wMay 30, 2007

Mostly useless thoughts on Cultural Appropriation Revisited, parts 1 and 2

Cultural Appropriation Revisited Part One

Politics, Race, Class, and Religion•Senate B• Saturday, 2:30-3:45 p.m.

As part of an ongoing discussion of the issue of cultural appropriation, this year's panel will address what is perhaps the most controversial, and certainly the most discussed, aspect of cultural appropriation in fiction: the use or exploitation of cultures across racial, ethnic, or national lines. Writers and activists who concern themselves in their work with issues of dominant and marginal cultures will discuss the use in narrative of markers and artifacts of cultures that are not the authors' own. Should this be done at all? Where do the limits fall? How is it well done and how poorly done? Sponsored by the Carl Brandon Society.

M: Candra Gill, M. J. Hardman, Yoon Ha Lee, Nnedi Nkemdili Okorafor-Mbahu, Victor Jason Raymond


First of all, I highly recommend you read up on what happened last year, at Wiscon 30. To my knowledge, rilina has compiled the most complete list of posts that have been referred to as a "blog war." Essentially, the same panel was present at Wiscon last year, but instead of focusing on the prescribed topic, it declined into a conversation about white people and their guilt. Her link roundup is here, and she was even kind enough to put everything in chronological order.

Before I write my notes on the panels, I will say that I am white and don't have a lot of experience talking about race with others. If I say something that pisses you off, please tell me. I promise that I won't accuse you of being racist (wtf), deny the fact that white culture exists, or tell you that you're imagining things. Seriously. Tell me.


I don't have anything to say about this panel that hasn't already been said.

There is also a fairly elaborate transcript here.

You should also read oyceter's writeup.

Book Recommendation:
Mindscape, Andrea Harrison


Cultural Appropriation Revisited Part Two: Facilitated Discussion

Politics, Race, Class, and Religion•Senate B• Saturday, 4:00-5:15 p.m.

The panel on cultural appropriation at WisCon last year raised issues that were hotly discussed online, and the panel that this forum follows is likely to do the same. This open forum is meant to give you the chance to explore these issues and how they matter to you. Through passionate discussion we can improve our awareness and find the common understanding that lies beneath our disagreements. The open forum will be facilitated by Alan Bostick, who has been practicing Worldwork since 2003. Worldwork is a process-oriented approach to group facilitation and conflict developed by psychologist Arnold Mindell (author of Sitting in the Fire and The Deep Democracy of Open Forums) and collaborators. Attendees are strongly urged to also attend the immediately preceding panel discussion on cultural appropriation.

M: Alan Bostick


I was a little skeptical about the "process-oriented approach to group facilitation and conflict," but I thought that Bostick was a good moderator in terms of getting people to say what they meant, and clarifying issues for both the speaker and the group as a whole. I don't feel like he lead the conversation in any direction in particular, but rather helped people to not dissolve into screaming matches.

I was disappointed that so many people left after Part 1, and didn't stay for Part 2. I know it's a Con, people had places to be, and these things happen - but still.

And really, looking at my notes, I didn't take many. I'm sorry. It was just a weird, uncomfortable conversation. I am going to cop out and say that for details on the panel, read oyceter's excellent write up of Part Two.

I will, however, take the opportunity to write about the one situation that upset me the most. I think I got positioned to dislike the comments made by this particular audience member because they were constantly interrupting others and offering comments that weren't really helpful to the issue at hand. But the one that took the cake was the one that cropped up in the following situation:
A woman who was black said that she and her husband, who is Jewish, have a son. The woman (whose name was Rosalyn, I think; I later attended a reading at midnight, and her prose and plot ideas are amazing!) said that she has told her son that despite his "mixed" background, the world perceives him as a black man; she tells him this so that he will understand why others act toward him the way they do. The audience member told the woman that her son needs to know that he is an individual, should accept himself, and that nothing anyone else thinks of him is important, and that all he can do is be himself.

I guess that sounds great rhetorically (not eloquent, but you get what I mean), except that what you think of yourself is not all that matters. Another audience member instantly brought attention to this fact: that it's great to accept yourself except that it does matter what people identify "black man" with when those people are police officers, etc. Encouraging people of color to just "accept themselves" is extremely unhelpful, in my opinion. I don't think that most people of color have a problem with being a person a color. The problem is that society has a prejudice related to how people look. Racism is an institution, and it does affect daily life in many ways. It affects who gets hired for jobs; it affects who gets arrested and who gets let off on the exact same charges; it affects who people avoid when they're walking down the sidewalk. Racism is real, and closing your eyes and focusing on how much you love yourself, however much that is, doesn't make the racism go away.

I don't know. It was just that comment in particular that made me think "WTF" the most.

Recommended Reading
"Writing the Other" - Nisi Shawl
The Color of Water
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack - Peggy McIntosh
How Not to be Insane When Accused of Racism (A Guide for White People)

Labels: , ,

scribbled mystickeeper at 10:28 PM

Forgive me for not reading the write-ups the other people gave, I just don't have the energy right now. I started to skim but...yeah.

While idealism tells you that you only need to be happy with yourself, that's not true. You need to be happy with yourself to be happy, but other people play a big part in the big picture as well. My personal philosophy is that validation from one or more other people is vital to any person, but that's getting off track.

You're right, racism is real. From what I've learned, being a white person in America means we often have the luxury of forgetting that racism exists. We like to say "Well, I'm not racist. I have one friend from Mexico. There were African American kids at my high school," but what we don't realize is that having a friend or two of color doesn't make you a social justice crusader. Little things are important. The truth is that there is still a gap in economic standing based on race and people are still (consciously or unconsciously) discriminated against when it comes to things like housing opportunities.

Racism isn't always using the N-word or beating the tar out of someone for the color of their skin. Racism doesn't have to be blatantly obvious to everyone, it can come out in simple circumstances where you offend someone and carry inaccurate views or participate in non-inclusive language. Racist is not something you either are or you aren't that sticks with you for your entire life. The magic of it all is that it's not something you decide either. If you offend someone, they decide whether or not they are offended. Just because you don't want to be racist, doesn't meant you aren't. A lot of racism is born from ignorance. You can say a racist thing or think a racist thought without being a member of the KKK. Unfair racist talk can be as plain as thinking it's necessary to say "My friend Lauren is coming to dinner. She is black." when you would not announce the skin color of your white friend. (politics about "fair warning" for racist parents aside, that's another discussion).

This doesn't mean you should pretend to be color blind (that's an annoying behavior as well). You shouldn't pretend not to "see race," but you should acknowledge it when the minority people you're conversing with are comfortable bringing it up and you should not bring up their race at arbitrary points, which has the subsequent result of making it seem like their race is an important aspect of their worth as a person. People should be allowed to embrace their cultures and colors without being expected to represent their entire race individually.

One of my recent qualms was with how the Virginia Tech shooter was represented. The guy grew up in America and yet everyone kept insisting on saying he was Korean at the top of every article. It soon became "Korean student shoots school," instead of "Mentally unstable student shoots school." When the Columbine shooting happened did they mention at the top of each article that the boys were white? His parent's heritage was not integral to his identity as a killer. Did they say where he worked? Did they say what his hobbies were? No. You can't argue that his racial identity was introduced as part of his background and interest. We don't even know if he identified as Korean. He had the potential to call himself as American as I do, after all. Unfortunately a lot of people now view him, consciously or unconsciously, as a representative for Koreans and Korean-Americans and perhaps to this day still look at Asian students with an eye of caution. Not fair.

I know it's delicate and sometimes it feels unfair that as white identifying people we can't have a "white women's society," or National Assocation for the Advancement of White People, but that's one of the facets that comes with having the power in society. We have the support networks we need and we don't need special organizations of people making sure we're treated fairly (this doesn't mean we should be turned into second class citizens either, but the likelihood of such a need is pretty slim).

I know things aren't always fair for everyone even if they are white and it's hard sometimes knowing that at some schools there's a lot more scholarships for students of color, but the truth is that the opportunity gap exists. Whether admissions officers are going about fixing the gap in the right way is another argument, but you can't deny that it's necessary. Again, not getting a scholarship is another facet that comes with social power. Even though sometimes I feel like I'm getting screwed on both ends for having a financially disadvantaged family and I still am not eligible for as many scholarships, on average, I still have more opportunities than a student of color identical to me in every other way. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make as a step toward equality, if I have to. Yes, there are some students of color who are richer than me and have less obstacles than me and they still are eligible for things I am not, but life just works that way. When you try to set a group of people apart based on their skin color there will always be discrepancies, whether you do it with ill or good intentions, but it's the only idea we've come up with so far.

I think that woman would be preaching both messages to her son. It's important to understand and yet it's important to have priorities. You don't want to give the kid a complex thinking he'll always be at the bottom of the social ladder, and yet you want to be realistic. She shouldn't have to tell him things like that, but if he's aware of it perhaps he can facilitate a social change (the same goes for the rest of us).

This is long, but if anyone has a beef with it and has read the whole thing, I encourage you to be open minded and mature so we can discuss it.

By Blogger Steph, at 12:54 AM, May 31, 2007  

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is an essay I would recommend, we read it as mandatory House Fellow material. I also really liked the blog you linked on how not to be insane when accused of racism. Sometimes you brush it off afterward, but you always consider it. Erring on the side of over-analysis is always better than continuing to hurt people.

I apologize if my last comment came off as too "should"/"should not." It's just hard not to get preachy when you're talking about such important things. I'll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn about racism and white privilege and am far from an expert, but aren't we all? Our experiences are largely limited to ourselves.

By Blogger Steph, at 1:02 AM, May 31, 2007  

Post a Comment