Tue, May. 29th, 2007, 05:06 pm || Wiscon 31: Cultural Appropriation Revisited Part Two

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Description: The panel on cultural appropriation at WisCon last year raised issues that were hotly discussed online, and the panel that this forum follows is likely to do the same. This open forum is meant to give you the chance to explore these issues and how they matter to you. Through passionate discussion we can improve our awareness and find the common understanding that lies beneath our disagreements. The open forum will be facilitated by Alan Bostick, who has been practicing Worldwork since 2003. Worldwork is a process-oriented approach to group facilitation and conflict developed by psychologist Arnold Mindell (author of Sitting in the Fire and The Deep Democracy of Open Forums) and collaborators. Attendees are strongly urged to also attend the immediately preceding panel discussion on cultural appropriation.

Moderator: Alan Bostick

Please see my write up on the first panel for terms and caveats. A further caveat is that I am identifying the race of the speakers here because I think it was very important in the discussion. Please note that I am not advocating racial essentialism, but rather noting that because our society is a racist one, race still matters, much as I wish it didn't. (I think I need to record all my terms and caveats and just replay them every time! Or put them into a separate post so I can just link to it as a shortcut, heh.)

This discussion was very odd. Despite the description, most of the audience for the first part of the panel ended up leaving, so the audience was a) much smaller and b) pretty diferent. Also, as mentioned, this was intended to be a discussion with no panelists. The chairs in the room were rearranged as a circle (or, more accurately, a misshapen ellipse).

Most notably, the racial composition of the room changed dramatically, with maybe 6 or so POC among 20 some people (please correct me on this! I am horrible at estimating numbers in my head), and the lack of POC really affected the discussion.

In general, while the discussion started out with cultural appropriation and covered much of the same Cultural Appropriation 101 territory that the panel did, the discssion largely ended with White Guilt 101. Pretty much everyone in the room tried to be very thoughtful and considerate and non-confrontational, which I very much appreciated, but I got the sense that everyone, POC and non-POC alike, felt extremely uncomfortable and unsafe.

One of the women (black) who had been in the audience of the previous panel wasn't quite sure why we were having this discussion; I tried to give a brief history of the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM, but I don't think that helped much. I think Victor Jason Raymond (panelist on the cultural appropriation panel) said something about the general maelstorm surrounding the racialization of cultural appropriation and the discussion of white privilege and white culture. Someone (possibly Raymond) added something about the privilege of being able to assume that white culture is no culture, and how that "no culture" is often used as an excuse for appropriation.

I'm not sure if the woman's questions ever really got answered, though she seemed to be less visibly frustrated after a few minutes of discussion.

There was some more general commentary on authenticity that I didn't quite pay attention to, and the woman mentioned above remarked on cultural essentialism and how she doesn't always identify with the black character or the female character in books she reads. She also mentioned something about not knowing what to tell her son, who is half-black and half-Jewish; she said she told him that he was who he was, but that the outside world would by and large perceive him as a black man. I feel bad writing this up; it was very visceral and I really empathized with her confusion and pain.

Another audience member said that she should tell her son that he was an individual and that the labels that the outside world put on him didn't matter, that he should just be true to himself and be himself. littlebutfierce then countered by saying that while the rhetoric of individuality is all well and good, it was also a sign of privilege: the woman's son needed to know that people would see him as a black man in order to anticipate harrassment by the police, being pulled over for DWBs (driving while black), and etc.

I think the moderator remarked in the beginning that discrimination against whites was a very real feeling; I can't remember if he qualified this with an actual explanation of the feeling of discrimination vs. political and social discrimination.

Another white woman mentioned that whenever discussions of race came up, she felt that there was a lot of anger directed at her. Yet another white woman mentioned that in her work with race, one of the most difficult things was being open and accepting rejection. I can't remember if she said anything about the expectation of POC welcoming help with open arms as being harmful, but I will throw that in there anyway. I also don't know if she said anything about white people possibly not being used to being rejected by POC, so I will also throw that in there.

With regard to cultural authenticity, someone else also mentioned that there is always this tension between self-identification and description by others, particularly for POC, because of how weighted descriptions of POC by white people have historically influenced politics and lives.

There was also some talk about the need for general education and Racism 101, Sexism 101, Homophobia 101 et. al. classes/panels in Wiscon; Debbie Notkin rebutted by saying there always was, but beacuse the attendees for Wiscon was always shifting, there would always be more people to educate. I also forgot to mention that the moderator introduced the discussion with an anecdote about a teacher who kept teaching some subject, and after many years, he yelled, "I've taught them so many times! Why do they still not know it?" He meant for this to illustrate the constant frustration of restating the same things over and over, but I have a problem with the analogy because POC do not sign up to be teachers and yet are asked to teach the same things over and over and over.

I think another white audience member said something about disliking it when littlebutfierce said something like, "White people should sit down and shut the fuck up and listen" at the end of the panel. Raymond said that often, when POC asked for white people to shut up, the emphasis was on listening to POC. He also tried to explain how often white voices got heard (historically and now) and how often POC voices get drowned out or ignored. littlebutfierce commented later that during this, he was interrupted several times by white audience members.

At some other point, someone asked why people felt the need to get cultural appropriation right. A white audience member mentioned that she was a scientist and that as a scientist, she wanted to get things right the first time around. Deb Notkin said that most fans enjoy being corrected (which I disagree with; I tend to think that most people dislike being corrected, particularly in public, most particularly about things like race). She then went on to mention How Not to Be Insane When Accused of Racism, which I think is closer to the point than being a scientist or not; I suspect most people freak out when they think they have offended someone.

At another point, Raymond brought up Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack as well.

Another white woman asked what the difference between being an ally and a wannabe was; she said her Blackfoot husband referred to her mother as a "wannabe," even though her mother was trying to be welcoming. I can't remember what was said about this. To editorialize, I wanted to say something to the effect that you should ask, because sometimes behavior that one person may see as ally behavior may actually come off as condescending to a POC. And of course all POC are different. But more importantly, I think the designation of ally belongs more with the group you are trying to be an ally to; otherwise the effect is to take away agency and drown out voices.

I think at one point I mentioned something about not being the magical minority fairy -- I cannot speak for all Chinese people or all Asians or all POC; I often get sick of unfamiliar people asking me in comments if I think such-and-such story element is ok or not; I do not want to be the designator of gold stars; and I do not have all the answers. For anyone reading this who is now completely scared off, I will say that I usually appreciate a good-faith effort to educate yourself first, that I do notice what kind of comments you make on my posts on racism, and that I generally do try to be polite and educate. But all this is my own personal decision and that I fully sympathize with any POC out there who chooses not to, for whatever reason.

I am stopping my summary here because I am getting irritated again, which is not a good sign. And again, I did appreciate that everyone tried hard to be civil and thoughtful. But honestly, I was so frustrated that in the end, the entire conversation ended up being on whiteness and white privilege (once more). I honestly can't recall a single question that had to do with how POC might feel about some of this or any POC issues; many of the explanations provided by POC included this, but very few questions from white people did. I am also so sick of going through Racism 101 again and again and again that by the end of the discussion, I wanted to just bash my head against a wall repeatedly. So many props to Nisi Shawl and Victor Raymond, both of whom have a lot more patience than me, or were just as frustrated and hid it much better.