So let’s say you are an artist. You have a unique and distinctive style that has won you praise and even some fame. You’re not successful per se; you still struggle to sell work an make ends meet, but you are getting there slowly but surely.
Other new artists see your work, love it, and are inspired by it. Some take elements of your style and incorporate it into their own, both imitating you to pay homage and adding something of themselves to it to create something new.
You have become the first in a new art movement.
Now say that instead of it being newer artists building a movement around your work, it’s one artist. They are not paying homage to you, though. It’s a more successful artist. Or a mediocre one with connections. They take the distinctive style you developed and present it as their own. They don’t even mention you, much less give you credit for the style. Worse, when you try to show your own work, the media mocks you as an opportunistic copy cat and galleries black list you. Your only recourse is an ugly court battle but they have much more money than you.
We see both scenarios play out in art, music, literature, and even TV and movies all the time. The first one is great and keeps creativity alive. The second, not so much. Some of us especially if we are creators even have our own special stories that we remember as caution. A few have even lived it.
It’s an opportunistic person applying for a job who takes your idea and presents it as theirs. They get the job and you are happy for them, until you see the idea presented, the idea that you hadn’t had the chance to give life to yet because you were waiting for the right occasion.
It’s the story you published that suddenly has a take down notice on Amazon because a scammer with a click farm copied your book, published it, and then used the automated nature of copyright takedown to get them a few days of your clicks. And possibly hundreds of your dollars. Even if you did not get a take down notice, you probably felt it in a decline in sales.
It’s a client letting you know that someone else has copy/pasted your profile so they can leech off your success by spoofing your freelance profile (that’s a personal one for me).
We creators know and have sometimes lived these stories. They suck. They often cost us time and money. Sometimes the battle can cost us fans. Occasionally even friends.
We all know what this is … when it happens to us.
This Is What Cultural Appropriation Can Look Like
This is also one of the ways that cultural appropriation is bad. When we talk about cultural appropriation some forms are exactly what we creators have dealt with before. We know what it looks like, what it feels like.
When it happens to us.
When it might be perpetrated by us, we want to pretend that it can never happen. When we are given hypothetical examples, sometimes based on real life occurrences, we put are hands over are ears and sing, “la la.”
We beat our chests and say, well that’s not appropriation. We’re the better writer, the better artist, the better musician, so naturally we should be the ones to create it.
But we are not creating anything. We are copying someone else’s stories, myths, culture and heritage. When it’s done as appropriation it stifles their voice. It drowns it out. The creation is stolen in a way that they cannot come behind with their own voice because they will look like the copy cats.
Now, I know. There is a line between cultural drift and sharing (between respectful borrowing and homage), and the kind of appropriation that I am talking about. Sometimes that line is clearly drawn and we can see the exploitation. Sometimes it is blurry and open to interpretation.
I Appropriate Culture
Usually when we talk about Cultural Appropriation, what we really mean is misappropriation. The idea of Cultural Appropriation covers a lot of things, from hair styles to fashion to Halloween costumes, to literature. Because I am a writer, I want to talk about literature and the arts. All of these other things have very valid discussions to be had around Cultural (mis)Appropriation, but when we lump them all together, we confuse the issue.
Think of it like baking. I can bake a cake. I can bake a pie. I can bake biscuits. If I try to bake them all together, however, I am just going to make a mess of food and you will not be able to distinguish any flavors.
So, we’re going to keep the discussion focused.
As I said, I appropriate culture all the time. I work as a ghostwriter. I have also written numerous stories commissioned by clients. I am a white, cis-gendered, bisexual woman. However, few of my characters meet that description. I have characters who are racially mixed. In The Shulim Cycle Devon’s mother was Middle Eastern, at least partly. In Harbin & Klai, Klai is supposedly Vietnamese, though his friend doubts it. In commissioned works I have written characters who are African American. I have written male characters from all walks of life and different countries. I have written from the point of view of a transvestite, British royalty, and an Indian actress. The Shulim Cycle borrows from some aspects of Christianity, but it also relies heavily on pre-Sumerian myths.
In all of these examples, I borrow from some group, culture, or myth in some way. With the characters, I have to write them with a voice that feels authentic to who they are and to how the culture they come from or that makes up their lineage informs their identity.
While I have to put myself into their shoes, they are not me. I do my best to write them respectfully and to present them honestly when in their point of view. When other characters view them, I try to both present them through the eyes of that character and give some hint of who they actually are – we are rarely the same as people perceive us, no matter the culture, religion, or ethnicity. I try to do all of this while balancing the kind of characterization that I need for the story.
When I write about Cultural Appropriation and the way that we borrow from other cultures and groups, I am not writing hypothetically. I am writing something that I do literally every day as a writer, whether I am writing my own stories, a commissioned work, or ghostwriting for someone else.
When we write, I know … we tread a very fine line. If we are not inclusive, then we run the risk of alienating readers who do not see characters they identify with. We become yet another example of white-washing the world. So I understand very deeply that very often we are doing something good, even if sometimes others see it negatively.
Point of View
If people see what we do in a negative light, more often than not it’s because they see their culture and stories misappropriated, exploited, and turned into a stereotype, often lumped in with other stereotypes. How often are transgender and transvestite characters confused? How often are they portrayed as mentally ill?
For them, sometimes one more borrow or one more homage, is just another case of “them” stealing their stories, struggles, and victories. They fight everything because no one looks like an ally anymore.
Allies don’t tell you things like, “it never happens” and “that thing that offends you, you’re just being over sensitive about it.”
Allies believe in you, support you,and will help fight for you. So if you want cultural drift, cultural sharing, cultural borrowing, and homage to continue, you have to respect the groups and cultures you want to share from. That means being an ally. It means recognizing that sometimes their culture is misused and stolen, that others profit off them and share none of the credit and profit.
It means standing up to it, standing with them, and saying that is not acceptable.
When we do, then they will trust that when we include some piece of them in our creations, that we will do so in a way that is respectful and will allow them to come behind us, tall proud and recognized for the beauty of their culture.