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Cultural Appropriation

This conversation has probably been held many times before, about cultural appropriation and speculative fiction, but I feel the need to chime in with my own two cents. We are a speculative fiction magazine. We like stories which are imaginative and creative. But we are also committed to increasing the authentic representation of under-represented cultures and peoples. This is not a contradiction.

It bothers me as an editor and as a human being when I see authors NOT of a certain culture (usually white authors in my experience) inventing customs, traditions, beliefs and mythologies and attributing them to people from that culture (always PoC cultures), consciously, and intentionally. I know I am preaching to the choir here about why this happens, that these white authors feel they are somehow entitled to do this (the "I have the right to write anything I want!" argument, to which I respond, "Yes, but I have the right not to publish it and to tell you why"), and that these white authors have absolutely no concept that what they are doing could be a problem to anyone, and why that might be. (One author told me he completely invented the customs/traditions/cultural significances in order to "honor" the PoC in question, since he felt bad for them, so poor and oppressed. Huh? I have even heard the "explanation" by one such author that the plot of one such story was a metaphor for how white people fail to understand the spirituality and culture of the PoC in question- oh the irony there, given that the story reached its conclusion via the creation of a mythological monster completely invented by the white author and attributed to the PoC culture in question- in the name of creative freedom!)

When white-invented monsters of PoC cultures eat white people (despite the warnings of the locals!), we are no closer to achieving authentic representation of PoC in speculative fiction. We're backing up several steps and undergirding the principle that white people have the final say how PoC cultures can and should be represented in fiction- as determined by what those white people, and their readers, would like to see those cultures have and be. And if those readers would like to see the Giant Flying Man-Eating Squid of Ghana, then so be it! (It only eats white tourists who ignore the warnings, though.)

Seriously, people. Do your friggin' research. Yes, it's easier to make up some "exotic" creature or custom of some "exotic" people, but this is a) lazy writing and b) cultural appropriation. And cultural appropriation is not cool.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 19th, 2009 06:39 am (UTC)
I have the same pet peeve. Innocent mistakes happen, and sometimes you have to make educated guesses. However, the aim should always be to write truthfully/respectfully about any subject.
Oct. 19th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
I hate the absolute idea of anyone doing that. It cheats the people whose culture they're welding their own ideas onto, and it cheats the readers who may quite innocently end up in hot water through repeating these false ideas about a culture.
Oct. 19th, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)
Yes. These authors also tend to, knowingly or unknowingly, wrap their "made up" ideas in common stereotypes. Yuck.
Oct. 19th, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
I do that all the time, but I won't send those stories to you in future. It's quite clear in your submission guidelines though, I should learn to read better. XD
Oct. 20th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
What I don't like is seeing the term "cultural appropriation" used indiscriminately for anything POC coming from a white writer.

Making up religious beliefs and social customs is one thing; of course people should research. But I'm still not convinced that attempting and failing is worse than not trying at all. People do have the right to write what they like, it's just they also have the obligation to do their best with it</i>. I'd like to see more honest attempts at POC work by white writers (just like I'd like to see more by POC writers!), because putting Other cultural experiences in the limelight starts a discussion in which assumptions can be questioned and corrected, either the author's or the reader's.

For example, I never would have known half of what I know about gypsies, Romany, or Tinkers if there hadn't been that fiasco over Lisa Mantchev's story "The Stolen Word" in Fantasy in 2008.
Oct. 21st, 2009 05:01 am (UTC)
I think we are talking about different things here.

I am not talking about white people writing (well-researched) PoC characters. I am talking about people, anyone (though it usually ends up being white authors), making up the cultures of under-represented peoples and attributing those cultures to them, knowing that it is completely fictitious.

I, too, would like to see more well-written works about PoC by white authors, as well as more stories by PoC authors.
Oct. 21st, 2009 07:40 pm (UTC)
Haha, oops! I should have made it clear I wasn't responding directly to your statement, just trying to add something I see as related.

A lot of well-deserved dirt gets flung because of cultural appropriation, but I don't want the fallout raining on actual idiots to scare away people who're making an honest effort.

My convoluted thought process wasn't really spelled out (sorry!), but mostly I just wanted to be sure there was a comment somewhere in this thread where someone says, "Hey, I'll forgive you for failing as long as you actually tried."

... So did you get something really terrible in the slush that prompted this post? ;)
Oct. 21st, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC)
Folks should feel free to (do their research and) write outside of their comfort zone, but we're also interested in publishing stories which succeed, not ones in which the authors tried and failed. So when authors give it (what they consider) a good faith effort and fail, I usually take the time to tell them where they haven't done their research and why their story doesn't actually get where they wanted it to go. There are often obvious avenues of research they did not pursue.

But the folks who make me the angriest are the ones who feel they should not have to bother with research and how DARE I suggest to them that they have to!

That said, I've been getting stuff in the slush pile since the magazine BEGAN which prompted this post. ^_^

What finally triggered it was a sense that my feelings on the subject must not be clear enough in the submissions guidelines, because people ignore the guidelines on this point or misunderstand them. So, I set about another round of submissions guidelines edits and decided to make a blog post on the subject as well.

Most of the cultures which were made victim of this phenomenon are Native (which is why that got its own guideline) or African/African Diaspora. I've seen it done once or twice to cultures in East or South Asia, and once to Jewish culture.

So I got to tell authors off for making up stuff about my own people as well as those of other peoples.

Also, a note to white authors: "Writing Black characters" does not mean "writing Black 'ghetto youth' stereotypes!"

Edited at 2009-10-21 09:08 pm (UTC)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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