There is much discussion going on at the moment about cultural appropriation in literature, springing off from a Wiscon panel (edit to replace with single roundup by rilina). I feel like I ought to have something to say, because (1) my biological ancestors, probably to a long way back, were from Korea or adjacent regions; (2) I like discussing literature, and (3) I'd like to think of myself as thoughtful and reasonable about culture and race. And yet, I've been watching the debates without commenting.
This is one of the more self-centered posts I have ever written: I rather doubt anyone noticed that I haven't been commenting before I said something about it, let alone has wondered about it. But I can't seem to shake wondering why I'm not, and so I'm trying to figure that out. Honestly my stomach rather knots up at the idea of entering this discussion, but my backbrain seems to want to. So, with trepidation, I jump in behind the cut.
Why have I been staying out of the cultural appropriation discussions? Some reasons, starting with the least conflicted, maybe.
- I am not a confrontational person—yes, I am a lawyer, hush, it's not a contradiction—and a lot of people are very angry.
- I've been busy doing law. (First papers to the Court of Appeals [New York's highest court] goes out tomorrow, yay! I'm pretty happy with it, too.)
- I'm a reader, not a writer, and don't feel I have much to add to discussions about what writers should do. I can do descriptive—give me a book and ask me what I think about it, and I'm good to go—but prescriptive is not something I do.
- I get vaguely weirded out by calling it appropriation. Maybe I just haven't seen the examples that really deserve a such negative label, but to my mind appropriation is a property kind of thing; I'm uncomfortable with the idea that you can appropriate, well, ideas (that aren't patents).
- Relatedly, I'm not sure what it means. I don't think I've seen concrete examples (titles of books) of what people are objecting to.
The only example I can think of, that matches my admittedly-very-negative connotation of "appropriation," is the way that Tamora Pierce took Japanese culture of some not-present-time era and dropped it into the Tortall (Alanna et al.) universe in the Keladry books, complete with Japanese words like "naginata." (Tortall is generic-medevaloid-European, which is mostly because Tortall started as pretty EFP and then grew; I don't know enough about the other cultures that we meet throughout the books to know if it's the same wholesale dropping-in.) My reaction to this is that it's just sloppy, frankly.
[ETA: Apparently the panel defined "appropriation" as "use," which was not clear to me until I saw a comment later. In my opinion, "appropriation" is not a neutral word, and while I hate the re-labeling and definitional quibbles that seem inherent in these discussions, I do think this is one time where a different label would be actually useful. Not that I know what a better label would be.]
- I lack a cultural identity that matches my color, and thus feel not entitled to speak on this, or not knowledgable enough to contribute, or perhaps both.
I mean, I am about the least Asian-American person it is possible to be. [*] Korean is the cuisine I've liked least when attempted in restaurants, Chad's practically dragging me to Japan next year with Worldcon as a carrot, etc. etc. The most frequent occasion of my being aware of my color? When I'm shopping for clothes and lamenting that those olive-mustard-orange pallettes make me look like a corpse. I don't run out of fingers when counting the number of times I feel someone treated me differently because of my race. (Some slurs, some from people who wouldn't like me anyway, but a couple from strangers; a couple of instances where someone spoke to me in something other than English. Oh, right, and one request to do something related to racial discrimation.) (This is very like my reaction to gender and sex.)
[*] Nutshell history: I was born in Korea, adopted as an infant, and while my parents tried to give me connections to Korean culture, it just didn't take; I wasn't interested. Still am not, really; it's very similar to how I feel about biological relatives: it's not a matter of great relevance to me.
(Someone is probably thinking, yes, but didn't you get college scholarships and go to a fancy-pants law school and all that, and wasn't that being treated differently for being a female hyphenated-American? This is where my cast-iron self-confidence comes in: I am damn smart and deserved those, thankyouverymuch. Not that I am going to pull out my test scores, grades, resume, etc., and wave them around in ALL THEIR ENORMITY, so you'll just have to trust me.)
oyceter wrote, "I think if you are a hyphenated American or an American of color, claiming American culture as your own is problematic. I wish this weren't so, and I struggled against this in college. But the fact is, if your skin color is different from that of people around you, no matter what you think you are, people will very often treat you differently."
Apparently I am problematic. But I don't know what else to call my culture but American. (And I wouldn't call that assimilation, either.)
I get this feeling of lack of knowledge and therefore lack of entitlement to participate a lot when it comes to discussions about race. Empathy, observation, and concern seem insufficient. Which then makes me unhappy in about six different ways, and then I want to go hide under a rock.
- I'm a solution-oriented person. Tell me about a problem, and I'll start thinking of ways to fix it. (I have heard this described as a gendered trait, to which I say, pfft.) As far as I can tell, and I freely admit I may not be understanding, to the extent that solutions are being offered, they are "don't be thoughtless." In other words, this is a (oh my, I can't believe I'm going to use this phrase) consciousness-raising exercise. For the reason in the point directly above, I've got nothing which with to raise anyone's consciousness, and therefore nothing to contribute.
(Though I do have to agree that the idea of permission is, well, if I had been in the audience, I would have been searching for a polite way of saying, "Did you hear what just came out of your mouth?" But that's been said already.)
*looks at list* Yes, posting this is probably the worst idea ever. But maybe if I do, my backbrain will shut up about it.