Sam PF's Journal - Race Fail vs Cultural Appropriation
March 19th, 2009
01:23 am

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Race Fail vs Cultural Appropriation
OK, so I've recently started making some efforts to follow and understand some of the issues behind Race Fail 09. I've read a fair number of posts by now, obviously one can't read them all, even all the good ones, and probably I've already read more than is good for my work-life-sleep balance. But I must confess to some confusion about an aspect of this debate, which I hope you folks may be able to enlighten me on.

I am probably going to get some stuff wrong in what follows. If so, please do call me on it, and I will do my best not to get defensive and stupid and stuff.

So, Race Fail 09 has also gone, in some circles, by the alternative name of "The Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM!" However it's clearly not just about cultural appropriation, as numerous people have specifically pointed out, it's about privilege and oppression in general, "colourblindness", stereotyping and racial tropes in literature, and much, much more. But what I'm trying to get a handle on is just what is meant by the aspect of it that is "Cultural Appropriation".


I think there are some serious misconceptions going around about this. I'm fairly sure I must have some misconceptions about it, which means I'm not sure what's a misconception and what's, well, just a conception.

I think part of the confusion is juust the way these debates go, there's the initial drawing of attention to a real problem in e.g. the depiction of PoC in fantasy, then there's the angry defensive reaction of those criticised, the semi-deliberate misrepresentation of what the critics are saying, then all the thrust and counter-thrust, and people - specifically well-intenioned privileged people (like me) - who are only seeing a part of what's going on from the sidelines pick up wrong ends of sticks and convince themselves that the misrepresentations of the problem are the actual problem.

To give an old example: back in the '80s in Britain, the Sun ran this big political-correctness-gone-mad story about how Liverpool City Council (in those days known as one of the 'loony left' ones) had banned the singing of "Bah, bah black sheep" in Liverpool schools on the grounds that it was racist.

Turns out it was complete bullshit, there had been no such directive. Obviously the real agenda was trying to discredit the idea that racist language was a problem, and to turn the simple concept that one should try to be respectful in the way one speaks to and of other people into some sort of outrageous tyranny.

But the further ironic twist is that, apparently some Liverpool schools - probably, I'm guessing, run by well-meaning white people, actually did ban "Bah bah black sheep" because they thought there really had been such a directive.

Or, to give an example that's more directly relevant to the current debate, obviously one of the big issues is the depiction of PoC by white authors, the problems of stereotyping etc. - and then you get the defensive response of "WHAT? SO ARE YOU SAYING WHITE PEOPLE AREN'T ALLOWED TO WRITE ABOUT BLACK PEOPLE??? WE SHOULD ONLY WRITE ABOUT WHITE CHARACTERS???!!!!"

Which I'm fairly sure is not the point. Thing is, then (well-intentioned white) people on the sidelines of the debate start getting the idea "Gosh, maybe I shouldn't write about PoC or people from other cultures because that'll be Cultural Appropriation. Maybe I should only have white characters in my writing. But then what does that say if I have only white characters and thus make black people invisible? Oh God! Maybe I shouldn't write!"

And there's just a bit of me that is still wondering, "Well, maybe that isn't a misconception. Maybe that is the point."

But I don't think that's the case. As far as I can work out, and please correct me if you think I'm wrong, the message (for white writers) is more like:

1) When you write about PoC or people from non-white cultures, remember that you don't know that culture from the inside. Don't pretend you do, or that you as an outsider are capable of understanding and interpreting it better than someone who actually comes from that culture. Try to learn a bit about what you're writing about. From the people who actually know.

2) There are some very common pitfalls to avoid. One is stereotyping - you have unconscious stereotypes about different ethnic groups, whatever you might like to think. Likewise standard pop-culture tropes about the way PoC characters are presented (like their tendency to die first). A kindof opposite pitfall is to homogenise - to have a character who you tell your readers has brown skin, but to write them just like you write all your white characters. You might think you're being 'colourblind', but what you're actually doing is ignoring that character's history and background, part of what makes them who they are.

3) Despite your best efforts, you will get things wrong. If someone calls you on it, don't go crazy and shout "HOW DARE YOU CALL ME A RACIST!!!!" - try to see the point that's being made, and if you realise there really is a point, acknowledge it. And try to do better next time.

I expect that's missing out quite a lot, hopefully that's some of the relevant points.

But, back to Cultural Appropriation. Which, I'm still not sure exactly what it is and how it fits with the general Race Fail picture. And, equally to the point, what it isn't.

I think I get some examples of what it is. Like, writing about a culture not your own (whether in fiction or non-fiction), going in with your size 11 privileged boots and imagining that the mass of stereotypes and partial pictures you have floating round your head constitute actual understanding. Taking another culture and mangling it and triumphantly presenting it to your audience and saying "Look at my cool story about Masai tribesmen!" or whatever.

I think I can identify one very specific example of CA in one of my own fics. (Certainly not the only one nor likely the worst, as a lot of my past Slayer fics have supposedly non-white-European settings, but this is just one very specific and obvious one.) It's in The Night of St. Vigeous (which I generally regard as one of my favourites of my fics), which I set in Jerusalem around 1200, and there's this Muslim Slayer, and her Orthodox Priest Watcher (and no doubt I've mangled them in various ways), and then I wanted a Jewish character in my little Scooby Gang, and I also needed a magic-user, so I put in a Jewish magic-user, a 13th Century Willow - which fair enough, but then I threw in in passing that she was into the Kabbalah.

Now, I don't know shit about the Kabbalah. But I thought it sounded Jewish and mystical, so I said that she was into the Kabbalah. Now that, I'm pretty sure, is an example of CA. Taking something from another culture and using it as a piece of decoration wholly without understanding. That was a clear piece of Fail on my part. (And the fact that I have Jewish ancestry does not get me a pass on that one.)

But I'm not sure of the boundaries of this. Is there a difference between CA and just generally writing PoC characters in a failsome way? Is CA a particular subclass of Race Fail?

And how does it apply to things beyond writing? Like, since this debate started I've seen people on my flist get worried that pretty much anything that involves enjoying or exploring something from another culture - from wearing an item of clothing to participating in another religion - might constitute Cultural Appropriation.

Which, again, I rather suspect is not the point. (E.g. I rather think that if you're actually intending to learn from another religious tradition, (rather than, say, going "Hey, look at me, I'm a Muslim! Check out my Keffiyah! Allahu Akhbar!") then you're not appropriating it). I think there may well be some Bah Bah Black Sheep Syndrome going on here. Thing is, because I still regard myself as fairly clueless about this, and since I know full well that I am positively oozing with race, gender, economic, heterosexual and cis-gendered privilege, I'm not always sure where the boundaries between BBBS Syndrome and things that are actually a problem lies.


Soooo.... to cut a long story short... what do y'all understand by the term "Cultural Appropriation"? When is it a problem? How does one avoid it?

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From:angoel
Date:March 19th, 2009 08:30 am (UTC)
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I don't really know what I think about any of this matter. It's all rather complicated ;). That said...

One of the areas that I'm confused about is the distinction made between cultures. If I was writing about something and included ... say, a fox-hunter in my story, then that could equally be considered cultural appropriation because what I know about fox hunting could be written on the back of an (admittedly large) stamp. Why is it fine to write about them without knowledge while it isn't to write about Jews?

And if it isn't fine, then surely the problem isn't really Cultural Appropriation. It's the basic and well known 'lack of research'. Isn't it?
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 19th, 2009 09:45 am (UTC)
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Well, clearly doing good research is a good idea in general if you want to write well, but it's more than that because of the context of non-white groups within society being discriminated against, stereotyped, marginalised, under-represented in cultural images, etc. Its about the only significant black character in a film dying again to save the white guy's ass.

Of course foxhunters would now claim to be the great oppressed group within society, but that's another story. The point is, if you write something ignorant and ill-researched about a group that is privileged and over-represented, well it's still a bad thing but it's not the same as when it's done about a group that is discriminated against and under-represented, in which case you are adding yet another stone to the weight of the baggage.
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From:libellum
Date:March 19th, 2009 11:19 am (UTC)
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I think - but I'm not sure - the problem is defined when it's appropriation of cultural elements of an under-privileged group by a member of the group who is responsible for colonising/enslaving/oppressing them</b>.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 19th, 2009 12:42 pm (UTC)
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It is, in other words, another aspect of the Original Sin theory of racism. Racism isn't something you can do or not do, or even a way you can think or not think: it is just something you possess because of your birth and nothing you do can ever eradicate the stain.

S.
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 19th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
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No, it is not about being 'guilty' for what's happened before, it's about the fact that history can't be erased and continues to have an effect now. That's not the fault of people now, but if you blithely refuse to acknowledge the fact and likewise ignore the ways in which you might be contributing towards perpetuating injustices, then that is your responsibility.
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From:libellum
Date:March 19th, 2009 11:17 am (UTC)
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I think a lot of this has to do with colonialism. The clearest example of cultural appropriation as it's been explained to me is American exploitation of Native American culture. You see t-shirts with wolves and shamans, and dream-catchers, and new-age posters, for sale everywhere, and hippies pick up on bits and pieces and think they're sooooooo native and mystical, at the same time as the dominant white culture continues to oppress, exploit and mistreat the real Native Americans they share a landmass with.

An English person converting to Hinduism is very different from posh English students going to beach parties in India on their gap year and coming home with a Ganesha figurine and putting it up in their flat to show how sooooo well-travelled and multicultural they are, as if they were entitled to cherry pick from a culture which our culture has systematically repressed for the last three centuries without doing any reading or exploration.

I think it's about entitlement. There's nothing wrong with a white person doing pooja, but there's something wrong with a white person assuming they have the right to and that everything should be made available to them right now - including knowledge - because they're used to getting what they want.

I don't know, though. I have non-white friends who think cultural appropriation is a real issue, and others who don't see what all the fuss is about. So I'm probably wrong, but I'll be following this thread with interest to see what other people have to say.
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 19th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
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Right. Yes. The laundering of history and so forth. And as you say, the issue is mostly when it's the culture that's done the exploiting taking bits from the exploited culture.

*nods* Definitely makes sense.

I don't know, though. I have non-white friends who think cultural appropriation is a real issue, and others who don't see what all the fuss is about.

Possibly partly because the boundary lines are not entirely clear - you can't always say "This is meaningful engagement, but that is cultural appropriation".
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From:baka_kit
Date:March 21st, 2009 05:54 am (UTC)
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The clearest example of cultural appropriation as it's been explained to me is American exploitation of Native American culture. You see t-shirts with wolves and shamans, and dream-catchers, and new-age posters, for sale everywhere, and hippies pick up on bits and pieces and think they're sooooooo native and mystical, at the same time as the dominant white culture continues to oppress, exploit and mistreat the real Native Americans they share a landmass with.

Thank you for putting this into words. I've always felt uncomfortable about this (being a white pagany type myself) but I was never really sure why.
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From:wychwood
Date:March 19th, 2009 12:40 pm (UTC)
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There's an interesting discussion on this very subject, from a couple of months ago, at the Angry Black Woman's blog. Some quotes I quite liked:

something from another culture that you’re using with no knowledge or understanding or care for its initial significance

Cultural appropriation: when a member of a group in authority uses that authority to tell or use stories, icons, myths, art, etc. that belong to a group which does not have the power or authority to tell its own stories etc.; especially in inaccurate, insulting or self-serving ways, and especially without giving attribution or context.

The appropriation is the way in which anything, no matter how holy, no matter how serious, can be revisioned, reused, remolded for entertainment. It’s the way in which white people can suddenly become martial arts masters or claim lineages of spiritual teachings, even though no one from the place of origin can verify it.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: Herein lies the rub. Appropriation implies taking for oneself, to seize possession (or “adopt”) without consent or consideration in a way that detracts from the source culture’s ability to access or enjoy that which you have taken. It is stealing. It is inherently negative. Unlike cultural adoption or depiction, there is no good kind of cultural appropriation.

And another post here, with some more discussion.

There's also this con write-up, which is a couple of years old now, from a Wiscon panel. oyceter's discussion of this ended up turning into a big conversation across swathes of LJ - nowhere near the scale of the GCADOD '09, but it was a precursor, and led to IBARW and a lot of the more recent conversations. It's a really smart post.

"Writing PoC badly" and "appropriating someone's culture" are two separate things, I think. They definitely overlap, but there are equally plenty of things which fall into one category and not the other. Frex: if you write a modern-day character of colour who acts exactly like a white person, who seems to have no awareness of racism or cultures other than the mainstream "white" one, I suspect that's gonna be bad writing. And if you write a story where an entirely white cast of characters suddenly starts using "Hindu magic", that's appropriation, right? But in the first instance you're not appropriating, and in the second you're not writing PoC.

I think The Free Slave makes a good point when he(?) argues that we should mostly think about what effect our choices have on other people. Not so much "am I being racist if I only watch anime?" but "how do actual Japanese people feel about me watching anime?". Mostly I think what matters is being aware of the context of whatever you're doing. But this isn't a straightforward thing where you can be obviously "right" or "wrong"; different people feel differently about the same thing. I remember in the original CA debate that started with oyceter's post a number of people mentioning Paul Simon's use of African musicians and musical ideas on his Graceland album; some people felt that was appropriation, some people didn't. There's no real consensus.
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From:lizw
Date:March 19th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
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Those are some good definitions. Another factor that's important to a lot of (but not all) POC in this is the question of consent. An example that was used recently on racism_101 is Indian food: a white person eating Indian food in an Indian-run restaurant in London is not appropriation, because the owners want the business. A white person telling the Indian owners of that restaurant what dishes to put on their menu probably would be appropriation, unless the owner asked their opinion. A group of white people getting together to run an Indian restaurant with no Indian input would almost certainly be appropriation.

Some of the yoga traditions that were created by Westerners make me uncomfortable for this sort of reason. Sivananda, Ashtanga, Iyengar - those were all brought to the West by Indian gurus who wanted Westerners to benefit from what yoga has to offer. I think it's legitimate for me to practise those, and even to teach them if I do it in exactly the way the founders laid down. Sivananda teachers have to promise not to make any changes in order to get certified, I believe. Things like Anusara, Christian Yoga, Yoga Dance Fusion, Yogalates, which were invented by Westerners, some of whom had little regard for the underlying philosophy - not so much.
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 19th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
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This is all very helpful. Thank you.

The power thing does seem to be a key thing, and especially to how much damage CA is likely to do. The biggest problem is when the 'appropriated' (mis)representation of the culture is able to drown out the original.
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From:emperor
Date:March 19th, 2009 12:46 pm (UTC)
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I think my views on Cultural Appropriation are informed by Said's Orientalism. If we accept his thesis, then whenever you write about another culture (or write characters from another culture), your understanding of that culture will differ (often markedly) from the understanding that people from that culture have of it.

Equally, it's fair to say that most fiction gets its facts wrong, about pretty much everything - the computer stuff I often spot is bogus, the history is often made up (discounting where the history is deliberately changed for fictional purposes!), and so on.

It seems to me, therefore, that the question is less "have I accurately represented the culture/background of this character?", since the answer is always "no", but "have I misrepresented the culture/background of this character in a manner that is likely to matter in real life?" It may matter because you offend members of that culture[1], or because you perpetuate harmful stereotypes about them.

So, I would say it wasn't necessarily Fail[2] to have a 13C Willow into Kabbalah (though more research might make her more believable), but it would be Fail to have a Jewish character who was an avaricious money-lender who murdered Arabs in their spare time.

[1] There's a really thorny question about whether the taking offense should be reasonable or not, but lets leave that for now.
[2] -10 points for using "Fail" in a serious discussion, but I'll keep your terminology
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 19th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC)
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"have I misrepresented the culture/background of this character in a manner that is likely to matter in real life?" It may matter because you offend members of that culture[1], or because you perpetuate harmful stereotypes about them.

*Nods*. Or, as has been said above, in a way that re-arranges and mangles parts of a culture without any context or understanding.

But it would be Fail to have a Jewish character who was an avaricious money-lender who murdered Arabs in their spare time.

It would certainly be Fail, but I'm not sure it's specifically CA-Fail, more plain 'ol stereotyping.

A good (or rather bad) example of CA in terms of depiction of Jewish culture/religion by Christians is where you imagine that you can understand what Jews believe (and convey this in your writing, fact or fiction) just by reading the 'Old Testament', specifically by your Christian reading of the OT, and ignoring the millenia of development of Jewish thought that have taken place since. Which has traditionally been a very common error by our lot. You might not think of it as a negative portrayal, there might not be anything obviously nasty about one's portrayal, but (especially given the historical context of Christianity's treatment of Jews), such an approach is likely to leave Jews feeling that you've just mugged them and beaten them up and taken their Bible.

-10 points for using "Fail" in a serious discussion

I like the term Fail, including for serious discussions. It is a good multi-purpose word. Or maybe yet one more step in the gradual dismemberment of the ENglish language. Or both.
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From:desertport
Date:March 21st, 2009 06:26 am (UTC)
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Here from Metafandom. I really like the way you've laid out the issues at work in this giant conversation. Thanks for helping me learn. And thank you too, so much, for this....

A good (or rather bad) example of CA in terms of depiction of Jewish culture/religion by Christians is where you imagine that you can understand what Jews believe (and convey this in your writing, fact or fiction) just by reading the 'Old Testament', specifically by your Christian reading of the OT, and ignoring the millenia of development of Jewish thought that have taken place since. [...] such an approach is likely to leave Jews feeling that you've just mugged them and beaten them up and taken their Bible.

I swear, if one more well-meaning person asks me if we still do animal sacrifice, I will finally lose my cool. Thank you for putting that feeling into words. ♥
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 21st, 2009 12:22 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome, and thanks!

Actually, it was a point I've seen made on one of the big responses to the CA debate from a Jewish persepctive... though can't recall exactly where the link is from.
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From:spiralsheep
Date:March 21st, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
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There were several but nextian posted first and was brilliant. :-)
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 22nd, 2009 03:52 pm (UTC)
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Ah yes, nextian, that was it!
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From:jgracio
Date:March 19th, 2009 12:50 pm (UTC)
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I haven't really followed RaceFail, it seems so... silly, I think.

Not silly in itself, but silly that professional writers think people have no right to find issues with their work.

Would they have been this defensive if instead of race the subject had been, say, something technical? You get stuff wrong, you learn, and you try to do better next time.

And, IMO, CA is one of those things that are "I know it when I see it".
For me it's taking something from another culture and using it just because it's cool, and not respecting the culture it comes from.

But, if anyone is expecting people to stop making stuff from other cultures their own, well, keep waiting.

Unless you close your mind entirely to other cultures (if that's even possible), you're going to absorb stuff, and you'll make it your own, and someone, somewhere, might very well be offended by it.
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From:rydra_wong
Date:March 19th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
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Just as a bit of background:

I think the current imbroglio is sometimes referred to as The Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM 09 because it began (very approximately) with Jay Lake's post about cultural appropriation, which sparked Elizabeth Bear's post about Writing The Other, which sparked ... etc. etc. etc..

(The original Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOOOM was an imbroglio sparked by a Wiscon panel in 2006, and I think many people expected this to be a continuation, whence the use of the name.)

But in fact, the vast majority of this hasn't been about cultural appropriation since about the second day.

Not that it's not a really important topic to discuss, but if you're puzzled as to how it fits into RaceFail, that may be why *g*.
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 19th, 2009 10:49 pm (UTC)
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Aaaah, thank you, yes that does rather satisfy my puzzlement on the matter!
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From:elfwreck
Date:March 21st, 2009 05:37 am (UTC)
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Minor Kabbalah note: traditionally, its study was restricted to (1) rabbis (2) over the age of 40. This means men only, who are religious scholars, and have families, and have enough life-experience to know the difference between real insight and mystical-sounding platitudes.

This would make a teenage girl Kabbalist (in that time period) roughly similar to, perhaps, a migrant farm worker being elected to the Senate. It's so jarringly out of the range of reasonable chance that it deserves its own story, one that involves a lot of explaining about how something so unlikely--and possibly forbidden by law--could happen.

(I know damn near nothing about Kaballah; it's become very trendy in neo-pagan circles and because of that, I've been dodging it for decades. It is possible I'm hideously botching the basic notes about it. I keep aware of the traditional age/gender restriction because that gives me an easy explanation why I'm *not* studying something so obviously mystical and trendy; "respect for others' traditions" is often accepted when "dammit, not interested! Not my trad, not my tribe, not my magic!" is not.) (Don't mean to imply I don't have respect for the tradition. I do. And had I the slightest inclination to study it, that might prevent me, or at least be very careful how I went about it.)

Today, such basic research is easy: Google will bring up details on the history & current controversies of damn near any topic you can name. In the past, that wasn't always true; a person might have no way to even know what gaps she had in her knowledge.

In which case, you might get called on it. In which case... you thank them for calling it to your attention, apologize, make amends if possible (if it's a story in print, it's probably not), and work to be more aware of similar issues in the future.

The use of Kabbalah sounds like cultural appropriation to me: use of features unique to a culture, with no regard to how the culture itself uses those features, nor with any consideration to whether the culture considers those features open & available to others. I'm sure it would offend some Jews. I have no idea if it would offend many or most.

You can't always avoid it; "I just won't write anything that might be CA" is a stupid idea. (And impossible.) Instead, you note when it happened, note your resources to prevent it in the future, and move on. Fail, correct, fail better next time.

Maybe at some point, there's a "don't fail" option--but you can't get there by trying to remove failure. Just try not to repeat failures, or build on them.
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 21st, 2009 12:24 pm (UTC)
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Minor Kabbalah note: traditionally, its study was restricted to (1) rabbis (2) over the age of 40.

Wooh, even more embarrasingly bad fail than I thought! (Actually the character was an adult, more a C13 Jenny Calender than Willow perhaps, but beside the point.)

Definitely my bad, and hopefully one that will teach me to do my research better next time.
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