Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Culture, You Damn Dirty White

Just a reminder that Summer's End is about to go up in price across all platforms so if you haven't bought a copy yet, do it now!

I'd intended to blog about the experience and lessons of writing Summer's End but then author Lionel Shriver gave a speech at the Brisbane Writer's Festival about how she doesn't like the idea of cultural appropriation and the damn lefties and their political correctness are trying to ruin fiction. She then laments that even though she's apparently not allowed to ever write anything but a memoir ever again, she's supposed to write diverse characters and fill her books with a check list of sexualities and ethnicities and damn it, damn it, damn it, being a writer is so hard, right now.

Let me preface this by admitting I'm not familiar with Lionel Shriver's work. Never read any and I'm not rushing out to find some now.

At the heart of Shriver's rant is the idea that writers should be able to write about characters and from the perspective of characters from different walks of life than the author. And that's true. I'm on board with that. Not so long ago I wrote here on this blog about why not only should authors be allowed to, authors should be encouraged to write about diverse characters. But around that point, Shriver criticises the whole idea of Cultural Appropriation in what amounts to a standard "Political correctness gone mad" tirade, as though this meme isn't so tired and weak it can't be put to death by fourteen year-olds on Tumblr.

So I'm not going to pretend the issue of cultural appropriation is easy or simple. I'm not going to pretend there aren't self-appointed culture police out there making sure the local sushi restaurant is a white free zone. But when you point at one extreme of a cultural movement and say "Look at all these bastards ruining the world," then you're just proving that you don't want to engage intelligently with the discourse. You want to stomp your feet and pout and scream at straw men until nanny comes and gives you ice cream to make it all better.

But cultural appropriation isn't about censorship, it's not about putting people in boxes, it's not about restricting who can eat sushi or drink tequila or wear a kimono. This is an issue of respect.

Cultural Appropriation is defined in the book "Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (Rutgers Series: The Public Life of the Arts)" by Susan Scafidi as
Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission.
And that's a good a definition as any. But the word has a negative connotation and, on the surface, is taking a cultural artifact, expression or knowledge so bad? I for one quite like cooking Italian food for dinner. Am I culturally appropriating food from Italian culture? Well, yeah. Is that, in itself, bad? Nah, I think we can safely say that's fine.

So where do we draw the line? How do we tell what's bad cultural appropriation and what's okay?

When a fashion designer dresses a model in a mock Native American feather head dress, faux buck skin bikini and beading, then walks them down the runway and says "Check this out, cultural fetishisation is hot this season!" then the designer is not being respectful. It turns out, those feathered head dress - or war bonnets - are kind of a big deal in some Native American cultures and not just any chump can gallivant about in eagle feathers. War bonnets are important cultural artifacts rich in history and symbolism and national identity. War bonnets are not fashion accessories and if you treat them as such, or as a costume, then you're being insensitive.

You're being a jerk.

Don't be a jerk.

A few years ago I went to Hong Kong. While there I picked up a jacket and a couple of shirts in a market that took a lot of their design from traditional Chinese fashion. Mandarin collar, frog buttons, embroidered dragon design. Very Chinese. You may be aware that I am not Chinese. Like, not at all. Not even a bit. So what makes me so special?

Well, there's a few reasons. Firstly, the items in question were just fashion. They're just clothes. There's a history to those clothes but that history is far less culturally involved than a Native American war bonnet. Even the inclusion of a dragon design is safe. Dragons have been a part of art and fashion in China for a long time. This is not an "Emperor's only dragon, peasants need not apply." It's the kind of dragon you put on the back of your mirror, or on a wall hanging, or on your bowl. It's cool. Secondly, there's an implied permission granted to me by the nature of the sale. I'm in Hong Kong, buying from a local vendor, in a market and the whole context is basically "Here, white man. Here is some kitsch that you can wear and nobody will be offended. This is for cultural tourists like yourself." Thirdly, independent of that context, I know enough about China to say with confidence that I'm not crossing a line. Chinese history and culture is something I have a great interest in and passion for and I can safely say that I'm not going to upset anyone by wearing this shirt.

Finally, at the time I was working in a job with a number of Chinese colleagues and that had a lot of connections to the Chinese-Australian community in my area. If I had been crossing any boundaries and being a jerk, they would have called me on it. But my genuine interest, knowledge and respect towards Chinese culture was always appreciated by my co-workers and they liked that I was willing to share in a celebration of their heritage but always as an outsider and never pretending to be anything more.

I was not being a jerk.

And that's what this comes down to. Don't be a jerk. Culture is not just an abstract idea, culture is a people. When you take a cultural artifact and use it, wear it, eat it, remember that your actions necessarily impact on real people. Are you going to offend those people? Are you showing both interest and respect in them? If you're not, then stop whatever you're doing. If you're not sure, maybe play it safe and stop until you can find out.

We live in an increasingly global and connected world and I consider it a great fortune that I get to live in a part of the world where hundreds of cultures are meeting and mixing all around me. And not once have I ever met a person from another culture who was offended at the idea that I might like to know more about their heritage and share in some of their cultural practice and knowledge. People want their culture to be seen and shared and appreciated and all they ask is that you don't be a jerk. That's not a huge ask.

Now, what about authors. I've already covered this but I'll go over it again really quick. Basically: Same rules apply.

Authors need to write more diversity, they need to represent more people and their cultures and their life experience. We have plenty of books by straight white guys about straight white guys. But before you tell a story about another culture, in another culture or using another culture, stop and consider how respectful you're being. Have you got your facts straight? Are your characters stereotypes? Is the one black character in your novel full of white characters used in such a way to casually evoke slavery imagery? If so, maybe don't do that. That's offensive. At least have another black American character in there.

So back to that original question, how do we know what's okay and what's bad cultural appropriation?

Just don't be a jerk. It's not hard.

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