So, what is cultural appropriation, really?

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Since I’ve been discussing cultural appropriation, I had a quick look around to see what kind of opinions are out there on the subject. First, it looks like most commentators are really adamant that cultural “appropriation” is bad, while cultural “appreciation” leading to real cultural exchange is good. The problem is in deciding which is which.

Checking the definition, I found that Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. According to the article, it’s power imbalance, historically caused by colonialism and oppression, that makes something actually cultural appropriation rather than cultural exchange.

Next, how does this work in practice? Well, there are a few issues. Some writers point out that the definition describes what is generally a local or national problem, while things can look very different on a global scale. In the US, the dominant culture is defined as “white” and the oppressed are considered to be minority persons-of-color like African Americans, LatinX and Asians. These writers also note that “white” is really just a social construct used to describe the currently dominant culture in some regions like the US and EU, because the collection of ethnicities within the term is anything but uniform. “White” in the US currently includes Jews, Arabs, North Africans and East Indians, for example, along with previously oppressed groups like Irish and Italian immigrants, who were at one time defined as “non-white.” And what about Polish jokes? Is this an indication that “white” Poles are oppressed in the US the same way they traditionally have been in Europe?

This is a caveat that dominant cultures are not always just “white” as the current knee-jerk reaction assumes, but vary by time period and region. More clearly, what would be considered the dominant culture in the Middle East, for example, South America, Asia or Africa? These areas have a lot of diversity, but the dominant culture could never be defined as “white.” Is all of African culture off limits to “whites” because of colonialism? Or what about Asia? Much of it was never colonized by “white” Europeans at all.

Actually, the definition of “white” can be dangerously misapplied. For example, the 2018 Eurovision contest provided an instance where a “white” woman was vilified for appropriation of Japanese culture. Netta Barzilai performed the song “Toy” while dressed in a kimono and backed by maneki-neko cats. If you assume Barzilai is part of a dominant “white” culture that oppresses the Japanese, then the charges might be accurate. But is this true?

Well, no. Where’s the power imbalance in this case? On a global scale, Barzilia is Jewish and from Israel, a small, perpetually endangered and persecuted country, while Japan has always been a military, cultural and economic juggernaut. The problem is the assumption that light-colored skin automatically means “oppressor” and a darker complexion means “oppressed.” The end result in this case was wide-spread bullying of a light-skinned, oppressed minority woman who actually put on a great show.

Shouldn’t we be paying better attention?

Review of Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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This alternate history novel is a Nebula finalist published by Tor Books. The number of recommendations for the novels is gone from the page now, but the Wayback Machine suggests this one came from behind, with maybe four recommendations.

The story begins in 1889. British Fabian socialists join forces with missionaries to buy land in the Belgian Congo from King Leopold II. They set up the colony Everfair, which takes in refugees from Leopold’s atrocities, escaped slaves and other political undesirables who go on to build a life alongside the native population. Over the period until 1919, they fight three wars and try to bring together the diverse groups that make up the colony’s population.

One the positive side, this book has a lot of charm. It’s written in a style that suggests 19th century prose, and uses a gentle, non-dramatic approach to relate the stories of various characters dealing with the issues of love, family and the challenging social, industrial and political backdrop of the 19th century fin de siècle.

On the other hand, this is another book without a plot. It’s composed of 3-4 page vignettes that spotlight characters along a timeline and reveal some of the environment they are living in. There is no action line, and I ended up without a clear vision of the characters, what the settlement looks like or how the colony works. Characters emerged and disappeared, and I didn’t get much of an idea of the larger politics. There were a number of interesting threads that went nowhere. A move by the African king in Everfair to expel whites provided something of a focus on racism at the end, but the coverage was too brief to really investigate the fallout.

Because of the lack of plot and action line, this book was a slow read, and it’s best enjoyed in small bites. Keep it by the bedside and read a bit every night. I’m not sure what to say about it as a novel, because I think it’s really a collection instead.

Three stars.

Theft and the 1%

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Warrior
I’m always inspired by the comments people leave at the blogs. A couple back, I got into a short discussion with poster Hoocott on colonial attitudes about theft in the first couple of Tarzan novels. This might sound like neo-left carping, but actually these attitudes are still around is some quarters, so I think it’s appropriate to have a deeper look.Thanks also for Jeffro Johnson for bringing up the subject.

Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan were published just after the turn of the 20th century, so they’re pretty dated by now—like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. However, they’re also a sort of charming look at life and attitudes in the late 19th early 20th centuries when people still traveled on steamships and Africa was The Dark Continent. For anyone who hasn’t read them, these first couple of novels were Romantic adventure (with a capital R). Romanticism was a trend during the Industrial Revolution when everyone yearned for simpler times. This led to the myth that we could somehow “return to nature” and glorified the “noble savage” who still lived life in the wild. I might come back to this sometime later, but right now I want to look at some of the attitudes, especially about theft.

In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan is lost off a ship and ends up back in Africa where he takes up with an African tribe called the Waziri. He is captured by the degenerate beast men of the lost city of Opar, and during his escape, finds their lost treasury filled with gold ingots. Tarzan has been out into the world, so he recognizes this for what it is. He goes back with some of the Waziri warriors and steals about 20 ingots @40 pounds each=$15,155,200 (at today’s prices). Contrary to what Hoocott said in the comments, I can’t see anywhere that he meant to share this with the Waziri. He didn’t take it to the village, but instead hid it in the jungle.

Keep in mind that modern interpretations will often try to fix this—it’s clearly theft and he uses it to set himself and Jane up with an estate in London. I didn’t blink at this as a kid, and I think a lot of readers still won’t. However, if you consider, it’s right out of Cortez and Pizzaro’s colonial playbook—find naïve native tribe, steal gold, retire to a nice villa in Spain. So why do people still accept this? Why not ban the book because it glorifies theft?

Answer: Because it’s how the 1% still does business. You know who they are, the ultra-rich 1% that owns 99% of the wealth in the world? Since we’ve just elected one of them as President of the US, it’s nice to have a look at this attitude. The 1% doesn’t believe in working for wealth; instead, they believe that it should be “captured” through actions like business deals, tax loopholes and influencing government policy. If you’d like to follow up with further reading, look for The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) by Thorstein Veblen.

The big way to for the 1% to capture wealth during the Bush administration looked to be through war profiteering. We’ll have to see how it develops during the next four years.

How does this look in fiction?

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779 Not pretty, actually. I’ve been basing my blogs mostly on research and supporting statements, but now I’ll discuss my personal reactions a bit.

Example 1: I’ve been offended by an influx of this kind of writing into the hit CBS show The Good Wife this season. This year has seen the introduction of several new minority characters. That’s great—they’re wonderful characters. However, a new set of writers seem to have been itching to take down the powerful white characters on the show. Law firm Lockhart, Agos & Lee have to cater to minority job applicants after an investigation for discriminatory hiring practices. Peter Florrick and Eli Gold become sniveling apologists. Alicia Florrick falls into paralyzing depression. This doesn’t work—these are the characters that made the show what it was. The network has announced the show won’t be renewed for next year.

Example 2: I suspect Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory has been shaped by the discussion that took place in RaceFail2009. I already discussed some of the reasons I didn’t care for it in the review I did. It seems messy and forced. A seemingly athletic white female protagonist is described as “plump,” and has a lesbian relationship with an East Indian woman. The straight, white men are villains, inconsequential or stupid, while minority men fill the lead roles. I know these role reversals may be the point, but still it looks like a sexist, racist attack on straight, white men.

Example 3: Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary Mercy also seems to be infected with this kind of ideology. It’s harder to identify in this case, because of the all-female pronouns, but does anyone really think Breq is a man or that Seivarden is a woman? Seivarden is already struggling because of the disappearance of his wealthy and powerful family while he was in sleep storage. In this episode, he is bullied by other crew members into assuming blame for the ancient colonial tradition of privilege. Seivarden isn’t personally to blame for this. Again this looks to be a thinly veiled attack on (white) men.

Is this white guilt literature? Does the new ideology translate to advancing minority interests at the expense of white men? Somehow it looks a bit smug. I can consider these are points to illustrate how insidious privilege can be, but still this marks the resulting works as racist and sexist. The new ideology seems to be quite powerful, too. Both these novels were high in the reading list for Nebula consideration.

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