Anyone familiar with the academic world has heard about the dangers of "cultural appropriation." It's a phrase used to denounce people who "steal" things from other cultures, sometimes with the aim to poke fun at that culture or -- worse -- belittle it. The debate on appropriation is one of the main fronts in the current culture war on campuses, and it's provoking heated, or overheated, conversations around the US and abroad.
The latest outburst comes in the wake of an American writer's keynote speech at a literary festival in Australia. Her name is Lionel Shriver, and she was clearly out to provoke a reaction, wearing a sombrero throughout her talk (an allusion to a kerfuffle at Bowdoin College last year, where a couple of students were censored for wearing "mini-sombreros" to a tequila party).
Shriver, as a novelist, makes several good points. As a writer, she wants to feel free to write about anything she wants. She's justifiably worried that "the kind of fiction we are 'allowed' to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we'd indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with."
The speech brought the house down -- on her head. One novelist walked out in a fit of rage, and wrote about the incident in The Guardian, where she described Shriver's speech as "a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension."
This post isn't about Lionel Shriver and what she said, or the response to her comments.
I saw a comment online that irritated me. The result was that I started looking at this subject, and really assessing what cultural appropriation is.
Cultural appropriation... has little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with different cultures. Instead, cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.
That's pretty generic. Of course, the description continues, although they shift the term to cultural misappropriation.
Let's head to Oxford Reference.
A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.
Sooner or later, as you dig into the definitions, they all seem to attach negativity to the term, and infer exploitation or subjugation of a minority culture. If that's the definition of cultural appropriation, we can just stop the discussion here and now. Certainly the idea of appropriating a culture and exploiting it for personal gain is wrong. Exploitation of any kind is wrong, especially when done with ignorance. Therefore, cultural appropriate is wrong.
End of discussion. What on earth have people been arguing about?
Where we step onto the slippery slope is the shifting definition of cultural appropriation, and what people presume or believe it means for writers.
Some people take this to mean that they shouldn't write a character from another ethnicity other than their own. Some people take it further, and think it means they shouldn't write from the perspective of a gender or sexual persuasion other than their own.
And if that's the case, then let's bear in mind that this doesn't just mean that white people can't write from the point of view of Asians or Aboriginals. It would mean that those groups couldn't write about white people either. (By population there are more people in Asia, while Europe, Canada and the US only make up 18% of the world's population.)
You see, the more I probe into this, the more it seems that the real issue is with white people writing about other cultures, and if you're a white, straight male, you'd really best stick to writing about your own kind.
“The reality is that those from marginalized groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight, and, often, patriarchal,” Abdel-Magied wrote on Medium.**
So all of you non-Irish wannabes can just stop with the St. Patrick's Day celebrations and parades because you're appropriating Irish culture.... Right?
I have a very close family member who's trans. Since I'm white and straight should I not be able to write about that? I guess nobody should be able to research an extinct culture or society and write about them?
I think the key in the definition has to do with exploitation. If you want to use a cultural group to mock them or to gain from portraying them in a stereotypical way, then you will face criticism and backlash.
The real problem is trying to come up with one simple yes or no answer for whether or not writers can cross cultural lines with their characters. There is no one simple answer because it may truly depend on their motives and the manner in which they treat the group they're writing about.
In Canada and the US we've experienced the manifestations of the cultural mosaic and the melting pot. Canada's cultural mosaic approach sees people encouraged to retain their cultural heritage - a highly diverse culture. The Melting pot integrates new citizens as Americans first, and their cultural traditions and value get absorbed into the whole. A place or society in which immigrants of different cultures or races form a single culture.
The result is that in both countries, people tend to have an awareness of cultural traditions and customs other than their own.
The truth is, I think people actually, perhaps unintentionally, push writers into perpetuating stereotypes or the most commonly known elements of a culture with the push to get cross-cultural portrayals "right".
I've been to Canada and the US. I've been to England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Belgium, Holland, Luxumbourg, France. Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Monaco. Been to Italy and the Vatican. Spent three months in Austria, more than three months in Germany and visited Switzerland. I also went to East Germany when it was still East Germany. Passed through Denmark on my way to Sweden. I've been to Costa Rica, been to Japan, been to Bali. And I've also been to Tunisia.
And here's what I know from my own experiences. Wherever you go, people have their presumptions of your culture, which aren't always accurate. In Bali they assess you financially. Shopkeepers will ask where you're from and price their goods according to what they believe you can pay. In other places in the world, Canadians can often be defined first as being 'not Americans'.
Everywhere I've gone I've learned things about the people there, and their customs. In many cases I've discovered things that surprised me, that reading a travel guide book didn't prepare me for the reality of.
The group of people I've probably offended the most? Protestants from Northern Ireland. Look, I went there in 1990. I was a teenager, and although I'd experienced the collapse of the Iron Curtain and passed through Checkpoint Charlie and into East Germany, I'd never seen anything like the military presence that existed in Northern Ireland. There were freakin' gunmen positioned all along the border crossing with guns pointed at you. We're driving through Belfast (I was with an Irish family) and ended up by a military vehicle, which kept a gun pointed at us the whole time. To me, it was like entering a militarized zone. I'd never seen that amount or kind of military presence before in my life, and haven't seen it since. Of course, it didn't help that it was the Queen Mum's birthday and they were getting ready for a royal visit. However, that doesn't dismiss the fact that a week after I traveled back to the Republic of Ireland the route I'd traveled was blown up by a bomb.
And it doesn't matter that my grandfather and dad were/are Orangemen, or that my grandmother was Irish Catholic. Referring to Northern Ireland as being like a militarized zone earned me the criticism that I didn't know a blanking thing about Ireland.
Now, that was my comment after being there, made to an Irish person visiting Canada. And boy did it offend them. Was it a fair perspective of a person from my background and exposure? Sure.
If I was writing from the perspective of a person in Northern Ireland during that time period? I wouldn't portray them as thinking of their country as a militarized zone, because to them, it would be normal. In order to really try to portray them correctly I'd need to step inside their cultural mindset and develop their perspective in the character.
However, here's another reality to consider. There is no universal truth for all Irish people. There's no universal truth for all Canadians. There's no universal truth for all people of any cultural group.
This is what leads to the suggestion that there's a right way to portray cultures in your writing. There isn't. Women don't want to be stereotypes, and cultures shouldn't be stereotypes either. Nobody should. Every person is more than just their culture. I don't mean to use 'just' as a knock, because a person's culture is important to them, and it can influence their beliefs and behavior. However, we all know that within any group of people there are a range of beliefs and customs, and these things can evolve over time. In fact, I recall when I took grade 13 social studies that we read about the cultural mosaic, and how families that immigrate often retained their cultural traditions with a rigidity that didn't exist in the country they'd left, and if they were to return to that country they'd find that they had become what would be considered old-fashioned or traditional, while the customs in the culture they'd come from may have relaxed or evolved to embrace or accept different values.
Every person is an individual. I don't care if you're a woman writing about women - you may still not write a female character that fully embraces my values or customs. Does that make you wrong? No. Some men understand women better than other women do.
Speaking as a Canadian, there are big differences throughout different parts of the country. In the town I grew up in some kids from the nearby reservation came to our school. I spent the first 9 years of my school life in a class that year after year had over 90% white faces in the class photos. There was a year or two that there was a Japanese boy in our class. And he was loved. In a town that had been the site of a Japanese internment camp during WWII I can only speak to my recollection that Ben was popular and liked by everyone in our class.
As an adult I lived on the west coast, and I lived on an island that was served by a ferry that also went to a neighboring island that was a reservation. And there was a lot of tension between the residents of the two islands and a lot of hatred. I recall being cussed out by one of the Aboriginals for being white. And yet there were others from that island that came over and hung out with us.
I've also been to Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. I've been to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk and felt welcomed. One of my best friends in high school was also part Aboriginal.
There's no universal truth for one culture's view of another or for how every person within a culture conducts themselves or what they believe.
Perhaps that's best example I can give is from my time in Tunisia. A group of us (from British Columbia) were at a restaurant and the waiter was asking where we were from and we said Canada. He automatically responded with, "Quebec." You see, with the history between France and Tunisia, people from Quebec had been traveling to Tunisia for a long time. They weren't accustomed to English-speaking Canadians visiting.
We said no and then tried to explain where BC was. It was all pleasant and fun until the poor waiter went to another table nearby and began to serve those clients. When they said they were from Quebec he said, "Canada," and they replied, "No. Quebec."
The poor waiter looked so confused. And perhaps that's one of those moments were you might just have to be Canadian to really understand; however, while the waiter most certainly accidentally offended those patrons, he in no way offended me.
If the current manuscript sees print, I may have to address this topic again. My protagonist is a French Canadian Aboriginal woman. One of the people she deals with is Aboriginal, and how culture can be a way to divide people is part of the theme of the book. Am I worried about it, in light of this recent controversy?
At the end of the day, there's only one thing that matters in your story. That you tell the story with the right characters, who are more than caricatures, and are all people. You may need to research a cultural group to really understand a character's motivations and customs, in the same way that you may need to research gender perspectives if you decide to cross gender lines, or may need to research teen trends if you're writing YA. As long as you're breathing life into your characters with sensitivity and consideration then you're fine. There will always be those that are offended, but to suggest that I don't understand what it's like to be a minority or to be discriminated against because of your race is inaccurate. I worked in Baltimore public schools, with ED kids, and had the crap kicked out of me literally because I was white. And as a Canadian married to an American I can tell you honestly that most people I've met in the U.S. have no idea I'm Canadian. Should that offend me? Should it offend them? I'd like to think the answer to both questions is no. I'm a big believer in respecting the local culture when you travel, and have always made a point of learning something about the place I'm visiting and the people who live there and respect local customs. That's why I didn't wear skirts that ended above my knee out in town in Bali, and it's why I said "Grüss Gott" in the village where I stayed in Austria instead of "Guten tag."
I, for one, just can't worry about that because in this day and age, some people seem to want to be offended over everything. What really irritates me about this whole topic? To suggest that any individual is fully defined by the group they're culturally identified with. That's stereotyping, and whether people are black, white or pink with purple polka dots, they're people first. Every single person has a distinct past and heritage that's part of what shaped them into the person they are now... And some of us even evolve and our views change over time. I do not define all Canadians any more than I define all Caucasian women, but part of how we embrace other cultural groups and break down the stereotypes and destroy the myths about them is by respectfully and knowledgeably integrating them into our society in reality, and in our fiction.
** Not the comment that irritated me, by the way.