Cultural Appropriation

Over the past several years, there’s been a great deal of talk about the need for “diversity.” So far as I can tell, this means stories set in cultures other than those of white, Western-European males and told by protagonists other than white males. I certainly have no problem with this.

I do, however, have some misgivings about the idea that such stories must always be written by authors from those cultures, and the equally disturbing idea that when someone other than a member or a descendent of those cultures writes about them, even when projected into the future, or into a fantasy setting, that is “cultural appropriation,” and a literary sin of the first level. The rationale behind this judgment appears to be that no one who is not a member of a different or a minority culture can do justice to representing that culture in a fictional setting.

Beside that fallacious point, what is exactly the point of fiction? Is it just to be culturally accurate? Or to entertain? To make the reader think? And for that matter, how does one determine “cultural accuracy,” especially when there are significant social and even geographic differences within most cultures?

Taken to extremes, one could classify Rob Sawyer’s hominid series, about an alternate world populated by Neandertals, as “cultural appropriation,” since most of us only have a tiny fraction of Neandertal genes. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light could easily be classed as cultural appropriation of Hindu beliefs and myths. For that matter, Tolkien certainly used the Elder Edda of Iceland as a significant basis of Lord of the Rings. And I wrote The Ghost of the Revelator even though I wasn’t born in Utah and I’m not LDS [although I have lived here for more than twenty years].

Obviously, writers should take seriously the advice to write what they know, and know what they write, but “non-members” of a minority or another culture may well know and understand that culture as well as or even better than members of that culture. Should they be precluded from writing fiction based on those cultures because editors fear the charge of “cultural appropriation”?

This concern, unfortunately, isn’t just academic. I’ve heard editors talk time and time again about how they want more diversity, but… In one case, the significant other of a Chinese-American born and raised in Hawaii wrote and offered a YA fantasy novel based on Hawaiian myth to a number of editors. When several agents and editors found out that the writer was not Hawaiian genetically, they decided against considering the book. Several well-known authors have also told me that they wouldn’t have considered the book either, because dealing with Hawaiian beliefs would be too controversial.

Shouldn’t it just be about the book…and not the genetics/cultural background of who wrote it?

14 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation”

  1. Frank says:

    To be brief, my answer to the question of “shouldn’t it just be about the book” is an emphatic YES, DEFINITELY, ABSOLUTELY! (Pardon me for yelling). Sometimes, possibly in our attempts to be thorough, fair and wise…we can make things too complicated. In this case, I believe it needs the application of the “KISS” principle.

    Please, keep doing what you’re doing and don’t let the idiots take over the village. Thanks.

  2. alecia flores says:

    I do understand the need for diversity – but trying to apply a societal issue to a written (or whatever medium) genre is just plain silly. One of the earliest authors, E.E. (Doc) Smith, wrote about all sorts of diverse characters (aliens based on lizards, felines, etc.) as have most SciFi authors who invent characters from different worlds. And most made up worlds, whether fantasy or scifi, have diverse characters in them. It doesn’t matter the ethnicity of the author, it’s the story and the characters that count, regardless. There is absolutely no logic to any approach that insists that only a black person can write about black people or a Mexican about Mexicans or a Norwegian about Norwegians or (name your own group). Imagination and invention allow for any good writer to write about things that just don’t exist – for example, there aren’t any pre-cogs out there for whom this particular trait should be the only legitimate experts. Are they next going to insist that only women can write about women characters? This is a step backwards and it’s stupid. I hope this turns into the non-issue it should be.

  3. R. Hamilton. says:

    One of Spock’s major functions on Star Trek was to be the outside observer of humanity. The show pushed some then-narrow cultural barriers. Was it cultural appropriation to portray a half-alien, or for human writers to attempt to show an outsider’s perspective of humans?

    There may be such a thing as “cultural appropriation”, but most such claims IMO are the product of the attitudinally challenged, who think they’re entitled to an unearned promotion of their group to cultural dominance, or occasionally of people who have bought into the whole “white guilt” nonsense. Did they personally enslave anyone, or put anyone down over matters of race? If not, their personal guilt is zero, and group guilt (unless the group is defined only by its conduct) is an abomination.

    It would be far more attractive to look at the strengths and history of other cultures if that came without a huge load of anger and attitude.

  4. victoria true says:

    I think that writing,painting, music from and about the perspective of the “other” is one of the best ways to learn about the other and to show the other what you do and don’t understand and perceive about them. However cultural appropriation has a different meaning for me. It is countries use of the roots of rhythm and blues without acknowledging the foundation it’s built on. The American public embracing Elvis without acknowledging that a white guy was simply doing what black guys were doing and getting paid and recognized on a monumentally greater scale. It is when you take from another culture while actively oppressing and devaluing it’s value. This label is a bit slippery however, for instance to me Paul Simon’s Graceland album was a beautiful blending and borrowing from African choral traditions and provided exposure to a realm of music I would have never otherwise heard. John Jorgenson’s perfomance of Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy jazz is a similar exposure to a culture and world opaque to me otherwise. In both cases the artists have been accused of cultural appropriation and opposed to celebration and exposition. Is it cultural appropriation if I claim September Grass (a James Taylor song from October Road) as “our” song for my husband and I given that I am black. Does it balance out since he is white and from NC? In the end I think it boils down to profiting from and at the expense of the culture in question. But like obscenity (the courts claim they know it when they see it) the danger of cultural appropriation as a concept/charge is it has more to do with what the audience of the art thinks and feels then what the creator of the art thinks and feels.

  5. Sam says:

    I first became aware of the concept of cultural appropriation about a year ago when I was reading a collection of short stories by an Australian author – Garth Nix. In the collection he wrote about having an idea for a story using elements of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology which he his editor shot down because of the element of cultural appropriation.

    I’ve thought about this on and off since then and I do believe there are a number of dark sides to cultural appropriation. The most obvious is reducing a culture to a stereotype such as a type of clothing that some elements of a culture might have worn on some occasions becomes something synonymous with the entire culture.

    With the Australian Aborigines there is a history of genocide, oppression and loss of cultural identity often tied to a deliberate attempt to erase said cultural identity by their oppressors.

    Their culture, their myths are theirs to share and not for others to appropriate and twist beyond recognition. It is yet another slap in the face for descendants of their oppressors to come along and pick and choose the bits they like of the Aboriginal culture for the purposes of telling a story for entertainment.

    I saw a bit of a documentary a few years back called Reel Injun that went over the woeful depiction of Native Americans on film over the decades. How Native American characters weren’t even played by Native Americans and how Native American’s had been homogenised into a stereotype that had no bearing on the real thing.

    I think there can be respectful cultural appropriation. All you need to do is make a diligent study of the culture you wish to make use of as well as get permission from said culture’s appropriate authorities to make use of their culture in your story. Getting permission for any changes you wish to make as well.

  6. John Prigent says:

    So perhaps no citizen of the US should be permitted to include an English character in a story, or vice versa? And no honest, law-abiding author may write about gangsters because he or she doesn’t belong to the gangster culture? What about historical novelists? They can hardly be said to be members of a cultural outlook that died centuries ago. To me, this ‘cultural appropriation’ idea is merely yet another attempt at censorship of ideas that any group may dislike – in common with ‘platform denial’ and ‘safe spaces’ at universities. It displays an alarming failure to recognise that an outsider looking in can discern features of a culture that its own members simply fail to notice, and has the right to comment on them.

  7. RRRea says:

    Having multiple degrees in anthropology and currently (under)employed teaching anthropology, with a past history of standing in the crux of cultural conflict as a governmental official dealing with issues of cultural resources, I have to say that the whole meme of “cultural appropriation” has been, well, “academically(?) appropriated” and been as misused as those memes taken up and misused within the context of cultural appropriation. It is a little bit poetic and ironic, as anthropologists are justifiably described as “academic imperialists” for grabbing concepts from other disciplines then misusing them. Turn about is awful all around but fair play.
    You can never please all of the people all of the time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something out. It is actually arrogant of people outside a culture to determine what counts as appropriation. Did the editors consult any native Hawaiians to see if they were offended? There are definitely organizations in place that were created to protect and preserve Hawaiian culture. There are recognized and respected leaders in the Hawaiian community. Undoubtedly some of them don’t want anyone else “playing” with their culture, but it can’t be too hard to see if that’s the consensus or just an individual viewpoint. I’m reminded of reading Effinger’s very very Muslim and Arab series,which he decidedly was not, (the one starting with “When Gravity Fails”). In his notes he stated he “ran it past” a Sunni imam, who said it was okay, but a Shiite might not agree. I would hate to think that those books would never have been published under the current editorial regime without any input from the people being appropriated from, but it’s pretty obvious they wouldn’t be.

  8. Earl Tower says:

    It is a slippery slope. It a minority within a specific country has long been oppressed and elements of their culture are being taken heavily out of context, I can see the protest.

    But to apply this as a whole principle sets up a very uneasy precedent. Should I object that a black writer has written fantasy with elves or King Arthur within the volume? I mean what can someone who’s ancestors were not Northern European know at all about the culture of my ancestors. It becomes a two way street very quickly when it becomes a defining principle.

    And the matter goes far beyond just entertainment mediums. The Chinese Communist have said for decades that things like human rights and democracy are a ‘Western’ cultural factor, not appropriate for the Han, who have their own 5000 years of cultural foundation. So if we are to take the premise universally, human rights becomes not universal, but merely a matter of a cultural heritage to a few specific branches of Humanity.

    1. Tim says:

      @Earl. I have met both an Afghan and a native Pakistani who both told me that democracy is viewed there as Western and should not be imposed on their countries. I am sure not all living there would agree, but it is a view. We would call this Medieval since it requires a benign warlord as leader.

      Maybe trying to impose our style of democracy (often associated with ‘regime change’) in the Middle East needs to be questioned.

  9. Rollo says:

    I think the concerns that you are highlighting Mr modesitt speak more towards the subjugation of popular media in service to the state.

    ‘cultural appropriation concerns’ might as well be replaced with ‘recommendations’ from the diplomatic service.

    Highlighting the isolated worldview of the germanic male isn’t the best political strategy. Neither is distributing worldviews which express common cause against germanic culture, as was probably the case with the chinese americans positive portrayal of native Hawaiian culture.

  10. Frank says:

    I have read all the comments and still persist with the opinion that the simple answer to his ending question of “Shouldn’t it just be about the book…and not the genetics/cultural background of who wrote it?”…is YES.

    He was talking about SF/Fantasy, I believe. I’m not suggesting an author should lie about facts, or even the background from which they are viewing facts. But with Fiction, it starts out with the categorical definition of not being historically true…because it’s a “Fiction.”

    I think this issue of “cultural appropriation” is a manifestation of the worst parts of “politically correct,” which is a term that has come to mean (to me) watered-down, blunted, bland, pablum. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I don’t want to spend (nor do I want them to spend) much time worrying about it. Life is just too short.

    Please, Mr. Modesitt, keep on writing the way you want to write. I like it, very much, and if I don’t…I can always ignore it.

  11. Joe says:

    I despise political correctness, diversity, cultural appropriation, sacrosanct religions and other victimization stories because they argue that individuals cannot grow to be rational and ruthlessly honest to themselves about their own intentions and values. Instead, these stories argue that we should all adopt behaviors to shelter other people from being offended, even though being offended is ultimately those people’s weakness.

    Shantideva once said:
    “Where would I find enough leather
    To cover the entire surface of the earth?
    But with leather soles beneath my feet,
    It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

    His meaning was that if one doesn’t want to be hurt emotionally by others’ barbs, it is better to work on one’s own mind rather than attempting to change everyone else’s.

    This does not mean that I believe in being racist, dismissive to others based on their appearance or culture. But this “reverse racism” does more harm in my mind than good… Cultural appropriation? What could be worse than another learning and appreciating my culture? Preserve us from the translators!

    Some of us are multilingual, muticultural not by birth but by education and circumstance, outsiders and insiders to many cultures including the one that is our prescribed nationality. It’s a wealth, not an appropriation, and it is who we are, not an affectation, which is why some concepts such as cultural appropriation strike us as delusional. You either speak from ignorance or from knowledge. That is true whether you speak from your “native” culture, or from another.

    What upsets me particularly about this stupidity is that it doesn’t examine the real problem: the Rich and Unscrupulous plunder others and the planet. They did so during the time of the great European empires, which was also a time of great scientific and technological development without which most people alive today wouldn’t be. But much more importantly to my mind is the same type of people continue their plunder today using as instruments international law, corporate law, and warfare. The only way to change anything is to deal with these people head on, but that is precisely what they do not want, so instead they encourage everyone else to be distracted by petty squabbles that will not change the status quo. Just as giving “rights” to the slaves in the US did not change who those slaves ended up having to work for.

    The rise of Bernie Sanders and Trump suggest that people may be waking up, noticing through still bleary eyes the real power that runs things. Unfortunately historically, tearing down the curtain to reveal the puppeteers has not always been a happy moment for minorities.

    1. Joe says:

      “Reverse racism” is poorly phrased. I should have said “antidote to racism”.

      And I should have explained the last paragraph better. Tell poor unemployed white men that they are examples of white oppressive privilege enough times, and they will react violently: not only are they being blamed for something they didn’t do, but for something from which they themselves are also suffering: the power of a very few rich people. Trump himself is not frightening. The fact that he and Sanders are doing so well makes it clear that there has been a phase change in the US. The “establishment” is seen as the enemy by many, and it is the establishment that believes in protecting poor minorities and the very rich. If the groups protected by the establishment are lumped together, the weakest ones are most likely to suffer the most, as happened to the Jews of Europe a saeculum ago. In Europe the election of the far right in Hungary, Ukraine and this week in Croatia constitute similar worrying signs.

  12. invah says:

    I think it is worth noting the beneficiary of appropriation.

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