I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.
I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.
Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.
This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.
However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.
The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.
A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.
It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.
Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.
It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.
The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.
It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.
In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.
Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.
I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.