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[personal profile] jewelfox
Ana Mardoll wrote a great piece on this. She discusses it both firsthand, as a Wiccan, and as someone who's seen the Quileute tribe exploited in the Twilight franchise and thought this was Not Okay. And she uses some very good stories and examples, both to point out what is Not Okay and to raise questions about what, exactly, is Not Okay about "cultural appropriation."

I think those questions need to be asked. What's bad about cultural appropriation, after all? Is it that one person is being silenced, or is it that another person is finding their voice and is saying things they aren't allowed to?

Trigger warning for discussion of privilege, oppression, racism, transphobia, religious supremism, and genocide.

Here's one person Mardoll quotes:
When someone adopts the label of “geek” because they’ve seen a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, or because they remember a TV show from the 80s, or because they sometimes play Madden or Call of Duty, it chafes. I paid a cost for the privilege of being true to myself, and my meager reward is that title. When someone adopts that mantle because it’s the chic thing to do nowadays it diminishes a large part of my life experience.
Think about that quote for a moment. Think about the assumptions it makes.
  1. There are people in the world who have the right to tell you that you're not a geek.

  2. You have to earn the right to call yourself a geek in their eyes, by going through hazing and punishment.

  3. Other people can read your mind, and know that you're calling yourself a geek because "it's the chic thing to do nowadays".

If the bad thing about cultural appropriation is Those People putting on airs, and trying to pretend They are as good as Us, then those three points make perfect sense. But if the real problem behind it is that people are silenced and talked over, then I find the above quoted statement a lot more problematic than the behaviour that motivated it (which Mardoll's post discusses).

The definition of terms like "geek" changes. Very often, the people who are trying to "protect" such terms of identity from changing are the ones who have changed them the most. Witness the number of Christians who feel that they have exclusive rights to the term, when their brand of "Christianity" coincided with desegregation and the white flight to the suburbs. Or the number of Americans who call others Not Real Americans, for being gay or transgender or Wiccan or having brown skin.

"Traditional marriage" doesn't mean what its supporters think it means. The state of your genitalia has never had much to do with what it means to be male or female. And when geeks chose to own the insult being thrown at them, and use it to describe themselves, they opened the door for anyone who wanted to self-identify as a geek. Including people that they find distasteful, like the slave Leia costumers from Mardoll's example.

But you know what? I'd bet money that if the guy in the quote above was in line with one of these women at Dragon*Con, and she wasn't in costume at the time, neither of them would be the wiser. He wouldn't know she was "not a real geek," and she wouldn't know that he was in the identity police. Because when I was Mormon, I would often talk religion with evangelical Christians, who would "amen" my beliefs without knowing what building I learned them in. And while some people get uncomfortable if I tell them that I'm a trans woman, if I leave out the "trans" part most people don't know any better.

It's easy to police someone's identity if you can tell that they aren't "supposed" to have it. But people don't always give you the full context, the one missing fact that would make you hate their guts and never want to speak to them again, whether because they know that it'd do that or simply because they don't know. And by the time you find it out, it's no longer as easy to make that call. Empathy does things like that to you, if you let it. And technology helps make it harder to tell who to exclude.

So what about examples of cultural appropriation that are obviously wrong, such as when a white American claims to be a shaman and teaches Authentic Native American Secrets for only $39.95?

Which, of the following, are what is wrong with this picture?
  1. A member of a privileged group, which conquered, exploited, and committed genocide on a less-privileged group, is now continuing their exploitation by strip-mining its spiritual traditions for profit.

  2. That person knows she can get away with it because she's selling to other white people, who would rather pay her to tell them her interpretation of Native American beliefs than actually talk to those icky brown people.

  3. A white girl thinks she can talk to the spirits.
#1 is out-and-out evil. The only way you can set yourself up in this situation and still go to sleep at night is if you really don't get its context, and don't care who is being left out. #2 is frustrating, because it's the reason that someone can get away with #1.

But is #3 really a problem? Is #3 even false?

Healthy, functioning people have empathy for each other. That empathy should prevent #1 and #2 from ever happening. But that empathy is also a big part of why #3-style "cultural appropriation" happens in the first place. Because when you talk about what's sacred and meaningful to you, someone out there in the world is going to feel something because of that. Maybe even something that wakes them up, and makes them remember who they are.

If they have empathy for you as a person, they will avoid #1 and won't enable such people with #2. They won't let others talk over you, and tell the world what you are supposedly like. And if something that others say about you inspires them, the first thing they will do is find out what you have to say about it.

But they won't do so because they need your permission.

Date: 2012-08-25 03:39 pm (UTC)
citrakayah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] citrakayah
But is #3 really a problem? Is #3 even false?

Depends, I think.

Because part of the problem is that the whole 'Native American wisdom' stuff is completely divorced from what actual Native Americans believe/d.

Date: 2012-08-25 05:45 pm (UTC)
mesh_mask: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mesh_mask
This is why I cringe at my own use of the word "shamanism", and not even for any relation to Native American traditions. Native Americans do not even embrace that label. It has more to do with belief systems on other continents, and I'll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about those belief systems. The only reason I use it is for very limited experience in a shamanic journeying circle, and the relation of that experience to my present assessment of my experience.

I'd use the label "neoshamanism", or even "core shamanism", but even those have connotations with which I'm not comfortable, and which certainly don't reflect my experiences. So, I don't know what to call it in the end. This is in part why I'm developing this whole "personal science" concept. I'd like to be able to say that I'm a personal scientist strongly geared toward the subliminal aspects of the PSP (Personal Scientific Paradigm), and have everybody know what that means. That way I wouldn't have to worry about cultural insensitivity and whatnot. Innovation FTW!

Of course I have to do a lot more writing before that is a possibility.

Date: 2012-08-25 08:52 pm (UTC)
mesh_mask: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mesh_mask
Well, I see two actions which warrant careful consideration at play here: First, there's the adoption of a label. Second, there's the judgment of people who adopt labels.

Regarding the first, I'm a firm believer that people should not use words indiscriminately. When someone adopts a label, whether or not they like it, and unless there's an asterisk by the label and further immediate clarification, they effectively apply to themselves the gamut of that label's history, cultural implications, and so on. However, the aspects of the label's history and cultural implications which are accepted in any setting are largely context-specific. For example: When I say that I am interested in shamanism on Dreamwidth, while it's understood that shamanic traditions are rich far beyond my or anyone else's understanding in this setting, it is also understood that I mean, in this context, the process of undergoing shamanic journeys and working with spirit guides. That's a context-specific assessment that I can live with, so I use the label "shamanism" because it effectively communicates a crucial aspect of my experiential assessment, even though I cringe at the thought of neglecting its vast history in my colloquial use.

It's important to understand that many labels do not have widely accepted and proper colloquial uses, and "Native American spirituality" is one of those labels. There is a lot of present-day culture surrounding Native American spirituality and storytelling that stresses and holds as paramount regard for accuracy and sensitivity, given both the turbulent history and the geographic proximity in North America. Authors of western literature and poetry are held to such exacting standards. Their fans and followers take seriously issues of historical and cultural accuracy.

Unfortunately, it falls on the shoulders of anyone interested in adopting Native American spiritual practices to understand the gravity surrounding that label, simply because people who use it are likely to be held to far more exacting standards than people who use a label like "shamanism", at least on this continent. I'm not making any overtures as to how ethical it is that they be held to such standards; I'm just stating what they should take into consideration given what they can expect from adopting such a label. It's not to say that nobody can or should adopt the label, but they should be very aware of the prevailing standards for that label and the reasons for those standards existing. If they're comfortable with that, and if they're knowledgeable enough to address those standards in light of their own beliefs and experiences, then they're fit to announce to the world the label for their belief system.

Now, if they plan on selling their belief system with that label, they had better know their stuff inside and out, because otherwise they'll end up both burning others and getting burned themselves.

Regarding the second aforementioned action which warrants careful consideration--the judgment of people who adopt labels--I think you're completely right in dismissing righteous indignation for its own sake. As a whole, I think it's fine to keep in mind the importance of carefully considering the labels we apply to ourselves and others, and to note that some people use labels carelessly--that is to say, without thinking about the potential consequences of adopting certain labels. What's important to keep in mind alongside that is the relevance of individual fulfillment and expression which is on the line as people choose labels to apply to themselves. Both of these angles can be addressed on a case-by-case basis. If it's clear that a person may have been careless in adopting a label, and it's also clear that their adopted label means a great deal to them, if one is dealing directly with the person in question they should probably ask questions first--find out why the label is so meaningful to them. Then, if necessary, maybe inform them of any cultural or historical tension surrounding that label, and caution them about potential consequences of expressing the label. If one is offering commentary from a distance, one should probably stress the importance of being mindful of potential cultural consequences of adopting certain labels.

To summarize: A person who carelessly adopts a label without being mindful as to its greater implications is typically only ethically culpable for being thoughtless. If they blatantly misrepresent the views of other people through their misuse of the label, they are additionally ethically culpable for that reason. If they make money off of this misrepresentation, that's plainly not good. If all of these potential ethical breaches are absent in any given situation, then there is no fault on the part of the label adopter/user that I'm aware of. On the other hand, people who rush to judge and chastise far beyond the scope of culpability, which is usually what happens in circumstances like these, are at greater fault.

At least, that's my take on the matter.

Date: 2012-08-25 10:38 pm (UTC)
citrakayah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] citrakayah
Perhaps Kemet could work. Apparently they did a lot of legwork when investigating how to reconstruct Egyptian religion. Of course, it was pretty much dead at that point.

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