There is no one final, all-encompassing view of appropriation as it applies to “borrowing” aspects of another culture. For that matter, these days the lines of demarcation between what we think of as separate cultures are permeable and so blurred that they’re often hard to find.
I have my share of kneejerk objections to criticisms of appropriation, but I can get over some of them. I’m willing to go along with the stance that appropriation is bad when it involves a dominant culture plucking out the shiny bits they like from other cultures that they otherwise despise and oppress. I trip up when it comes to defining all members of any culture along lines of who’s dominant and who’s oppressed, but from an historical perspective I have to agree that “white” western European culture as it has spread to North America is pretty clearly in the dominant column.
I also have to reluctantly admit that, for instance, Halloween costumes portraying other cultures (usually very badly) aren’t as good an idea as they seemed like when I was a kid with a thing for what I thought were Gypsy clothes. And then there was dressing in a kimono, which I loved, for a junior high school presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Yes, that operetta was a satire on a whole culture that the British Empire knew little about and had little respect for. The fact that other G&S operettas satirized British culture just as sharply doesn’t make it okay, but I can’t help feeling that the world would not be a better place without Gilbert and Sullivan.
Let’s skip over the whole issue of appropriation of cultural costumes and traditions such as Native American feather head-dresses and mis-understood spiritual rituals, although those are certainly high on the list of the worst kinds of appropriation. Ours is in general a writing-related discussion group, so I’ll move along. But it just occurred to me that one of the best examples I know of disputed appropriation is the work of writer Tony Hillerman, whose mystery series was centered on Navajo and Hopi characters, traditions, and territory. I’ve seen criticism from another Native American writer who didn’t write that sort of thing, and reluctantly admitted that the books were well-done and appreciated by some members of those tribes for the way they recognized the humanity and intelligence (and education) of the characters, and were also good for tourism. But the other writer still thought, and said that many others felt, that a white man shouldn’t have been writing those books.
This is where the disapproval of appropriation comes up against the benefit of representation. Nobody denies that seeing people like one’s self portrayed positively in books is a good thing, and should be much more widespread. But I don’t think that many people would deny that publishers as whole have been less receptive to books about minorities because they doubt that they will sell. The question of whether they have to be written by members of those minorities is a thorny one, as is the question of whether members of those minorities should always include a political/sociological theme in their work.
As an editor of anthologies, I always hope to be able to use a good diversity of stories, including cultural diversity. I never get as many as I’d like, and I’ve seen a few reviews criticizing that. But I also don’t choose stories just on that basis. Well, okay, maybe if it’s a toss-up between two of equal quality and equal fit into the balance of the book as a whole, although I can’t remember any cases like that. I had my hopes way up for my new anthology coming out in December, because a writer of color I greatly admire emailed me that she was planning to submit a story even though she writes mostly novels, but my hopes were dashed when she couldn’t manage it after all due to complications with her current novel. Yes, I felt guilty to be hoping for a relatively big name to add to the diversity I wanted, and I can certainly sympathize with the travails of novel-writing. So out of seventeen stories, only four have more-or-less central characters who are clearly POC, and that fact doesn’t always emerge very soon in the story, or is particularly emphasized. I pondered asking two writers to frontload that information, but decided against it. And one story, set in a very specific historical period and setting, with reference to actual occurrences, may turn out to be one of the few my publisher has ever objected to.
Sometimse, in fact often, I have no clue as to whether an author considers herself a member of a minority culture. I remember one New York reading that included a writer I’d never met, whose story gave no indication at all of the ethnicity of her characters, and it didn’t matter, but when I did meet her I wished that she’d written about characters that looked like her (and not just because she was quite attractive.) I didn’t have the chutzpah to say that to her.
I think the current wave of rage about appropriation comes from legitimate anger about historical oppression as it extends into the present. And, as with so much these days, the rage is amplified by the growth of the social media grapevine, which tends to favor vinegar over wine. But there are plenty of people from all ethnicities who aren’t particularly offended by examples of appropriation that light the fuses of many others. And there are, or may be—how would we know?—plenty of readers who want to see themselves represented in the fiction they enjoy, and don’t get bent out of shape if it’s written by someone of a different background, as long as the characters are shown in all their fully relatable and appealing humanity. I wish I could say that there are plenty of people in the mainline culture who enjoy reading about characters who represent ethnicities different from their own, but I can at least hope that the number is increasing.
There’s no pleasing every one. And there’s no denying the social oppression that still goes on. The situation is what it is, and we just have to live with it. I’ve written about characters from a different ethnicity, but just in short stories, which don’t get much attention, and mostly in historical settings. I think very few people would get in a tizzy about my portrayal of female South Asian pirates during the build-up to WWII, or a fantasy piece about a Chinese girl with a masculine side set in some distant era, published well before the current upheavals. I did get deserved disapproval from a good friend with Asian forebears when I included, in an anthology of historical stories of women in warfare, a story set during the Boxer Rebellion in China that featured a royal concubine who was, as my friend said, far too exoticized. Mea culpa. I was so desperate to get something that wasn’t set in the western hemisphere that I overlooked things I shouldn’t have. It happens. But we’re still friends.
I do have a story, though, that I don’t think will ever be published, and probably shouldn’t be. The characters (heterosexual) are both veterans of the Iraq war, and members of the Abenaki/Penobscot tribes of New England. The setting in NH is one I’m intimately acquainted with, and I’ve done plenty of research, but I’m not Native American (beyond the usual sort of fuzzy family legend) and I don’t know anyone personally that I could run it by. That’s just the way it goes. Moving along.
That’s all we can do. Move along. Write what you want to, let those who’ll enjoy it, enjoy it, and duck if the slings and arrows of the outraged come your way. This storm, too, will subside, and if we’re lucky, the next one won’t be any worse. But don't bet on it.