The Appropriateness of Appropriation


In the wake of unusualmusic’s ever-so-fun linkspam, let’s talk about cultural appropriation! Again. (C’mon, you know you love it.)

Or not. I’ve become aware in recent months of a growing movement in the creative world that I’m going to call, for lack of a better term, anti-appropriation. I’m seeing this mostly among fellow writers (probably because those are the circles I run in), some of whom are arguing that white writers should write only about white characters because they can never fully comprehend the experiences of PoC. But I’m seeing mutters about it in the filmosphere too, mostly in response to events like the amazingly racist casting of the Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender films, which take stories designed with PoC leads and replace them with white actors. (Except the villains.) There was some discussion along these lines in the comments of my last post on the Airbender film, suggesting that since no appropriation is without problems, maybe white TV and film producers just shouldn’t appropriate PoC cultures — instead they should open up their field to let more PoC creators in. I hear similar talk in the gamesphere: get more black people into game design, anti-appropriation folks argue, and that will prevent debacles like Resident Evil 5. We just can’t rely on white people (or Japanese people influenced by American culture, in the case of RE5) to do black people right. We have to take care of this ourselves.

This kind of thinking sounds good until you examine it more closely and notice the underlying assumptions. Namely:

  • That the responsibility for incorporating PoC into white-dominated media — and stopping racism in same — lies solely with PoC.
  • That all of us creator-types, despite being, y’know, creative, are incapable of understanding the experiences of people different from ourselves, so we shouldn’t even try.
  • That there’s no need for consumers to see complete, multicultural worlds. Unless they’re designed by committee, anyway.

Here’s one big problem with insisting that it’s never OK to appropriate: the result is segregation. And here’s another: it’s a cop-out. The anti-appropriation argument applies a simplistic solution to a complex and nuanced problem — doing a good job of depicting The Other in fictional representation. It can be done, but it requires hard work. Research, self-examination, strategy. Rather than come up with this strategy, however, the anti-appropriation argument is a punt. Let the PoC handle PoC, while the white people stick to white people. Problem solved, the Jim Crow way.

(And yes, that’s a deliberate appropriation of “Jim Crow”. The same kind of thinking underlies the whole principle of separate-but-equal, anti-miscegenation laws, and so on.)

Now, I don’t mean to accuse the anti-appropriation movement of malice. In some cases, yes, adherents are simply trying to coat old racist notions with a veneer of thoughtful liberalism. But in many cases — particularly among PoC adherents of anti-appropriation — I think the problem is genuine misunderstanding. It’s the term “cultural appropriation” itself which causes this, I think. “Appropriation” just doesn’t ever sound like a good thing, especially not to those of us from individualistic, materialistic cultures, and certainly not to those of us whose cultures have had far too much appropriated in recent centuries. We’re still a little raw about it. So the logical assumption on the part of people who want to do the right thing is that appropriation is bad, period full stop.

But here’s the problem. If you’re reading this blog post, you’re doing so from an inherently polycultural position. (Avoiding “multicultural” here for clarity’s sake, since that term usually gets used in a very different way.) You’re reading it in English or a translation thereof, which has been exported all over this planet thanks to British imperialism and economic necessity, and which is itself a kind of lingua franca cobbled together from Germanic and Latin and some other tongues. You’re reading it on a computer, which probably contains components designed in Japan and manufactured in China and financed by Europe or the US. You might be listening to it or feeling it with software designed to make the web accessible to visually-impaired people as audio or Braille; whether you are or not, I’m using a text markup protocol (Wordpress, which uses W3C-standard HTML and CSS) designed to work with that kind of software, because I want my words accessible to all. Because that’s one of the values of the cultural matrix in which I live — American/progressive/pro-diversity/blogosphere. And while we’re at it, you’re reading the words of a writer who is, like 80% of African Americans, not 100% African. So every word I speak is laced with the multiplicities of my heritage — some of which I don’t even know.

Every culture that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph — and probably quite a few that I didn’t mention — contributed to this blog post in some way. It’s impossible to separate them; they blend and impact one another in infinitesimal and profound ways. There are all kinds of power dynamics and codependencies tied up in these interactions. So by writing this, I’m appropriating from nearly all of them. And by reading this, so are you.

Should we stop? I don’t think so. But if you go along with the idea that cultural appropriation is always wrong, no matter what, then you should.

Go ahead; I won’t be offended. Click elsewhere. I’ll wait.

Not gonna? Good — though obviously I’m biased. Because I think a healthy polyculture is critically dependent on trust. (How many of you have noticed that I’m appropriating the language of both biodiversity and polyamorous relationships here? But I digress.) The citizens of a polyculture — you and me and everyone else reading this — must make certain basic assumptions regarding the equality and good intentions and mutual benefit of all the people involved, and these assumptions must be borne out for the relationship to function. This is tough for a lot of us because those assumptions have been repeatedly violated in the past thanks to colonialism, racism, and so on. But the problem here is not appropriation; we all appropriate. The problem lies in how we do it.

So I think we need to get away from the simplistic question of whether to appropriate, and get back to the nuances of when and how to appropriate correctly. Because it can be done. We’re doing it already. We just need to do it better.

Speaking of which, I’m fond of Nisi Shawl’s take on appropriate appropriation, which you can find in abbreviated form here, and in highly-recommended longer form here.

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The Appropriateness of Appropriation

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6 Responses to The Appropriateness of Appropriation

  1. 1
    leah says:

    Wow, great post. Really got me thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about cultural appropriation, specifically in visual media but also in fiction and how to avoid it best. I think in the current climate in the US, a good mix of both your approach and the approach of anti-appropriationists would work, maybe. Because I don’t think we’re to a point in our culture where, say, the average white TV writer could write characters of color in a non-appropriative or non-racist way. So there needs to be some back & forth (although, as you point out, this shouldn’t mean putting the onus on, to continue my example, POC). Ideally every writer or creator or director or whatever would research carefully, but I think practically speaking we’re far from that point. Very thought provoking post.

  2. 2
    Tessombra says:

    Yeah, got that about ‘Last AirBender’ film. The cartoon was a beautiful piece of work–but saw the actors for it, so did my kids–I can’t convince them its their beloved cartoon. They aren’t so interested in seeing the movie now.

    I’m of two minds about this discussion. If a writer is good at their craft, they can do the research, the interviews, SEE from another point of view–black, white, Asian, male or female (or robot–I read Rachel Swirsky today) and write it. But that doesn’t happen QUITE so often. Because of the lousy attempts, I’m hesitant about some one who is NOT writing about those who ARE. So you’re right–it CAN be done, it just needs to be done BETTER. And certainly NOT by making characters predominantly WHITE, or making everything about MEN, or Heterosexuals (‘Wong Foo’–I’m sorry, but Wesley Snipes looked DAMN good in orange fringe! The movie was worth it JUST for that!).

  3. 3
    Dee says:

    Thanks. I’ve been thinking about this a little lately, because I signed up for NoNoWrMo. It doesn’t look like I’m actually going to do the writing, but I did start outlining a novel that takes place in the Detroit area, where I grew up.

    I’m white, and I can’t imagine this novel not having major characters who are black, mixed-race, and of ethnicities different than my own. I didn’t grow up in an all-white world, so “writing what I know” would mean creating a setting where characters of different backgrounds deal with a complex social reality. I’d do some research, but no way would I want to write a myopic book from a 100% white, non-immigrant viewpoint.

    No writer is going to please everyone, but characters are individuals and as human beings, our commonalities outweigh our differences. Fully drawn characters have their own histories, and their ways of interacting with the world are shaped by their life experiences, by their personalities, and by social forces. I think that to write good characters, an author has to have insight into all of that.

  4. 4
    Simple Truth says:

    I think you really hit this topic spot-on, and that when and how are really the questions we should ask. It seems that way about cultural diversity as well (melting pot vs. multicultural stew.) Sometimes we take for granted how much other cultures have given and affected us, even if they are not our own. Separate but equal will only deprive us of the pleasure of that sampling, but dilution does, too. Thanks again for a good post.

  5. 5
    Jake Squid says:

    I thought you might be interested to see part of the response I received from a source close the the Prince of Persia production:

    … from what we know based on medieval miniature paintings etc, Persians 1,400 years ago were pretty pale. I have Persian friends in LA who are lighter than Jake (Gyllenhaal). Casting a swarthy Arabic-looking actor would have been just as much of racial sterotyping, it’s just a different stereotype and not necessarily more historically appropriate.

    But yeah, you’re right, they did go pretty white on the casting.

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