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?

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Review of Integration (Ghost Marines Book 1) by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novel is military SF, released by Semper Fi Press on 25 April 2018. It runs 242 pages and is the first novel of a series. The second novel, Unification (Ghost Marines Book 2), was released in August, 2018, and Fusion is forthcoming. Integration was a 2018 Dragon Award Finalist for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. Brazee’s novelette “Weaponized Math,” from The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3, was a 2018 Nebula finalist. This review may contain spoilers.

Leefe is Wyntonian, a non-human from Hope Hollow. When he is still a child, his home settlement is attacked by human slavers, and the community is saved by Imperial Marines. Three tri-years later, the new Emperor of the Empire announces a plan to integrate non-humans into the Imperial Marines. The now-adult Leefen, remembering his admiration for the soldiers who rescued him, volunteers to be one of the first group of Wyntonians to apply for induction. This move by the Emperor is clearly a political strategy to unify the Empire, and all the Wyntonians are warned about failing. In order to become a real marine, Leefen will have to pass testing to achieve induction, get through boot camp, and most importantly, overcome the racism of humans who spitefully call Wyntonians “ghosts.” Does he have what it takes?

The story details Leefen experiences of the induction and training process, then carries on into his service deployments, including a mission to rescue hostages and—coming full circle, a final one to rescue the helpless captives of outlaw slavers. The main theme is the importance of the process that integrates the raw recruits into a cohesive unit, and how they try to confront and defeat prejudice by finding common ground and kinship with humans.

This is a smooth read with a minimal action line. There’s a certain amount of violence, of course, but it’s tailored to support the main theme of unity. The characters are well-developed. The politics in the Empire is suggested, but not detailed. Leefen is offered a political post when his enlistment is up, but avoids it for the moment. There are plenty of interesting leads here that I expect will develop in book 2.

Four stars.

WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

Update on the Dragon Awards Drama 2017

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On August 10, officials at the Dragon Awards reconsidered their policy of not letting authors withdraw their names from the competition, which resulted in Littlewood and Jemisin withdrawing. Scalzi, after consulting with the officials, decided to stay in the competition, but can’t attend because he’s booked somewhere else for Labor Day weekend. Interestingly, Littlewood and Jemisin both released statements that they were withdrawing because they didn’t want to be used as political pawns.

Littlewood’s position is easy to understand, as her novel The Hidden People was on Vox Day’s list of recommendations for the award. (Can you still call it a Rabid Puppy slate when he calls it recommendations?) Appalled at being targeted, Littlewood jumped to make it clear she didn’t want to be tainted by Rabid Puppy support. This pretty much mirrors similar behavior from authors in the last couple of years. But Jemisin’s statement is more interesting. “There’s a nasty tendency on the part of some organizations to try and use tokens,” she says on her blog, “— most often women and people of color — as ornamentation and flak shielding. It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey! Look! We’re diverse. We’re fair. [Person X’s presence] proves it!’ when in fact the fairness may be an unearned veneer and the diversity a reluctant afterthought.”

This suggests even Jemisin is noticing how often her name appears on awards ballots when plenty of other talented and deserving writers-of-color are out there. Evidently she suspected the Dragon Awards committee might have inserted her name, but it turned out to be fans after all (described as “justice warriors” by President of Dragon Con, Pat Henry). Whatever, these withdrawals reduce the gender diversity of the award even further, leaving the ballot at approximately 82% men.

In light of yesterday’s Hugo results where all the fiction awards went to women, there seems to be a growing split between male and female interests during the SFF awards cycle. Is there any chance this might improve in the near future?

Review of Heathens by Jonah Bergan

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I’m actually gone on vacation again, and there’s going to be a delay while I work through Cixin Liu’s Death’s End at 600 pages. To fill in, here’s a review of one of those underrepresented voices that would be hard to find in offerings from the big publishers.

Things in the US have come apart. The Free Republic of Texas holds most of the Central US, and the Kingdom of God holds most of the North and East, except for a strip right along the coast where UN Peacekeepers hold ground they call the “colonies.” Only the Deep South of Florida, Georgia and Alabama is still called the United States. Holden lives in a disputed, ruined city, and like many young LGB people has a talent developing. His is telekinesis, but others have different talents which make them targets for people who consider the powers demonic. When Holden’s lover is killed by hostiles, he leaves home and is taken in by Sol as part of his family. Sol is for trying to reestablish peace, but he is opposed by Clarissa who wants to fight against the enemy. Motivated by anger and hate, Holden grows more militant. He moves to Clarissa’s camp, where he finds other young people like himself who want to fight back. Eventually Holden has to make a decision about what’s right.

This is a young adult novel in the popular dystopia sub-genre. It’s written in first and second person, as Holden narrates events for us and also speaks to the enemy as “you.” The political divisions presented by the book echo the slash and burn tactics of current politics, where the extremes of right and left attack the voices in the center. It’s well-written, with Holden’s narrative providing both the flow of his thoughts and feelings and a clear picture of both the city and what goes on within it.

On the negative side, a lot of people die here. It’s a dark vision that isn’t likely to encourage hope in younger generations. Also, I can’t see where any but LGB teens are developing the talents, though some straight kids do get ground up and/or join the fight. This means the book is tightly aimed at a particular audience when broadening the cast of characters would increase the audience size.

I like the message. Four stars.

Thoughts on the new liberalism

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The last time I looked at social trends here, I was urged in the comment section to look at third-wave feminism as a disruptive force in the SFF community. However, I’m thinking the issue is broader than that, as the New Left also seems to incorporate elements of race and class in its platform.

Checking around for other thoughts on this, I came up with a couple of interesting articles. The first is “The Big Uneasy” by Nathan Heller and published in the New Yorker. Heller investigates at Oberlin College, an elite school where student demands were recently rejected by the college president and ridiculed by alumni. He does a good job of covering both sides of the issue, interviewing both students and administrators.

Heller notes that this group of activists has come of age during the Obama administration with expectations that we have achieved social and racial equality in the US. However, when you look around, it’s easy to see this hasn’t happened, so students are now making demands that reality match the ideal they’ve been raised to expect. This, of course, leads to social conflict. That’s the easy part—Heller’s interviews also expose something else that’s harder to reconcile, which is that these students have badly misconceived how power and wealth really work. Running up against this has left them disillusioned, where one interviewee has already dropped out of school and another says she will leave the US when she graduates because she thinks it is “a sinking ship.”

Oberlin is an elite school. Graduating from this college is expected to open doors, giving students the background and contacts to join the elite in the power and wealth structure—all they have to do is absorb the values and conform to what’s expected. Like many universities, the school has tried to encourage diversity, pursuing bright and talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the most interesting thing that comes out of this article is that the interviewed students have rejected this privilege, apparently finding that “capitalism” doesn’t fit their worldview.

This is a paradox. How can you diversity the elite if minorities reject the worldview?

Individualism vs. social inclusion

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I’ve already fussed about the trend I mentioned again in the last blog, the message that virtue and good deeds will ensure you are warmly accepted into the social community, regardless of who or what you are. This seems to be the trendy social message. I’ve characterized it as part of a movement to over-protection of children, but now I’ve been looking for the origins of the message. I think it comes from anti-bullying programs.

The United States has always been known for its philosophy of Individualism. This is defined as being independent and self-reliant, and also as a social theory that favors freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control. Anyone who’s uncertain of what this means can find it in novels by Ayn Rand. Specifically, this means that individuals should form their own opinions and take responsibility for their own actions without being dependent on others. It also means that strong individuals don’t allow themselves to be peer-pressured into things they don’t want to do.

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) was developed in the early 1980s by Norwegian professor Dan Olweus. It was first implemented in Norway, but soon crossed the Atlantic and took root in the USA. Bullying has changed over the years. In 1980, most bullying took place face-to-face, through either physical or emotional mistreatment. With the advent of social media, however bullying has disappeared from adult view. Sometimes the first parents hear of it is when their child tries to commit suicide. To counter this, efforts at bullying prevention have increased. The OBPP and similar programs have a number of components, some of which include immediate adult intervention when bullying is discovered, presentation of positive adult role models and a strong effort to include all children in a supportive social community.

So, we have opposing philosophies here. The supportive social community that suppresses aggression suggests collective control. Lots of kids don’t fit in. However, if you are this kind of kid, you have to learn to own it. Difference is the source of critical thinking, and learning to deal with this is one of the hallmarks of say, the successful scientists and engineers of the future.

I can see the point of the virtue + good deeds = acceptance message, but I just don’t think it’s going to work out for a lot of kids. No amount of virtue + good deeds is going to take the tragedy and conflicts out of life. I suspect kids who still can’t make it are going to be dangerous.

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