What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when a work (a written work, an image, a film, a dance routine, a show, a Halloween costume) takes and displays some aspect from a culture without regard for the meaning and/or the context of that aspect within the culture.
- Minstrel shows and black face
- The Orientalism of the Victorian Era
- Iggy Azalea’s music videos that involve her (a white Australian woman) affecting a “black” accent, or wearing a sari in a routine meant to invoke Bollywood
- Katy Perry’s geisha video…David Bowie’s China Girl video (which was trying to be antiracist…whoops) ….a lot of music videos, really.
- The Washington, D.C. football team
- Oppressive Halloween costumes such as Native American headdresses and “Rasta” hats with fake dreadlocks attached, or rich white women dressing up as “Crazy Eyes” from Orange is the New Black
- Martial arts metaphors repeated in ad nauseum (and with little context) in computer coding sites
- Non-muslim women wearing hijab as a form of “cultural tourism,” viz to see what it’s like to be “oppressed” on the assumption that hijabs are oppressive.
A lot of these examples interact with colonialism and oppression: People traditionally associated with colonizing forces are trying to put on and take off oppression like a costume. This is the difference a white person between dressing up as a naughty nun for Halloween and dressing up as “a Mexican” complete with serape, sombrero and large fake mustache is that the naughty nun is ingrained in Western white Catholic culture, who have often been oppressors, whereas folk that look like this hypothetical white person have traditionally oppressed people who look Hispanic, and moreover the shorthand for “Mexican” bears little relevance to actual Mexican people living in the world today.
Are there subtlety in this? Maybe. Consider the Washington, D.C. football team versus the Seattle Seahawks. Both use Native American imagery for their team logos. Considering that the Washington, D.C. football team uses a racist epithet that is associated with the slaughter of Native American people, the Seahawks logo is pretty darn respectful in comparison. And in general, I think it’s sort of fine. But it’s interesting to look at the history. It was originally designed by a Los Angeles-based artist in 1975, and even though Quinault artist Marvin Oliver offered the NFL a redesign that “depicted regional art principles in the design,” the logo remained.
The Seahawks logo was later redesigned to bring it even further away from traditional forms, although once again, Coastal Salish artist Shaun Peterson has some suggestions about how to redesign it incorporating Coastal Salish design elements. There is some debate about whether Coastal Salish influences on Seahawks fan gear is beneficial or a quick road to cultural appropriation. It bears thinking about. The threads of oppression and colonialism run deep in this country, and it’s important to look closely at how they interact with our daily lives, especially if you’re not being actively oppressed or colonized.
Perhaps Everyday Feminism’s Jarune Uwujaren said it best:
People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.
So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.
How does cultural appropriation show up in fiction?
Let’s stick with discussing Native Americans in fiction. I’d like to discuss one of the more culturally ubiquitous examples at the moment, the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.
In the Twilight books, Meyer chose to set them in Forks, Washington because it’s statistically the rainiest place in the US and vampires like avoiding direct sunlight. Logical enough. Also in the books, the local tribe, the Quileute, are secretly werewolves. Classic werewolf vs vampire action, right?
But…because the vampires are white and the werewolves are Native, there is an added dimension of a) vampires as civil and cultured and werewolves as animalistic thus b) white folks as civil and cultured and Native folks as animalistic, with a side of c) colonizing forces as civil and cultured and Native peoples as animalistic and also as closer to nature. Compare this to the Cullens fighting their own natures by trying to avoid murdering people; resisting the natural for the spiritual (which is the opposite, apparently) is seen as the high road.
The Burke museum in Seattle has a fantastic online exhibit called Truth vs Twilight. It calls attention to the tropes that Meyer, consciously or unconsciously, evokes in her portrayal of Quileute people in her books. The shirtless, jort-sporting Quileute boys manage to uphold the stereotype of sexualized, “hot” non-white people as a counterpoint to “classy” white people who won’t have sex until marriage. The exhibit also points out the often-repeated point that the Quileute tribe has not actually made any money off of Twilight, despite their name being (quite legally) plastered all over a bunch of merch. Some Quileute members have engaged with the publicity to further public education about the tribe. However, at its core the Twilight series does nothing to help the trope of the Imaginary Indian:
The most common representation of Native Americans in modern media suggests American Indians as vanishing or as an imaginary thing of the past. Though Twilight has garnered many fans for a contemporary, somewhat glamorized depiction of the living Quileute through the shirtless wolf-pack boys, the series still categorizes the Quileute as imaginary werewolves rather than as real people.
I found myself wondering about Stephenie Meyer’s thought processes when it came to world building. And thankfully, she’s written quite a bit about just that. Here she describes the genesis of Jacob (Quileute werewolf/secondary love interest):
Jacob’s development into a major character was a strange journey. Originally, Jacob was just a device. In Twilight, Bella needed a way to find out the truth about Edward, and the conveniently located Quileute Tribe, with all their fantastic legends, provided a cool option for that revelation. And so Jacob was born—born to tell Bella and Edward’s secret.
One Meyer decided to develop Jacob, did she sink into the Quileute culture? Did she visit? Did she think about what it means to be a white Mormon woman writing about Native Americans? Here’s what she had to say about her process in drafting New Moon:
Lots of people give me more credit than I deserve; they think I knew Jacob was a werewolf from the very beginning. This is not the case. Twilight was supposed to be a stand alone novel, remember. There was no thought of werewolves in my mind as I wrote it. The Quileute (Quill-yoot) legends Jacob tells Bella in chapter six of Twilight are all genuine Quileute stories that I learned when I was researching the tribe (which is a real tribe with a truly fascinating and mystical history). All actual Quileute legends, except for the vampire myth about the ‘cold ones.’ I latched onto the wolf story (the actual Quileute legend claims that the tribe descended from wolves transformed by a sorcerer) because it fit with my sketchy knowledge of vampires and werewolves always being at each others’ throats (ha ha, pun intended).
(again, emphasis mine)
I’m not sure if Meyer understands how glib she sounds here. Legends don’t exist in a vacuum. Goodness knows I’m all about wild recombining of fairy tales from different cultures. But it seems as if she figured out the wolf connection to the Quileute, went “wheee!” and didn’t really bother to look much further.
How can I avoid cultural appropriation?
In a word, research.
Research, for the record, does not just equal endless Googling. It involves reading whole works that may only peripherally relate to yours. If you’re a writer who’s just sold a vampire novel for a huge advance, it might involve visiting the location of said novel and/or interviewing tribal elders of the tribe that you want to use in your novel, for example.
Writing research is not always different from scholarly research: you’re going to want a variety of sources including as many primary sources as you can find. Novelist Michael Gruber talks here about some of what he read in researching his novel, The Return:
I read The Old Gringo. I read a lot of Mexican poetry and a handful of novels and some general histories of Mexico and anthologies of Mexican writing. I pulled a lot of journalistic material from the web about the drug wars in Mexico. For the Vietnam stuff, I read a number of descriptive and first-person accounts of the war the US Special Forces fought in Laos and the standard ethnography of the Hmong people. Plus the usual research about the guns and equipment mentioned.
We call Wikipedia “a good jumping off point” or, when snarky, “home of the C- research paper.” When I was writing a short story set in Cuba in the mid 1500s, I ended up finding journal articles about family structure in Africans shipped to Cuba, the shipping manifests of slave ships to Cuba throughout the 1500s, and a rather comprehensive book about Cuban sociopolitical structure from 1400-1800, written by a female historian in 1910. This took more than a Wikipedia search. I actually used the library. I used Google maps. I looked at historical maps. I did a lot of reading about Santeria, from sites run by modern-day Santeros. Could I have done better? Yes. I wish I’d had time to read more Cuban literature, and I would have had this project been a longer process.
Look at examples art and writing from the culture you’re writing about. Also, look at examples of the culture you’re writing about being represented well or in a positive light. Here are some resources that the Burke museum has identified as good examples Native Americans being represented in popular culture.
If it’s possible, try visiting the places you’re writing about. Can you imagine what it might have been like had Stephenie Meyer gone up and spent some time with the Quinault? She did spend half a day at La Push after her novel had been released. If you can’t go yourself, maybe talk to people who have been (or better yet, who have lived there). This isn’t always possible, I know. But the closer that white people, for example, can get to looking at other cultures as they exist in the world and not the White Imagination*, the better literature we’ll have and the more we’ll be able to decolonize the literary world.
And that seems like a pretty darn worthy goal.
*which I will write about at some length later, but believe it or not I need to do some research first….