Dear White Authors, You Are Not Being Oppressed

I’ve been in a bit of a discussion with another author regarding Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September 2016, which raises questions about cultural appropriation and freedom of speech. My fellow author largely sides with Shriver, but I’m afraid I cannot. While Shriver raises some valid points, she clearly misunderstands the concept of cultural appropriation and her approach to the issue is entirely inappropriate.

Defining Terms

Shriver states

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

What exactly does she think cultural appropriation is? Based on this quote, it appears she believes that cultural appropriation is any representation whatsoever of a culture that the author does not belong to. Thus, she seems to think that activists and concerned citizens in general are trying to prevent her from writing about anyone unlike herself.

By saying this, Shriver either demonstrates that she does not understand the concept of cultural appropriation or, worse, that she would like to absolve herself of her responsibility as an author and a human being to represent people of other cultures fairly. I do not believe the latter is the case, but it is quite clear from her statement above and from her following arguments that she has badly misconstrued the concept and would like to sweep the whole issue under the rug.

First of all, cultural appropriation is not a fad, it is the careless or malicious misrepresentation of a culture, and it hurts the people who are part of the misrepresented culture by reinforcing stereotypes that often  have real-life consequences. Adherence to stereotypes or other  misrepresentations can affect how people are treated by employers, police, and people on the street. This diminishes the people from the cultures that Shriver claims she wants to exchange ideas with.

Shriver’s criticism of Susan Scafidi’s definition of cultural appropriation (assuming she is quoting Scafidi’s final definition and not an interim definition that was proposed for the purpose of discussion) is spot-on. The definition states that use of symbols, folklore, dress, etc. without permission is cultural appropriation, but how are we supposed to get permission and from whom? Who exactly is the gatekeeper of a culture? I agree that such a definition, if it were adopted, would indeed be a problematic one for authors and other creators.

I think my definition is better, although it’s rather broad. But here’s the thing: not every case of misrepresentation is automatically appropriation. As my fellow author states, she has used stereotypes  to great effect, perhaps for comedy, and although I have not read this work of hers, I will trust that she has in fact taken the time to consider what impact her use of stereotypes might have. Moreover, I have seen authors use stereotypes to make a point, sometimes even caricaturing the stereotype to create a reductio ad absurdum that highlights how ridiculous the stereotype is. That is most certainly not cultural appropriation.

The “Fad”

I suspect the “fad” that Shriver thinks she is addressing derives from what she considers to be the questionable actions of a few activists. She mentions a couple of incidents, one of which I agree was likely a case of overstepping and another case of which Shriver misattributes the cause of the uproar.

In the incident at Bowdoin College in Maine, students threw a tequila party and handed out little sombreros, which many of the students wore. The incident created an outrage, but not, as Shriver asserts, because of the sombreros. Instead, it appears there were incidents of harassment and attacks as a result, and the office of the college’s president issued a statement saying “the issues we are dealing with are not really about hats or drinks.” However, some news outlets attributed to the outrage to the wearing of the sombreros, which is wholly erroneous.

I would like to remind the reader that the writer’s job is at least as much about research as it is about creating meaningful strings of words. Shriver explains at length why she believes this incident demonstrates that cultural appropriation is an illegitimate concept, but it is clear that she is all too ready to dismiss the concerns of the affected students without bothering to educate herself on the issue. Thus, she has targeted a strawman; her argument is invalid.

She also mentions a controversy at the University of Ottawa in which free yoga classes were cancelled by the student federation amid concerns about cultural appropriation.  When the issue first arose, the instructor, Jen Scharf, immediately offered to change the name of the class to “mindful stretching” as she was simply teaching a physical exercise. She felt the concerns were misplaced and should have been directed at those falsely claiming to be experts in the spiritual aspects of yoga. The president of the student federation said that they had not received any complaints, but rather there were questions around cultural sensitivity in general.

While I applaud the student federation’s desire to create a culturally sensitive and inclusive environment, I believe that Scharf’s class should not have been affected by these particular concerns based solely on questions around cultural sensitivity, particularly when she was so quick to abandon the word “yoga” and any connotations it may carry. The CBC article (link above) notes that while some spiritual practitioners wish to de-commercialize yoga, there are those who fully support the teaching of the physical practice and the sense of well-being it can promote. Since the practice was originally exported to the western world by Indian practitioners and most classes focus on well-being through gentle exercise, the spread of yoga is not clearly a case of cultural appropriation. However, this does not mean that we should abandon either yoga or concerns for cultural sensitivity.

Shriver’s failure to fully consider and address the concerns of other cultures and races doesn’t end there. She discusses an earlier example of the book Black Like Me. She says

it’s worth noting that we also wouldn’t have 1961’s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of “blackface.” Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He’d be excoriated today, yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time.

First, despite Shriver’s claims, Griffin’s actions are not in fact a variant of “blackface”. Blackface is, historically, the wearing of makeup by a non-black who then acts out racist stereotypes of black people, often for the purposes of entertainment. Such behaviour reinforces negative stereotypes of black people.

What Griffin did, however, was not in any way intended to mock black people, but to go undercover and see what life as a black person was like in the Jim Crow south. You can question his methods, but I don’t see any justification for questioning his intentions or his findings. Indeed,  this was the only way for him to get firsthand experience of the racial inequality that existed, and his findings verified the claims of black people—claims that the majority of white people would only listen to when spoken by another white person. Griffin went on to lecture about his findings despite receiving death threats. To casually compare his actions to “blackface” is a disservice to Griffin’s legacy.

Worse yet, by throwing in a gratuitous insinuation that Michael Jackson was trying to become white, Shriver further demonstrates her racial insensitivity and general ignorance of the facts. Jackson had a skin condition called vitiligo, which was confirmed in the autopsy report, and he possessed medications to treat the condition. No doubt it would have been easier for him to try to remove the remaining skin pigments than try to cover up his spotted and uneven skin tone. More importantly, the treatments used to remove the remaining pigments in his skin generally do little or nothing for those who do not have vitiligo. He was not trying to be white but rather trying to manage a condition that would have very obvious effects on his physical appearance.

Jackson’s died in 2009 and the autopsy report was available well before Shriver gave her speech, and yet she reached for an ignorant, even racist joke. People of colour are often still discriminated against simply because they are not white, but any suggestion that they are trying to act or become white (i.e., that they are trying to avoid being an object of scorn) results in further ridicule. Essentially, this is a way of letting people of colour know that they will simply never be as good as white people. The fact that such an insinuation appeared in the keynote speech of a respected author in 2016  is shocking.

Since Shriver’s speech is well organized and detailed, I’m hard-pressed to believe she threw it together at the last minute. Thus, the fact that she badly mischaracterizes the concept of cultural appropriation and provides detailed “evidence” about situations that she clearly hasn’t researched and does not understand thoroughly undermines her authority on what is or is not cultural appropriation.

Appropriation as Cultural Practice

One of the crucial points we all need to remember is that cultural appropriation is not just a thing that happens once. We can only criticize one instance at a time, but the problem lies not just with any one instance of a narrative but with its repetition, especially when it crowds out more nuanced and realistic versions of that narrative. Cultural appropriation is itself a cultural phenomenon. Thus, while an individual can engage in cultural appropriation and in doing so would be disrespecting another culture, the issue is not merely that the individual act alone is harmful (which it is) but that it perpetuates a harmful trend that denigrates a marginalized group of people.

In her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story“, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out that “[p]ower is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” This is where cultural appropriation leaks in, and it can do so without anyone ever intending it to. There are cases of well-meaning authors being criticized for small trespasses that were intended to present a culture in a favourable light but which nonetheless relied on an inaccurate and one-sided portrayal of that culture. A friend of mine published a book a few years back in which one of his characters makes a reference to the native peoples of North America and how they preserved nature. The reference was brief and had been intended to portray Indigenous peoples in a positive way, but a critic slammed him for employing the “noble savage” stereotype. He was still upset about that several years later.

Stories like this are a little frightening. I am a white, middle class, cis-gender heterosexual woman born and raised in the dominant culture, and I am able-bodied, but only thanks to the miracles of modern medicine. It’s fair to say that I have a lot of strikes against me when it comes to writing about other cultures. Would I have made that same mistake in my friend’s shoes—have I made mistakes like that in Black Wolf? The thought crosses my mind every day.

For anyone who is concerned with writing well and showing a nuanced view of the world, good or bad, accounting for the Other is absolutely critical. It really doesn’t matter if you’re trying to show an entire group as being good or bad, what is wrong is making every character with such-and-such identity the same. You do no one justice by robbing whole sections of society of their right to be individuals. Even a flattering narrative is oppressive if it is the only narrative about a given group or if exists only in opposition to a demonizing narrative.

Consider the case of actor Sidney Poitier, whose movie characters were virtually all perfect gentlemen. On one hand, this was an effective way of showing black men in a positive light, and it did apparently have some impact on cultural attitudes. Poitier struggled as an actor for some time because he refused roles that portrayed black people as being needy or criminal, but critics grew concerned that his characters were too “admirable” to be real. Poitier’s efforts to redeem black people in the eyes of white society by showing how perfectly they can behave partially backfired. Stories in which black people were portrayed as being good and competent while still being flawed and fully human had yet to become the norm.

Responsibilities of the Author and the Reader

Artistic freedom is critical, and careful judgement is always called for when offering a critique. That being said, careful judgement is not always exercised. Shriver recounts criticism of her book The Mandibles in which it “was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is ‘straight and white'” when the book happened to be about a multi-generational white family. She did not see fit to engage in the type of tokenism that she rightfully derides by adding in characters  who were from other races or cultures or who were non-binary merely for the sake of including those types of characters. Having not read this particular book, I can’t offer any additional criticism of either side, so I will give Shriver the benefit of the doubt. On the surface it does appear to be a case of someone criticizing a work of art for not being something it was not intended to be, which is not a valid criticism at all.

Additionally, Shriver is absolutely correct in saying that if we can’t write about people unlike ourselves, we won’t have much at all to write about, and that fiction is, by its very nature, voyeuristic. But the fact that fiction is fictional is no excuse for not making a genuine effort to understand the Other and write about them in a way that is faithful to reality. The ability of fiction to re-represent reality is at the core of its nature and gives it the power to show us the world through another’s eyes. Fiction is not, as Shriver asserts, about “all about what you can get away with”, as though writing fiction were some sort of crime. Fiction is about transcending the real world in order to get a fresh view of it.

From this very point arises not only the author’s responsibility to their readers, but also the readers’ responsibility to the author. The author must work diligently to portray the Other, but the reader must make an effort to understand the author’s intention as well. Not all criticisms of a work are valid, particularly if the reader has not made an effort to understand the work.

Any good writer will give you clues as to what they are trying to say, and some will be more subtle than others. The tone of the work and the way the actions and attitudes of the characters are portrayed will tell you a great deal about what was intended. Neither the presence of a racist character or the immoral/illegal behaviour of a character of colour should be assumed to represent the author’s view on race. People are complicated, no matter their skin tone or sexual orientation, and creating angelic characters in an attempt to make an entire group look good is just as ridiculous as creating awful characters in an attempt to demonize that group.

Freedom of Speech

Creators entitled to receive fair criticism. This means that the reader needs to take a balanced view of the work and interpret the creator’s efforts in a charitable way. Humans are emotional creatures and our highly developed brains are nonetheless susceptible to the power of an emotional response. As capable as we are of sorting through swathes of data to harvest the most critical information, we are also capable of  dismissing important information that does not appeal to our existing beliefs or imposing a biased interpretation on an argument that hits a nerve. You don’t have to like what you see, but you have a responsibility to interpret it fairly based on content and context.

Creators are not entitled to demand that their work not be criticized or that they not be criticized in a certain way. In discussing criticism, Shriver states “if hurting someone else’s feelings even inadvertently is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead.” But that blade cuts both ways. Freedom of speech does not protect you from criticism; rather, it subjects you to it. Sometimes that criticism will be fair and accurate, and other times it may be cruel and without merit, but every reader is within their rights to criticize.

Those who demand that creators create responsibly are not oppressing anyone. They are demanding accountability. Shriver is concerned with people telling her what she’s not “allowed” to write, but who is actually telling you not to write something? I’m sure there are a few, but most concerned citizens are simply demanding that authors respect their subjects, which is to say, they expect the author to do their job. No one is stopping you from writing badly, but they are trying to point out that misrepresentation in fiction harms real people. What kind of person objects to being told not to harm other people?

Borrowing from other cultures respectfully is not cultural appropriation, nor is representing characters from those other cultures. Cultural appropriation is a subset of instances of cultural representation. Conflating appropriation with representation and hoping it goes away appears to be little more than demanding the right to do whatever you want without consequences. However, free speech does not save you from the social consequences of your actions. Marginalized groups ask to be represented fairly, and there is nothing oppressive or harmful about that request.

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