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Sunday, 23 September 2012

How to Not Accidentally A Racism: A Meditation on Cultural Appropriation

NOTE: With recent information at my disposal, I have edited this post a bit to reflect new knowledge and limits on my existing information. 

Hello, hello!
At long last, I have returned from my writing and social-networking coma! Now that it's Fall, you can bet on more regular updates--at least once a week, on Sundays. I hope to bring extra content during the week too. Lately things have been picking up in pace since I joined a writer's guild, and that's eaten some time...anyway *throat clearing noises*...let's move along, shall we?
I had heard of Avatar: The Last Airbender in times of yore, but between one thing and another, didn't really get into it. It looked lame, frankly, and from the fragmentary episode snatches I did see, nothing caught my attention. Elemental magic-users, a semi-anime style, teenagers saving the world; it sounded fairly conventional. Imagine my shock, then, when I finally had the opportunity to watch the series in full with a friend. A mere seven years after its début in 2005, I have discovered that it is truly fantastic.
I know what you're all thinking, and it's okay, I already made you a picture.

Source. The "Slowpoke #27" was done by me, but otherwise, the meme is common property of the internet.

So, yes. I'm an idiot and I missed out on something fantastic until now. Avatar is a unique series for a few reasons--created by Americans, animated by Koreans, set in a fictional mediaeval Asian world that draws on (at my count) Chinese, Japanese, Inuit, Tibetan, Korean, Indian, and Southern U.S. traditions for its inspiration. The cast is not white-washed (for the most part, although there are no black people anywhere). As if the non-Western mediaeval setting wasn't enough of a pleasant change, truly excellent writing and character development of the surprisingly realistic child protagonists really sold me.
However, I also spend a great deal of time on Regretsy, a site devoted to finding silly, fraudulent, badly made, overpriced, and otherwise wonderfully awful things on the 'handmade' art market, Etsy. One of the things that also falls under Regretsy's marvellous scope of interest is the unintentionally racist creations of hipsters who appropriate others' cultures for style reasons. For instance, more than a few assholes have made 'native inspired' feather headbands designed to imitate the ritually significant headdresses worn by Plains tribes.

What's wrong with that? Lesson time, kids.

This is an example of cultural appropriation. Obviously, using the ritually significant symbols and trappings of another culture without awareness of their significance is bad. Appropriation overlaps with cultural diffusion and multiculturalism. Being a Canadian and more importantly, being naturally curious, I've certainly been able to take advantage of ideas from other cultures as I learned about them. I've taken classes on bellydancing and enjoy eating Indian food, have several Chinese-style cloisonne boxes in my collection of curios, and in a hundred other small ways, have things and ideas that have come from non-Western or non-Canadian sources in my life.

So...what about Avatar, again?

Back to the Avatar series, then, and to writing in general. The Avatar story borrows from a variety of religious sources, as well as using the aesthetics and ideas of multiple cultures--most of which are ignored or oppressed here in the Western mainstream. Avatar is hardly the only series to borrow Eastern ideas; Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time (bleh) both use Oriental cultures to contrast their primarily Western settings. Lovecraft, one of my favourite writers, had a nasty and irritating way of making almost all of his antagonists, well, non-European and especially non-Anglo Saxon. Even a hardcore fan can't ignore that disgusting side of his writing. More to the point, the Elder Gods sound suspiciously similar to Aztec and African gods both in motif and in aesthetic.

Source. Hey look, a weird and twisted ancient god. Big coincidence.

The borrowing and misunderstanding of exotic styles from distant locations has occurred between East and West, North and South, for hundreds of years. Now, however, we're aware enough and have access to information about other cultures. In essence, we have no excuses for racism. There is ignorance, but really, a few respectful questions and an apology will go along way. It is not that hard to fix things. So--is it okay to borrow significant ideas from others and to modify them?

Some people--especially those who are oppressed or screwed over by the mainstream cultures--say they want the culturally dominant to keep their damn hands off of other cultures' ideas. Certainly, in WoT, there were quite a few examples of the Chinese culture being portrayed in a pretty caricatured, racist fashion. Even Game of Thrones does this, though in its defense, the Westerners are portrayed as savages as well. Still, these and other fantasy works tend to use Oriental or non-British cultures as easy enemies, or conversely, romanticise 'noble savages' and non-Westerners in a way that really just becomes a perverse ego-wank of self-loathing.

Unfortunately there is little else on the market. You should think about this for a while. Then you should be horrified. Traditional fantasy is pretty much a dichotomy: go European or get out. LGBTQ issues are also generally ignored, although this is beginning to change. Still, the stories are filtered through a very narrow set of lenses, and modernized lenses at that.

Avatar, though, has taught me that things can be done differently.There's a fine line between accidental racism and borrowing a cool idea to enhance your fantasy/sci fi world. It's not hard to make a stupid mistake, but it's much easier to fix it and apologize so you can move on with life. As writers of the fantastic, we have a duty to build on existing literature, not rewrite the same stories over and over.

What's different, you say? Who can I read? Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust. Wolf at the Door by Joyce Chng. Start searching for 'Asian fantasy' and don't just assume that anime alone will give you the required diet of cultural diversity. Not only will it be good for your soul, it will be damned fun and humbling.

How do you write fantasy with elements you're not used to without screwing it up? I hear you say. That can be tricky--your idea of a tribute to a culture's identity might actually just be a mess or something very offensive, simply because of a lack of context.

It's okay, though. Take a deep breath. Ask people from the source culture if they find your work or ideas offensive. Ask if what you're doing is disrespectful, and if it is, modify it and ask for input. Do your research. Field test it with people. Most importantly, write people, not caricatures.

That's it. Problem solved.

Source. Phuque yeah.
Or is it? I want to hear you weigh in! Tell me about your cultural appropriation experiences in the comments.


Thanks for returning, ladies, gents, and people in-between. For more delightfully witty commentary, you can find me at Twitter and on Tumblr. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!


  1. Some fascinating points, some of which I've pondered myself. It seems a common trend of our culture to take the skin, spoil the meat, and leave the heart completely out of it.
    One thing that contributes to the problem is that several members of cultures become lost in the commercialism and propagate stereotypes, oftentimes being reduced to a base elemental, just a caricature of a human being. You see this with Jersey Shore, several movies that take place in New York City, rap music, country music, the list goes on and on. For the sake of a profit, they exploit their own cultures and soil any heritage they once had.
    It's a funny world we live in when somebody can be racist towards their own culture.

  2. Hi Joey!

    I'm glad you liked it. That metaphor is graphic but appropriate. I think in retrospect I was a little too soft in this blog.
    I like that you pointed out the Western appropriation thing. We don't really think about the appropriation of European culture, because Euro/American culture is dominant, but it does happen. However, it's also the mainstream, so arguably people are using it solely because it's being waved in their faces and they can't ignore it.
    I think there has to be a base degree of respect whenever ideas are borrowed, and I don't see that in the way American culture displays itself. Perhaps it's why there have been conflicts over the way minority culture is treated...? It's only conjecture, since Canadian attitudes are quite different. What do you think?

  3. Also--I wish I'd read this before I'd written the post, but still. This might sting your pride, but I recommend reading this before complaining about being picked on for being insensitive. This is a must read.


  4. Hello Michelle Browne ,
    About avatar the last airbender , i had the same feelings at first .But after watching some series . I found it interesting .

  5. I have similar article . https://graphicfahmission.com/avatar-the-last-airbender-review/ . Do you accept guest post ?


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