a) A narrative move. In other words, appropriation occurs in the space of how things are framed, not, for example, internal beliefs.
b) When you take something that’s significant to someone else in a core / central way in its own right, and use it as a tool to add color and/or weight to your own story about something that is both unrelated and less deep.
c) a+b = when you frame someone else’s more-important-to-them thing as about or a piece of your own thing, instead of your own thing as complexly related to their thing.
Some examples of appropriation include:
- Using the occasion of a coworker’s serious medical struggles as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of exercise for health in the workplace.
- Taking a spiritually important symbol from an oppressed culture, and turning it into a cool t-shirt for the dominant culture.
- Telling a story about how someone from a wealthy and privileged world was personally transformed by exposure to developing-world poverty.
- Holding an inspirational event on MLK day and using the symbolism that because MLK talked about his dream, this is a great chance for everyone in the (majority-white) audience to also think about what their dreams for the world are.
- Using the occasion of your child’s birthday to give them a ticket to an activity they have continually refused attend, that you have continually been trying to get them to.
Ways to do the same things without being appropriation:
- Give everyone, including the ailing coworker, space. Don’t talk about it. Just talk about the exercise as an unrelated topic. Or, if the coworker is already bought in, they can talk about exercise.
- Using your t-shirt company as a platform for the minority culture to share their traditions and also receive profits. For example, by engaging in business partnerships that allow members of that culture to make shirts about their current experiences, or member artists to combine historical traditions with modern fashion.
- Telling a story about how, upon being exposed to poverty, that person realized the limits of their own upbringing, and focusing the rest of the story on the nature of what was really going on.
- Taking a moment from the inspirational event to recognize that, like attendees, MLK was completed devoted to his cause, and that this cause is still really relevant to all of us today. And since it’s MLK day, we can take a moment to think about how how to further BLM while pursuing our own causes.
- Ask your child if they’re interested in any related activities, and give them a ticket to that instead. Or, just give them what they want for their birthday, and then give them free tickets later.
As we can see from these examples, appropriation can happen at all levels and in a myriad of contexts.
Appropriation is abuse when the other person/people have explicitly tried to get you to pay attention to the thing that matters to them in the past. (Such as with MLK day, or declining the event ticket.)
Appropriation is inappropriate when the difference in significance is so obvious that the two pieces of content should clearly be treated with different levels of gravity. (Such as the illness, the t-shirts, and the poverty.)
You can almost always turn something you want to do that’s appropriation into something that isn’t by just partnering with a content-owner of the original thing to deliver a joint message in a way that highlights their voice.
Appropriation and Gravitas (etc)
The reason that we’re inclined to appropriation is that borrowing from other sources of significance is useful. We have a thing we want to do, and we want to add gravitas (or color, or interest) to it by calling back to content that already has it. It’s a natural thing to reach for.
The problem with this activity isn’t that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with what we want to do — teach healthy living, sell a t-shirt, inspire others to follow their dreams, tell a funny story or make good music.
The problem is actually that appropriation is strip mining. It’s a way of “borrowing” gravitas (or etc) that’s intrinsically destructive to the originating source.
Common reasons why it’s destructive may include (but not be restricted to) any combination of:
- it actually erases other parts of the originating narrative
- it reduces the ability for other more important parts of the originating narrative to be heard (also undermining the overall impact)
- it’s literally hurtful to the originators.
Ways of avoiding appropriation while taking similar actions, therefore, are essentially sustainable/harmonious strategies for interacting with the source content. Just as we ask ourselves, “How do we draw energy while leaving the environment better than it was before”, we can ask ourselves, “How do we draw gravitas (etc) while leaving the source better, by its own standards, than it was before?”
The by its own standards portion is important. Frequently, the difference between whether what we do is appropriation or not is whether we listen to someone else’s standards.
Sexual Assault in Storytelling
I wrote a game that used an on-screen rape as a plot device. This was appropriation. (The inappropriate kind.) It was 2005, and I wanted to use an event that everyone could agree was bad in order to add gravitas to the situation and force players to think about their values.
When we hear sexual assault in fiction described as “lazy storytelling”, this is why it’s lazy — it’s because more than 9 times out of 10, assault is used as a quick-shot injection of gravitas, intensity, problematic-ness. It’s lazy because, for whatever reason, we the storyteller felt that we might fail to weave enough gravitas into the narrative, and wanted a boost.
The experience of rape (or illness, or poverty) isn’t important for being bad. It’s important to the experiencer in dozens of specific ways that are internal, interpersonal, and/or societal. In all of these, gravitas is a byproduct, not a core component.
As a result, a narrative that references rape for gravitas systemically undermines the more significant components.
Currently in our society, there are not a lot of great ways to responsibly collaborate to share gravitas with rape. This is because it’s an area that everybody (including me) has been madly irresponsibly piling appropriation on for so long, the only real, generalizable solution is just to stop doing it for a while and give space for people who have actually experienced it to have a voice.
It’s possible to have responsible stories about rape that are also about something else. You just have to be about as careful as dumping more chemicals into the ocean.