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Writing in the Labyrinth of Cultural Appropriation

I have written a new book entitled The Krewe of Boo Murder which should be available in three or four months. That’s exciting, but I could be in for some trouble. Here’s the thing. The main and minor characters are (first names will do here): Drake, Zuri, Gerard, Nia, Adam, Bartholomew, Sekuru, and Joe. Of these, five are black. I’m white. Two are female. I’m male. Two are Zimbabwean. I’m an American, and while I’ve been to Zimbabwe several times, I’ve never lived there. Three visit Ghana. I’ve visited Ghana on numerous occasions, but have never lived there. The book takes place in New Orleans. I’ve visited New Orleans, but have never lived there. Thank God none of them are gay. I’m straight. You see the problem. I’m a straight white American male comfortably secure in the dominant culture. The majority of my characters are not white and certainly not secure.

In writing The Krewe of Boo Murder I’m open to the charge of cultural appropriation. Strictly speaking, cultural appropriation is the “adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.” But, of course, it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, end there. If a members of a majority, or dominant, culture use elements of a minority, or subordinate/weak, culture, then the appropriation is considered by some to be inappropriate, if not exploitive and oppressive.

Reactions to cultural appropriation range widely, as one would expect. From one extremes to the other we have people who say the entire concept is complete nonsense and others who say no member of a dominate culture can ever adopt, use, depict elements from and/or members of the a non-dominant culture and to do so is always exploitative.

These two positions were lived out at the Brisbane writers festival recently when Lionel Shriver was invited to be the keynote speaker. During her talk she referred to an example of cultural appropriation and microagression where, at a “tequila party”, students wore sombreros. The fallout included members of the student government facing impeachment and a ban on the Mexican restaurant that handed out the sombreros. Shriver’s response: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet, that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it. Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.” (To read Shriver’s complete speech, click here). The reaction to her comments was immediate. Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of the address and later wrote that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experience of others, under the guise of fiction.”[1] (To read Abdel-Magied’s full text, click here).

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Shriver’s first example was about a student party and sombreros. Many might see this as frivolous – just some kids having some fun, and it was, after all, a Mexican restaurant that supplied the sombreros. However, those who level the claim of frivolity are more than likely sitting comfortably within the dominate culture, while the proponents of cultural appropriation and microaggression are responding to history, colonialization, racism, and real-world politics, as well as the constant drip, drip, drip of diminution and personal insult. I have considerable sympathy for their position. And while I have to confess I’m uncomfortable with the force and one-sidedness of the charge of microaggression  (by definition the transgression is identified and defined only by the victim), and its impact on issues like free speech and censorship, as I said above, I’m a straight white male who plays freely within and benefits from the dominant culture. Any slights, diminutions, and attacks I have sustained through the years are a result of my advocating for inclusiveness and justice and not because of my fundamental identity.

One way in which cultural appropriation can play out in literature is the creation of one dimensional black characters whose only purpose is to serve white characters. Often a black character is present to: one, establish the “whiteness” of the main character and, two, to provide the main white character with a learning experience or moral epiphany that allows that character to grow or be transformed.[2] When writing The Krewe of Boo Murder I consciously did my damnedest to avoid these two dangers. I actually have a scene in the book that speaks directly to these issues. I essentially deconstructs my own book. Does it work? I think so. Am I worried? Of course.

Some insist that no writer should write outside his or her own personal and cultural experience. Others say that literature is about stepping outside ourselves and not to do so diminishes both the author and literature. Some argue that white writers writing about black characters is always literary exploitation, meaning that the characters themselves are exploited because they have only been created to serve the plot. Others respond by saying, of course the characters serves the plot, that they are fictional creations in a fictional book and do whatever their creator wants them to do. Some claim that when white authors write about minority, indigenous, oppressed issues and people, they are depriving minority, indigenous, oppressed authors the opportunity to write about their own issues and people and are robbing them of a chance to make a living.

So I want to ask: in both the areas of cultural appropriation and microaggression can there ever be a situation where it could be understood that both the transgressor and the victim occupy, not common ground, but at least the same landscape. I ask, because if my black friend and I stand in the same landscape, then we share at least some of that territory. And if that is so, then presumably I have a right to speak, though obviously from a radically different perspective, and certainly not for my friend. (Thankfully, the days when white people spoke for black people, if not over, is at least recognized to be unethical and plain stupid.)

My culture includes and indeed actualizes racism and renders me a child of prejudice. The genesis of my culture is grounded in slavery. I live in a racist society. Racism is in the DNA of my cultures, and thus is also in my DNA. How can I not claim to be a racist in a racist landscape? I want to assert that I am immersed in a culture that is not just a white get out of jail free card. But my point here is not to establish to what degree I am either a transgressor or a victim (can a member of the dominant culture ever claim victimhood and must a member of the non-dominant culture always be identified as a victim?), but rather that if I live in a shared landscape I have the right to write about that landscape and the people in it. I think, I hope, all this lends some legitimacy to the question of whether or not I can write about people and things that are outside my immediate white experiences, but inside the muddled, tangled, labyrinth that is my greater cultural reality.

One of the main themes in The Krewe of Boo Murder is about the impact that the country’s past embrace of slavery has today on the lives of people of color in the United States. When I was working on the book I asked my wife on three occasions if I should stop writing and abandon the project. She essentially said: keep writing, your culture is defined by the past slave industry and present day racism, that America needs to have the discussion, and even if you get hell for writing the book, at least you will have contributed to that necessary debate. I kept writing. Am I worried? You bet. In the area of cultural appropriation it’s not good to get it wrong.

If I am open to the charge of cultural appropriation, I hope I’m judged on the integrity of the characters and the story. Beyond what I have said above, my only other defense is, that while I fictionalized accounts from actual slaves and freed slaves, everything I wrote comes from research of their historical documents, which is to say what I wrote came from them and not from my imagination. The characters I made up. Much of the story they tell I did not.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

[1] This immediate example of cultural appropriation is in the area of literature, but the issue is also discussed in the areas of music, art, performance, fashion, etc. Recently Marc Jacobs had white models at a New York fashion show wear dreadlocks. He was accused of cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity. He defended himself by saying those who decry cultural appropriation are silent on the issue of black women straightening their hair. His response may at first glance seem more than reasonable, but others pointed out that black women are oppressed and pressured by the dominant culture to straighten their hair. Thus, their act does not indicate appropriation but oppression.

[2] I recommend a short book by Toni Morrison, entitled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination, to explore this issue.

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