03 November, 2010

The Myth of Cultural Appropriation

This is a rant, it's designed to stimulate thought.

It is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, because there are certain people on the periphery of the independent roleplaying community who get very vocal about the topic.

Cultural appropriation is argued vehemently by a number of people who have very strong opinions on the topic, but in many cases when I’ve tried to nail someone down on the subject they get very ephemeral in their responses. The more I look into it, the more I feel like this should be a topic for the Penn and Teller television show “Bullshit”.

As far as I can see (based on the rhetoric and histrionics), cultural appropriation is the taking of a cultures elements and the use of those elements to pigeon-hole or even belittle the culture. If you take the stereotypes of a culture and use them to engage the typical stereotypes of the group, then it seems you are engaging in cultural appropriation. If you are prejudiced toward a culture, drawing opinions about them based on the information of others and not doing research for yourself; that also seems to be a case of cultural appropriation.

This idea seems to be a very secular view of things, almost a reaction against religion. I say this because most religions have a view where their version of salvation or redemption is deemed the “correct path”, while everyone else is considered wrong. Those who indulge in cultural appropriation are engaging in the same tactics, by claiming to know something about other cultures and then claiming specific facts about those cultures based on their assumptions…a fundamentalist Christian says that all Muslims are going to hell because their belief system is flawed, a devout Buddhist might claim that a Christian will never achieve enlightenment because they draw their faith from a part of the illusion that surrounds us all. Those who take a stand against cultural appropriation seem to believe that the Christian fundamentalist and the Buddhist from the example are both flawed in their thinking. The religious examples provided are simply human nature:

  1. I join a group.
  2. I identify with the group I’ve joined.
  3. I know that there are groups that exist outside the group I’m a part of.
  4. I don’t identify so much with those groups.
  5. 5. In my opinion, the ways I don’t identify with those groups are ways that those groups are wrong.

“Cultural Appropriation” says that everyone makes their first choice to identify with a group, and in that way everyone is unique. It further seems to push the notion that you shouldn’t categorise other people based on the groups they identify with, in fact you shouldn’t categorise them at all.

It’s a nice doctrine, generally inoffensive; you shouldn’t judge others without engaging in their deeper aspects of being. But like most doctrines, when you push it a bit further it starts to crack. That’s when the adherents start to get defensive.

In Australia, we’re seeing this idea filter through the news. No longer are you allowed to say that a crime was perpetrated by a man of middle-eastern appearance, because that’s considered ethnic profiling, or even racism. You can say “light skin”, “dark skin”, “olive complexion”, but as soon as you get more specific you have a backlash from somewhere. I guess the same thing has happened around the rest of the western world. We saw the same thing come out of the United States a few decades ago when it was declared racist to use the word “Nigger”, the race had to be referred to as “African American”, “Black American” or whatever new catchphrase was deemed appropriate in each passing year…then the “African Americans” decided to take the word back for themselves. They were allowed to call each other by the name “Nigger” (or “Nigga” if they identified with street culture), but if someone not of their race used the term is was still considered an affront. This has left a generation of people unsure of what is offensive any more.

So it seems that people just take offense to anything and everything, just to be safe.

We’re getting to the point that descriptions are meaningless…you can’t say “Black” because that will offend someone, you can’t say “Muslim” because that will offend someone else, you can’t call them gypsies because that’s a racial slur that has been perpetrated for centuries. As soon as you try to identify someone according to some context, you run the risk of offending someone.

Those who oppose cultural appropriation seem to be the types who will take offense for the sake of taking offense. They take on the role of old ladies who tell young children that roads are dangerous because of cars; the kids don’t know where to play anymore because all the flat areas around them have been paved by people of a previous generation (people who had been told that grass caused allergies, so they couldn’t play there).

Everything offends someone, and it seems that there are some who are offended by everything.

That leaves us with a dilemma.

If we can’t describe people according to their appearances (because that’s prejudicial or racist), and we can’t identify them by their cultural affiliations (because that’s cultural appropriation or just another form of racism), how do we describe them?

You could describe them by the sum of their actions, but that would take a long time to assess and just as long to divulge the information. What if you only caught a glimpse of them or heard a few heavily accented words in a conversation? You can’t describe their skin colour or their accent due to claims of racism, blatant stereotyping or some other form of offense taken by someone.

I was referred to a TedTalk by an African author Chimamanda Adichie (Here). This was referred by one of those people who are vocal opponents of cultural appropriation. It was an interesting talk, but it seemed to be hedging around the issues rather than confronting them. An interesting point she made was an anecdote about an American university lecturer who claimed that her writing didn’t sound “African”. Obviously the professor had a prejudice about what an “African” novel should sound like; he had appropriated her culture and had pigeonholed it. She thought it seemed odd that as an African novelist her novels didn’t sound “African”. I’m not going to say that her novels are bad, I haven’t read them. Apparently they seem to be pretty good because she was invited to present the talk and has sold numerous copies of her work. Africans can identify with what she writes, but my question would be how well other people identify with what she writes.

She might be a good novelist who is African, but does she write good “African Novels”. What is an African novel?

As soon as we start to identify traits of an “African Novel”, someone will claim that we are appropriating the culture. Perhaps she writes good stories about living in a newly urbanised environment within a specific African nation, but is that just generalising that particular urban area. Perhaps she writes a good story about a specific person, but who is that person out of context?

As humans we need descriptors to identify people.

Using cultural stereotypes may not be a perfect way to describe people, but surely it’s a distinct part of the whole.

If I write a story or a game about Australian Aboriginals and simply write them using common English speech and inoffensive mannerisms, how do I show that they are different to the Europeans around them? If I use a couple of stereotypical terms to place them in context, they actually develop character. Granted a stereotype will only generate flat characters, but it gives a reader a common ground, allowing potential for further and deeper exploration once the common ground has been set. If I don’t place them in context, the actions of these characters will be much harder to connect with.

If I write a story about the Lebanese community in western Sydney, I could use the stereotypical conflict between the Islamic and Christian Orthodox families within the community, tying this conflict back into their homeland. There are people who’d find it racist, but there are far more people who’d instantly grasp the background of the story. I could do the same thing through the car culture commonly found among young Lebanese males in the area. Again, it’s a stereotype, but it instantly sets up degrees of conflict within the setting. If I apply both stereotypes, I run the risk of generating caricatures of the community members, but if I apply other cultural templates across the characters to build up something deeper, they each become more complex.

That complexity just wouldn’t be possible without the cultural context.

Maybe I could rewrite one of Chimamanda Adichie’s novels using characters from the Lebanese community in western Sydney, simply changing the place names and the character names. If it still resonated as a moving story, then maybe it’s not a good “African Novel” after all, it’s just a good novel written by an African.

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