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Cultural Appropriation

The last in my series of backstory posts for Raven's Children is going to be more of a definition post. I'm going to be talking about cultural appropriation quite a bit as I go through the series, so I thought it would be a good idea to start out with some basic information and definitions.

Here is a good, basic definition of cultural appropriation. This post is a little long, but well worth reading, because it discusses syncretism (cultures changing as they come into contact with other culturs and adopt new foods, music, clothing, etc) and how cultural appropriation exists as a subset of that. And the author defines cultural appropriation thusly:

[Cultural appropriation] arises when a dominant culture raids a subordinate culture for cultural items that it then pulls out of context. The dominant culture -- in our case, white Americans -- doesn't properly acknowledge the borrowing -- or else the dominant culture makes a complete hash of the borrowing and then tries to pass it off as authentic.

I do recommend reading the whole article, as it's quite comprehensive and talks a lot about the crux of the issue: all cultures borrow, it's what cultures do. But not all borrowing is equal.

Another good source to look at is this discussion in which participants contribute their own definitions. Lots of interesting viewpoints and examples.

The thing about all of this is that it's very squishy and subjective. People within a minority group don't all agree on what constitutes appropriation of their culture (of course not! they're people!), let alone outsiders. Ask ten people, get ten different opinions. I think most people nowadays agree that a lot of old books and movies are racist or at least creepily objectifying, but then you get into the less clear-cut examples and things get fuzzy. I thought RC was just fine when I wrote it, of course. I wouldn't have written it otherwise! And now I'm uncomfortable with some of the decisions I made. Heaven knows what I'm going to think ten years from now about the things I'm writing now; I'm sure that I'll notice lots of things that I'm completely unaware of at the present time.

Also, disagreement and discussion is ABSOLUTELY welcome. As I go along, if you think my conclusions are wrong, or if you have a different take on matters, feel free to tell me. I'll be moderating comments for civil discussion -- no personal insults, flaming, etc.; my house, my rules -- but beyond that, discussion and dissent is perfectly fine.

And that's it for the introduction posts! Posting of actual pages starts tomorrow.

This entry is also posted at http://layla.dreamwidth.org/182473.html with comment count unavailable comments.


Apr. 7th, 2012 01:23 am (UTC)
Oh, man, I hear you on this! And you're absolutely right, it's (next to) impossible to avoid obvious real-world antecedents for fictional cultures -- I'm not going to say no one can ever conceivably manage to do it, but we bring our real-world context with us as both writers and readers. There's just no way around that.

The thing is, I think both the approaches that you're talking about can work, the "borrow a whole culture" and "borrow traits from different cultures". It's possible to screw up either way, and it's possible to do it well, and a lot of it just comes down to how you handle it, and what the end result looks like.

One thing I've realized very slowly over the years, but believe wholeheartedly now, is that it ultimately ends up making a big difference how you use a culture -- what its role in the story is going to be. That is, if they're going to be the home culture of your protagonists, with lots of sympathetic characters and probably a fairly nuanced portrayal, then you can get away with a lot more obvious cultural borrowing (and a lot fewer moral quandaries) than if they're never going to be developed beyond "hey, these are the bad guys". And I'm definitely not saying that every fictional culture has to be equally fleshed out, or that you can't have a set of people who, for story reasons, aren't going to get much more development than "bad guys" -- but the latter case is where most people run into trouble, I guess ... (And I think it's the overall negativity in the way that the Raven Tribe come across -- their bad-guy-ness -- that makes me so uncomfortable with it now. I think I could've done the exact same thing and still feel okay with it now if I'd played up the positive elements rather than making it so dark and bloody and bleak.)

And I guess the other main thing that I'm taking into consideration these days is how the culture has been used/misused in the recent past. I've come to the conclusion that I need to be as respectful and circumspect as possible when I'm using Native American cultures because there's such a recent, ugly history of those cultures being disrespected and misused and systematically stamped out by the dominant culture (mine). Whereas I feel a lot more free to tinker around with, say, the Ancient Egyptians, or 1930s Prohibition gangsters, or Vikings.

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