I hope your lack of understanding of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.

A buddy of mine shared this article with me.

Lionel Shriver’s full speech: ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad (The Guardian, Sept 13 2016)

Here is a brief sampling of the article:

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…

I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin. When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didn’t hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grown up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous….

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived…

We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.

While I think that her perspective is a valuable one, and one that many (privileged) people are experiencing, the lack of understanding of the problems of “appropriation” as compared to “cultural sampling” or “cultural mixing” is the crux of her apparent frustration and anger.

Her definition of cultural appropriation is inherently faulty and by dismissing a real cultural phenomenon for things like cultural sampling, you disregard the actual impact of erasing other people’s history. No one cares if you eat a taco. But if this white British lady becomes the expert on one legged Afghan lesbians then those voices and unique histories are no longer heard. Cultural appropriation is Victoria Secret sending headdresses down the catwalk and yet the sacred tribal lands being destroyed for the Dakota pipeline deemed not newsworthy. It’s Miley Cyrus wearing locks at an awards show and black women getting fired for their locks not being “professional”. It’s being bullied for your “weird” food, then seeing that food fetishized and values when prominent fancy white chefs create their own “rendition” of it. Cultural appropriation is not about sampling, it’s about erasing the history of the source material and claiming it as your own. I share this video from College Humor in every class…

I tell my students that they should write all of the stories that they want to write. Then they should take the time to think about why they wrote those stories and what part of their characters were driven by stereotypes, what part talk back to stereotypes, and what about themselves are they trying to incorporate. I don’t like how Shriver ends the piece by poo poo-ing the current discourse around understanding identity instead of trying to be better because of it. I try to encourage my students to do the latter. If you are going to write a story about a one-legged Afghan lesbian and you don’t know her actual experience, then you are just writing from stereotypes, which in my opinion makes you a lazy writer. Take the opportunity to LEARN about one-legged Afghan lesbians and see what kind of stories they want to tell. I encourage my students to write freely and then edit or self-critique deeply. It will only make them better writers and get closer to their characters. Furthermore, if they want to write about someone or something that they have no knowledge of, it is their responsibility to go out and get that knowledge.

According to Shriver: “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.” This misses the point. You have the right to do whatever you want. And everyone else has the right to criticize you. Furthermore, to end with “leave me alone” is to ignore the world that we are currently in where one-legged Afghan lesbians could be writing their own stories. In my opinion, if one non-Mexican writes a piece about being a young Mexican, and some young Mexican folk are outraged, that may encourage more young Mexican folk to write their own story. And I don’t see that as a bad thing. But this desire to disavow, dodge, and complain about criticism is the exact same whining that she claims is inappropriate and restrictive. This is a demonstration of privilege in and of itself; Shriver believes that she has the right to do whatever she wants to do, but other people do not have the right to say whatever they think. Even after lambasting everyone else’s identity, she seems to want to protect her identity as a fiction writer.

UPDATE (Nov 5, 2016): I recently engaged in another conversation around the following article:

You Can’t ‘Steal’ a Culture: In Defense of Cultural Appropriation by JohnMcWhorter (July 15, 2014 via The Daily Beast)


Again, this person is NOT describing cultural appropriation they are describing cultural sampling. There is a difference. Cultural appropriation is taking a culture and ignoring its original source material. Rock ‘n’ roll is cultural appropriation because Chuck Berry is not considered a father of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley is. What is Miley Cyrus doing for black lives matter. Nothing. That is the problem. This backlash against the phrase cultural appropriation is a demonstration of the lack of understanding of what the concept actually means. The problem is not cultural mixing, the problem is the fact that Victoria’s Secret can send headdresses down the catwalk, but does not say anything on the Dakota pipeline.This is particularly offensive when entertainment media profit from the struggle of marginalized groups, but remain silent when their stories are echoed in the real world. I’ve been on a tear in class about James Cameron’s silence on the Dakota Pipeline, and I have been assigning this blog post on the privilege of color-blindness in dystopic tween dramas.

Dystopic Tween Dramas and a Celebration of White Teen Angst (March 30, 2016)

When cornrows, afros, and locs are considered fashionable on White celebrities and Black women are literally being fired for these hairstyles, some of the only natural hairstyles that some women can wear, then the plight of Black women and the politicization of their hair and the larger struggle is erased. 

I’m amazed and saddened every time one of these articles gets shared on social media dismissing and disregarding a very real cultural phenomenon as “not a thing.” This is the ultimate manifestation of colorblindness, or the tendency to deny difference and historical racial discrimination and is a form of racism. Any one who makes this argument refuses to see the actual long term processes of appropriation, which eradicates the history of a people in the interest of cultural sampling, such that when they demand attention for their causes, they are dismissed as being “overly sensitive.”

Here is another article if you are keeping track: Cultural appropriation is a toxic concept by Farah Shah (Medium.com: Nov 3, 2016)

This particular author explicitly acknowledges her own privilege as an argument that people who don’t agree with her will levy. She pre-empts any accusations against her personhood, but this argument that people who are outraged at cultural appropriation are unwilling to embrace cultural mixing is an inherently privileged argument. It says that thinking about the history or the context in which cultural artifacts have been snatched from you and what that means for the cultural genocide of a people is not necessary. Either we are talking about history or we are ignoring it. The latter is the problem. But the people who are angry at being accused of “cultural appropriation” are just trying to appropriate the outrage without understanding the history.

I shared this with my students this week to demonstrate the correlation of cultural appropriation:

The cultures that we most love to appropriation are also those most likely to be killed by the state.

Native Americans Get Shot By Cops at an Astonishing Rate by AJ Vincens (July 15, 2015; Mother Jones)

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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