As a writer I have watched the conversation around cultural appropriation with a great deal of trepidation. The developments with writer Lionel Shriver at a writers festival in Australia put a nice fine point on the debate as it relates to creativity.
Simply put, the concept of cultural appropriation is that it is inappropriate for privileged whites to co-opt the cultural trappings of other groups, be they Mexicans, LGBT communities, or Australian aborigines in pursuits ranging from Halloween costumes, to restaurant menus and fiction or film.
My name is Ricardo Sanchez. My family is mostly Spanish, German and Irish. But because of the name, I have more than a passing familiarity with anti-Hispanic sentiment that is mainly targeted at Mexicans. So I have a foot in both the privileged white community and a toe in the disadvantaged minority community (for the record, I’m not saying I am a member of a disadvantaged community, only that I have experienced bias based on my name.) Because of this perspective, I do understand a lot of the arguments of the groups that have championed the fight against cultural appropriation, and as much as I might sympathize with a desire to see marginalized or minority voices heard (in the case of the arts) I think the whole notion of cultural appropriation (CA after this) is bullshit. Particularly in America.
As far as the United States is concerned, there is only one “native” culture and we’ve pretty much decimated it. The dominant “culture” is in fact a culturally appropriated mix of Spanish, French, English, and African (for the most part) influences that permeates everything from our food to our music and literature. Without CA we would not have New Orleans, probably the best pro-CA argument one could make. Creole food alone is 100% American, and %100 borrowed from the Spanish, French and African inhabitants of Louisiana. Rock and Roll got it’s start in blues with black musicians, but would anyone really argue the case that it was inappropriate for the Rolling Stones to make their blues influenced music? What about “The Grapes of Wrath?” Should Steinbeck not have written a mentally challenged character since he, himself, was not mentally challenged? I’ve picked some fairly easy examples of where the CA argument fails, but what about when you push it? A white guy writing about a black, lesbian amputee? There are three distinct cultures there that might be appropriated. Rather than ask if it’s okay for a white guy to write that story, one might ask, is it only okay for a black, lesbian amputee to write that story? The CA argument, taken to it’s logical conclusion, would have to be yes. Because nobody else could understand where the character is coming from.
I’m playing absolutes, which is a little disingenuous, but it helps me make my point – decrying cultural appropriation is a slippery slope, like any form of censorship, and that’s essentially what it is. Writers should be free to write any character that serves their story, regardless of what cultures it might pull from. If I think I can tell a compelling story about a black lesbian amputee, nothing should stop me from writing it. If it sucks (hell, even if it’s good) nobody will read it. And if it does get read, it’s because the story is universal enough that people are engaged, regardless of their own backgrounds.
Yes, we should absolutely do more to help marginalized groups tell their own stories. Yes, white male (and female) writers certainly have some advantages over non-white writers, partly due to education levels, partly due to cultural bias, and partly due to market economics. And we should absolutely work to level the playing field so all creators have access to readers. But when you consider that there are virtually no geographically based cultures (LGBT, or deaf, and a few other cultures are different in this regard, but the anti-CA argument doesn’t distinguish between Mexicans and people with dwarfism) on Earth today that haven’t taken, or stolen, something from some other culture, the whole concept of cultural appropriation seems absurd on the face of it. Mexican culture isn’t unique, it is a mix of native cultures and Spanish influence. Spanish culture is, itself, influenced by the Moors, the Basques, the Catalan, the Castilians, and the Romans. The Romans by the Greeks. And so on and on. Go back far enough and we can all trace our roots to every culture of which homo sapiens is a member. Dismissing CA doesn’t let us off the hook with regards to helping unique, unheard voices reach more ears, but it also doesn’t make someone like me, a cisgendered straight white-ish guy, a villain for thinking it’s fucking idiotic to say “you can’t write that!” because I’m not my character.