Log in

No account? Create an account
13 September 2011 @ 02:41 pm
Thoughts of the moment (on cultural appropration)  
Because of a discussion elsewhere (most directly, my thoughts on this come from qian, though of course it's part of an ongoing conversation & not original to either of us) I'm reconsidering how I think of cultural appropriation.

Basically, I've been thinking that if you use something from another culture *respectfully*, then it's not appropriative. And if it is appropriative, it is by definition disrespectful and a big NO.

But that way of thinking about it leads us down the rabbit hole of "what is respectful and from whom and in what context". And that ends up turning into conversations about what people of privilege can get away with, and will the POC here please "allow" that, which are just inherently problematic (without necessarily being anyone's fault).


So. Perhaps it's better to think of appropriation as any use of a culture by someone who a) has privilege that plays into the marginalization/oppression of that culture, and b) doesn't have a strong personal connection to that culture. With (b) being iffy too, when that connection is tied up in oppressive histories (like an English person who grew up in India, for example).

And maybe also when it's by someone who doesn't directly have privilege that plays into the marginalization/oppression of that culture, but is writing for a gaze that does?

(ETA: The flip side is that, by this definition, appropriation is not necessarily fail, and may be a facet of a very good thing. It contributes to erasure because of differences in who is heard and by whom, so it's never *inherently* a good thing, but it counters whitewashing and can be part of other really positive things. Needs evaluation on a case by case basis.)


A huge advantage is that we can see, clearly, that a great deal of what we're doing *is appropriative*, and is doing some harm regardless of our good intentions & however much research we do, because of disparities in who gets heard. (ETA: Because, well, *someone* is always not being heard, and it's most often people *of* oppressed cultures.)

Another is that, by this definition, while appropriation is certainly a *problem*, it is one of many factors that needs to be balanced against others, rather than definitionally a NO.

It also allows, I think, for the fact that some of us think that uses of other cultures can be valuable, and some of us think it's a blanket no, don't do it; this depends on how *much* harm we see it doing, inherently; and this depends on the cultures involved, but also how individuals see things, and it can change depending on our experience. (ETA: And is, of course, a topic for discussion/disagreement, not just a YMMV).

It also lets us start asking questions we can't until we acknowledge that the enterprise *does harm*, and at best we're trying to do more good than harm.

- Why are we doing this thing? What's the narrative/meta-narrative motive? (Trying to represent the world in its complexity? Working against the dominant-default? Exotic-squee?)

- Given that whitewashing, too, inherently does harm, is it managing to do less harm than that?

- *Who* benefits from it?

- Is there a better alternative? (e.g. promoting fiction set in a culture actually written by people from that culture?)

(Those are the questions that came to mind, but I'm sure there are others!)


ETA: Also, quoting qian with permission because this resonated a lot with me:

So -- I don't think cultural appropriation should be, or is, about screwing up. I'm not sure that's helpful, because people don't deal well with screwing up. What is helpful, for me at least, is acknowledging this framework in which we live, this world where basically some of us have good lives because others have epically crap ones. And if I think -- right, cultural appropriation doesn't really have anything to do with me personally, it just happens because I had the great good luck to be born into such a position that it's relatively easy for me to get my voice heard -- then it makes it easier for me to think: since I'm in this dodgy position already, what can I do personally to ameliorate it, assuming that there are good reasons for me to go ahead and be appropriative?


It's a harsher way to think about all this, but perhaps a more honest one.

Relatedly, mrissa has posted about depicting other people's belief systems and where we get it wrong. I find this post really valuable, so, linky!
Current Mood: thoughtfulthinky
question mark with teethpantryslut on September 13th, 2011 10:14 pm (UTC)
Yes, I have always thought of cultural appropriation this way. Intent is irrelevant -- it's a symptom of a power imbalance, period. And it's not a power imbalance (e.g. a privilege) one can shed by "doing it right." It's *always* going to be problematic. But at the same time, there is no neutral course of action, you know? Not acting is an action, too.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on September 13th, 2011 10:20 pm (UTC)
I'm slow to come to many realizations I guess :)

And this way makes it much easier to look at the damage that's done, and the good that's done too and whether they balance at all, rather than whether "I screwed up", which isn't the important question in the first place.

Thinking about it this way, a lot of what I write is appropriative. And on balance that *is* better than only writing about high-caste Hindus when I deal with India-topics. And being a culture-hybrid, it'll always be the case, because I can't write single-narratives. But there are *also* things I've written that I'm not that happy with now, and find on-balance problematic, because (not intentionally, but intent, whatever) I played into exotic-squee and "feel" without successfully undermining issues that caused.
(no subject) - squirrel_monkey on September 13th, 2011 10:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 13th, 2011 10:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 13th, 2011 11:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 12:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - mevennen on September 14th, 2011 07:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 26th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
squirrel_monkeysquirrel_monkey on September 13th, 2011 10:17 pm (UTC)
"Is there a better alternative? (e.g. promoting fiction set in a culture actually written by people from that culture?)"

It's a really good question, but considering that majority culture is often times uninterested in works that are not explicitly written for their gaze/consumption/narrative frames, it might not always be a viable alternative.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on September 13th, 2011 10:23 pm (UTC)
Yes. I don't think the answer to that question is always and only "of course".

And. So much comes back to the extent to which we'll make our narratives accessible/palatable to the majority gaze. Which is apparently not a thing I do very well; perhaps I'd resent it less if I were better at it. IDK *flails*
(no subject) - squirrel_monkey on September 13th, 2011 10:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 13th, 2011 10:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - green_knight on September 14th, 2011 10:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - squirrel_monkey on September 14th, 2011 01:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 02:13 am (UTC)
I think that would be true even with my previous definition.

By this one, perhaps I'd say "In an imperial framework, there is always going to be appropriation when the dominant group writes about others" (and probably other contexts too); then I'd specify that this is *not* always, in balance a bad thing. Cause by this definition appropriation isn't necessarily fail; it's just a situation that means we need to step carefully & know what we're doing and why.

And sometimes it's a really awesome thing, like when whitewashing is countered with kickass protagonists of multiple cultures & races.

(I'm trying this definition on for size, here.)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 03:23 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 11:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
A. A. McNamaraaamcnamara on September 14th, 2011 02:20 am (UTC)
Have no real response just now, but. Thank you for this post.

(I once had a theater teacher who defined cultural appropriation as "whose voices are being heard?"--this post made me think of that, and him.)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 03:20 am (UTC)
Yes! And by whom, I think.
Polenthpolenth on September 14th, 2011 02:43 am (UTC)
I assume every human story I write is appropriative, so my main aim is to reduce any damage it does and be as accurate as possible. I try to do positive things, like promoting work from writers of that culture, if I can. But to not be appropriative is to stop writing about humans (much as I like writing about non-humans, I do like to write about humans sometimes too).

I come at it from a different angle though, because I'm not accepted into any culture as a member. I can claim a certain level of generic Britishness without argument, but I can't claim to be White British or British Asian, even though I grew up with those cultural influences. And to be fair to those who consider me an outsider, I don't know what it's like to be White British or British Asian. I've only ever been in my between-boxes situation, and that's not a defined culture with other members. So "write about your own culture" was never really an option.

I guess what I'm getting at is I don't have an easy-out for avoiding cultural appropriation, as it'll happen whatever I do. It's more a case of trying to avoid the worst of it than being able to avoid it completely.

Edited at 2011-09-14 02:45 am (UTC)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 03:21 am (UTC)
Mine too, similar reasons. Which... makes this definition much easier for me! Cause I can think of it all as appropriation, fine, and then move *on* to what I'm doing that makes it worth it & why & how not to fail at it :)
(Deleted comment)
kali: full facekalichan on September 14th, 2011 03:05 am (UTC)
I was at a con a couple of years back and on a panel about racefail and someone got up and asked "is it okay that I fan your people?" and I was all, "um, what?"

Turns out they were in Bollywood fandom (fine!) and were wondering if it was okay to "cosplay" as "generic Indian person." Thing is, I see no problem with white people wearing saris if they want to, and adopting a culture as your own I also don't have a problem with. It's the fetishizing that really bothers me. Cosplaying a specific Indian character or adopting some of the style as your own is different than "playing Indian" or whatever.
shweta_narayan: aieeeeshweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 03:19 am (UTC)
...wow. Just... wow. That... I probably should have known that happens, but...

*picks jaw up*

And I'm guessing that this person's "generic Indians" (wtf does that even mean?) look nothing like you or me. They'd be conveniently-fair and safe-exotic yeah?

Though regardless yeah this gives me full-body squick. Also way to put you on the spot and pressure you not to say "NO YOU MAY NOT FAN MY PEOPLE WTF". Gah!

(no subject) - kalichan on September 14th, 2011 03:34 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 14th, 2011 03:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - polenth on September 14th, 2011 03:55 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - misslynx on September 16th, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Vincent Pendergastscriitor on September 14th, 2011 08:57 am (UTC)
Thank's for writing this. I think this comes closer to, and has helped me clarify, my own gut-interpretation of the issues involved - on appropriation, subjectivity, and the near-inevitable stubborn mule defensiveness that kicks into gear in these discussions.

Not that I trust my gut on this. I don't. And what I'd hate to do is fall into a self-justifying trap of letting problematic treatments in my writing slide because it overall "balances out for good."

But with self-honesty, I reckon this definition can help with internally processing and discussing the issue. Maybe help to move past that first hurdle of debilitating confusion in deciding what's appropriative and what's not in a world of conflicting definitions, and instead work hard to do a positive.
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on September 14th, 2011 09:56 am (UTC)
That's a very good set of questions, I think. I tend to ask myself, too, 'Why I am doing this this way?' And then interrogate the reasons very hard.
Edited to add. There's also the layer of American/non-American, which for me can add complications. My culture isn't the same as US culture. But much of my readership *is* American. Americans have beliefs about my culture that differ from mine in ways I don't always understand!

Edited at 2011-09-14 10:02 am (UTC)
Athena Andreadis, aka Helivoy: Shadehelivoy on September 14th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
Other people's cultures
This issue was half of my Readercon talk, which discussed safe exoticism in science and culture. I don't think that dominant cultures can write authentically about the rest; the lens of power is too distorting. There's the dilemma of "write what you know" (death for all fiction, speculative in particular) versus "write caricatures of cultures you don't know first-hand" -- which include the sciency science of most hard SF.
(Deleted comment)
Lenora Rose: Babylenora_rose on September 16th, 2011 03:54 am (UTC)
Writing while mildly low on brain power, so I hope I don't say something too stupid, or someone calls me on it if I do.

I must admit, I fall on the side that suggests the better forms of appropriation - the ones that are aware that what we do is damaging, and seek to minimize the damage - are always going to trump depicting them not at all, and thus rendering the minority even more completely invisible.

This is, however, a self-serving opinion, because I want to write stories about all kinds of people, in as much of their complexity and variety as will make the story strong.

I DO Wish this weren't so close to a zero-sum game, and that doing so didn't potentially lose sales for someone actually OF other ethnicities/cultures/etc. I would rather it, if my getting a reading slot must take out anyone else's book slot at all, that it were to take out someone who writes of a mainstream monoculture.

But the world doesn't let us know things like that for sure - and I love my own stories, strongly and quite selfishly, and I want them read, so the concept of a potential and unknown loss doesn't weigh against my desire to be published at all. (And in fact, I hope most other writers, including POC, have this same opinion of the worth of their own work.)

Would acknowledging sources and naming names of writers-of-colour in Acknowledgements, Forewords, or Afterwords -- or even in blogs or side conversations (as the blogs of professional, published writers have a lot more cachet than my current one) be considered any use at all in alleviating this?
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on September 16th, 2011 05:43 am (UTC)
Writing while very low on brain power so ditto.

Problem I see here is still emphasis on "Am I doing it right?/Am I okay?" which isn't really a useful question.

It does some harm; so does whitewashing, as you're pointing out. Many of us think what we're doing is worthwhile anyway. Some people don't. Either way, the worth doesn't erase the harm, though it (hopefully) can balance it somewhat (but to whom).

Would acknowledging sources and naming names of writers-of-colour in Acknowledgements, Forewords, or Afterwords -- or even in blogs or side conversations (as the blogs of professional, published writers have a lot more cachet than my current one) be considered any use at all in alleviating this?

It seems to me that it can only do good, or at least, can't hurt. But it's not a solution. The problem's deeper-rooted & more systemic than something solvable with a few lists & plugs alone, no matter how awesome the lists.

I think Rachel and Sherwood are absolutely right in suggesting that there are many things we can do better, depending on how we interact with stories (as writers, readers, editors, agents...) and that we need all these things to happen to overcome the inertia of invisible-privilege-defaults.
(no subject) - lenora_rose on September 17th, 2011 01:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 17th, 2011 01:29 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lenora_rose on September 17th, 2011 05:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on September 17th, 2011 06:02 am (UTC) (Expand)