By Annabeth Leong
This conversation has been going for almost two weeks now, so I’m going to try to add things I don’t think we’ve fully addressed yet. One key part of the discussion around appropriation, in my opinion, is an awareness of the power dynamics involved.
When we write and read BDSM, we become aware of how delicate and explosive power dynamics can be. Loving BDSM can produce a sense of ecstatic trust, of giving to each other, of deep connection, of power manipulated for ultimate arousal. BDSM performed carelessly and harmfully can break as much as the first kind can heal, push buttons, reopen old wounds, and cause lasting damage, both physical and emotional.
I would argue that writers have a similar sort of power, and that it’s our reponsibility to use it well. With BDSM, I’ve heard two competing accounts of how to behave responsibly--SSC, or safe, sane, and consensual, and RACK, risk-aware consensual kink. I sympathize more with the second description of BDSM, so I’m going to use that to talk about how writers use the power we have.
Those who object to SSC say that many of the activities BDSM practitioners engage in are not properly described as safe--they are too explosive, and there is undeniable potential for injury. That said, there are ways to be aware of the risks, to mitigate them, and to be responsible about how one is engaging with them.
Writing about other cultures has some similarities, I think. It isn’t “safe,” in that there is potential for misunderstanding and injury, both to the writer and the reader. But it may be important to do anyway, and in that case, risk-aware consensual kink provides a model. The writer should make the effort to educate themself on the potential pitfalls of writing about the culture. Are there harmful stereotypes flying around? All too often, it’s easy to engage with those unthinkingly, and I think this is one of the greatest potential harms of appropriation.
Stereotypes are like earworms--they get stuck in the head, and they present themselves easily, especially to the lazy imagination. It is all too easy to write a story full of Hispanic gang members, flamboyant, fashion-forward gay men, and tricky, duplicitous trans people. The reason is that these (twisted) ideas are floating around culture, distorting people’s views of each other, reinforcing themselves through repetition.
The same principle applies to a person writing about, say, Hawaiian culture. It’s all too easy to write a vapid piece about thick-thighed, sexually free women on an island paradise, blundering right into longstanding wounds that come from the complex realities of the situation. Growing up on Hawaii, as a part-native woman, I felt the pressures and condemnation associated with that image of sexual freedom. I experienced men who felt it was there for them for the taking. I lived in “paradise,” which was undeniably beautiful, but also full of poverty, injustice, and domestic violence.
I don’t think anyone serious is saying that white people should never write about, say, Native Hawaiians. I think the objections are that it’s easy for dominant cultures (in this case, white people) to have the louder voices, so they get to tell the stories that define people, even if those stories are twisted or incomplete. So, for example, when the United States illegally annexed Hawaii, there were many stories (told by white people) about savages and paradise--which distorts the details of what really happened. It’s amazing how many people I’ve met who have no idea of the way the United States took Hawaii, and I think that has something to do with the way that stories about Hawaii, at least the ones that have gotten the most distribution, are usually not told by Hawaiians themselves.
In talking about appropriation, I believe people are mostly asking for a seat at the table. Hey, when we’re talking about Hawaii, could you let Hawaiians talk, please? Could you cast us in movies that purport to be about us? Instead of having a supposedly native woman played by the likes of Emma Stone? (This really happened.) When we’re talking about LGBT people, maybe let LGBT people have some say in how we’re seen and defined.
So to me, the idea is not to silence but to ask for room to be made. Don’t go to an old Hawaiian lady, listen to her story, and then retell and resell it for your own profit without sharing with her. Is there a way to lift her up? To help her voice be louder?
To me, this is about being aware of the risk--that when a member of a dominant culture tells a story, that’s easily seen as more definitive, even if it’s less authentic and less correct.
At the same time, I believe there’s a request for due diligence. Please don’t read three travel brochures and try to write about Native Hawaiians. Don’t make one trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center and decide you’re all set. Read Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. Do your research. Have some respect.
Part of the reason that this is necessary is because, while we may be able to get away with cursory research in the case of things that are common in the dominant culture, there are a lot of risks of cursory research when it comes to minority cultures. In particular, stereotypes and distortions present themselves quite easily.
So when people talk about cultural appropriation and writing, I don’t think most people are telling writers not to use their imaginations or not to write about other cultures. In the same way I wouldn’t tell you not to try knife play if that’s what you want to do. But before you try knife play, I’d certainly strongly suggest that you make yourself aware of the risks and context. And cultural appropriation is no different.
(And I’ll take a moment here to apologize for my absence the last 2 cycles. I’ve had a lot of chaos in my life lately, but am working through it. I miss you all and am going to stick with you. I hope you stick with me! <3 )