On Appropriate Uses of Culture

The other day, an author friend whom I hold in esteem told me she was considering dropping her work on a planned novel. She had already invested time, money, and—perhaps most important of all—heart into the work. Had dreamed of it for a long time. The work, a fantasy novel in a secondary world, drew inspiration from some real world areas of Asia. My friend had recently heard from another author, a white author living in China, who had gotten lampooned for having the audacity to write about a culture not his own in his Asian-inspired fantasy novel. My friend does deep research on every topic, including other cultures, and approaches representation of all people with the utmost compassion and respect. Over the whole conversation loomed the unspoken specter of cultural appropriation.

It’s a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, given the nature of my work. In trying to craft a universe to house and reconcile all real-world myths, I need to approach my work from a global perspective. Any such project, lacking non-Western cultures, would be disingenuous and pointless.

It’s also a weighty topic, evoking justifiably high emotions because of its connection with the oppression of non-Western cultures throughout history.

For those not familiar with the term, the Oxford dictionary defines cultural appropriation as: “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

Using a people, or an aspect of their culture, as a mascot for a sports team is probably the most blatant case cultural appropriation. Many Native Americans have accused non-Indigenous peoples of appropriation for copying parts of their sacred sweat lodge ceremonies without acknowledging the spiritual aspect therein. Along these same lines, Halloween costumes that depict other cultures, especially without respect, treat foreign traditions as though they lie within the same category as superheroes or Disney princesses, icons to be emulated, characters rather than persons.

On the other hand, sometimes people accuse creatives of cultural appropriation for the mere inclusion of cultures or ideas outside of their own upbringing or race. Authors, show runners, movie producers, all sometimes face these criticisms (and here I’m separating the whole issue of whitewashing from that of appropriation). I think such situations often derive from the accuser recognizing cultural appropriation is bad, internalizing that, and then seeing it whenever cultures overlap.

The key here, as you might expect, is that of respect. The fact that an author can care about this, about not wanting to treat any member of any culture with disrespect, I take for evidence of that they will not cross any lines. I hope my worrying about it means I don’t have to worry about it.

Some argue that the term “cultural appreciation” can be used as a copout to escape from the weight of claims of cultural appropriation. Undoubtedly this happens sometimes. On the other hand, the idea that stories cannot include people outside of one’s own culture is not only absurd, but counterproductive. No single author belongs to more than a handful of cultures at once. To imagine that stories can, therefore, not include a multitude of cultures, works against goals of respect, appreciation, and most importantly, inclusivity.

My author friend raised the related point: can a non-trans author write a trans character? If not, if we assume we cannot put ourselves into the shoes of someone different and empathize with them and their lives, in fact, we move toward exclusivity instead.

There remains a world of difference between the author who researches the beliefs and traditions of another people and includes them in a work, and the sports-fan who adopts sacred symbols without knowing a damn thing about them.

Writing a book is, usually, a solitary pursuit in which an author does everything they can to put themselves in the head and shoes of other people. Bernardine Evaristo, the first black woman to win the Booker prize, spoke about the issue of cultural appropriation, saying unequivocally authors should not have to “stay in their lane.”

Or as ethics columnist, Kwame Athony Appiah put it, “The key question in the use of symbols or regalia associated with another identity group is not: What are my rights of ownership? Rather it’s: Are my actions disrespectful?”

I cannot imagine, any author who researches another culture before incorporating that culture or a homage thereof into their work, doing so as anything but respectful.

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