Tuesday, February 3, 2009

YACAP (Yet Another Cultural Appropriation Post) aka Get over It

The cultural appropriation debate recently raging on LJ and elsewhere is actually two debates: one about cultural appropriation and the other about racism. Racism is pretty big and pretty psychologically and individually fraught for people, and it informs the first debate, shades and distorts it. Without clearing away the racism debate -- if that is ever possible -- it is difficult to have an undistorted version of the first debate -- again, if that is ever possible.

We will be seeing this debate over and over through the next few years. Obama's presence in the White House keeps bringing it up, a grain of sand in the American psyche that itches many towards contemplating the fact that the experience of the world may be different for someone else due to their race or gender or economic class or sexual orientation or physical abilities or a thousand other categories.

For many of us, we no longer outnumber the Other in quite the same way psychologically. Our relationship to it has changed. For others, we have always been conscious of being an Other: through race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth.

Many of us who have spent time thinking about this have seen extended discussions of race, the Other, oppression, and cultural appropriation come up in various arenas (often those academic disciplines so often stifled or decried -- women's studies, queer studies, black studies) and be dismissed out of hand in a variety of ways. We may have ventured opinions and seen them cried down with arguments that are echoes of the approaches currently being used in the spec-fic community.

For example:
  • "This debate is just too big/scary/energy-draining for me! I'll be over here hiding from it!"
  • "This is just more PC craziness. Ignore it and it'll go away."
  • "You're stifling my writing ability by attacking me/making me think about my writing/saying I can't write about certain things/distracting me/etc."

Kynn talks about a lot more of them eloquently and well here: http://kynn.livejournal.com/948395.html I think this is a tremendous post to look at as well: http://vito-excalibur.livejournal.com/208031.html

Is anyone saying that works that do not confront race (or class or sex or gender or Otherness) are categorically wrong or dishonest or Bad? No.

But many people, including myself, are saying that works that factor in such things are a valid way of writing, and perhaps should be the norm rather than the exception.

And many of us, including myself, are suggesting that the benefits to factoring them in far outweigh the many straw men erected around the idea of ignoring them. If you deliberately choose to avoid race and other categories in your fiction, I think that's fine as long as you're doing it from a position where you know what your options are, rather than just falling into the normal stereotypes. The latter is lazy writing.

I personally believe that if you're not thinking about race and class and gender as factors that affect your personal existence on a daily basis, that if you see things as invariably binary, always black/white, up/down, Good/Evil, you are deliberately blinding yourself, depriving yourself of another way of perceiving the world. Such perceptions end up changing things, moving you out of painful binaries to a more joyful, creative, mindful existence. And I think as a writer, such modes of antiquated thinking turn your back on many of the possibilities of your craft.

Where do I stand in this debate? Am I saying I'm not racist, either as an individual or writer? Goddess, no. Like every other being on this planet, and probably this universe, I have a difficult relationship with the other. We are all primates at heart, and when a different looking creature walks into our camp, we want to throw feces and bare our fangs at them first. But the lovely thing is that we are all self-aware, and we can look at that reaction and (often) move past it in a way rewarding to both sides.

For (hopefully) a few of you, this is something you have never thought about or that you've dismissed out of hand. I'm sorry to say, but I think this is no longer a debate you can ignore.

Some reactions to the debate seem to originate first and foremost in defensiveness. I know it is painful to have your worldview challenged -- believe me, I feel for you.

At the same time, I think it's necessary surgery and that once folks start adjusting to the idea that it's no longer black and white but rather a rainbow of possibilities, we can put aside some of the energy-wasting bullshit and move ahead together to a better world. Yes, I'm well aware that I sound like an idealistic idiot, because I also believe that we make things possible through idealistic idiots such as the Abolitionists, the Suffragists, and a thousand other varieties of philosopher and activist being willing to express and live their beliefs.

I firmly believe that we can become better people by contemplating our actions, by seeing where they are shaped by outside circumstances, and trying to make an informed decision based on what we learn from that contemplation. Race -- as well as other factors -- are an odd combination of our outside circumstances as well as our internal state. To know a character's circumstances is to have more profound knowledge of the character. As a writer, I believe this sort of examination results in finer, deeper, truer writing.

If you are feeling hurt or attacked or shamed or embarrassed by this debate, that is sad and too bad, but honestly -- get over yourself. No one is interested in making you feel bad. What people would like to do is move along down to where the debate is productive, where it begins to change outmoded/racist/sexist/ablist/
agist/elistist/whateverist ways of doing things and moves us towards a more enlightened era. I would think that science fiction writers would be intently eager to find out what could result from changing ways of thinking on this scale, that fantasy writers would explore the worlds such changes might produce. It startles me when this is not the case.


Moondancer said...

Well said. Let's home the people who haven't quite caught on to what "this all" has been about, sees this. The repeating of the same explanations wouldn't be so draining on many of us, if we just knew there were a few new folks who might "get it".

Åka said...

I would think that science fiction writers would be intently eager to find out what could result from changing ways of thinking on this scale, that fantasy writers would explore the worlds such changes might produce. It startles me when this is not the case.

Is not the problem often that people tend to take this kind of discussion personally, that the gut reaction is to defend themselves when they feel threatened by something that will force them to reevaluate their way of seeing themselves in the world? That's why it's so difficult to move it in a constructive way, I think. We are not always prepared to question ourselves, and then we end up in a corner we don't know how to get out of. I'm not sure. Just a thought -- most people don't want to be racist, and don't want the things they say to be possible to interpret in that way. Thus the defensiveness. (Latecomer to the debate, so I have missed most of it. But it surely makes me think.)

Cat Rambo said...

Aka - I think that gut reaction, that defensiveness is driving huge amounts of the discussion, for sure. For me, much of the question is how to move people past that, and I'm really not sure what approach works best for that. I suspect it differs from person to person, and all anyone can do is keep plugging away and being persistent about wanting to discuss it, and hope that some of the defensiveness erodes with familiarity.

Moondancer - yeah, it's a draining process :( , but I feel that right now it's more important than ever that people be willing to keep engaging and explaining.

Eileen Gunn said...

"Othering" does seem to be one of the factors at the heart of the problem of cultural appropriation by (mostly) white writers: seeing other people as representing a conceptual Other, and using their cultural or physical attributes to represent Otherness.

A Wikipedia entry details familiar associations of the term with colonialism and gender issues: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Other, but the issue seems more complex than that. I wonder how one can have an actual, communicating, conversation with people – on the subject of privilege, say -- if one thinks of them as “the Other.”

Like Soylent Green, the Other is made of people, and people are usually not happy to be objectified, either in fiction, or when they're buying groceries or posting on the Internet. Perhaps that is why these conversations, which usually involve a number of people speaking from various POVs, do not go smoothly.

Anonymous said...

Cat, I'm not sure why you start out saying it is two conversations, one about cultural appropriation and one about racism. That isn't the way I see it -- I view them as the same topic, with racism as integral to discussions about cultural appropriation.

Why do you think they are two issues and why would it be desirable to separate the two?

From the reactions I have seen by people of color, they don't view these as two different things to discuss; is it white privilege that allows the easy compartmentalism into "racism" and "cultural appropriation" as distinctly different things?

(Also you make reference to writing that avoids dealing with race -- I think it's important to note that in nearly every case we're talking about here, it's impossible to do this; merely only writing white people, for example, is still dealing with race within your work.)

Kathryn Cramer said...

There is an additional issue, which is pseudonymity. The preponderance of those arguing as representatives of the Other are pseudonymous. This, it seems to me, is a big problem. Pseudonymous people are often not as they claim to be.

Also, I am confused by the terms of discussion proposed by this mostly pseudonymous Other: Just when and how did it become OK to make broad generalizations about specific people based on race? I have a very hard time with the notion that this kind of rhetoric is a good idea no matter who is it aimed at and no matter what the intended purpose.

Anonymous said...

Kathryn, didn't you have a whole long argument over the psuedonym issue on TNH's LJ? You sound as if this whole "internet" thing is a strange newfangled invention. To sum up:

1. Pseudonyms have social credit online, perhaps especially on LJ, and function as traceably as names. If "Rakshasa" has been online for eight years under that name, she is as much of a real person to people who only know her under that name as the "Rachel Manija Brown" who is also only known online.

2. In fact, pseudonyms are as verifiable as real names - and real names are as easy to fake as psuedonyms. Why should signing one's name as "Alicia Cox" be more respectable than signing as "Tulip12," when the former can be as easily faked as the latter... and the latter can be as easily verified as the former?

If you want to know if they are real people or sock puppets, you have to check the same way either way: by looking up their posting history and perhaps asking around.

The reason I know who you are is that I recognize your name from other internet interactions. That is the exact same way I know who "The Angry Black Woman" is.

3. This is a hugely priveleged argument. Some of us may risk harassment, our jobs, violence, custody of our children, etc if we use our real names online. Just because you feel safe using your real name doesn't mean we all do.


Anonymous said...

"There is an additional issue, which is pseudonymity. The preponderance of those arguing as representatives of the Other are pseudonymous. This, it seems to me, is a big problem."

I'll just point to what Yeloson has already said about the privilege of speaking openly.

Outspoken people of color bloggers receive harassment and violence and even threats to their livelihoods. Monica Roberts the Transgriot blogger lost a newspaper column for speaking out about racism in lgbt communities, Jasmyne Cannick has received physical threats for doing the same, and those are just two Black women who have spoken out publicly about what has happened to them. Or you could look at what happened with the Black Looks blog talked about racism and imagery in a Resident Evil game. There's been plenty more incidents like that.

I also think that this is where the issue is not pseudonyms but community. Many of the people of color and allies that are involved in this latest around of GCADOD know each other, in real life, and have offline relationships and associations.

Anonymous said...

The preponderance of those arguing as representatives of the Other are pseudonymous.

I'm seeing a lot of people make this claim and no evidence thus far. I think it's disingenuous the way that several people's voices and valid points have been dodged and left unanswered in this claim.

Of course, if we needed any example of silencing of voices of people of color in these discussions, this is it in action.

Kathryn Cramer said...

You know, I just found out earlier this afternoon that one of the LJ combatants, who refuses to allow her alias i.e. false name to be public used to report to and work for people she's flamed and inflamed other to criticize. I think this is wildly unethical.

Is MORE of that kind of stuff hiding under other of these aliases?

Josh said...

Rachel, I thought that the pseudonym controversy on Kathryn's side had ended. Basically, here's how I remember it:

1) Kathryn jumped to a mistaken conclusion about the identity of one of the mercenaries in Iraq.

2) Although she quickly retracted it and apologized, a number of wingnuts targeted her with threats and insults.

3) She approached the Pleasantville police and asked them for help.

4) They shrugged and said that they couldn't do anything if her harassers didn't use their real names.

5) Kathryn became anti-pseudonym crusader.

6) Discussions in the blogosphere among working-class writers, contingent academics, and others on "Why I use a pseudonym" proceeded.

7) Daniel Okrent at the Washington Post gave international publicity to the name and location of a war protestor who'd written an intemperate letter to columnist Adam Nagourney.

8) Atrios denounced Okrent.

9) Kathryn asked what's wrong with exposing people who write intemperate letters and said, hey, Atrios was dodging responsibility for such a long time by using a pseudonym that his sympathies must lie in the wrong place.

10) Someone pointed out to Kathryn that the intemperate letter-writer was getting a great deal of death threats and harassment at his home.

11) Kathryn stopped criticizing Atrios.

So yeh, if in the light of the fact that people have been fired for opinions and personal information they've discussed on their blogs, and in light of the fact that, as Rachel observes, pseudonymity does not in general preclude identifying who's who in a conversation, if Kathryn is still grinding that particular axe, maybe we should be trying to refute her belief that Policemen Are My Friends.

Legible Susan said...

Sorry for delurking with an off topic question, but there's a link to a post by Yeloson up there, which reminds me ...
I've been following the "recent unpleasantness" via Rydra's links, but whenever I try to follow one to a Yeloson post, I get a page with about two lines and then it's cut off by the orange background. Do you know if she has her journal locked in some way such that people who aren't on LJ can't read it? (I'm using Firefox 2)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Josh,

Wow, I didn't know about any of that! Thank you, that was very informative.

I was referring to Kathryn Cramer's long argument on TNH's livejournal this past month, in which she argued as she does in this thread above: that people online who use pseudonyms rather than their full legal names can't be trusted, shouldn't be listened to, and may be sock puppets.

She said... well, I'll just quote her from her similar statement here...

"The preponderance of those arguing as representatives of the Other are pseudonymous. This, it seems to me, is a big problem. Pseudonymous people are often not as they claim to be."

In other words, in an argument over race and racism, she said that most of the people of color arguing couldn't be trusted because they, like the majority of people on LJ, use pseudonyms. For many of us, this did not go over well.


Jonquil said...

This is a lovely post. Thank you very much.

Cat Rambo said...

Kynn - what I'm seeing is the cultural appropriation debate being raised as though racism wasn't deeply woven throughout that debate. People talking about cultural appropriation and not paying attention to the larger context that shapes the argument.

Kathryn - I find that argument sort of silly on a couple of levels. One is that nicknames are part of Internet culture and have been since it first started forming. This consideration is why my LJ name is my real name, and I freely admit that it's harder to take FoxyLady234 as seriously as Eglantine Smith, but this seems pretty peripheral to a debate about racism/cultural appropriation.

At the same time, I sort of like this aspect of the Internet. I have interacted with many people on it pretending to be something other than they are, with varying degrees of success, and I wonder if this isn't one of the best ways to apply genderblindness - to allow people to allow how much they do (or don't) communicate their gender to the listener/viewer/reader rather than having that placed on them by the other party.

The idea that arguments aren't valid if you don't know who is making the assertions is a bit wobblier for me. I can see some rationale behind that, and it's been one of the traditional ways to decry bloggers - sometimes validly, given things like corporate and government efforts to co-opt blogging. But I think most of the time, you can poke around and figure out where someone is coming from and that the number of people "hiding" behind a name is pretty small when looking at the overall participants in the conversation.

Finally, this just doesn't seem like a valid reason for dismissing the argument to me. It's a different debate, about the nature of the Internet, and certainly worth having elsewhere. I'm going to propose a Wiscon panel based on something along these lines, I think, called "Anonymous was a Blogger" (if that hasn't been done before, which it may well have) and if you're going to be at the con, I think you'd be a great panelist for that. Drop me a line somewhere if you are coming so I can include that in the description?

cofax said...

Cat, those are good points.

In further response to Kathryn, she's claiming that a former employee of Tor somehow induced the Nielsen Haydens to ...do what, exactly?

Basically, she's asserting grudgewank, when the argument was rolling along quite well long before PNH and TNH got involved, and there was no expectation that they would get involved.

Anyone who's been paying attention to the yearly discussions about race in fandom and SFF will find that most of the names that popped up on TNH's and PNH's LJs are familiar. These POC and their white allies post regularly on racism and gender issues, organize a yearly blog carnival called International Blog Against Racism Week, and are well known to the community under their pseudonyms. That Kathryn and the NHs don't know who they are isn't dispositive of anything but Kathryn & the NH's unfamiliarity with the pan-fandom LJ-based community.

As an aside: I have a decade of online activity invested in this pseudonym. If I were to post under my real, legal, name, I would in fact have less credibility than I do posting as cofax. All of which is beside the point of why I choose to post as cofax, which is, frankly, none of Kathryn's business.

Kathryn is trying to make it seem as though there is a monolith beating on the NHs and that the response to their ... infelicities of communication and reputation management is driven by a decade-old grudge held by one former employee. This is inaccurate in the extreme, and as stated above, it's a nifty little effort to silence the valid concerns of POC who have been offended in this debate.

The argument about pseudonymity is a red-herring, being used to silence dissent.

Julia said...

@legible susan

If you're having a hard time viewing Yeloson's posts (FYI, yeloson is a he), then add a ?style=light to the end of the url. This strips out the "style" of the journal.

So instead of going to

Go to

Legible Susan said...

I tried the "style=light" just now and it didn't work (thanks for the suggestion though). I guess there's something in the theme that doesn't work on Firefox.

(FYI, yeloson is a he) Oops! Apologies to Yeloson.

Julia said...

@Legible Susan
I'm viewing Yeloson's journal just fine in Firefox on my Mac (and it's been fine on my PC as well). Maybe you should upgrade to Firefox 3

Anonymous said...


You still haven't addressed my point. How would one troll invalidate everyone else's points?

AND there's still no evidence of this "majority of anti-racist voices as sock puppets" theory that you, and others, are throwing around as an excuse to invalidate the points brought up repeatedly throughout this.

It's also interesting how, despite the fact that the majority of discussion in the whole affair on all sides has been made through internet handles, only the anti-racist side is accused of being sockpuppets.

Legible Susan,

No apologies necessary. Being called a woman is not an insult. I just like folks to know I'm a male ally so that there's no confusion with regards to safe spaces and boundaries.

bellatrys said...

That Kathryn and the NHs don't know who they are isn't dispositive of anything but Kathryn & the NH's unfamiliarity with the pan-fandom LJ-based community.

Which is nothing but Wilful Ignorance, seeing as just *how* many people who comment at ML are on LJ? Choosing to stay in your own little pond when it's connected by so many outlets to the sea is nothing but pitiable, until it turns into a basis for aggression and invalidation ("Not English!" Mr. Podsnap sweeps the world away) - at which point it's reprehensible.