A few things to say about cultural appropriation

Apparently we’re having that discussion again (this link is from 2007, probably around June). Cultural appropriation discussions are very fraught. Start here. Author’s response here, both with many other links available. (I should note that I am one of the author’s friends, but that I know she is strong enough to pick her own battles and fight them – this post is not intended as any kind of defense of her or her moral character.)

These discussions are about intersections of boundaries, personal space, risk-taking, sensibility, morality, exoticism, common sense, being insiders, being outsiders, the privilege of the narrative perspective, privilege in general and so on. The way I know about the discussion is that someone tagged Hanne (I don’t know where this happened, and I’m not going to trawl all the posts and responses to find it) over her posts about Chinese cooking (which are informed by work in the cuisine that she has largely done for herself and her dietary restriction, but also very much to my benefit) as being potentially an example of cultural appropriation. I think the post that was most upsetting for the person that tagged Hanne was the one where Hanne wrote about creating a new dish in the style of other Chinese dishes, utilizing some of the principles of Chinese taste combinations and philosophical (Confucian, Taoist) knowledge that drives food combination choices in Chinese cuisine.

Let me first play my race and personal context cards and then get into discussion about cultural appropriation.

I am Hanne Blank’s partner.

I am half-Chinese (specifically Taishanese, for those who make the distinction). My father, who is full-blood Taishanese, was born in Oakland, CA, and is a U.S. citizen. So am I. My mother, who is a mixture of Scot, Welsh and English, was born in Woodward, Iowa. I personally speak no more than a few words of Taishanese (most food words and festival words) and no more than a few words of Mandarin (mostly from Mandarin 101 class I took in adult school 10-15 years ago). I do, however, study English translations of Taoist texts and consider myself a practicing Taoist, both in physical practice and in mental/emotional/political practice. Aside from family festival/reunion/feast holidays that I do not regularly attend (it’s a geography issue – most of  my Taishanese family in the U.S. lives in California while I live in Baltimore, MD) and a penchant for eating and knowing about exotic (i.e. non-mainstream American) foods/cuisines, I am very well assimilated into the predominant cultures where I live and work, which are mostly uniform and “white”.

As far as Hanne goes, what I know is that part of her focus on Chinese cuisine is partly because it pleases us both and partly because its non-dairy ingredients tend to be compatible with her diet. For any other reasoning behind it, you’d have to ask her.

I need to go on to say something. Cultural appropriation is a concept I think we come around to talking about periodically because it is so subjective and so complicated. In essence, the argument goes that if you are not an in situ part of a culture, your adoption of practices of the culture to your benefit, especially to your benefit with respect to public things like reknown and reputation, especially if you appropriate others’ culture in a deeply irreverent and disrespectful way, especially if you pick and choose aspects that are “cool” or that you like, operating as an outsider to said culture, cultural appropriation can be a morally or ethically bankrupt exercise. The idea is that if you appropriate culture wrongly or imcompletely, you can end up doing a lot more harm than good for all of the people who grew up in that culture or who are more genuinely involved in that culture than you are.

There are also good examples of folks going too far with cultural appropriation (if you follow this link, know that the post is not by the primary transgressor, and the poster is someone who is I think pretty genuinely responsive to the concerns of the First Nations activists who were gracious enough to seek dialogue with the poster in the comments – the enitre thing including the comments is a good read, but may take a strong stomach). Folks who engage with other cultures in a fundamentally flawed way, and who are deeply DISrespectful and have, it can easily be argued, done irreparable damage both to individuals and to entire cultures by their poorly executed, culturally appropriative actions done without clearly good intentions.

There are also good examples of folks going “too far” with cultural appropriation and getting it right. Even though they’re completely outside of the culture somehow they manage just fine to be absolutely appropriate and note perfect even with gaudy and overblown characters, myths and fact in a culture they admire (obviously) but are not part of.

I think that as with many risky behaviors (some of which pay off famously for everyone involved and some of which do not), dipping your toe into the wide ocean of possibilities represented by cultural appropriation can come back and bite you in the ass if you do it, or it may work out to increase the positive cultural capital for all people involved, including you.

All in all, I would prefer that competent, careful, strong, intelligent, respectful people of all kinds took risks to try to make this world a better, more interesting, more vibrant place. I want authors to be able to have the choice to engage in the risky behavior of writing material that might be interpreted as disrespectful cultural appropriation, in the pursuit of good, respectful and well-executed cultural appropriation. As a reader of sometimes risky texts, I want a world where the reader can and is allowed to say something about when the writing doesn’t work out for me. I also want a world where the author feels comfortable enough with the risks already taken and the respect I grant them to feel okay about having a discussion. This discussion, this dialogue, is a good thing. It teaches us to learn from our mistakes. It teaches us where the boundaries are today, and it helps us predict where they might be tomorrow. All this kind of work is good.

As a person of color, my reactions are more mixed. I see the cultural appropriation discussion as one which I hope privileged folks would keep in their own sandbox. I would like to see privileged folks be self-educating and would like them to turn to each other for tips and tricks on how to do this sort of appropriation respectfully, and have them sort their baggage out before coming out into the common world that we all share and that we all have to coexist in. I know that this is a pipe dream. Logistically, sometimes victims of privilege  have to call out privileged people when the privileged people cause the problem. Sometimes the victims of privilege have to start the ball rolling and sometimes we have to stick around to talk about and articulate the finer points of the discussion and sometimes we have to be around, even, to be wrong.

On the other hand, as a person of color, I’ve written before about how I feel about being forced into the docent or explainer role. I don’t enjoy being called to speak for anyone other than myself. I don’t enjoy doing anti-racism or racism 101-level discourse. Regardless of others’ need for such an intervention, it feels like a responsibility I didn’t volunteer for that ends up on my shoulders anyhow. The less of that the better, in my opinion.

I don’t know how to close this post up gracefully so I think I’ll just end it here and try to reduce the risk of rambling and pointlessness. I guess my summary is that I am aware of the risks and discussions of cultural appropriation. This particular round of discussion involves a friend who I think can take care of herself. It involved Hanne (however briefly) and she can take care of herself. I guess I am just arguing that it’s OK to be at the point where we discuss culturall appropriation endlessly because the boundaries are so variable and universally unclear and I think that the potential gains may be worth the risk, as long as we all remain respectful and try our best to be ethical, moral and honorable.

Update: It’s been a while since I posted this and there’s one thing I want to add that I will try to expand upon in a later post.

As usual, the way the total discussion went was that some folks who are anti-racist activists and who were involved in this discussion were completely appropriate when making criticisms and having followup discussions and some folks weren’t.

As an activist myself, I am familiar with the frustration that happens when things that you thought were settled are kicked up again, and I am familiar with the well-worn tropes that the privileged will often use to try to duck responsibility for their words and actions, and I am familiar with the outrage that I feel flowing through my veins when I am dismissed and ridiculed for taking the time and effort to give feedback.

I think where I differ from the activist-as-mob (which is where these discussions sometimes go, and where part of this dicussion went) is that I think of my activist self as a warrior self. As a warrior, I feel that there are certain rules I should follow, and that I get sad about other activist-warriors not following.

I think Elizabeth Bear (let me repeat that I am her friend, but I think she can take care of herself), as one of the center figures of this particular shitstorm, comported herself admirably in a way I associate with an honorable warrior’s way. She was careful, respectful, accessible, responsive, and acted in good faith for at least 4 days (don’t believe me? Read all of her responses to her own comments threads – she even engaged with the original poster and hammered out some mutual understanding), but I saw folks in the wider discussion refer to her as “typically defensive” and “overly defensive” and I saw other non-flattering terms used to describe her actions that were simply unfair.

I think that as activist-warriors, we activists have a responsibility to make sure that when we fight our fights, the discussion does not get out of hand, and that in our expression of outrage and anger we do not use unnecessary epithets to describe our would-be oppressors (and sometimes these folks end up being potential allies we’ve just offended instead). It made me sad to see that, and honestly that’s why I usually don’t fit in long with anti-racist communities. I’m usually cool with 75% – 90% of what’s criticized and discussed but I usually dissent, eventually, which ends up biting me in the ass. I’m still an anti-racist activist, but I think my focus on having these reasonable boundaries about what I will publicly say usually get me in trouble. For those of you still reading and interested at this point, I think the major issue I have in such communities is that what I will vent about and when and how I will vent about it is very different from most of my brethren, and I think that my sensitivity to the offense that is part of satire in general is much lower than it is for most of my brethren.