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!