I just read Nisi Shawl’s essay on “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation”, which gives a few tips and advice to Western authors on how to behave, and what questions to ask themselves. Because I was reading it on a plane with no internet access, I even read the comments.
Of course there was the sort of comment that is so typical, it’s why I really truly don’t read the comments most of the time: the aggressive, probably male, white and Western, voice, saying something like:
“…call me insensitive, but I’ll borrow whatever cultures I please…” (said in almost those exact words, but expanded upon in several paragraphs of course.)
Due to some stage in my own thinking about cultural appropriation and power dynamics, I suddenly saw this comment in a new light.
It does not occur to the writer that this assertion of “I’ll do whatever I want” might come at any cost other than a few people calling him out by name for it. (He didn’t hide his name.) It doesn’t occur to him that publishers might reject his work, that editors would tell him to cut appropriative material or send him off to do more research, or even (most likely) that anyone he gets to help his research should be entitled to compensation. He is asserting a power of independent expression that writers of color, non-Western voices in the USA, are routinely and incessantly denied.
How many times have I heard about writers being told not to include “so many queer characters”, “so many women”, being told “you have to explain this cultural reference even if it takes power away from a dramatic literary moment”, or even “you can’t include foreign languages without translation”? That’s, of course, when the story has actually made it as far as editor’s cuts or a non-generic rejection letter.
There was a saying repeated on multiple panels at WisCon, which I recently attended: Junot Diaz, “…fuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and White people think we’re taking over.” It’s an incredible testament to the power of white readership, and white-normative publishing.
So, when a commenter like this says, “I’ll do whatever I want”, does he realize the kind of power he is exerting? Yes and no, I think: he knows his own power, and if he’s much of an SFF reader at all, he knows what gets published. In fact he knows that clever, even malicious exotifications could make his story more publishable in a lot of places, not less. But, does he understand even the first thing about the people he is exerting this power upon?
I think Shawl’s essay covers a lot of ground for a conscientious reader. But for white and Western-centric readers, I think we could stand to re-emphasize a crucial point about cultural appropriation: to distort someone’s culture so that their own versions are not commonly recognized, requires power. Cultural appropriation is an abuse of power. And I know it’s not just me who took a long time to grok that.
Related: accountability, and what it means. If you’re on the privileged side of something, then accountability often means that if you fuck up badly, you may lose friends, or your friends will call you out; or strangers will. You can, if you really want to, abandon them altogether and the only price you will pay, most of the time, comes in feelings of shame and/or pain. If on the other hand, you’re threatening a dominant culture that oppresses you, then you may quite reasonably fear for your life, or your source of income and health. I have noticed even really long-term, really well-meaning white activists, in particular, more or less deliberately ignore this when our own feelings are hurt. I am sick at heart, knowing how much that happens.