and time again.  If I was one of those authors I would be furious , too.  But the answer is not to suppress the white authors.  Most of the time when those white authors write a popular book about a minority group or specific cultural event, awareness and interest goes up which increases sales of other books on that subject – by any author.  No, instead I think real change in the industry must come from the publishers.  Awareness is growing slowly, but it could grow faster.  Publishers see marginalized voices as a risk, but I think it is a risk that could pay off.  The publishing industry is white-dominated, but if more people of color became part of the publishing industry, that would help, too.

I’m a write writer.  Not a damn thing I can do about that.  But I can take the time to see both sides of an issue — even if I will never quite have the perspective of the other side. I can try on the glass slipper, but it will never fit.  I won’t go into the issue of white privilege, other than to say unlearning is hard.  Maybe having that attitude is white privilege, too.

The primary and overarching message behind the diversity movement is clear: write what you want, but write it in a respectful and accurate way; in other words, do it well.  There are far more voices in the diversity conversation that are respectfully educating the writing community than those who shout their anger.  If you are yourself from a marginalized community, share it with us, raise awareness, be heard.  Feed the popularity.  If you are not, you can play, too. But remember — people from other cultures are gonna read your stuff, and if you misrepresent — misappropriate — the soul of their communities, they have every right and every reason to point it out.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: After posting this I received many comments pointing out several ways this piece undercuts the point was clumsily trying to make (It’s OK to create art using material from other cultures, as long as the results do no harm). I learned that am guilty of tone policing, straw man arguments, centering white authors, and conflating critique with censorship.  I encourage you to please read my follow-up piece, which is an effort to correct these mistakes.  Thank you.

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Comments
  1. Bobbie says:

    Sad. The simple joy in the diverse experience of living is being squeezed out of us by precious people who need to be protected from life. There is great danger in such thinking, to one’s self and to everyone around one. We will all become sighing, gray wraiths.

    Oh wait–did I just offend the wraith community? And just when I need them, with Halloween coming and all that! What? stereotyping? Aw crap! I’m done here!

    Signing up for sensitivity sessions…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hellerj says:

    Dear John Berkowitz,

    I agree that writers need to be able to create characters of different racial and ethnic groups to reflect our society and our world. I also agree that we writers need to do research to create characters who are not stereotypes and who reflect the variety of world cultures.

    As a college professor and award-winning writer, I understand the need to allow college students to feel safe on campuses and to have strict rules about “hate speech” and hateful behavior. However, college campuses also need to be spaces where people can respectfully disagree with one another.

    I think that the key word for both writers and college students is “respect” for different cultures and groups of people.

    Best wishes!

    Sincerely,
    Janet Ruth Heller, Ph.D.
    Author of the award-winning book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), and the middle-grade book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My website is http://www.janetruthheller.com

    Like

  3. Keith McDonnell says:

    A muslim preacher told a muslim woman on a street in Britain that she would burn in hell for wearing sexually seductive clothing. (tight jeans) The woman concerned called the police and the man was arrested, tried and convicted of a hate crime.
    Perspective one: the woman was scared, thought she should be free to dress how she wanted without comment or confrontation. She viewed the man’s actions as threatening.
    Perspective two: the man truly believed that his comments might save the eternal soul of the woman whose attire flouted the conventions of her chosen religion. He viewed his actions as potentially [eternal] life-saving.
    As another white, non-muslim writer anything I do write regarding this incident would entail cultural appropriation. However, whichever perspective I ascribe to then leaves me open to accusations of cultural misappropriation.
    I believe that all writers, whether or not respectful, have the right to write and even to be published. You cannot challenge something that cannot be said and the current climate of screeching censorship is not amending or ameliorating extremist views. It is driving them underground where they will fester and be misled into taking actions that harm far more than words

    Like

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