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January 16th, 2009


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12:13 pm - Musings on Bigotry, Racism, & Cultural Appropriation
I've seen quite a number of discussions of cultural appropriation recently, both in the SF community and in the neopagan community. Like many other people, I have fairly strong feelings about this issue, and part of those involve what I see as unclear language. I don't like some of the discussion I've seen about cultural appropriation because I don't think that (from my PoV at least) in all of the cases that I've read, cultural appropriation is what's actually being discussed. As I see it, there are three separate issues being discussed, and I find it useful to keep them separate – these issues are bigotry, unconscious prejudice, and cultural appropriation. So, in an effort to make my own position clear, I'll define what I mean by these three terms.

1) Bigotry: For me bigotry is the term I use for conscious and deliberate prejudice. Examples are unfortunately not difficult to find – the KKK, the Republican Party's deliberate appeals to bigots… Bigotry is indefensible and I see no reason to tolerate or associate with bigots. However (with a few impressively notable exceptions) much of what's being discussed in both the SF and neopagan communities is not bigotry. I've seen truly hideous amounts of sexism in the SF community, and I've met my share of openly (and in some cases proudly) racist pagans. However, the vast majority of people who are actually willing to discuss these issues (rather than simply dismissing or mocking people interested in discussing these issues) are not bigots.

2) Unconscious Prejudice: Unconscious racism, sexism (or whatever) involves perpetuating stereotypes and misrepresenting minorities, oppressed groups, and other cultures not through deliberate malice, but through accident or (most often) ignorance. One truly glaring example of this is the three recent Star Wars films (where Jar Jar Binks, the aliens of the Trade Federation, and Watto (the horrific flying anti-Semitic stereotype on Tatooine). The particular depictions of these characters might be due to bigotry, but I suspect that the actual reasons (exceedingly impressive) levels of ignorance. However, most examples of this sort of unconscious prejudice are more subtle, like the perpetuation of the "queers in love die" stereotype in Tara's death at the end of Season Six of Buffy. I don't see unconscious prejudice as necessarily having anything to do with cultural appropriation and think it should be considered separately.

Much of the recent discussion that I've seen in the SF community has been about unconscious prejudice. I think this is a vitally important discussion, but prefer to have terms be clear. Calling this sort of problem cultural appropriation (or even relating it to cultural appropriation) seems to make the issue unnecessarily complex, just as the (all too frequent) conflation of bigotry and unconscious prejudice (which often results in accusing people guilty of unconscious prejudice of being bigots) is needlessly hurtful and antagonistic, and often discourages people who make honest (if sometimes glaringly obvious) mistakes from doing the work needed to overcome their unconscious prejudice and do better next time. Yes, many people in mainstream culture can be exceptionally dense, however, calling such people bigots when they are merely clueless helps no one.

3) Cultural Appropriation: My definition is that this is the practice of borrowing ideas, myths, and tropes from another culture and inserting them into your work (which could be a novel, a design on a t-shirt, a neopagan ritual, or whatever). This can be done exceptionally badly, and thus can be an example of either bigotry or unconscious prejudice. We've all seen too many ludicrous and horrific media portrayals of Arab culture in the last 8 years. Borrowing bits of an actual culture and sprinkling it in with hateful or seriously wrong-headed ideas based on stereotypes and misinformation is obviously wrong, but from my PoV, it's wrong because it's an example of either bigotry or unconscious prejudice, not because this depiction has anything to do with cultural appropriation.

From my PoV at least, if cultural appropriation is done somewhat accurately, without malice, and in an informed fashion (IOW not simply dropping random gypsies in you fantasy world [a specific example james_nicoll has complained about more than once] or borrowing stereotypes), then I see absolutely no problem with doing so. I consider this to be how all human culture works. I see absolutely nothing wrong with a white author writing a novel set in Japan with all Japanese characters or even borrowing elements of Japanese culture for their fantasy or SF world, as long as it's done without malice and with some degree of skill and actual knowledge. Also from my PoV, the case is even easier when borrowing from any extinct culture or the far past of any existing culture, since the people involved are all long dead, and from my PoV aren't in a position to care one whit about what you are doing. So, writing about the ancient Celts or the Romans seems perfectly fine for white authors, black authors, or anyone else. It's not like there are any ancient Celts who can either complain or write about themselves today.

Ultimately, I see cultural appropriation as a natural and vitally necessary part of human culture. Borrowing bits from other cultures is what we all do, and saying that it's in some way wrong or inappropriate makes no sense to me. For example, I remember a case around a decade ago, where an organization of Maori people complained about tattoos using Maori designs being widely used by white people, and I simply don't agree with their position. I see this as not in any way different from the many uses of Chinese and Japanese Kanji characters as decorations the US, or for that matter the widespread use of English words as decorations in China and Japan. All of these are often done badly (often amusingly so) but incompetence does not equal bigotry and on at least some occasions, it doesn't even equal unconscious prejudice – the only thing that tattooing yourself with a phrase from a Chinese restaurant menu reveals is your lack of knowledge of Chinese (or perhaps your deep love of a particular type of Chinese food).
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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Comments:


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From:helen99
Date:January 16th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
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This reflects how I feel about cultural appropriation. Everything is the result of borrowing from an existing body of knowledge and taking it one step further. Banning the borrowing of something for use in one's own writings or work simply because it originated on another land mass is ludicrous. I think a lot of people confuse the three concepts, as you've said.

I'm not sure how I feel about the excising of unconscious prejudice from existence. I find that if the effort to eradicate it is taken to extremes, it makes me want to read an older book that was written when nobody cared about unconscious prejudice -- just for the sake of being thoroughly unenlightened for an hour or so.
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From:slothman
Date:January 16th, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC)
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I think the respectful thing to do with cultural appropriation is to be creative with it; use it as inspiration and add something of your own, rather than just ripping off someone else’s work. One could argue that a game like Jade Empire is cultural appropriation, but I think that the shades of the teahouse storytellers who spun Outlaws of the Marsh were pleased by the quality of the tale therein. Similarly, books like Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds or Liz Williams’ Snake Agent, and music like Kaya Project and Angel Tears couldn’t exist in a world where everyone was uptight about cultural appropriation, and that would just be a shame.
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From:bruceb
Date:January 16th, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
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Nothin' to argue with here. :)

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From:scholargipsy
Date:January 16th, 2009 11:35 pm (UTC)
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Well said on cultural appropriation (I was an anthro major too). It is not only the engine of human culture considered broadly, but also a potential engine of personal intellectual growth and a bulwark against racism -- again, assuming a sincere effort to learn and understand.

If RPG gaming has given me one great gift (and really, it's given me way more than that), it's curiosity about people who are different from me and a desire to learn how their worldviews work. I don't think it's a coincidence so many lifelong RPers also love history, anthropology, and the other social sciences.
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:January 17th, 2009 05:32 am (UTC)
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I've seen the flip side of the cultural misappropriation thing, specifically within the Asatru/Heathen community where people seem convinced those they are drawing their spirituality/religion from lived in a box despite evidence to the contrary. That these religions were "pure and untainted". This is a distinctly modern view point. The old Norse, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures were, essentially pragmatists. If they saw something that worked, they would use it. They may have had to modify whatever it was, but that wouldn't have stopped them. It wouldn't have even been a consideration. They didn't have the nationalistic hang-ups we have now, which is where this all started. (disclaimer: I know fully well that peoples have regarded Others being different, and therefore lesser,l has been around as long as we have had societies capable of noting those differences). Institutionalised nationalism and ethnicity made it worse.

The same is true today, perhaps even more so given how interlinked the world is. It is impossible not to borrow. Of course that does not stop it from being done unethically, or without any real understanding of what is being borrowed. One of the best examples I can think of is the Western usage of the Hindu term "karma". Also not stating where certain influences come from, like borrowing Native inspired "whatever".
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:January 17th, 2009 07:41 am (UTC)
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Don't forget Russia in the rewriting of history thing. It's going on there, too, which is an equally scary thought.
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:January 17th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
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Not keeping up on current events/news/political slants is not a good thing either. You can't put anything into perspective that way, and it's not as though cultures are static which is part of the problem - people see them as such.
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From:jhkim
Date:January 17th, 2009 08:27 am (UTC)
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This is a little tricky. Something can have unfortunate consequences for race even if it is neither consciously nor unconsciously racist. For example, someone might see a recording of an old minstrelsy show (i.e. theater in blackface) and genuinely be affected by the artistry of it. He genuinely means no offense, and wants to adapt parts of it into a new show he is putting on. Despite not intending to offend, the social effect of this is to propagate historical problems associated with minstrelsy.

In a world where racism exists, it is not enough to simply be race-blind. Being unbiased can mean that one does not perceive racism that they are propagating. If they either adapt or retread material to what has historically racist connotations, then their work can legitimize the memory of those. For example, if I as a non-black do a theater show based on black song and dance in the antebellum South, even without personal racist bias or using racist source material, it has implications beyond my intent with the work.

To work against racism is not simply to be blind to race and unbiased. For example: many people would use the phrase "I've been jewed" to mean that they were cheated of money; or similarly "I've been gypped". When asked about gypsies or Jews, they might genuinely say that they have nothing but respect for them. However, I think that there is a problem with continuing to use those terms.

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