Appropriation: Made of Suck

It is undeniable that there are systemic issues at stake. Holly tried to have a conversation about them over at Feministe; it didn’t work. I’m going to make a stab and say that it might be able to work here because there are separate threads here. You want to rail against individual instances of recent tumult? Wander over to Barry’s and have a non-personally-insulting swing.

Please discuss systemic appropriation here.

I’ll start: I’m mostly familiar with the concept of appropriation in an anthropological context, where exoticism and colonial economic factors are more salient than they seem to be here, and where source citing is emphatically NOT a solution. Moreover, I’m mostly familiar with the intersection of appropriative writing and anthropology, where you end up with problematic orientalist fantasies and that sort of thing. I’m not used to thinking about it in an academic context. It’s interesting. I’m up for reading anyone’s explorations of the concept.

*

Update: from comments, because I think it might stimulate conversation / clarify where things are coming from / etc.:

Sailorman asks, refering to the incident that started this discussion, “isn’t this more an issue of attribution than appropriation?”

My reply:

I have opinions on this, but I’m not sure I can get into them without getting into what it seems to me has happened here, which I’m trying to avoid because A) it makes me tired, B) it seems non-productive, and selfishly C) I’m sure it would erode my credibility with *someone* who I respect and I greatly respect people on both sides of this debate.

Um, so, generally:

I think the idea proposed by the, um, plaintants? in this situation is that appropriation occurs when attribution is not acknowledged.

This is particularly problematic in situaitons charged by systemic oppression because some people’s words are taken more seriously than others. If you read enough feminist writing, you generlaly hit upon a few anecdotes where someone mentions that a woman proposed something in say a meeting which was ignored, but when the woman’s male partner repeated it, suddenly everyone said, “Oh! What a good idea!”

(On a mostly irrelevant side note — In my relationship, actually, the opposite is likely to happen — I’m much more likely to be able to convince people of things than my male partner, as I’m more charismatic and verbally inclined than he is.)

But in general, you see white people’s words as privileged over non-white people’s, and men’s over women’s. There’s an anecdote in Holly’s post about her thoughts as an Asian woman having been privileged over those of a black woman.

These dynamics appear to play out in the blogosphere. For instance, it’s probably not coincidental that many of the first influential feminist bloggers were male — see, importantly, Barry. Who is totally the bee’s knees, in my opinion. But it’s legitimate to point out that his words about feminism are sometimes taken more seriously than if a mere woman says them.

In this case, the allegation is that a white woman’s words are taken more seriously — because of her megaphone on the internet, and because of the privilege that allowed her to obtain that megaphone, and so on — than the words of women of color which have come before.

Now. That’s all, um, factual. I think. It’s systemic. It’s about privilege and disadvantage, and who’s heard, and so on.

The appropriation angle is more subjective and more sticky, and I am not going to try to endorse or reject the claims — although as mentioned, I do have opinions, blah blah. So, to try to keep the conversation systemic:

If, systemically, a white woman can say ideas that a black woman can also say and get more attention for it, then it becomes problematic when she repeats those ideas. Because, all of a sudden, people are paying attention. If she doesn’t attribute those ideas to their sources, then the words of the people who originated them disappear. The black women’s words are subsumed and become assumed to be those of the white woman — they are appropriated by her, intentionally or unintentionally.

So, it’s both attribution and appropriation. Through lack of attribution, it becomes appropriation.

Here, attribution can stand in — in a sort of generic, not totally accurate way — for money. Take an example that science fiction writer N. K. Jemisin brought up last year at Wicson: mass-marketed Western shirts that look Chinese.* Chinese people are making real Chinese shirts. Westerners are taking an idea of what’s Chinese, appropriating it, changing it in a way so that it actually reflects more of a Western idea of whta Chinese is than any actual reality of what Chinese actually is, and then they mass-market it and make lots of money. Money is the measure of worth here, and the way you see how people are benefitting from ideas.

In academic exchange, attribution is a measure of worth and credit. So, without attribution, the idea-originators get neither worth nor credit — just like the people making real Chinese shirts (or making the African art objects that they get small amounts of money for that western art dealers make huge amounts of money off of, or whatever). It’s a matter of worth, credit, money, value, whatever, being given to the priveleged person instead of the person who did the work of coming up with the idea / making the objects / etc.

*and here’s a good example of something that almost became non-attribution and thus appropriation. If I were speaking in conversation, I might or might not source N. K. Jemisin as the origin of the analogy — mostly because I would fear losing my audience by sounding overly academic, with attribution. I certainly would if they knew her or knew of her, but I might skip it if I were talking to a creative writing student, for instance, about a story they’d written, and trying to explain orientalism to them. I think that would be basically okay in that situation, but it would be patently bad here, where people even have the ability to follow up (and do! N. K. Jemisin rocks). I had a moment of wondering whether I should credit her, though, because I can’t remember if her blogging handle is associated with her SF name, and I am hesitant to actually *link* her because god knows, I wouldn’t want to out her if she’s not out. Anyway. Point is, if I didn’t attribute (in this relatively formal discussion setting and in writing, particularly) the idea to N. K., I would have been appropriating it.

This is exceptionally clear beacuse I’m pulling from her analogy directly — as I remember it — and she is definitely, 100% the source of it entering my concsiousness.

*

(Shockingly, this is a feminist and anti-racist thread. I’d screw with the comment rules, but I don’t feel like it, so just respect that, eh? Merci.)

This entry posted in Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

38 Responses to Appropriation: Made of Suck

  1. 1
    bill says:

    Appropriation is a culture specifict concept. I study medieval science, and, in that culture, neither ideas nor expression of ideas were viewed as something that could be owned (and thus `stolen’). If you wrote a manuscript (this was before printing), and others found your ideas good and your expression of those ideas good, they would then include your writings, almost verbatim, in theirs, without acknowledgement. One of the considerable differences between their culture and ours is the sheer number of books. They had relatively few books and relatively few authors; the authors working in a particular field was an even smaller pool. In such a culture, recognizing who wrote what, even if lifted, wasn’t particularly hard. In our culture, in part due to the advent of print, `ownership’ of expression becomes much more complicated.

    Not sure that’s entirely relevant to the discussion, but thought I’d throw it out there.

  2. 2
    Dianne says:

    I’ll start with the first stupid, naive question: What is the difference between adoption of something you think is neat about a culture, thus spreading the culture to its greater glory, and appropriating something from it, thus diminishing it? For example, is the western love for manga and anime cultural imperialism on Japan’s part or appropriation on the west’s part? Or both? Would it be different if manga had developed in Uganda or El Salvador? Or if it had been developed by ethnic Korean Japanese? (That is, by a much less powerful country or group.) Is there an appropriation 101 somewhere to deal with this sort of question? Because I’m afraid I’ve never really thought about it much, but it’s clearly a problem.

  3. 3
    Sailorman says:

    And I’ll follow up with another question:

    It seems that “appropriation” refers, basically, to “taking without permission.”

    So then, isn’t intellectual appropriation different from cultural appropriation in that the “appropriated party” WANTS to be appropriated? I’m not sure of the answer myself. But it seems like there might well be a distinction: In CA, the person with the culture doesn’t necessarily offer it up, and say “please, take this.” In fact it seems that fairly often CA results in the appropriated party being pissed at the appropriator. This makes sense to me.

    But in intellectual arguments/statements, people usually ARE trying to get the other person to adopt their view, right? And that’s why I’m don’t understand why appropriation, which is a fairly negative term, is the right word in this context (which is why I’m bringing this up.)

    If Amp convinced me to adopt his political views, I think that he would think that to be beneficial (“one more person on the planet who agrees with me”) not appropriative, right? Similarly, if I read someone’s blog and their writings convinced me to adopt their political point of view, wouldn’t they also think that was beneficial? It seems like not only do I have permission to change my views and mirror those of Amp, but he would theoretically like it.

    I think that Oh’s comment on the Feministing thead puts it fairly well, but it still confuses me: isn’t this more an issue of attribution than appropriation?

    Given Oh’s post I can see how people would be upset about the lack of attribution, but I think it’s still important to distinguish between attribution failures, and appropriation.

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    What is the difference between adoption of something you think is neat about a culture, thus spreading the culture to its greater glory, and appropriating something from it, thus diminishing it?

    Right, you can’t necessarily distinguish these.

    A couple things to sniff for though are respect and money. If something is done with … real respect, it helps, but maybe not enough. And then there’s money. Moving away from writing — are there, say, African people making an item that they originated that Westerners replicate, market as African, and make more money off of? Or that Westerners buy for trinkets and resell for huge amounts of money? Who’s getting rich, and is it related to who’s doing the work, and do dynamics of colonialism play in?

    For example, is the western love for manga and anime cultural imperialism on Japan’s part or appropriation on the west’s part? Or both?

    Probably both.

    Would it be different if manga had developed in Uganda or El Salvador? Or if it had been developed by ethnic Korean Japanese? (That is, by a much less powerful country or group.) Is there an appropriation 101 somewhere to deal with this sort of question? Because I’m afraid I’ve never really thought about it much, but it’s clearly a problem.

    You know, I’m not sure. I can think of some feminist science fiction resources on the subject… I think there’s something on the angry black woman’s blog; I’ll check. But I can’t think of a 101 that’s broader than writing, at least not off the top of my head. Can anyone else?

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    I think that Oh’s comment on the Feministing thead puts it fairly well, but it still confuses me: isn’t this more an issue of attribution than appropriation?

    I have opinions on this, but I’m not sure I can get into them without getting into what it seems to me has happened here, which I’m trying to avoid because A) it makes me tired, B) it seems non-productive, and selfishly C) I’m sure it would erode my credibility with *someone* who I respect and I greatly respect people on both sides of this debate.

    Um, so, generally:

    I think the idea proposed by the, um, plaintants? in this situation is that appropriation occurs when attribution is not acknowledged.

    This is particularly problematic in situaitons charged by systemic oppression because some people’s words are taken more seriously than others. If you read enough feminist writing, you generlaly hit upon a few anecdotes where someone mentions that a woman proposed something in say a meeting which was ignored, but when the woman’s male partner repeated it, suddenly everyone said, “Oh! What a good idea!”

    (On a mostly irrelevant side note — In my relationship, actually, the opposite is likely to happen — I’m much more likely to be able to convince people of things than my male partner, as I’m more charismatic and verbally inclined than he is.)

    But in general, you see white people’s words as privileged over non-white people’s, and men’s over women’s. There’s an anecdote in Holly’s post about her thoughts as an Asian woman having been privileged over those of a black woman.

    These dynamics appear to play out in the blogosphere. For instance, it’s probably not coincidental that many of the first influential feminist bloggers were male — see, importantly, Barry. Who is totally the bee’s knees, in my opinion. But it’s legitimate to point out that his words about feminism are sometimes taken more seriously than if a mere woman says them.

    In this case, the allegation is that a white woman’s words are taken more seriously — because of her megaphone on the internet, and because of the privilege that allowed her to obtain that megaphone, and so on — than the words of women of color which have come before.

    Now. That’s all, um, factual. I think. It’s systemic. It’s about privilege and disadvantage, and who’s heard, and so on.

    The appropriation angle is more subjective and more sticky, and I am not going to try to endorse or reject the claims — although as mentioned, I do have opinions, blah blah. So, to try to keep the conversation systemic:

    If, systemically, a white woman can say ideas that a black woman can also say and get more attention for it, then it becomes problematic when she repeats those ideas. Because, all of a sudden, people are paying attention. If she doesn’t attribute those ideas to their sources, then the words of the people who originated them disappear. The black women’s words are subsumed and become assumed to be those of the white woman — they are appropriated by her, intentionally or unintentionally.

    So, it’s both attribution and appropriation. Through lack of attribution, it becomes appropriation.

    Here, attribution can stand in — in a sort of generic, not totally accurate way — for money. Take an example that science fiction writer N. K. Jemisin brought up last year at Wicson: mass-marketed Western shirts that look Chinese.* Chinese people are making real Chinese shirts. Westerners are taking an idea of what’s Chinese, appropriating it, changing it in a way so that it actually reflects more of a Western idea of whta Chinese is than any actual reality of what Chinese actually is, and then they mass-market it and make lots of money. Money is the measure of worth here, and the way you see how people are benefitting from ideas.

    In academic exchange, attribution is a measure of worth and credit. So, without attribution, the idea-originators get neither worth nor credit — just like the people making real Chinese shirts (or making the African art objects that they get small amounts of money for that western art dealers make huge amounts of money off of, or whatever). It’s a matter of worth, credit, money, value, whatever, being given to the priveleged person instead of the person who did the work of coming up with the idea / making the objects / etc.

    *and here’s a good example of something that almost became non-attribution and thus appropriation. If I were speaking in conversation, I might or might not source N. K. Jemisin as the origin of the analogy — mostly because I would fear losing my audience by sounding overly academic, with attribution. I certainly would if they knew her or knew of her, but I might skip it if I were talking to a creative writing student, for instance, about a story they’d written, and trying to explain orientalism to them. I think that would be basically okay in that situation, but it would be patently bad here, where people even have the ability to follow up (and do! N. K. Jemisin rocks). I had a moment of wondering whether I should credit her, though, because I can’t remember if her blogging handle is associated with her SF name, and I am hesitant to actually *link* her because god knows, I wouldn’t want to out her if she’s not out. Anyway. Point is, if I didn’t attribute (in this relatively formal discussion setting and in writing, particularly) the idea to N. K., I would have been appropriating it.

    This is exceptionally clear beacuse I’m pulling from her analogy directly — as I remember it — and she is definitely, 100% the source of it entering my concsiousness.

  6. 6
    Sailorman says:

    But I can’t think of a 101 that’s broader than writing, at least not off the top of my head. Can anyone else?
    Yes, there are a lot of people who have written on this; I was doing a lot of reading on it a while ago.
    http://grannyvibe.blogspot.com has done a lot.
    So has Maxjulian (I don’t recall his blog name, unfortunately).
    Rachel’s done a bit that i’ve read; some of the posters on her site (donna darko and Ann, I think) have also done so, though I don’t recall their blog names.
    Shrub covers it occasionally, though not recently IIRC.
    Shannon at http://animeg.blogspot.com/ has done a lot as well, I think.
    guyanesterror as well.
    blackamazon too I think
    Sorry there are more though I don’t remember them all

  7. 7
    Dianne says:

    Moving away from writing — are there, say, African people making an item that they originated that Westerners replicate, market as African, and make more money off of?

    I was actually thinking of something similar. Suppose an artist from the US goes to Africa for whatever reason but not specifically to look for inspiration. He or she sees something that deeply moves and inspires him/her in some local culture. Maybe art, maybe dance or craft or story. S/he then starts using elements reminicent of the inspiration in his/her art. Is this appropriation? It is clear that the artist is still using his/her own skills to make the art, but it is also clear that the art is improved by his/her contact with another culture. Can the artist do anything to make it not appropriation? Is acknowledging the source of the inspiration helpful? Helping artists from the group that inspired him/her? What if the artist is African and descended from the culture that inspired him/her? What if the inspiration comes not from an impoverished tribe in Africa but Buckingham Palace? Or the White House? (That is, another wealthy culture or a part of the artist’s own culture.) It is virtually impossible not to be affected by one’s surroundings and experiences and I would be inclined to say that the artist who takes something from another culture and transforms it to his/her own is not appropriating. But then, what to make of cases like Elvis and his obvious appropriation of a black American musical style?

  8. 8
    Sailorman says:

    This:
    If, systemically, a white woman can say ideas that a black woman can also say and get more attention for it, then it becomes problematic when she repeats those ideas. Because, all of a sudden, people are paying attention. If she doesn’t attribute those ideas to their sources, then the words of the people who originated them disappear. The black women’s words are subsumed and become assumed to be those of the white woman — they are appropriated by her, intentionally or unintentionally.

    So, it’s both attribution and appropriation. Through lack of attribution, it becomes appropriation.
    is probably the best explanation I’ve seen yet, including all the posts (and yes, I read every single one) on the Feministe thread. I encourage you to post it there.

    Anyway, can I make a suggestion? A lot of the, um, ‘other incident’ seems to involve the question about whether some unnamed individual actually took ideas from another unnamed individual, or whether she developed them in parallel. I think that’s a crucial issue regarding that incident, but it’s a complete side track to your point here. For this thread, let’s ignore that and discuss only the situation where someone unquestionably does get their ideas from someone else. What do you think?

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    For this thread, let’s ignore that and discuss only the situation where someone unquestionably does get their ideas from someone else. What do you think?

    I agree, for instancess where we’re talking about individual actions.

    I do think it’s possible, though, to talk about white people in general appropriating ideas from black people in general (for instance the argument in Everything but the Burden, as I understand it) without intent — systemically, that can be noted as a problem, without assigning individual blame.

  10. 10
    Jon says:

    I am definitely not competent to comment on most of this thread, but Tim Wise comes to mind. As Spiderman likes to remind us, with great power comes great responsibility. Wise frequently makes the point that, as a white man, he is taken seriously where people of color are not. I guess I’m saying that power was not exercised responsibly.

    Damn, I really miss BFP.

  11. 11
    Sailorman says:

    Works for me. I am going to desperately try to avoid talking about cultural appropriation instead of intellectual appropriation “IA” (other than using it as a comparative tool) because I suspect that debating CA will rapidly derail the thread.(*1)

    I guess one of my first points is that IA seems like it is always individual, as opposed to CA. That’s part of why it seems like a different thing. People might be able to claim ownership of a certain larger set of actions based on culture but absent some fairly limited examples(*2) it doesn’t seem that an intellectual idea is culturally mandated.

    The second point is the one I made above, which is that intellectual ideas are generally offered free of charge, outside academia: if you want to convert people to your view, then you generally make it as simple as possible to do so.(*3)

    The third point is a trickier one, which is presentation. Presentation is at least somewhat cultural, because it’s linked to dialect and language which are linked to culture. And presentation is also linked to acceptance by the listener.

    Now, without naming any names, I think we can all agree that there exists an unusually wide range of presentation and writing styles on the Net. This next part i am really not sure how to say. Um, it’s an observation? God, it sounds so oddly offensive but it sort of has to be said:

    Acting within my own perceptions, which are colored both by my education level (high) and my culture (white new Englander) there are certain styles of writing which I find it easier to read. Because I find them easier to read, I am more likely to be convinced of a point by their authors.

    Now, those types of writing are, as far as I can tell from having read a few hundred blogs, more likely to be written by people who share at least some of my cultural background. This holds true even when i strongly disagree with the point of the author.

    The even more crazy thing is that I have some fairly serious short term memory problems, so with the exception of “obvious” names like blackamazon, I frequently have no idea what the race of the posters is, much less the commenters. I get people mixed up all the time, so I don’t think that’s affecting it.

    I bring this up not as an amusing personal anecdote but because it goes to what you talked about earlier w/r/t person A being ‘more able’ to say Person B’s idea.

    (*1) mostly because I don’t necessarily agree with the CA argument very much, but I think the IA issue is interesting and needs to be discussed in the blogosphere.

    (*2) I can’t actually think of any, but they probably exist.

    (*3) This obviously is a judgment call. But while I can’t speak for the personal judgment of anyone, I think that my analysis of the process is correct: If you add requirements to people who adopt your view–including a requirement for ‘proper respect,’ ‘attribution,’ or what have you–then you make it more difficult for converts. That means you will have fewer converts. Whether that is a good thing or not is not my place to judge.

  12. 12
    Bjartmarr says:

    It seems like the reason why the appropriator gets the credit or fame (and the appropriatee does not) is relevant.

    Sometimes, that reason is racism or colonialism. Or the appropriator takes actions to keep the appropriatee from getting credit where credit is due. And obviously, this is a problem which needs mitigation.

    Other times, the reason is something less sinister. Perhaps the “marketable” idea isn’t the original concept, but a riff on the concept that only the appropriator can provide. Perhaps the appropriator provides a better writing style, or already has a larger audience, or blends two ideas from different cultures in a way that’s far more appealing than either idea alone.

    I think that if you want to explain the concept to people unfamiliar with it, it’s important that you make it clear that it’s the former that you’re unhappy with, not the latter. People are used to the latter, and don’t see a problem with it, and conflating the two tends to obfuscate the cases where it’s actually a problem.

  13. 13
    Acheman says:

    One thing that concerns me is that appropriation not be discussed in such a way that it just becomes an informal variant on a violation of intellectual copyright. Talking about intellectual property, theft of intellectual property and plagiarism just buy in directly to a broken, destructive model of how human endeavour and creativity should be conducted and rewarded, one which inevitably benefits those with access to power and influence far more than it ‘protects the little guy’.

    I’d suggest that a better approach to appropriation would be to talk about it as changing the significance of objects and actions, so that a richness of meaning that might otherwise have accrued to them becomes unavailable. For example, as Mandolin explains, the appropriation of knowledge and ideas that owe a great deal to nonwhite people’s work by white people is deeply problematic because that work itself is stripped of the significance that nonwhite people are creating knowledge and ideas which ought to be listened to.

    Some personal stuff: I’m always nervous of straight fashion’s appropriation of lesbian and gay ‘styles’ because those have often served the very useful purpose of identifying lesbian and gay people to one another. Adoption by straight fashion might seem like an endorsement of the significance that queer style is desireable – but to me, the significance of potentially articulating queerness is more precious. This helps me to articulate what I also find queasy-making about ‘lesbian’ porn for straight men and drunk straight girls kissing each other in bars – even when it seems harmless, it makes it more difficult to signify genuine lesbian desire within mainstream society, and therefore contributes to the invisibility of such desire. I’d argue that the ability to signify such desire is more precious than the implication that kissing girls is permissable – but others might disagree with me.

    Appropriation is never going to be an easy topic to discuss because it’s highly contextual and also depends on which background significances are more important and more real. But part of thinking seriously about politics and power is recognising that these issues of implication are really up for debate, and that people are responsible for what they imply as well as what they directly state.

  14. 14
    laura says:

    So, I’m a student, and thus seriously doubt everything that comes out of my mouth, so that probably colors what I’m about to say. I don’t understand how someone can -not- at least reference where they got the idea from and/or mention other people talking about the subject. I am presuming that it must be an idea that is predominately the result of too much education, and not something that one would see in journalism? I mean, if I say something, even if I feel like the idea came out of my head, I’m going to go try to find other people who said the same or similar things, and refer to them. The situation gets difficult if, for example, I’m writing a paper for class on a topic I know my prof doesn’t have background for, but I’m explaining something that is considered ‘common knowledge’ in the field. Its kind of the inverse of your example–because they probably don’t know what I’m talking about I should give a citation, of someone who I think gives a good explanation of the topic, because that’s probably where I’m getting my explanation from. If I’m writing one sentence, one idea, but I got it from multiple sources, I’ll cite a half dozen people at the end of that sentence. Fact of the matter is, even if I write an ‘original’ paper, with an ‘original’ idea, its still based on other people’s works, and I’m still going to have an extensive works cited list at the end.

    For me, referencing other people bolsters my ideas, so to appropriation, or whatever you wish to call it, makes no sense. I can say, look, this other smart person said this too. It only makes sense when you’re no longer dealing with ideas, but there’s some kind of exchange going on, whether that of prestige or money (which may or may not be synonymous with power). Then you’re saying, I said this first, I want the credit. I don’t think appropriation has anything to do with saying it better. There’s plenty of examples of people throughout history who read someone else’s work, and said, “Wow this person cannot write. Their ideas are good, but they are not being accepted because it is too difficult to understand them the way they have been written. Let me bring this person’s writing into the light.” That is good. Even if the appropriator brings the other person’s writing into the light, if they do not credit them, it’s still wrong.

    Intellectual appropriation is rather easy to avoid. Its by giving attribution. Further reading lists. Gratuitous citations. Bibliographies.

    I’m a shades of grey kind of person, but this is a very straightforward question, to me at least.

  15. 15
    Radfem says:

    I think at least some artists do incorporate other styles in their work including from other cultures but when they do, they talk about that and attribute their style to what other artwork influences it. I have a painting I received from an artist I admire who is influenced by artwork done by people in several different African countries but you know that, because he talks a lot when interviewed and in conversation about where he gets his inspiration. Those conversations also help people interested in his artwork who aren’t familiar with the styles and works that inspired him to seek out these other artists or artistic traditions.

    I’m sure there are other examples of this in the art world. I think more should do this.

  16. 16
    Mandolin says:

    It’s important to note that just because something is appropriative doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also have good or redemptive value. It’s just a feature of living in a post-colonial world (yes, I’m back thinking about cultural appropriation; it’s what I know most about) that these things exist, and it’s important to acknowledge appropriation as an aspect of discussions. That doesn’t mean that all art with appropriative features should be boycotted or excoriated, etc etc. But it’s still important to talk about.

  17. 17
    donna darko says:

    Rachel’s done a bit that i’ve read; some of the posters on her site (donna darko and Ann, I think)

    atlasien at Rachel’s, Jenn at Reappropriate and Racialicious discuss appropriation all the time.

  18. 18
    laura says:

    I would think that intellectual appropriation is plagiarism with a definitive power dynamic. As a student, when if I were copy sections of the encyclopedia for a paper, it would be plagiarism. If I steal a paper from another student, or steal a conclusion from another student, then that’s plagiarism. If a professor publishes an idea or conclusion or what have you from a student without referencing the student, thats appropriation. That happens all the time, and some professors consider that part of the whole process. But it’s definitely those professors taking advantage of their position as a professional with clout, with a greater ability to be published and taken seriously, a person who does not or even cannot really get their ideas out there and known. And since that person is your prof, if you go on to do work around that idea, it be thought that you were influenced by your prof not the other way around.

    I think that in this particular instance, it may or may not be an instance of plagiarism in the academic sense, but there was definitely a lack of attribution in case where influence can be shown. And there is definitely a power differential, even if you want to discount the race issue, because the (accused) appropriator has that larger platform.

    My question is, to what extent to cultural and intellectual appropriation overlap? Is it just the power dynamic, or is there something else going on here? I mean, to what extent is there appropriation when discussion is dealing with stuff that is an issue to POC and culture? I don’t think that makes sense. The situation being, a white person writing about topic that is mostly concerned with POC that mostly POC had been discussing, as opposed a non-racial topic, or something of the like… Did that make more sense?

  19. 19
    belledame222 says:

    Um, this does reference the original contretemps, so if it’s not kosher, feel free to nuke or move to the other thread. But, I did think it was relevant because bfp herself was trying to explain what the bigger picture was, here. anyway:

    (from bfp’s last post, as this excerpt was archived)

    http://ajkenn-rgclub.com/SDChronBlog2dot5/2008/04/09/brownfemipower-amanda-and-thieving-wocs-efforts-publicity-or-plagarism/

    “What I *DO* believe is that I made a massive and horrible mistake in emphasizing that immigration is a feminist issue. In comments, a Chicano blogger said very politely, thank you for talking about this Ms. Feminist, but this has been going on for a long time.

    I don’t give a shit about being published, I don’t give a shit about the interviews or the jobs or the fame–I DO give a shit that a Chicano is reading a white feminist talking about immigration and politely distancing himself from a gendered analysis of immigration because the author exhibits no historical or contextual awareness of women of color led feminist interventions into immigration.

    I give a shit about that because not only does this erase the work that women of color are doing within racist white dominant structures, but it erases the work we are doing within our own communities. It makes it ok for men of color to dismiss the need for feminist interventions into our communities–AND it makes it ok for white women to continue beating up women of color with the idea that showing any concern for what happens to men in our communities is ridiculous, because, see, they don’t approve of feminism!

    Poof! Just like that, feminists of color are made invisible even as we are the ones laying our bodies down for the foundation of the communication between men of color and white women.

    ****

    It’s not just a question of dueling individual “careers,” in other words (and whatever one thinks of this, bfp appears to have mostly ceded the floor wrt personal acclaim or “mainstream” recognition). Something gets lost in the translation. The lens gets subtly shifted. This idea that it’s all about the individual’s “career” has multiple layers, in fact: the point is about communication, bridging gaps. What bfp is saying here is that it’s -not- just a question of putting a white face or byline on exactly the same content; it’s that the emphasis is just shifted enough that it becomes, again, about centralizing the white woman/en/people.

  20. 20
    belledame222 says:

    I was also thinking about this wrt what I know about the grey areas in theatre, and specifically the case of Sarah Schulman’s claim that “Rent” had not only ripped off “People In Trouble,” her novel, without credit, but had subtly refocused the lens so that it was now on the straight while man, when in fact her book was about the lesbian protagonist and the queer community in the East Village: they were still there, but they got re-moved to a more comfortable place (for the author and presumably much of the audience), the sidelines. I’ll probably be doing a full post on it later. But, yeah, again, it’s not just “taking without credit,” it’s “taking without credit and torquing for one’s own purposes.”

  21. 21
    belledame222 says:

    and yeah, I agree with Laura. Even if it isn’t a question of “do this or you’ll get sued for plagiarism,” really, why -not- give credit? That’s part of the whole damn point, the shared and -amplified- conversation.

  22. 22
    Mandolin says:

    There’s actually a significant amount of subtlety in working out what ideas need to be acknowledged, and what are considered to be part of a general working knowledge. There’s a significant gray area in academia, so I think it’s pretty … simplistic and reductive for people to say “well, duh, credit things” or “why not give credit?”

    I actually fairly significantly get the impression from some blogosphere discussions (the one about Little Light’s supposed plagiarism leaps out here) that we are not working with a common definition of plagiarism (and by extension intellectual theft).

    For instance, Barry has been accused of appropriating women’s work with his privilege lists, despite the fact that the original idea-generator is indeed credited.

    So, can we back off from the specific instance again? Which, even if any individual contributor to this discussion doesn’t agree is debatable, surely we can all agree is — even if the incident as alleged is taken as gospel — merely an exemplar of a common phenomenon. The problem isn’t any given incident, or any given credit or lack thereof, it’s the fact that systemically credit for ideas flows to people with privilege.

    I think it’s possible to take this from BFP’s words, as highlighted by belledame. Women of color who are also feminists end up disappearing, because of the torque that belledame mentions. Just as real Chinese myths can be replaced in the American cultural imagination by faux orientalist stuff that takes only pieces of original culture. What we think we know about China, reinforced by narrative, becomes more important than the actuality.

    What real women of color feminists believe becomes less important than the pretty much necessarily torqued perspectives given by white feminists, although again this has a lot to do with privilege as it relates to who is heard and respected.

    This is just my attempt to translate these issues into a systemic analysis. I cannot vouch for my ability to do so in a complete or particularly sophisticated way.

  23. 23
    Sylvia/M says:

    Another thing this debate conjures for me is when people have been caught for writing fictionalized memoirs, race, and the question of authenticity. I’m sure people have heard about the Margaret B. Jones debacle, for example. I think in situations like Jones’s, the clear line where appropriation diverges from attribution begins to rise and become clear.

    Stereotypically, the situations and narratives Jones identifies in her work are experiences linked with a certain class and race in America. But Jones, through her whiteness, gained more popularity and eventual notoriety because she came to the situation 1) writing with a distinct claim to authority on that experience (one that was later determined she didn’t have) and 2) writing with knowledge of what people with no authority on the subject would like to read and see. Which is where the privilege of her white lens became a boon for her and a new opportunity to ignore similar narratives from people of color living the same and similar realities. Like the autobiography of Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, from the overhyped but under-acclaimed series The Wire, for example: Pearson could likely claim authenticity for her work, but because of the stereotypical nature of our system and the fact that she is writing with no conscious head nodding to the white lens, the lens of distance and cultural observation, her work is undervalued in this discourse.

    That’s the same as what’s happened in this situation. No one backpedaled on the accusation of appropriation. My post, which I was careful to compose, does not link point for point where Amanda “stole” things word-for-word from BFP. Rather, it makes BFP’s work — who is just one of the bloggers who have been tying feminism with immigration before the article Amanda quoted hit the “zeitgeist” — visible. And it questions why Amanda took upon her shoulders the claim of authenticity on critical issues on immigration and feminism, immigration and dehumanizing language, and immigration and sexual abuse without giving some indication of the longstanding body of work from multiple people of color who have identified more heinous crimes, who have pointed out more causal links, and whose work undoubtedly could lead to honest and critical engagement with the situation and possible broader activism in coalition with people who don’t want to touch the situation.

    Because without that reference, it invisibilizes people who do have that authenticity and experience, who live those experiences, because they cannot impose a lens of detached whiteness that they did not have into their narratives. They cannot pretend that they’re horrified witnesses without a dog in the fight who have sympathetic and probing viewpoints in the matter. And as a result of not being able to claim that detachment, you get the phenomenon Belle quotes from BFP, as well as a continuing dependence on people carrying the white lens to ferret ideas from people of color for publicizing and spreading awareness. The peddling of brown people without last names who get mundane yet detailed narratives of their every move because it’s so different. Who get their horrific moments sensationalized and their tragic and common moments ignored.

    THAT’S the sinister nature of appropriation. And in this instance, by not linking to anyone that inspired her viewpoint — forget BFP, even — Amanda tapped into this narrative that has been tapped into by countless folks online and offline. And each leaking into this scheme hurts and makes the victims of invisibility less than charitable once someone white sees us and says, “Hey, what’s wrong? Please write us a book report with cross checks and proper cites, perfect spelling and grammar, and completely objective — that means don’t interpose your oversensitivity into it — yes, please write us a great screed telling us everything very clearly about what’s wrong. One ‘t’ uncrossed, and you lose your argument. And please, make sure you note everyone involved; if you fail to do so, that’s intellectually dishonest and we’ll refuse to engage with you!”

  24. 24
    Dimitrios says:

    “For example, is the western love for manga and anime cultural imperialism on Japan’s part or appropriation on the west’s part? Or both?

    Probably both.”

    I’m not sure that “appropriation” quite fits here. Looking on Amazon.com, it appears that the vast majority of the best selling manga titles are written by Japanese authors. So artists from the culture that originated the form are getting the credit (and money) that comes with its popularity.

    If manga became popular in the west only when a western artist started drawing it, and she became rich and famous while the Japanese artists whose work she was drawing from were either ignored or just vaguely acknowledged as her inspiration, I think that would be a clearer instance of appropriation.

    There are always complications when the products of one culture adopted by another, but I think it stretches the term beyond its usefulness to term every such instance “appropriation”.

  25. 25
    Acheman says:

    Mandolin -

    we are not working with a common definition of plagiarism (and by extension intellectual theft).

    Scrupulous citation as a standard academic practice at the moment, and the concept of ‘plagiarism’ that accompanies it, are determined almost entirely by the competition for academic posts and the consequent need to turn ‘influence’ into something that can be measured. Intellectual property is a legal concept which attempts to turn knowledge and creativity into commodities. Both are based on an utterly flawed account of the process of creation. I have a real problem with their being referenced in the context of a discussion which, as bfp’s archived post, and the rest of your comment, articulate, has to do with deeper issues.

  26. 26
    Stentor says:

    I think a good idea that seems to be percolating up here (especially in Acheman’s comment, BFP’s explanation quoted by belledame, and Mandolin in comments #5 and #22) is that to understand what’s wrong with appropriation, you should focus on its impact on the appropriatee (as opposed to thinking in terms of procedural rules and a property metaphor). If what you’re doing is contributing to the marginalization of certain voices, or undercutting someone’s ability to earn money or prestige from their creation, or altering the significance of certain symbols in the public eye, or drowning out someone else’s version, or perpetuating stereotypes (including the stereotype that a certain group is a source of “cool” or “exotic” stuff) — you’re doing it wrong. And if you can identify in just what way your proposed appropriation would hurt the appropriatee, you can think about whether there’s something you could do that would lessen the impact enough to make your actions OK. So you might say, for example, “repeating these ideas I got from a less-privileged person without attribution would contribute to the marginalization of their voices. But if I did give attribution, I might help to de-marginalize them a bit, or at least mitigate it enough that it wouldn’t outweigh the good of getting them out to a wider audience.”

    And that’s why power differentials and history are so important here — two acts that may be similar from a procedural/property analysis may, because of history and power, have very different impacts on the appropriatee.

  27. 27
    Eliza says:

    Here’s one thing that’s come up for me when reading through these posts and thinking about the issue. But first, a couple of notes: 1) I am NOT talking about the “particular incident,” I do NOT think what I’m about to ask about below has anything to do with the “particular incident” that started this discussion. 2) I am not advocating the following idea — it’s something that popped into my head, and I’m just wondering about it, not trying to claim I agree with it. So, with that said:

    Is there ever a time where it would be appropriate to take an idea from one group to another group without attributing the first group? Let’s say for example there’s a particular philosophy that the Gorks have been putting forward. Now, the Athors agree with that idea, and they want to present it to the Solus, and think they might be able to get the Solus to come to a broader understanding of this issue, which would impact the Gorks in a positive way. However, the Solus hate the Gorks, and will dismiss anything that the Gorks have to say, without even hearing it. And, even if they hear something they think they might agree with, as soon as they hear it’s from the Gorks, they dismiss is. They’re opposed to the Athors on many issues, but they are willing to listen to them. So, the Athors present essentially the same argument the Gorks have stated, but they don’t tell the Solus that the Gorks originally said it. The Gorks hem and haw, but most eventually get it. It gives them a “click moment.”

    Perhaps at that point the Athos reveal to the Solus that the Gorks originally put forth the argument. They’re shocked, but they’ve already realized the truth of the argument, and reluctantly perhaps, come to realize that maybe they should listen to the Gorks.

    Or, maybe they never reveal that.

    Either way, would this situation ever be acceptable? Do the ends ever justify the means?

  28. 28
    Ravenmn says:

    “Is there ever a time where it would be appropriate to take an idea from one group to another group without attributing the first group?”

    The problem with your hypothetical case is that you have not recognized the relative power disparity that exists in the here and now between white people and people of color. One group is given “authority” automatically, the other group has to provide proof of its legitimacy in some way before it can be afforded any authority.

    And the “authority” issue is really important here. Why is it that a white author can get published and a person of color cannot? Could it be because the white person has been clued into the secret handshake, the common assumptions, the “official story” and the person of color has been explicitly excluded?

    I cannot emphasize enough my respect for the article “Detour-Spotting for White Anti-Racists” by Joan Olsson (http://ci.mpls.k12.mn.us/sites/ee869d27-88e5-478a-97e1-b5e41772b8f7/uploads/Detour.pdf). I’ve found myself using every one of these arguments, thinking they were just plain common sense. Olsson’s document shows how well-trained we white people are in the methodology of dismissing accusations of racism.

  29. 29
    Mandolin says:

    Sylvia,

    Is that comment one that’s verbatim in the feministe thread? From my memory, it is. It also specifically takes on subject matter that I asked not to be here. I’m not going to delete this comment from you because I think that given the stakes here, that would be extremely problematic. But if you want to discuss BFP or Amanda, please go to the other thread.

    I do, however, think your points about biographies are excellent and a great contribution to what I hope this discussion will focus on.

  30. 30
    Sylvia/M says:

    I originally posted it here; but then I realized it was relevant to what Holly attempted to accomplish. So I crossposted it there and onto my blog.

  31. 31
    Mandolin says:

    Okay, thanks for clarifying. I don’t know why I saw it there first.

    Stereotypically, the situations and narratives Jones identifies in her work are experiences linked with a certain class and race in America. But Jones, through her whiteness, gained more popularity and eventual notoriety because she came to the situation 1) writing with a distinct claim to authority on that experience (one that was later determined she didn’t have) and 2) writing with knowledge of what people with no authority on the subject would like to read and see. Which is where the privilege of her white lens became a boon for her and a new opportunity to ignore similar narratives from people of color living the same and similar realities.

    This is a great summation of some of the problems of cultural appropriation in writing.

  32. 32
    Mandolin says:

    So, I really liked what Stentor had to say here:

    I think a good idea that seems to be percolating up here (especially in Acheman’s comment, BFP’s explanation quoted by belledame, and Mandolin in comments #5 and #22) is that to understand what’s wrong with appropriation, you should focus on its impact on the appropriatee (as opposed to thinking in terms of procedural rules and a property metaphor).

    As consumers, rather than producers, of writing and ideas and products and so on, I’m wondering what are some of the best ways to make sure that we hear source material as well as appropriated material, and make sure we’re listening to many genuine voices.

    It semes like one way people address this is with lists: lists of books, lists of blogs, and so on. I don’t mean to demean lists; they’re valuable, totally. But I’m wondering if there are other tactics.

    Since the system is set up to favor appropriated work in many contexts (particularly since, as Sylvia points out, it plays on tropes that are already comfortable for the people who are dominant in the system), any movement toward favoring non-appropriated voices will require swimming against the tide from individuals, particularly but not exclusively white individuals, who are affected by the system. Which we should expect from individuals (particularly white individuals) as it is our responsibility to combat racism.

    However, systemic problems probably require systemic solutions, and I’m wondering what those are. Greater saturation in academic courses? Lessening of racism and colonialism on other fronts? Having these conversations in enough places enough times that they become part of public consciousness (consciousness raising)? Etc.

  33. 33
    laura says:

    I have a real problem with their being referenced in the context of a discussion which, as bfp’s archived post, and the rest of your comment, articulate, has to do with deeper issues.

    I was thinking about it last night, and I decided that I was not at all clear in what I was trying to say. The question of attribution is something that is straightforward to me, and has to lie almost entirely on the head of the author. I’m not sure how we as consumers can increase our own access to original works, without either extensively educating ourselves about the topic at hand (which isn’t a bad idea anyway), or forcing some kind of change in the system that would discourage the appropriation (along the lines of what Mandolin says). The former seems to be difficult if you’re attempting to educate yourself initially, i.e. how can you tell if something is appropriated if that is what you are trying to educate yourself on. The latter is a long term solution, but won’t help right now if you are in the position to be just learning about it. Education is the best solution, but I think there is a problem in that a lot of times appropriation is veiled as education.

    I am an archaeologist, and my undergrad department did a really good job of attempting to teach students about other cultures without falling back on stereotypes. Despite the fact that my dept was fairly processual (um, ‘science’ based theoretical orientation), there were definitely a sense of self-reflexivity that encouraged identifying biases and assumptions and what have you. I was listening to students studying for cultural geography one day in the library, and they were obviously being taught by someone relying on outdated theory that basically reduces people from geographical locations to stereotypes. I’m sure that the prof thought that he was giving these insulated rural kids a greater understanding of the world, some who come in not ever seeing someone who isn’t white, straight etc. So, while on one hand it was obvious that their ideas of the world were now supremely messed up, I have to wonder to what extent am I experiencing stereotypical thinking without also realizing it? Then, furthermore, as a white person, am I going to be capable of teaching multi-culturalism without introducing those stereotypes?

    So, then, that brought me back to my horrible thought attempt yesterday, that is, the overlap between cultural and intellectual appropriation. I think that what I was originally thinking about has been addressed, but it occurred to me that appropriation with attribution also happens frequently. In which the author states clearly where they got an idea, or even gets the previous author’s permission to use their works, but then distorts them. I mean, we can see this kind of stuff go on most obviously when the media takes something someone said, published, etc, and then reports it entirely out of context. And I know this went down in anthropological texts–the movement to bring in the voice of the people is not just a response to the objectification of people as objects of study, but because people feel misrepresented by anthropologists. I think this is much more insidious, as you can’t charge the appropriator with not attributing to the appropriatee, and it aligns the two works in the minds of the people who are reading it, those who may not know the greater context.

    I think that definitely plays into what Ravenmn was saying–white people writing about POC who cannot get themselves published, but the white person (intentionally or not) whitewashing/distorting the experiences and thoughts of the POC. And again, the only way for that not to happen in the first place is to extensively involve the POC in the first place, a collaboration if you will. That way, it may at the very least, bring the people to be heard and kind of circumvent the block on those voices. The problem is, is that does not actually solve the major problem in the first place, if a POC cannot get that same kind of work published.

  34. 34
    Charity says:

    Ravenmm, thank you for linking to the joan olsson piece, it is really helpful. “The Isolationist” seems particularly appropriate for the current situation.

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  37. 35
    Sailorman says:

    Let me try again, using the same comment that Mandolin cited:

    Stentor said:
    nI think a good idea that seems to be percolating up here (especially in Acheman’s comment, BFP’s explanation quoted by belledame, and Mandolin in comments #5 and #22) is that to understand what’s wrong with appropriation, you should focus on its impact on the appropriatee (as opposed to thinking in terms of procedural rules and a property metaphor).

    I think that is correct: if the goal is to develop a deeper understanding of what appropriation is, why it should be avoided, etc., then you need to look at it in a lot of detail.

    However, if the goal is simply to stop appropriation then a procedural rule works very well (though it doesn’t need to incorporate the property issues, necessarily.)

    This is more of a general thing. There are plenty of people who really have very little to no interest in engaging in a dialog about appropriation, racism, sexism, etc. They have very little interest in understanding it, either. However, a surprising number of those folks WILL do their best to follow rules, even if they don’t know what they mean.

    People love rules. LOVE them. And the clearer the rule is, the more people follow it. Lots of folks will proudly recycle, because they are able to “put plastic in blue box and paper in green box,” but very few of those people will sit there and think about their overall energy consumption and how they best might help the planet and whether it’s better to buy local greenhouse-raised lettuce in December, or shipped-in-from-south-america lettuce, or to abstain from lettuce in the winter.

    So I think that the “procedural is bad” concept is going to work against solving the issue.

  38. 36
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Minor nit, then the real issue — most of the immigration reform work, in the public view, that I’m aware of was done by men. Could just be that men have more cred, so they are noticed more, but the greatest proponent of immigration reform and migrant worker rights I can think of is Cesar Chavez. Could just be that we have a street named after him, so I’m blinded by that.

    Anyway, to address the comments that view things being appropriated as some kind of intellectual property being “wrong” or “broken”, I’m not especially fond of classism and how capitalism creates lots more opportunities for classist / colonialist behavior, but neither have I found a system that works better than people actually getting to own stuff. It also carries with it a framework in which rights to income and attribution can be discussed without getting too warm and fuzzy (not that anything is wrong with being warm and fuzzy …). But I don’t get the sense that what prompted this has any kind of “intellectual property” aspect associated with it — political “causes” are not any kind of property.

    What’s being done here, in my reading, is just plain rude and boorish behavior. Most allies aren’t — a lesson that was slammed into my face when a friend who’s active in the DNC remarked that the DNC needs to dump gays and lesbians so they can be more effective at winning elections. So, what’s being done here is yet again, it seems to me like an “ally” is proving they are not actually an “ally”. Quelle surprise.