It’s an age-old dilemma: Who has the right to tell which story? Culture, by definition, is made up of creative types stealing and remixing ideas from different groups to create something new (with the resulting idea likely to get stolen and remixed by someone else). So where do we draw the line when it comes to cultural appropriation?
The trouble is that, while appropriation is a huge part of how culture develops, it’s also loaded with a ton of baggage. Is the potential problem that you’ve borrowed from a culture not your own? Or is it that there’s a long history of aggression towards certain cultures, and when you take ideas from them, you’re perpetuating the idea that to the winner go the spoils?
Maybe the key is whether or not the person appropriating the culture has any understanding of the context. When Demi Lovato’s “twists” were recently mis-identified as dreads (both hairstyles have significance in black culture), was the underlying problem that she, as a mixed-race Hispanic, should not have been wearing the hairstyle of a culture not her own? Or was it that, in the ensuing Twitter debate, she showed no understanding of why her fans might be upset?
When fashion designer Marc Jacobs had his (primarily white) models wear dreads during a fashion show last fall, was the problem that they dared wear a traditionally African American hairstyle? Or the fact that they did so in an industry where black women are so few and far between—implying that, while their culture might be welcome and fashionable, they themselves are not?
Or how about a recent article in Write, a Canadian literary magazine, wherein the magazine’s editor Hal Niedzviecki wrote that anyone, anywhere “should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities”? In the same article, Niedzviecki suggested (somewhat facetiously) that there should be an “appropriation prize” for authors who successfully manage this.
The result? He was forced to resign from his job.
It’s worth noting, in terms of the discussion of appropriation and power, that Niedzviecki’s article does go on to contextualize his comments:
There’s nothing preventing us from writing about characters whose lives and cultures are very different from our own. There’s not even anything preventing us from incorporating a culture’s myths, legends, oral histories, and sacred practices into our own works. But we answer to the readers. If we steal stories or phone in a bunch of stereotypes, readers will know. There is no formula for appropriately appropriating. Instead, it’s up to each of us to find the right measures of respect, learning, and true telling.
But can a comment like that ever be separated from the fact that a white man wrote it in a country where indigenous peoples weren’t allowed to vote until 1960 unless they renounced their tribal heritage?
It’s that power dynamic that keeps tripping us up. We can’t ignore that many of us come to this conversation from a position of privilege, and that means we can’t just scoff and brush off “overly sensitive” dissenting voices.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating art that incorporates or is inspired by another culture. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we can’t pretend that it does.
So the conversation needs to continue. And we need to listen very carefully to each other, understanding that when these stories get told, the lenses through which they get told are as important, if not more so, than the stories themselves.