1. jen0088
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    jen0088 New Member

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    Cultural appropriation

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by jen0088, Sep 10, 2014.

    Hi everyone! I'm writing a fantasy novel based on a certain cultures traditions. Being a fantasy I've embellished it a bit. I was wondering what your thoughts are on cultural (mis)appropriation and unintentional racism? I really hate it myself when other people "represent" my ethnicity only to leave a lasting impression of something totally misrepresented.
    Do you pay any attention to this? and what do you do?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Um... It depends on a lot of factors for me. Is the misrepresentation of material importance? Does it ascribe attributes (either positive or negative) that are false or unrealistic?

    I recently read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (well, I read it last year actually). It contained the first Puerto Rican protagonist in a Science Fiction story that I had ever read. Ever! Much of the novel takes place in Puerto Rico, in places that I know. I was enthralled to read this book for this reason and other reasons that were not ethnically sourced. There were some errors. Some didn't matter at all, like one character's fondness for a particular Puerto Rican food item that simply doesn't exist. Some things mattered more, like the slightly patronizing presence of Anglo liberals living in La Perla and bestowing their do-goodery to the local impoverished. La Perla is a very insular and rather dangerous place in real life.

    Most importantly, the author did nail one thing that might make most Puerto Ricans upset. The cultural emphasis on high drama and emotive expression over logical action that my culture permits and even encourages. It's a truth. It's real. But it's a reality that is subjugated by social lying that would ask the outside observer to only ever see "Sunday Best!"

    See the conundrum?
     
  3. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    I think that when most of us write about cultures we aren't a part of (when it's important to the story) we do what research we can, then do our best with the representation. It's impossible for someone who isn't part of your culture to understand and appreciate all the details and nuances of your life. I wouldn't worry about it.

    BTW, by definition, there's no such thing as unintentional racism.
     
  4. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    What definition are you using to say that, stevesh? Are you saying that the only racism is perpetrated by people who set out to be racist? I'd say most racism is committed by people who firmly believe they are right, and not racist.

    But back to the OP - I agree, it's a conundrum. We know that all cultures contain diversity within them, and we want to present something deeper than the surface stereotypes, but we also want to be true to the culture we're writing about. When we write a character from a dominant culture and give that character certain attributes, we can be sure the character will be read as an individual, not as a representative of his/her entire culture. But because there are so few characters from non-dominant cultures, anything we write about one of them may seem as if it is meant to represent the culture as a whole.

    I think the best solution is to try to have several characters from a less-represented culture, and to have them be diverse and three dimensional. I think it helps to have a clear grasp of what aspects of a culture are its core values/unexamined traditions and what aspects are less uniform. (eg. If writing about North American culture we might see that most characters share a value of personal freedom, and most characters sleep in beds. But we might see that some characters eat different foods, etc.)

    Most importantly, I'd say, would be finding critical betas from the culture you're writing about. As many as you can find. If just one of them objects to something, you should give it a good looking-at, but if ALL of them object to something, it had better go!
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm fairly sure that I disagree, but to discuss it properly we'd have to hash out the definition of "racism" and "intentional" and my head would get overfull and explode.

    Now, I don't claim that unintentional racism is OK--especially in today's world, anyone who makes assumptions based on race has a responsibility to look at those assumptions and do the work to adjust them and their attitudes. But all the same, I do believe that unconscious, unintentional assumptions exist.
     
  6. PensiveQuill
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    PensiveQuill Contributing Member

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    Being a fantasy it doesn't have to be entirely accurate for a culture unless of course you are representing that facet as part of the world we live in. Fantasy writers appropriate various cultures customs all the time in order to create a new world. I'm curious now, which culture are you writing about in your fantasy novel that is making you think you might be misrepresenting things? If you were writing about the roman's for example and your slant was that it was a hideously decadent society overrun with corruption, then you wouldn't be far from the mark.

    Are you annoyed by your culture showing up in fantasy novels in the context of a fictional alien world? Or just when it's someone's serious attempt to provide social commentary on something they know little about?
     
  7. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    I was being a little pedantic. The definition of racism I'm familiar with describes it as bigotry with intent to harm. If I hate you because you're of Asian descent, I'm a bigot. If I refuse to hire you because you're of Asian descent, I'm a racist. In the context of @jen0088's question, I don't think she should have to worry about being seen as racist just because she doesn't fully understand a particular culture she wants to write about.
     
  8. Christine Ralston
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    Christine Ralston Active Member

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    Do you know any members of that culture? Someone who would be willing to answer your questions about the culture? If not, or in addition, I would search for scholarly sources about the specific culture you intend to write about. Do your research before you begin to write.
     
  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Absolutely. But I would also suggest that if one is going to write about a particular culture, one should a) do enough research to present as accurate a picture as possible, b) take care to avoid known stereotypes and c) if possible, talk to people from that culture. Also, reading fiction produced by that culture can be an immense help.
     
  10. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not JUST because she doesn't fully understand them, but if her lack of understanding leads to her believing/perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes about them, I'd say that's a racist act. It's not vicious or hateful, but it's racist, and we should be working to avoid even non-hateful racism.
     
  11. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Having come full circle, I'll say that there's no such thing as non-hateful racism. It isn't just a matter of definition, I don't think. It's about intent. If I perpetuate a derogatory racial stereotype out of ignorance it may just be that no amount of research can educate me about every tiny aspect or nuance of a culture of which I am not a member.

    If a first-generation Japanese-American woman born to ultra-wealthy parents, who lived her whole life in San Francisco and attended the toniest boarding schools and an Ivy League university, wrote a novel about a rural Midwestern American middle-class family (like, say, mine) I can guarantee she would get some details about her subjects' culture wrong, possibly inadvertently insulting folks like me in the process. Would she be a racist? Not to me. I would probably find her errors amusing, and would certainly find them understandable.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me, though, it is about definition, because that ignorant perpetuation is racism to me. It's not intentional racism, and my definition of racism doesn't require intent. So I think we're in a circular definition situation.
     
  13. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Sorry, but I don't see how believing that individuals can be completely defined by race, or that one race is inherently superior to another, can be anything other than intentional, particularly since we are talking about the realm of writers.
     
  14. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    If only there were some sort of big book that could TELL us what the definition of racism is... oh.

    "The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races;
    Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior."
    http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/racism

    So it seems like Stevesh is focusing on the second meaning, while ChickenFreak and I are using the first.

    That said, Stevesh, I think we have to look at cultures in the larger context - rural Midwestern Americans aren't a race, and they also aren't a group that has been traditionally discriminated against. So someone getting aspects of that culture wrong would be annoying and lessen the enjoyment of reading, but I don't think it would be racism. If the Japanese-American wrote a work in which ALL white people (Midwesterners included) conform to a certain stereotype, I think that WOULD be racism, and I'd have a problem with it. But because white people aren't traditionally discriminated against, I wouldn't feel AS upset about racism against them as I would if I read something racist about a group that has traditionally been victimized.

    Lots of shades of grey, from where I'm sitting.
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But I'm not defying (er, defining) racism as requiring either of those things.

    I'm going to switch to sexism, because I'm frankly not comfortable making specific analogies about racism.

    Plenty of people assume things like:

    - The assumption that a girl in school will be good at English, while a boy will be good at math.
    - The assumption that a woman won't be interested watching a baseball game, while a man will.
    - The assumption that a woman will be interested in meeting your new baby, while a man won't.

    Those assumptions are all sexist. The person making those assumptions needs to do some work on their beliefs. But I don't agree that the assumptions started out as intentionally sexist.
     
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2014
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  16. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    How about the fact that there actually are (for example) black people who are shiftless and lazy, and who like fried chicken and watermelon? If I choose to write about those people in a story, does that make me racist by your definitions?

    If so, it seems that literature is headed toward a sad (and boring) homogenization where all the characters are pretty much alike, save sex and skin color, all in the name of avoiding any possible affront.
     
  17. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Only sexist when worded as you did. More like playing the odds than making assumptions, I think. More girls than boys are better in English class; ask any English teacher. Most of the female baseball fans I know are middle-aged or older, and male fans outnumber them dramatically. I can assure you that you don't know a man who is as interested in meeting your new baby as any woman of your acquaintance - that's a biology thing.
     
  18. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    No. Telling the reader that they are shiftless and lazy because the are black would be racist.
     
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  19. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I think sexism is more difficult to nail down than racism, because most sexist assumptions have their basis either in biology (as @stevesh suggests) or in cultural norms long accepted by both sexes.

    And a writer (after all, the OP was talking about writers) who persistently portrayed black people as always shiftless and lazy would deserve to be called a racist.
     
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  20. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Most people are not aware that they are discriminating a person based on anything at all. The scary thing about discrimination is that it's always "justified", at least in the person's view. They don't know they're doing it.
     
  21. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If you don't make it obvious it's based on one particular culture, perhaps by mixing in other stuff either of your own creation or elements from other cultures, then you'll be just fine.

    Alternatively, write a disclaimer. I read a fantasy novel based heavily on Japan, and the author stated clearly this is not supposed to be actual Japan, nor is she trying to portray Japanese culture. However, she did make it clear that she went to Japan and spoke to various experts etc in order to learn as much about the culture as possible, based on a life-long fascination. I wouldn't be surprised if she could speak Japanese. I think people nonetheless complained, but personally I wouldn't mind I think. The genre is fantasy and the author stated that representing actual Japan was not the intention, so why would I complain that it's not realistic?
     
  22. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Fantastic example, stevesh! Thanks!

    I assume you're playing the part of someone who doesn't THINK he's sexist. He just thinks he's right. Of course, he's using ridiculous evidence, but that's the point of the piece, right? He really IS saying sexist things, but he doesn't realize it. He's unintentionally sexist. You maybe played it a bit too broad at the end with the "you don't know a man" and "any woman of your acquaintance" part - I think someone who was unintentionally sexist probably would have kept to talking about his own experiences - shifting to talking about someone else's experiences, when the person the character is talking to is someone only known over the internet? I feel like that's more aggressive and would bring your characterization almost into the "intentionally sexist" category.

    But for the early part, excellent work. I think it's a great illustration of unintentional sexism.
     
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  23. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    I like you.
     
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  24. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But it's still sexism, even if it's widely practiced. Given that liking sports is often seen as "unladylike", and young boys are probably encouraged to be physical rather than verbal, and that a woman who doesn't coo over babies is seen as horrible while a man who does coo over them is seen as unmanly...we have no real way of knowing if those tendencies have any biological basis at all.

    Similarly, if people with a particular skin color are financially discriminated against, then statistically they will probably show characteristics and behaviors associated with poverty. If they're harassed by the police, they'll statistically probably show some common attitudes about authority and government. And so on.

    The racist and the sexist can both point to 'evidence'; that doesn't make that evidence valid.

    Why would it be a biology thing?

    Sure, a baby's mother is a seething mass of parenting hormones when the baby's born, and that could (could) have an affect on behavior, but that doesn't necessarily apply to non-post-partum women.

    In evolutionary terms, a baby needs the protection of both parents--if the father were irrelevant, I doubt that we would have evolved with long-term mating relationships. Since the father doesn't experience pregnancy and therefore doesn't go through that hormonal buildup to be a parent, it seems more logical to assume that all men, rather than all women, would always have a constant protect-the-baby impulse.

    But culturally, as a woman I'm supposed to adore babies (aka noisy stinky sticky demanding self-centered producers of assorted bodily fluids), and I'm the devil if I don't. Culturally, men aren't supposed to like them, so lots of them go with the, to me, logical reaction of avoidance. I suspect that some men do find them adorable, but that they aren't comfortable expressing that opinion.

    (In case anyone's worried: No, I don't have kids. Never wanted 'em, never will.)
     
  25. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, it is. But that's not the issue. For much of human history, sexist tenets were held as valid by both sexes (even today in American society, there are women who are anti-feminists), and were not considered to be demeaning to either sex. Members of a race that is being systematically demeaned or exploited based on race rarely embrace the assumption that they are inherently inferior. And those who demean or exploit them know full well that they are doing so, and that it is based on race.
     

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