Winter Sunlight

Some more cultural appropriation links

Forgive my linkspammage; this is something that I feel is important, and people are pouring their hearts and souls into these posts, this debate. This is far from the first time that debates like this have gone around; in the past, I've watched, and read a lot, and learned a lot. This time around, I'd like to help.

rydra_wong has excellent roundup link posts: 1, 2, 3, 4. There is also a comprehensive roundup at Aqueduct Press.

The Remyth Project looks completely awesome. In yeloson's words:

The Remyth project is this: You, as a person of color, as a person whose myths have been sidelined, removed, changed, altered, turned into movies, popularized and sold, you as a participant of your heritage (even divorced by many generations)...

You write up, draw, or ramble in whatever way befits you about a myth you can claim ownership to. You take back that myth. You tell us what you think it is. Reinterpret, reconstruct, or even revise- give it a rebirth, as you would.

It's a beautiful and powerful project. Please tread carefully and respectfully.

Something that I found particularly relevant (for me) is nojojojo's post We worry about it too. From the intro to that post:

So the great cultural appropriation debate returns, and one thing in particular has been bugging me. A lot of the people talking in all these comment threads -- clarification; a lot of the white people talking in these threads -- keep complaining that all this scary appropriation stuff means they're damned if they do and damned if they don't, they can never write people of color to the satisfaction of PoC so they're not going to bother, I guess this means white men should only write white men, o woe, o melodrama. That this is a false woe motivated in most cases by narcissism, spite, and no genuine interest in change is a given. But a few of the people voicing this complaint are sincere, because for various reasons they haven't yet realized something very basic: that racism infects the thinking of everyone, in a racist society. Everyone, including PoC themselves. White people are the most frequent perpetrators of stereotyping and "inappropriate appropriation", largely due to history and the power structure of Western society. But it's never been solely a unidirectional thing, however it might seem to those poor, confuzzled, put-upon white men (and others who think like them). PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate other PoC. Hell, PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate themselves. This is not some kind of intellectual-property race war, nor is it a game with winners and losers. It never has been, and the sooner everybody realizes that and gets on the same page, the sooner we can make some progress.

My writer/artist friend Jane is currently facing up to cultural appropriation issues in her own graphic novel. (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” --Samuel Beckett)

Finally, I would really be remiss in my linkspamming if I didn't also link to another, slightly older, justifiably widely-linked article: Pam Noles' essay on the whitewashing of Earthsea, Shame, and her follow-up response to a clueless trolling idiot who is, as some of you know, me. (Glacierdust is the online pseudonym that I used to use for personal stuff, as opposed to Sholio/Friendshipper for fan stuff; I've since switched my personal blog to my real name, mostly because switching between all the different pseudonyms once I started spending a lot of time on the fan blog was confusing for me and probably everyone else as well.) Noles addresses many of the issues that have come up in this current round of debate in her essay. And she was also much more kind and gracious than a clueless white chick deserved, three years ago, when said white chick emailed her a mortified apology -- and then proceeded to argue with her via email. *headdesk x infinity*

I'm not posting this for self-flagellation purposes, but rather to point out that a) it's a fantastic essay, and everyone should read it, and b) you may be wondering, if you've been following these links, whether the sort of clueless stupidity that you've been seeing over the last few days is fixable, and I really hope that it is, because I think I've learned a lot over the last couple of years and become much less of an idiot than I used to be. If you've been participating in these (or similar) discussions and feeling like you're beating your head against the wall in these debates, wondering why you're taking the time to explain the same thing fifty times to people who Just Don't Get It, sometimes those words do fall on receptive ground ... eventually. I fucked up, and the fact that this particular fuck-up kicked me onto a personal journey of self-discovery doesn't make up for having, through my own ignorance, insulted and knocked down another human being. I can't make up for that; I can, however, move forward and try very hard to do better, and that's what I've been trying to do -- reading a lot, educating myself, and eventually getting myself to the point where I feel able to participate in these discussions in a constructive way, rather than being part of the problem. I don't want to do that to someone else again.

Also, I think that was the point where the complete interconnectedness of the Internet really hit home for me. The idea that Noles or anyone who knew her would read my selfish blitherings about her essay had honestly never occurred to me, and I still remember very vividly my mortified horror when I realized that this was not true. Yes, you do have to answer for everything you say online, and if you don't want to stand behind it or at least be willing to fix your own mess, don't say it in the first place. WORDS TO LIVE BY, PEOPLE.
The more I read over stuff like this, the more I think that it's important for white authors/creators to have major, stereotype-breaking PoC chars - not only for the sake of the PoC fans, but to prove to the white majority that such chars can be every bit as interesting and engaging, etc, as white ones. Because hopefully that will help open the door for non-white creators to get their stuff published and read and fanned on, and that's what we need.

Reading that "Shame" essay, it seems to me like the most heartbreaking thing about it is seeing a fan who is excluded from universes she loves - and it's not just that there's no black people in the Star Wars fiction; it's that there were so few black people in Star Wars behind the scenes. That until recently a black kid who wanted to become an actor to be a scifi hero on the big screen probably would have to forget it (that's changing, but slowly) and a PoC writing comic books is going to have to write about white heroes, mostly, because that's what there are.

And even now, in most of the big English-speaking Western fandoms, you either have to fan on white characters, or fan on characters who are marginalized in the show canons and consequently the fandoms.

It seems to me that the mainstream PoC creators out there either just give in and write white characters; or when they write PoC heroes, those works get marginalized as "special interest" (I'm thinking of Dwayne MacDuffie, who write a bunch of mainstream comics and JLU, and also Static Shock--SS was marketed more as "black superhero" than "electric-powered superhero" and maybe that's why it wasn't a hit. Of course it wasn't as good in animation or stories as JLU or Batman: TAS, though really I don't know why it doesn't have a bigger fandom following anyway, because seriously, people, one of the slashiest superhero partnerships ever!)

We have to get rid of that "special interest" stigma. A lot of publishers/producers/etc think of any work with a PoC protagonist as being only appropriate for PoC, and therefore not as worth investing in. At least in America, white is the largest demographic, so any creator or producer who thinks that audiences are only ever interested in people who look like them, is going to go for white heroes. PoC heroes are just not worth it, because they won't bring in the audiences (unless they're Will Smith or Samuel L. Jackson. And I think the screenwriters are still mostly white, though I could be wrong?)

And that's what we need to change - we need to prove that we, the white majority, can care about characters and stories written by people whose skin doesn't match our own, that it doesn't matter to us, that we'll be interested anyways. Genre PoC fans don't have to prove that, because pretty much if they're fanning on genre fiction, they have to be fanning on at least some characters who are ethnically/racially different from themselves. (Anime is an obvious exception here.) But it's got to work in the other direction, and I think that's why it's important for white creators - who are already established, already in the mainstream - to be taking the particular effort, like Le Guin, or the creators of Avatar, to make our fictional universes more than white, to be inclusive. Just as long as it's understood that this is the intermediary step, not the end of the road - the final point we want to reach is not white authors writing PoC chars sympathetically; it's authors writing people sympathetically.

But we're still a long way from that point, and until we reach it, yeah, it's going to take work.
And then, reading over my comments, I think I'm expressing myself poorly, or missing a point, anyway - I didn't emphasize that I'm looking at this from mostly the white perspective, how we can get more PoC into the mainstream, white-majority culture; how to make our culture more inclusive, so it's not a white culture, but multi-racial. So that PoC fans who love scifi and fantasy can feel as if it's theirs, too, that they have as much right to Tolkien's world, or Lucas's, as any white fan. (And likewise, so that white fans can have a right to Octavia Butler's and Dwayne MacDuffie's universes, etc.) Nullifying cultural appropriation, pretty much.

Projects like Remyth are also important, but they're something different; they're not for the majority culture but the minority culture. They're a defense against the appropriation that has already happened, a rebellion and a rejection. They're reclamation, and that's crucial; but they're not about integration, they're about creating a safe space for people to communicate and develop. I think it's a very important space (because like I said, we need more PoC creators, and there's so little space for them to develop in the current majority culture) but as a white majority fan myself, I can't take any part in that, save to help defend its existence; I only can stand on the sidelines and wait for if/when those creators feel ready to leave that space and try to go mainstream.
Finally, I would really be remiss in my linkspamming if I didn't also link to another, slightly older, justifiably widely-linked article: Pam Noles' essay on the whitewashing of Earthsea, Shame, and her follow-up response to a clueless trolling idiot who is, as some of you know, me.

I don't think I knew that! And wow, because I remember reading that second essay when it was posted, and thank you, because it takes courage to admit this stuff, and it gives me hope that I can move work through my own moments of fail.
Thank you -- for the comment, and for your linkspams and for not being afraid to speak up about this stuff. And that's precisely why I wrote it -- because, yes, I failed badly and I hated writing this out, but there are worse things ... like being on the receiving end of the fail.
I wasn't in fandom as much when Earthsea came out, and I doubt if my reaction at the time would have done me credit--for one thing, I hadn't realized until recently that the characters in Earthsea were brown. I mean, I must have known, but I hadn't thought about it. Ever. I never really cared about the physical appearances of the cast in books (except when their eyes were green, as mine are), although now I wonder if a lot of that was because I had the privilege not to worry about it.

Anyway, that's to say that I'm very very glad you linked this essay, and your statement about it gives me hope, yes, both about myself and about other people. Thank you.
You are welcome.

I'm just glad that I wasn't blogging much at the time, and I wasn't in the habit of venting in blog posts, because heaven knows how much deeper a hole I would have dug for myself had that been the case.
Wow. If you hadn't told me you wrote that, I never would have guessed it was you. Thanks for sharing that. I think it is very hopeful, that people can learn from exchanges like this. And so I keep reading too.

I think it's brave of you to post it.
I'm glad it came across that way; I don't want to point at myself and go LOOK AT ME I'M A SUCCESS STORY YAAYYY because, well, I did what I did, and I'm still figuring out how not to do it again. But I did listen, after I got past thinking it was all about me, and I did learn. Thanks.
Thank you. (Though thanking you now, after nattering on and on in your comments, is probably rather pointless.) I angsted over posting this and I'm glad that you found it useful.
Wow...I've spent a couple of evenings reading and following links and following links from those links and on and on...

And what happens today but my friend who teaches at a community college tells me that she's teaching "multiculturalism and diversity in the classroom" as a new education course (for her) and the text deals largely with understanding white privilege before being able to become an effective teacher. "Help," she said, "I need to understand this more!"

"Why, do I have links for you," I replied. The other subjects she teaches deal with using literature in the classroom or are regular old English or education classes. She needs to read all of these right now.

I'm not sure if all of what I've read is on rydra_wong's list or from links farther down the road, but a few things really hit me hard and made me sit back and do some thinking.
Thanks for posting all those links. I've spent... most of the evening reading one post and then following it to another, and another, and another. Lots and lots to think about, which is always a good thing. :)
Thank you for posting this. You give me hope that I can get better at not hurting other people with my ignorance and privilege.
Thank *you*; that's what I hoped to do.

Edited at 2009-01-19 09:49 pm (UTC)
This? This is why I oh-so-frequently use you as my Stupidity Firewall. Cuz you are smart.

Rock on, girl.
This is why I oh-so-frequently use you as my Stupidity Firewall.

As you, also, are mine! I love the concept of the Stupidity Firewall. IT IS SO TRUE.

And thanks.