It is just as well that I’m a writer, not an editor. Were I editing a newspaper or magazine, I might soon be out of a job. For this is an essay in defense of cultural appropriation. . . .Notice the astonishing question-begging of that phrase "without permission." Whose permission? When Disney made Moana they engaged with numerous Polynesian artists, writers, and actors, who gave their strong support, but they still ended up accused of cultural appropriation by many self-proclaimed Polynesian spokespeople. The only way to avoid such accusations would be for them to never make movies set outside Europe. Is that what we want? How would that fight racism?
What is cultural appropriation, and why is it so controversial? Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defines it as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.
Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism. They want to protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.
Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice. . . .
Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.
But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.
In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.
The most potent form of gatekeeping is religion. When certain beliefs are deemed sacred, they are put beyond questioning. To challenge such beliefs is to commit blasphemy.
The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy. It’s the insistence that certain beliefs and images are so important to particular cultures that they may not appropriated by others.
Kenan Malik is a rationalist who has spent his whole career promoting the universal values of the Enlightenment against obscurantism wherever he finds it. To him, cries of cultural appropriation are exactly like the attacks made by mullahs against Salman Rushdie, in which they turned the wrath of their followers on an outsider in order to shore up their own power.
In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against [cultural appropriation] contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”That last point is, I think, the crucial one. The argument against cultural appropriation comes down to believing that people of different races cannot understand each other, cannot identify with each other, cannot really even help each other. If so, the racists are right, and a multi-cultural society is simply impossible.
It's always going to be a messy, complicated topic, but there's a few simple things that everyone engaged in it should always do - be respectful, act in good faith, and err on the side of caution.
When Disney made Moana, they took the time and made the effort to do all of the above. Obviously they couldn't perfectly please everyone, but they went out of their way to do lots of research, to consult with a broad spectrum of people within the culture they were appropriating, and to create a film which overwhelmingly was well received across both cultures for its reasonably accurate, largely non-contentious, generally positive and uplifting depiction of Polynesian myth and tradition.
Now, of course, the degree to which you have to make such an effort differs on a case by case basis. Not all cultures are on equal footing, and it's much easier to borrow from those cultures which have been historically ascendant, rather than those cultures that have been marginalized or even outright oppressed.
If I want to write a story about werewolves terrorizing the streets of London, I don't have to be very careful about it. I could set my story in an ostensible "London" that in reality more closely resembles New York City, and I could decide to write my werewolves as space aliens, and yet very few people would be offended by those inaccuracies. Why? Because neither werewolves nor London is a marginalized, misunderstood piece of culture. They're extremely well represented, and consequently no one is going to confuse my inaccurate versions for the real things. And it also helps a lot that I'm writing from within the shared culture group of English descended societies.
But if I want to write a story based in the beliefs and culture of Australian aborigines, who have been historically been poorly represented, I suddenly need to be a lot more careful. These are a people who have been exploited and misrepresented by unscrupulous individuals from my culture group for centuries. They and their culture are not broadly familiar, or well understood. If I represent them inaccurately, people have no basis of comparison to allow them to differentiate by inaccurate version from the real thing, and I can create all sorts of misconceptions and false stereotypes, which actively hurt the aborigines.
Perhaps even worse, I'm robbing them of agency. Instead of being allowed to represent themselves and their own culture, they're suddenly being represented by me and my work's inaccurate depiction of their culture. Would you accept some random person you don't know and didn't choose to speak in your name and on your behalf? Especially if the way in which they represent you is one you disagree with - or worse, one which you find wildly offensive? Of course not.
When we appropriate culture, we are speaking on someone else's behalf. Hence the focus on seeking "permission" to do so. Hence the focus on speaking truthfully, and in a way that reflects positively on the people being spoken about. You wouldn't want someone stealing your voice and using it to put words in your mouth that you don't agree with - so always be very careful to never yourself do that to others.
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