Tue, May. 29th, 2007, 12:07 pm || Wiscon 31: Cultural Appropriation Revisited Part One

add to memories

Typing this one up first, since I suspect it's the one people are most eager to read about.

Description: As part of an ongoing discussion of the issue of cultural appropriation, this year's panel will address what is perhaps the most controversial, and certainly the most discussed, aspect of cultural appropriation in fiction: the use or exploitation of cultures across racial, ethnic, or national lines. Writers and activists who concern themselves in their work with issues of dominant and marginal cultures will discuss the use in narrative of markers and artifacts of cultures that are not the authors' own. Should this be done at all? Where do the limits fall? How is it well done and how poorly done? Sponsored by the Carl Brandon Society.

Panelists: Candra Gill (mod), K. Tempest Bradford, M. J. Hardman, Yoon Ha Lee, Nnedi Nkemdili Okorafor-Mbahu, Victor Jason Raymond

The panel description here is very different from the one suggested, for which I am infinitely grateful. Also, Claire Light had organized the panel and was supposed to moderate it, but she unfortnately came down sick and was unable to attend the con.

Terms and caveats: I am using the term "cultural appropriation" to apply to any time a dominant culture borrows from a non-dominant culture, although I think there can be good examples of cultural appropriation (e.g. Vaught's Stormwitch). I am also loosely using the terms "dominant" and "non-dominant" as a means to shorthandedly refer to social and political power differentials. I am also using the term "white culture" to largely refer to white Euro-American culture; I do understand that there are many cultures within that culture (and ditto with many cultures within "Asian culture" and "Native American culture" and etc.), but I also think that it is useful to pinpoint "white culture" as the dominant culture in the US most definitely and probably as the dominant global culture as well. I am also saying this descriptively and not advocating the dominance of white culture.

Gill explained how Light wanted the panel to be run: the panel would largely consist of the panelists talking and discussing with each other and audience participation would be limited to the very end. By and large, they kept with this, although there were a few audience remarks here and there. This was because there was a whole other programming slot devoted to the discussion afterward that was going to be moderated by someone else.

This panel felt very different from last year's; I think all the people on the panel were POC except possibly MJ Hardman, whose introduction I clearly didn't pay enough attention to. The breakdown was black (CG, KTB, NO-M), Asian (YHL) and Native American (VJR, MJH?). There were also a lot of POC in the audience; the room was full and there were a number of people standing at the back or sitting on the floor in the front.

Some of the panel was a little boring, as the panelists covered ground that usually gets covered in cultural appropriation discussions. There was the standard "bad" cultural appropriation definition, which generally involves monetary gain and financial exploitation, as well as the discussion of authenticity and the impossibility of true authenticity.

MJ Hardman has an anthropological background and had lots of good examples from that, so much of the discussion was more involved with generals of cultural appropriation, as opposed to the specifics of cultural appropriation and writing. I wanted the panel to focus more on cultural appropriation and writing, with a particular look at voice and language and colonization, but given that that wasn't specifically in the panel description, it really isn't anyone's fault that the panel didn't end up going there.

Bradford mentioned early on that conversations about cultural appropriation often get derailed by people protesting "But I'm not racist!" and how unhelpful that is.

Okorafor-Mbachu and Bradford both mentioned that they felt they would have difficulty writing a white POV, while Lee said that when she was growing up, all the stories in her head had been the standard white Euro-fantasy, and that it had taken her a very long time to realize that.

There was (as mentioned) a lot of discussion of authenticity, with Bradford mentioning that she had grown up in white suburbs and therefore been called "oreo" and other derogatory terms by black people. Okorafor-Mbachu also mentioned feeling conflicted, as she writes books set in Nigeria though she's never lived there (though her parents are Nigerian and she's visited). Lee mentioned the same concerns with not being Korean enough, particularly given how she grew up in the US and moved back and forth between the US and Korea. I can't remember if this actually came up, but I feel like everyone mentioned that even if they didn't feel 100% authentic, they also realized that if they didn't write from non-white POVs, there would just be more white male fantasies being published.

I can't remember if anyone brought up the point that it tends to be easier writing from a non-dominant culture to a dominant one, because of media saturation and the ready availability of different and multiple portrayals, so I will bring it up here.

Raymond then spoke up about authenticity and mentioned that one of the main questions of authenticity is who is granting that authenticity, or who is perceived as granting that authenticity. He mentioned that authenticity comes from the observer -- I can't remember if he noted that the granting of authenticity is usually tied to the enactment of power and that who atempts to grant authenticity is just as, if not more, important as authenticity itself. The conversation touched on how when the dominant culture grants authenticity, it's often saying something like, "These five traits are how you identify a black person," and thereby sliding into cultural essentialism and stereotyping.

The panel and the audience by and large rejected the notion of cultural essentialism, particularly its ties to stereotypes. I think Andrea Hairston in the audience mentioned how that got tied to minstrel shows: put on a hat and do these five things, and the person on the stage sketches themselves as black. She also mentioned a group that was subverting the stereotypes of minstel shows, but I didn't catch the group name (possibly Sarah Jones?), which makes me sad. Hairston also noted that the notion of authenticity was a part of the 19th century marketing of cultural commodity wrt aforementioned minstel shows.

I don't remember if anyone mentioned how attempts to grant authenticity differed if it were "granted" by members of the group in question to other members of the group, if it were "granted" by non-members of the group in question to members of the group, if it were "granted" by members of the group in question to non-members of the group, or if it were "granted" by non-members ofthe group in question to other non-members of the group. The general unspoken assumption was that this authenticity question only came up with non-dominant groups (aka, POC writers); no one ever questions a white writer's authenticity. I footnote this by saying that I think authenticity comes up with subgroups of white people (Southerners, women, New Yorkers, etc.) and that POC writers are questioned for authenticity if they are writing their own race or other races, which only serves to illustrate how much of a default white culture is.

As a flip side to the question of authenticity and the granting thereof, Lee noted that she could not speak for that nebulous notion of "all Koreans."

Okorafor-Mbachu mentioned that cultural appropriation involves stepping out of your comfort zone; Raymond made a really good point about people having to be aware of where they're starting from just to be able to step out of their comfort zone. I took this to largely mean that people have to confront what privileges they have beforehand, mostly because he continued by explaining that 90-some-percent of most of his students (I assume white) didn't think they had their own culture (which is why I assume they are white).

Raymond also mentioned that there are nearly always issues of power and of culture as a commodity, how we must be concerned about people in a dominant relationship suborning another group of people to continue a power imbalance. Hardman noted that agency needs to go back to the people in question. There was a lot of comments on how "bad" cultural appropriation tends to look on the group/people in question as "other" and as "object" as opposed to as "people."

Hardman had a point which I generally disagree with, which was that any time two cultures come together, there is borrowing from both sides. I agree that the borrowing takes place, but I don't think it is as neutral as the term makes it sound. I think historically when two cultures (or more) have come together, there has nearly always been a power differential involved, which makes the borrowing much less neutral and much closer to exploitation. I think Hardman later did point out that her use of borrowing was a neutral term and that there often was an assumption of entitlement and the right to take from other cultures (VJR, sarcastically: It's all free!). I think the unspoken clause in this was that this assumption often came about when people thought they didn't have a culture, but I may just be putting words in people's mouths.

One of the things that hit me the most was the sense of marginality in the discussion, from the panelists' doubt about their own authenticity to outside doubt of their authenticity (e.g. being called "oreo" or told that "you act white" as a compliment). Okorafor-Mbachu mentioned that she continued to assert who she was, despite feeling like she was being kicked out of every group she could be a part of, on loving SF/F for the possibilities of shifting boundaries and freedom, and on her insistence to not play the game, all of which I really respect and admire.

Bradford concluded mostly repeating that the danger of not culturally appropriating was the continued dominance of default white American culture, a la the Star Trek effect, and all the panelists encouraged people to try, despite the need for caution and the fact that there would never be a guarantee of getting it right. There was a general note to listen when people objected to a fictional portrayal and a confirmation that all the panelists live in the borderlands and often have to act as bridges and translators.

I don't remember most of the audience questions or comments; there weren't that much of them, given that they only happened near the end. I think I said something about the dangers of (intentionally or unintentionally) becoming the sole voice of a non-dominant group, a la Arthur Golden being the loudest voice for geisha, and the inherent problems of voice and speaking for people (because that is my pet subject, heh). I also brought up rilina's point about assimilation vs. appropriation.

In resonse to an earlier point about black face and yellow face (minstrel shows and Charlie Chan) and an audience remark that James Bond has never been played by a British person and did it really matter?, ladyjax said that a white actor had just been cast as Genghis Kublai Khan and that was why it still mattered. I think I and most of the audience had WTF-face at that. (also, does anyone have a link to the article? Google is failing me!) She also noted that it also mattered because of the scarcity of roles for Asian actors and other actors of color, as opposed to the number of roles for white actors.

All in all, I thought much more interesting issues were brought up this time around, and there was a much more nuanced look at power and culture and race.

Wow, this is also really long. I will have to put my reactions to the discussion afterward in another post.

ETA: transcript

ETA2: ktempest's write up

ETA3: Fixed Kublai Khan reference, added link