When I got the March/April 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, I did not pay much attention to Stephen J. Quigley’s article,” The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation of Identity in Fiction,” because I rarely write fiction, but browsing through it earlier this week, it caught my interest.
The idea of “cultural appropriation” is a complex one, but basically it is when someone outside of a culture – a race, a gender, a religion, geography-based group, etc. – attempts to define that “Other” culture and contributes to the misunderstandings that lead its subjugation and/or exploitation. One example, in the article, is Quigley’s scenario: a white writer from the United States attempting to speak through a Cambodian first-person narrator in a fiction novel set in that Asian locale. That white writer would, in effect, be claiming to understand and speak for a Cambodian person, which he is not, and would inevitably contribute to a misrepresentation of Cambodians.
Cultural appropriation is not new, though in a post-colonial, post-Civil Rights critical landscape where multiculturalists have a significant voice, the notion of allowing or accepting cultural appropriation is now generally frowned upon. When a member of a dominant, colonizing culture describes, elaborates or speaks for or about the culture of a colonized people, even through fictional characters, the values of colonization (subjugation, exploitation) are present; thus, the ability of the subjugated “Other” to define himself/herself is also stolen when the mainstream writer contributes a more widely read (colonizer’s) view of that culture. Put more simply, as a metaphor: if the schoolyard bully, by virtue of his strength and power, gets to define his victim’s place the school’s culture as well, then the victim is doubly bullied – first directly by the bully and again by the inability to overcome lower status.
Quigley goes on, after a brief but fairly complex philosophical discussion, to discuss how and why cultural appropriation in fiction may or may not be wrong, whether it is possibly unavoidable. Citing Garrett Hongo and bell hooks and comparing their ideas with some of his own, he digs at the subject’s hazy, gray-area nature, as he attempts to reconcile his own role as a writer guilty of cultural appropriation. Quigley’s examples of well-known works of cultural appropriation included Memoirs of a Geisha, which was written by a white male writer and which has been more widely read in the West than the actual memoir that the story is largely based on, and Black Like Me, about a white man who attempts to live as a black man to explore the inequalities.
This matter of cultural appropriation looms large in the work that I do. Having worked on Civil Rights history and commemoration projects, one major source of dissatisfaction that I hear often is the co-opting that material by white people for their material gain, which the black participants almost never share in. Today, departments of tourism and chambers of commerce are proudly erecting and promoting memorials and destinations that make money for the very same city and state governments that were the opposition to the movement. Granted, the same people aren’t profiting, but the same institutions are. The same kind of co-opting is being done by many museums and writers, who will show exhibits and produce books about the movement, but who will also often retain the monetary profits for themselves. In the article, Quigley reminds us that bell hooks refers to the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that always seems to end up on top somehow.
Quigley’s article made me question myself, too. While I take solace in the fact that I have never personally profited from any work on a Civil Rights history project, I am also aware that to some extent my career has been built on that work, and that I have profited in other ways and on other unrelated projects. Like Quigley, I also question whether cultural appropriation is unavoidable for any writer, of any color or any gender, unless all of us only write about our own cultures in a strict delineation. As a heterosexual white male writer from the South, am I re-committing the sins of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” when I write about any people other than heterosexual white Southern males? Am I doomed, no matter how pure my intentions, to perpetuate misnomers about non-white people, women, and GLBTs and contribute to a racist, sexist, homophobic world view? Damn, I hope not. I don’t want to. I certainly have never tried to. Quigley seems to conclude that, on some level, we white males from the US can’t avoid it, but that we can help to offset the effects by giving back, with our time or money, to the people and institutions who, by forging a self-made definition of themselves, are working to undo the colonizing work of generations of white men. Well, I’ve done that with my work on Civil Rights history . . . so am I all good now?