Writing and Cultural Appropriation

This post is consciously directed at a certain kind of writer. Often they’re dominant Western culture white folks. I know saying this may offend them. All I can say is that I’m trying to explain things from a point of view often ignored by them, something they do not out of maliciousness, but a sort of subconscious puerility.

To get things out of the way: I’m a writer. Not so good with fiction, though I hope to improve; pretty alright with non-fiction, as long as I’m careful and think things through. I’ve read many a writing book and blog, and here are my observations with regards to the writing process in general and how it can lead to trouble with cultural appropriation.

There is this personality trait that many writers express, whether their focus is on fiction or non-fiction, and that is: information sponge. They’re often observant (to a particular degree), and will pick up everything and anything in their brains and most likely it’ll eventually show up in their work, whether consciously or subconsciously drawn from that well of associations.

You can guess the problem with this: often such observation will only scratch the surface, or worse, mistake the aspects of even just the surface. They can miss certain details. Important details. Vital details. Details like, oh, the authenticity of research sources. The nuances of whatever they’re trying to portray. “Little” things like that.

It’s bad enough when they’re screwing up, for instance, the details of a psychological disorder and end up perpetuating stereotypes and shallow facts that ultimately result in more marginalization.

Things get worse when it comes to cultures that are marginalized.

(I’m going to interject an observation here: there’s a particular kind of Western culture that’s dominant due to the history of colonialism and the present of capitalism. Complaining about how people get that stuff wrong, in particular comparing it to the harm wrought about by misunderstandings and stereotyping of marginalized cultures… well, at best it’s like playing a very tiny violin. At worst it’s hypocrisy, especially if you style yourself a seeker of social justice.)

Missing these vital details is… unfortunate, to put it nicely; disrespectful, to put it mildly; and downright rude, to put it bluntly. People say they’re ripping off other cultures, but it’s worse than that: they’re actually riffing off of other cultures, which is by definition a shallow process. Riff’s non-slang meaning, indeed, is a short refrain of another piece of music, and thus pretty shallow compared to the complexity of the original.

On all this, I speak as someone who has, in her own writing, perpetuated this kind of appropriation. It takes one to know one, as they say.

So anyways… what kind of details do writers often miss? What kinds of things do they mess up? From personal and vicarious experience, these are common problems:

  • Taking cultural elements out of context and inserting them into their own culture.

  • Doing the above while leaving members of that culture conspicuously absent.

  • Judging another culture by the values of their own culture.

  • Pressing their own values, mores, traditions onto another culture.

  • Othering members, traditions, society, values, etc. of another culture.

  • Accepting stereotypes as representative of a culture.

  • Treating other cultures as homogenous mono-cultures.

  • Elevating characters of their own culture above those of the other culture.

Basically, if it’s “all about you(r culture)”, you’re engaging in the worst aspects of appropriation.

If you’re interested in avoiding these types of mistakes, well, how to do that? By inverting the above mistakes and making them about the other culture.

  • Respect the original context of cultural elements.

  • Have representatives of that culture around.

  • Don’t press judgement of another culture.

  • Respect the values, mores, society, traditions of the original culture.

  • Treating members of the original culture as people rather than exotics.

  • Rejecting stereotypes (perhaps even inverting them, though that can result in other kinds of fail).

  • Understand the nuances and contours of other cultures.

  • Have true equality amongst characters of all cultures.

Does the above mean that you must include a large variety of other cultures? No; it just means that, for whatever culture(s) you’re currently appropriating, you should do the research and be respectful. For all of these items mean that you must do the research in the right frame of mind.

What can I suggest to further the cause of following the above guidelines? Well, for example:

  • Understand the authenticity of your research sources. Always, always go to the true source: those who are part of that culture you want to write about.

  • Understand that you need to engage in depth, not breadth.

  • Understand that it’s not about your culture; it’s about the other culture.

  • Listen to the accounts of people of that culture. If they say they’re disappointed in such-and-such for this-and-that reason, don’t substitute their experience with your own interpretation.

  • Don’t get fond of yourself as some kind of savior of the culture. In fact, don’t even think this thought.

I think of the these items as rejecting the “tourist” mindset. Just think about what tourists do: the experiences they pursue are not about the culture, but about them experiencing the culture through their own lens. A lot of the mythopoeic fans do this, unfortunately, and I must count myself among those that do (and I hope to avoid this kind of thinking from now on).

As you can perhaps see, this blog post is as much for myself as for others. I’m trying to organize my thoughts on cultural appropriation because, well, I have a strong risk of doing it myself. And frankly, “I have a story to tell” is not an excuse to do it wrong.

So I’m picking up and reading books. It’s costing me a fair amount of money because the true sources are in another country, but as someone who can afford to do that, I’d be a jerk if I didn’t. I’m avoiding the “ooh, so exotic!” mindset of a tourist. I want to understand the culture from an insider’s point of view, not from that of an outsider’s. My characters are all Inuit, for better or worse, and in the futuristic world I’m writing, they have eked things out for themselves. I know the stereotypes of that culture that outsiders have, and knowing is half the battle to avoiding them.

But I must remain conscious of the fact that, no matter how deep I go, I’m only an outsider; what I write is not authentic, and will never be so. It’s folly to pretend otherwise.

Always, it’s a privilege to write about other cultures; it’s not some inalienable right. And privilege is not the best place to speak from.

2 thoughts on “Writing and Cultural Appropriation

  1. It gets even more complex if you are reading within a culture where one caste or gender dominates, since you (me) as an outsider may not be able to tell when you’re getting a nuanced view or a jingoist one. That is, $DOMINATE_PRIVILEGE is present in all cultures, but can take shape in unfamiliar ways.

    I may be talking out of turn, but I am not aware of any truly egalitarian cultures that have arisen organically rather than philosophically. So, could just be my ignorance.

    As you’re in a movie-watching mode, if you have not seen Atanarjuat, you might want to pick it up. The story is an Inuit legend, and was produced by an Inuit film company in Nunuvut. It is subtitled in English, so you won’t be wholly lost, but opportunities for hearing Inuit this far south are few, so that one aspect alone would make it worthwhile. Also, it is a jolly good movie.

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