The Cultural Appropriation Primer

Thanks to the release of J. K. Rowling’s Magic in North America and the subsequent negative reaction from American Native people of various backgrounds, the conversation around Cultural Appropriation — what it is, what it isn’t, why it’s a problem — has flared up again. Harry Potter fans and random people of the Internet have both reacted to the many tweets, posts, and articles about Rowling’s short story series with varying levels of disdain and/or cluelessness.

“Why is this even a problem?”

“It’s just fantasy.”

“Cultural exchange happens all the time.”

“No one complained when she appropriated griffons!”

This is often the case when cultural appropriation comes up. Even more frustrating, all of these questions and complaints have been addressed many times and thoroughly.

I teach classes on how to write “The Other” alongside Nisi Shawl, one of the authors of the best book on the subject. We keep a growing list of resource links for our students. These are the links in the cultural appropriation section.

To truly understand what Cultural Appropriation is, why it’s a problem, and ways to avoid it, please read not only the very short excerpts on this page, but the full articles behind them.

Defining Cultural Appropriation

In short: Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.
But that’s only the most basic definition.
A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other — because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.
It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t.
Some say, for instance, that non-Western people who wear jeans and Indigenous people who speak English are taking from dominant cultures, too.
But marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun.

What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm by Maisha Z. Johnson

The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation by Jarune Uwujaren

One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.
We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms.
True cultural exchange is not the process of “Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours” that we sometimes think it is. It’s something that should be mutual.
Just because Indian Americans wear business suits doesn’t mean all Americans own bindis and saris. Just because some black Americans straighten their hair doesn’t mean all Americans own dreadlocks.
The fact is, Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation. Not every culture has chosen to open itself up to being adopted by outsiders in the same way.

What is Cultural Appropriation? by Pegi Eyers

To understand how cultural appropriation shows up in our environmental movements and spiritual life, we need to look at the backstory, or how cultural appropriation came to be. About 50 years ago a strange phenomena began to happen. In mainstream society young white people were rebelling against the imperialist machine, while in a much less visible sphere, First Nations were just starting to recover from the dark ages of genocide, oppression, residential school displacement and segregation. In the dominant society of the mid-20th century, ties to a genuine spiritual life had been broken, organized religion was on the decline, and all of a sudden young white people were reconnecting with nature. This was a wonderful thing — but they had no role models to follow so they turned to First Nations, freely adopting these cultural tools and spiritual traditions, and some going so far as to create a whole new indigenous identity for themselves. Without proper boundaries, the whitewashed genre of “Native Spirituality” was born, and cultural appropriation became embedded in the flourishing New Age Industry.

Definition of Cultural Appropriation: What It Is, Why It Matters and How to Avoid It by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

“But, wait,” you might be thinking, “the U.S. is a melting pot of cultures. We all use and enjoy aspects of others’ cultures all the time. What’s wrong with that? And why is it that it is mostly white people who are accused of this?”
These are important questions because they give us the opportunity to breakdown the difference between assimilation and appropriation. Throughout U.S. history, because whites and their ways have been, and still are, perceived as normal — as the default of what an “American” is — those framed as other (people of color and newly arrived immigrants) were and are socialized, pressured, and in some cases even forced to adopt the dominant culture of the U.S.; a culture defined by whites. Social institutions, like media, education, politics, the judicial system and the police, and peer groups and community leaders incentivize assimilation into the dominant culture by punishing and ostracizing those who do not assimilate. The adoption of the dominant culture by racially and ethnically marginalized groups is forced and required, in the sense that it is necessary for inclusion in society, and in some cases historically and today, physically forced.
Cultural appropriation, by contrast, is not required or forced. It is a choice, and as such, it is an expression of privilege. While people of color are forced to adopt elements of mainstream white culture, white people can sample at the buffet of other cultures at their leisure, picking and choosing what they wish to consume.
This is an important distinction, but it doesn’t adequately explain why so many people are angered by cultural appropriation. To grasp this, we have to use the sociological perspective to put it into historical context, critically analyze the practice, and probe its implications.

Appropriate Cultural Appropriation by Nisi Shawl

Diantha Day Sprouse categorized those who borrow others’ cultural tropes as “Invaders,” “Tourists,” and “Guests.” Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.
Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.
Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.

On Reverse Cultural Appropriation

…things such as cultural appropriation cannot happen horizontally when power is not distributed horizontally. When we see, for example, “black people wearing business suits” vs let’s say, hipsters wearing headresses, there is a different context and a different meaning that is being produced. We need to look back at history, to context, to culture, to ideology, and to power to really understand what these things are communicating.

Cultural Appropriation and Art

Hiromi Goto’s Guest of Honour Speech from WisCon38

Stories are powerful devices. And like all powerful devices they are capable of doing great harm as well as great good. Traditionally published fiction in North America has been predominantly representational fiction. The stories are recreations of known or recognizable elements in our world such as people, animals, plant-life, etc. in an environment be it urban, rural, or “wild”, in some form of interaction that is relational. Science fiction, fantasy and horror may bring in elements that are imagined, or yet to be invented or discovered, etc. However, the narratives are still informed by a world experienced through a human filter, and, often, the introduction of the fantastic can be a way of better understanding the existing workings and relationships with the experiential world of that moment. The best of science fiction and fantasy can cast a kind of bending light. We see the familiar in unfamiliar ways. We see the unfamiliar in familiar ways.
Writing story is the act of inscribing a specific vision. But in inscribing the specific story she’d like to share the writer exerts her control. In doing so she eliminates the possibilities of other inclusions. So writing stories can be, simultaneously, an act of creating as well as an act of exclusion.
How important, then, that published stories come from diverse sources; from the voices, experiences, subjectivities and realities of many rather than from the imagination of dominant white culture. For even as we’ve been enriched and enlightened by tales from Western tradition, stories are also carriers and vectors for ideologies. And the white literary tradition has a long legacy of silencing, erasing, distorting and misinforming.
…it is my hope that white writers who are interested in writing about cultures and subjectivities outside of their own consider very carefully: 1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?

Appropriate Cultural Appropriation by Nisi Shawl

“…readers looking for something “different” in fantastic fiction, and authors who attempt to supply them with it, often turn to mythologies, religions, and philosophies outside the dominant Western paradigm. Then, not too surprisingly, people who practice these religions or espouse these philosophies or descend from those who constructed these mythologies object. Their culture, they complain, is being misrepresented, defaced, devalued, messed with. Stolen.
…Yet if they ignore non-dominant cosmologies and traditions and exclude them from their work and their libraries, writers and readers could be said to have contributed to their erasure. How to resolve this conflict?
Thoughtfully.
…Rather than looking at a binary choice between (mis)appropriating a culture and avoiding its mention, we can consider a spectrum of roles it’s possible for transcultural writers and readers to play.”

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH! Avoiding Cultural Appropriation in Steampunk by Balogun Ojetade

However, Steampunk is about changing, or, at least, twisting history right? It is about “how the Age of Steam should have been”, correct? Then it is necessary that we know history; that we understand how the Age of Steam was, so that we can determine how it should have been. If we cosplay a “Steampunk Squaw”, we should research how First Nation women lived during the Age of Steam; we should study First Nation cultures and choose in which we are going to gain historical and sociological expertise; we should research the word “squaw”, understand it is an offensive term to First Nation women and change the name…if you give a damn. If you don’t, you are a racist. Just own up to it and move on.
Am I ruining your plans for the Mahogany Masquerade, Halloween, or AnachroCon? Well, cultural appropriation and the resultant stereotyping ruins whole groups of people’s fun every day of their lives.

Think Before You Appropriate: A Guide for Creators and Designers

People and cultures have always exchanged and borrowed ideas from each other to create new forms of art and symbolic expression. Whether intentionally or not, most if not all human creations reflect varied sources of inspiration.
Why, then, are some products negatively labelled “cultural appropriation” or their creators accused of disrespecting the very cultures they found inspiring? And why do products inspired from Indigenous cultural heritage seem to spark particularly strong reactions and pushback?
This guide unpacks these important questions. It provides advice to designers and marketers on why and how to avoid misappropriation, and underlines the mutual benefits of responsible collaborations with Indigenous artists and communities.

Protocols for working with Indigenous artists

The Australian Council for the Arts has released protocol guides to help Australian artists better understand the use of Indigenous cultural material. Doing the right thing: protocols for working with Indigenous arts cover Indigenous Australian media arts, music arts, performing arts, visual arts and writing. The guides are also created to help Indigenous artists know how to best protect their work and their culture.

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K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative fiction author, blogger, media critic, podcaster, and teacher for WritingtheOther.com. You can find her short fiction, articles, and essays on her website and support her writing via Patreon.

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