Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 2 of 4)

PART II: …I only ask one thing—

Culture has various definitions. Most agree that “culture” are the customs, institutions, and products of a common society, regarded collectively. Or, to put it more simply: “Culture” is the shared outputs of a particular group. NOTE: ideologies, or shared ways of thinking, are also part of culture; but, ideas inherently belong to no one. This is why, for example, you can’t copyright an idea, only a representation (like a book or a picture) of an idea. So, we’ll stay with “outputs”.

Next, what is appropriation? This is a more problematic concept. If you put a criminal overlay on it, as the verb itself suggests, you probably mean something like the legal definition. Roughly, separating out some elements in a useful way, appropriation is: (1) Taking, (2) without their permission, (3) someone else’s property, (4) with the intent to convert it to your own use? Most deeper discussions will add a fifth, underlying element: (5) And done in a way to further oppress or harm the people of that culture. We’ll come back to that.

As I mentioned yesterday, I deliberately (#1) “Took Culture” when the magic system of my novel was to be the underpinning to all (including Native Peoples’) religions. Mea Culpa.

My reflexive response is that all ideas in storytelling, especially fantasy fiction, are pastiche. There is no such thing as an original idea. All writers of fiction are putting together ideas they have taken from others. This is my reasoned opinion; and I think reasonable people, especially writers (being the ones who know what that entails), should share it.

As writers…it’s really important to engage with as broad a range of society as possible…there’s also this fear that you’re not supposed to step outside of your lane…if you’re straight you’re not supposed to write trans characters, or your cis-gender [and] trans characters, and so on….it’s very complicated. But, my basic feeling is: Creating characters is always a challenge, but its really important to, y’know, create beyond your own demographic.
-Bernadine Evaristo, Author and Booker Prize Winner

Bernadine Evaristo

Upon any real analysis, the entire cultural appropriation conceptual framework starts to bend mightily, if not break.

For example: How, when, and from whom should a writer get (#2) permission, as it is (#3) someone’s property? Well, any definition of culture will incorporate the idea that it is something that is shared amongst many people. So, it cannot be someone’s personal property, in that sense.

And, of course, the concepts of culture and identity are ever-changing over time, as well. Dreadlocks that white kids were “taking” from black culture after the latest rap albums were released, were, before that, once symbols of the Rastafari in Jamaica. And they were used by Nazarites of Judaism before that. And the Dervishes of Islam before that. Going back a bit farther, you get them being worn by Germanic Tribes and Vikings, and eventually back to ancient Egypt, where mummies have been recovered with their dreadlocks still intact.

Instead of exploring this nuance, certain evangelicals in the religion of “Identity Politics” use culture as a fetishized something that can only be understood by people who have their background and/or look like them. I would argue this flies in the face of history and personal experience. Empathy and growth come from trying to understand people who are not like you.

Also elusive is the idea of (#4) converting it to your own use—at least in the context of fiction writing. If I write about a Jewish wedding or the Yakuza, I’m not stopping anyone else from doing the same.

So, what to do? Various experts say it is simply not enough to do my research and improve my writing. These days, the go-to move is to hire a ‘sensitivity reader’…someone who is a self-proclaimed member of the community that you might somehow be abusing in your creative work. Their job is to review your work, find potential problems, and give it their a priori imprimatur. While this seems, cosmetically, like a good idea; upon any kind of true reflection, the absurdity of it becomes apparent. Outside of the legal realm (Judges, Prime Ministers, parents for their family, etc), no one person truly “speaks for” any group. Such a review becomes the academic version of placing a gargoyle atop the doorway to keep out evil spirits. Or perhaps purchasing an Indulgence?

The point remains: any decent writer should already have had a diverse pool of beta readers reviewing their work, in the first place.

That leaves us with the real sine qua non of cultural appropriation—the one I said we’d come back to: Was this use of a cultural artifact (#5) done in a way to further oppress or harm the people of that culture?

This is obviously something that is determined on a case-by-case basis (“art, meet audience member”). But, simple as that question sounds, except for the most egregious cases, it is really quite difficult to pinpoint and prove on any kind of large scale just what passes this test? After all, the intent is captured inside the concept of harm (or else, it is just a faux pas, right?).

Plus, what if you had evidence that quote-unquote proved that the origin story of the author doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the perceived authenticity of the writing?

Here is some pudding—the strange examples of the Pretendian Literari. People like best-selling author Forrest Carter (The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (1972), The Education of Little Tree (1976) or Tim Barrus (who published three fictional memoirs in the 2000s, including The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams)?

Barrus published memoirs under the name of Nasdijj, an alleged Navajo. But he was actually a twice-married white Social Worker from Michigan, who had only lived some of his adult life on a Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

Even more amazing was the case of Forrest Carter, whose real name was Asa Carter. Before his writing career, Asa was a Klan leader and former speechwriter for [white supremacist and former Governor of Alabama] George Wallace. He even ran for Governor, himself. But, once his writing career started taking off, he left his old life in Alabama behind (after visiting the local FBI office to assure them that he’d never make any more noise) and completely reinvented his identity into a lovable, mild-mannered, and gentlemanly native American. He did that by moving to Texas and sheltering his family from his newly made Texan friends. During that time, he never mentioned having any sons and referred to them as his nephews, so his white-looking kids wouldn’t give away the game. After he died, and all the people left the memorial service, his family returned and swapped out the gravestone with one that had his correct name.

In both cases, these two (let’s just say it) despicable white guys were somehow able to produce cultural outputs that were not only considered passable but were even celebrated for their authenticity. A couple of Barrus’s books were nominated for PEN awards, even as his first one was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” that won that year’s Salon Book Award.

As for Carter? “The Outlaw Josey Wales” became the basis for a widely popular motion picture; and, even to this day, The Education of Little Tree is considered a classic novel, having sold over 1.5 million copies. Colleges and Universities used it in Native American Studies classes. Considered a positive and authentic depiction, no less than Sherman Alexie (arguably the most commercially successful Native American author of all) said that it is “a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden White supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a White supremacist.”

Even after his death, Carter’s closest friends (even ones who didn’t find out his duplicity until afterward) think that he had a good side that his literary career evidenced. Or—and this seems to be the verdict of a documentary about him—was his cloak-and-dagger existence evidence of a long string of cons. Each novel or speech was merely the product of someone whose tremendous writing talent was available to the highest bidder.

Maybe he was the proverbial YouTube influencer…only just a few decades too soon?

Regardless, these examples seem to demonstrate the comfortable truth that makes so many people uncomfortable: We’re all human. That is, in the Venn diagram of life, we all overlap more than we don’t. So, when content speaks to us, to the human condition in all of us, maybe it doesn’t matter, not really, what the skin color of the author was? It’s hard to do (think: Bill Cosby), but maybe there is some value in doing content analysis on the art itself, before inserting the identity of the artist, or your own identity, into the process of learning from that art?

Or am I just full of it (white privilege and cultural guilt)?


Counter-arguments are in PART III of IV.

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