Diversity, Appropriation, Canada (and Me)

So, I’ve been following this thing that’s been happening in Canada, where (briefly), Hal Niedviecki, a white editor of a literary magazine, in an edition of the magazine focusing on the indigenous writers of Canada, wrote an editorial in which he encouraged white writers to include characters who weren’t like them, saying “I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

This outraged a bunch of folks, and Niedviecki ended up apologizing and resigning, which in turn outraged a bunch of other (mostly white) literary and journalistic folks, some of whom briefly started going about on social media about actually trying to fund an “Appropriation Prize” before at least a few of them realized that maybe they shouldn’t be doing that and started backtracking as fast as they could.

(You can catch up with all of this here and here.)

As I’ve been reading this, I think I have a reasonably good idea of what was going on in the mind of Niedzviecki. I suspect it was something along the line of, “Hey, in this special edition of this magazine featuring voices my magazine’s reading audience of mostly white writers doesn’t see enough of, I want to encourage the writing of a diversity of characters even among my readership of mostly white writers, and I want to say it in a clever, punchy way that will really drive the message home.”

Which seems laudable enough! And indeed, in and of itself, encouraging white, middle-class writers out of their comfort zones in terms of writing characters different from them and their lived experience is a perfectly fine goal. I encourage it. Other people I know encourage it. There’s more to life than middle-class white people, and writing can and should reflect that.

But it wasn’t “in and of itself,” and here’s where Niedviecki screwed up, as far as I can see:

1. In an edition of his magazine about indigenous writing in Canada, his essay pulled focus away from indigenous writers to focus on white, middle-class writers, (probably unintentionally) signaling who was really more important here.

2. He tried to be clever about it, too, and the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.” Specifically, the crack about the “Appropriation Prize,” which probably sounded great in his head, and by all indications sounded pretty great to a bunch of other mostly white Canadian authors and journalists.

3. Which is a point in itself, i.e., the easy conflation of “diversity of characters” with “appropriation.” Very basically, the former says “I as a writer acknowledge there’s more to the world than me and people like me and I will strive to represent that as best I can,” and the latter says “The imaginary version of people I’m not like, that I have created in my head, is as valid as the lived experience of the actual people I claim to represent in my writing.” And, yeah. Maybe these two should not be conflated, even if it makes for a punchy, memorable line in an essay. Also, if you genuinely can’t tell the difference between these two states, you might have work to do.

(This is why the white Canadian authors/journalists yakking about funding an Appropriation Prize are particularly clueless; they’re essentially saying “Hey! Let’s give money to white writers for the best fake version of people they’re not!” Which is not a good look, folks, really. Words do mean things, and “appropriation” doesn’t mean a good thing in this context.)

This whole event really appears to fall into the category of “Well-meaning person does something they thought would help and instead makes things worse.” Niedzviecki thought he was championing diversity in Canadian writing — because (I have no doubt) he actually does wish to champion diversity in Canadian writing — and instead blundered into controversy because lack of understanding about what he was doing, or at least, lack of understanding of how what he was doing would look outside of his own circle of experience. He meant well! But he showed his ass anyway.

And, well. Join the party, Mr. Niedzviecki! There are many of us here in the “We Showed Our Ass” club. And judging from the response to the piece, and Mr. Niedzviecki’s decision to resign his post, more are joining as we speak. “Cultural Appropriation: Why Can’t We Debate It?” asks one Canadian newspaper column headline, from another white writer who clearly doesn’t understand what “cultural appropriation” actually means and seems confused why other people are upset by it. Niedzviecki, to his credit, seems to have picked up the clue. Some others seem determined not to. And, look. We all show our ass. The question is whether we then try to pull our pants back up, or keep scrunching them down to our ankles, and then poop all over them and ourselves.


Now, related but slightly set apart (which is why I’ve separated this part off with asterisks), let me address this issue of diversity of characters in writing, using myself as an example, and moving on from there.

I’m a white male writer of North American middle-class sensibility, and I try from time to time to write characters that are not like me, because it reflects the reality of the world to do so, and because in science fiction I believe we write the futures we want to see, and I want to see diversity. How do I do, writing these characters who are not like me? Well, that’s for other people to decide. But here is my thought on doing it, which I take from Mary Anne Mohanraj’s essays here on the subject:

a) I should write diverse characters.
b) I’ll screw up sometimes, and when I do people with the lived experience I’m trying to represent will let me know.
c) I’ll learn and when I write diverse characters again, I’ll try to do better. If I make mistakes again, they’ll be new ones, not the same ones over again.
d) Repeat until dead (or I quit writing, which I suspect will happen simultaneously).

With that said, while I think it’s useful for me to have diverse characters in my writing, I also think it’s even more useful for publishing to have diverse writers. This is not just because of some box checking sensibility but because other writers tell stories, create characters and interrogate writing in ways I would never think to. I’m a pretty good storyteller, folks. But my way of storytelling isn’t the only way it gets done. As a reader I like what I like, but I also like finding out about what I didn’t know I’d like, and I even occasionally like reading something and going “wow, that was so not for me but I get that it’s for someone.”

This is relevant because even when I write diverse characters, they get filtered through me, and while that’s fine and I think necessary, in a larger sense it’s not sufficient. I’m not running me down here. I give good character. But as a writer I know where my weaknesses are. Some characters I will likely never explore as deeply as they could be explored by other writers, because I am not able to write those characters as well as others could. I strive for diversity in my writing. But my writing won’t ever reflect the diversity that literature in general should be capable of. You need writers whose lives are not like mine for that.

White writers adding a diversity of characters into their work is one thing. Publishers seeking out and publishing a diversity of writers is another. A fall down happens when people — writers, editors, and publishers — appear to think having the former is somehow equivalent to the latter, or that having the former is sufficient, so that the latter is optional, if the former is present. It’s not. The former can be laudable (if it doesn’t fall over into appropriation, which it can, and when it does is its own bag of issues), but it’s not and never is sufficient. A field of literature that comes only from one direction is bad literature because it’s incomplete literature. There’s more to it and it’s being missed out on. And that’s a much larger issue.

So, yes. Good on me and any white writer for having diverse characters. Go us! But if your argument about diversity in writing and publishing is centered on that, and not on an actual diversity of writers, you’re missing the point in an obvious way. Everyone who isn’t a white writer is going to notice.

77 Comments on “Diversity, Appropriation, Canada (and Me)”

  1. Notes:

    1. Strangely enough, a discussion of cultural appropriation and writing might engender some clueless commenting! So, please please please be sure your comment isn’t one of those. Also, remember to be polite to each other in your commenting. Thank you.

    2. For anyone wishing to register the irony of me centering a piece about the folly of a white dude centering a discussion of diversity of writing on me: Yes, well. Guilty. But this is my personal blog and it is about me, so.

    3. Please note I do not hold myself up as a paragon of woke whiteness. I’ve shown my ass on numerous occasions and undoubtedly will again. I’m not even going to say this essay may not be without its flaws. I do try to learn from the experience, however.

  2. This ignited so quickly in Canada, I think, because it also followed in the wake of the Joseph Boyden controversy (author Boyden is accused of misrepresenting native ancestry and literary/cultural appropriation), which followed the UBC Accountable letter, which followed the Steven Galloway affair (UBC creative writing head and bestselling writer fired from UBC amid mysterious circumstances, and Boyden spearheaded the letter defence), which followed the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, and so on. There are many smouldering fires in the CanLit landscape, just waiting to erupt at any moment. Those Appropriation Prize jokes were just Molotov cocktails. (Montreal cocktails?)

    It’s worth pointing out that Vancouver writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia is raising funds for an Emerging Indigenous Voices Award, with the help of the UBC Longhouse, so hopefully some good comes of this: http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/indigenous-support/

  3. “d) Repeat until dead (or I quit writing, which I suspect will happen simultaneously).”

    Do you actually wish to go while at your keyboard? And if so, would you pick a fiction piece, a blog post, or something else to be in the middle of writing?

    (I am apparently in a morbid mood today)

  4. Thanks for writing this, Scalzi. I too am a white writer who often writes outside of my demographic because, among other things, I want to represent the world I actually live in. So far, I seem to have done this without having the Cultural Appropriation Rotten Tomatoes hurled at me. Though, there’s still plenty of time. I’ll take is at it comes and try to learn from it if/when it happens. Right on about diversity of authors being more important than diversity of characters. Though, of course, both are welcome. I’ll just add that if we want to really turn up the heat we should start encouraging/pressuring/shaming publishers into actively promoting diverse titles, rather than just publishing them, ticking off a box, and letting them die on the vine. That’s my two cents. Publish diverse titles then promote the living hell out of them. Anything less is grandstanding.

  5. Words do mean things

    Not in a vacuum, though. They mean things to people, and sometimes they mean different things to different people.

    I don’t think there is a widespread consensus on what “cultural appropriation” means, so it’s hardly surprising that so much confusion and misunderstanding arises around it.

    Although I do think that anyone who intentionally uses it to describe themselves, or *asks* for someone to engage in it, is making a mistake. Even if people disagree on what it is, it should be clear to any even slightly informed person that a substantial number of people dislike it.

  6. SF, at least of the futuristic variety, seems like kind of a unique problem WRT to diversity because you’re not just writing diverse characters, but all the characters exist in a society with different technology, politics, and cultural assumptions from our own, or any other contemporary society.

    I feel like James S.A. Corey do a good job with this. (Or should I say does? It’s confusing when an author is actually a nom de plume for two people). The Expanse series is written by two white American guys, and one of their main characters is a black woman, but she’s also a Belter who grew up and will live her whole life on space colonies and that informs how she thinks. A couple principal characters are Martians and they have different ethnic backgrounds (and different personalities), but also certain cultural assumptions that seem to derive from living in fairly crowded tunnels, caves, and domes on a planet whose surface will kill you in seconds.

  7. Chris:

    “I don’t think there is a widespread consensus on what ‘cultural appropriation’ means, so it’s hardly surprising that so much confusion and misunderstanding arises around it.”

    I think when there’s any doubt about what a particular phrase means, ask the group most disadvantaged by its use, and use that version as your definition.


    I don’t suspect I will physically die at a keyboard, but I do suspect when I die there will be some work unfinished.

  8. I don’t think there is a widespread consensus on what “cultural appropriation” means

    I think there’s a general consensus on what it means, but part of the problem is actually spotting it is sort of a matter of “you know it when you see it.” I mean nobody (or hardly anybody) thinks that white people shouldn’t perform Blues or R&B, anymore than people would say black people shouldn’t sing Opera, but we’ve all seen cringeworthy examples of white artists pushing “acting black” into insulting parody. But it’s hard to a create a formal, abstract definition of where that line is.

  9. I think the best way to avoid appropriation is collaboration. Want to add a diverse element to your art? Hire or consult someone with the relevant background. Editors should hire diverse writers , writers can run their work past diverse beta readers or take feedback seriously. Great essay—I’ve been having the same thoughts, but not so eloquently :)

  10. As someone who recently went from keyboard to CPR in a matter of seconds, it isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. I didn’t even leave behind a dramatic sentence fragment.

  11. With respect, John, I think you’re missing a key part of this controversy. Something called the Equity Task Force sent the editor a letter with about a dozen demands that he and his staff comply with – I read it in someone’s tweet and it was very provocative – and that is what set off the Appropriation Prize hoo-hah. I’m trying to find the tweet again so I can post the link, but it is an important part of this whole uproar.

  12. Yes, that’s the one. I saw it as a twitter image, so this one is more legible.

  13. When you talked about yourself in contrast to diverse characters you said you were “white” and “male” but did not use the word “straight”, and since (knowing your work) I know you didn’t merely forget it, I intend to read into that as ridiculously overmuch as possible.

  14. @EJ:

    I take your point, and it’s a fair one, but I’d argue figuring out what “cultural appropriation” is is a lot less complicated than many people want to make it.

    Let me put it this way — f we’re collaborating on a realistic novel set in a hospital where the main character is a brain surgeon, we’re going to do some basic research on the setting, the people who work in it and what brain surgery involves right? Perhaps run the manuscript by an expert beta reader or two, and take whatever notes come back without spinning out. Right?

    (And note none of this is saying you can’t write a good novel with a hospital setting unless you’re a honest to blog healthcare professional.)

    But there’s still far too many people who think they can just treat other people’s history, traditions and culture as set decoration or cosplay, then get all pissy when folks say “Yeah, but nah. Not cool, bruh.” And it’s funny how often the “stop being so politically correct, you triggered snowflake SJW” crowd always expect to have their politics, their religion, their culture and history treated not just with respect but reverence.

  15. Being a white Male writer, I wonder why your latest Optus is populated with at least 4 Females in lead roles….Most of your books are written by a guy in a guys vernacular, and they sound right. I wonder why the shift .Trying to get more lady readers? This change seems to be part of the thread of reaching out to others not the same as you?

  16. @chris: actually there is a consensus among the people it most frequently happens to. We’ve been discussing it and writing about it, for decades, and we recognize it when we see it. In my experience though, the people most often doing the appropriation are deeply confused about what it is. Also the waters are often muddied by ppl making false accusations of appropriation for the express purpose of confusing the issue.

  17. I would say a classic example is the recent Miley Cyrus debacle where she has spent the past few years parodying a nasty stereotype of black sexuality on stage, and now that it has ceased to be lucrative for her career, has decided to not only switch genres, but badmouth the genre she once appropriated.

    On the other hand The Rolling Stones, Michael Bolton, and Adele, I don’t consider appropriation.

  18. Jay Keene:

    “A guy’s vernacular”? I’m not sure what that means.

    The new book has women in a number of key roles because I felt like those characters should be women. It’s not that unusual. The previous book had two of the four main characters as women, with a large number of women in key roles as well. The book before that had at least one of the main characters a woman (and the other one ungendered from the point of view of the reader). The book before that was also roughly in parity, in terms of main character gender. The next one will have one woman and one ungendered character as the leads, and the one after that will have the same number of women leads as the current book. So I don’t think it’s accurate to say most of my books usually have male lead characters, particularly recently.

  19. As a WoC all I require is that white writers research, research, research! Do your homework! There have been at least a couple of white male writers who managed to write characters of color that not only were they not offensive to me, but felt very authentic to the point where I was surprised at the race of the writer. So I know it can be done. The writer just can’t be lazy about it.

    They also need to keep in mind that PoC are individuals. What’s inoffensive to me, a Black woman might greatly upset some other Black woman. So they need to take into account that they might not get a consensus on how well their character was written.

  20. Hey John… Jay Keene’s post and your reply made me wonder… how DO you decide the gender of a character? Is it seat of the pants, when you start writing it just feels like X should be female/male/fluid/ungendered? Driven by a plot element (even if it’s not something we see)?

    I don’t particularly care what gender a given character is, but I’m just curious about the creative process by which you make the call.

  21. I am forecasting an arc here. First Nations folks are some of Canada’s fastest growing demographics. Stick a wetted finger in the air and feel the breeze. We are probably 25 years away from an indigenous Prime Minister. However, appropriation prize moniker is just ridiculously glib. Surprisingly un-Canadian. So good day Eh!

  22. @cranapia

    Your comment made me laugh because it reminded me of those classic Mitchell and Webb characters – the lazy screenwriters who never do any research,

    – “It’s a medical drama, but with the emphasis on drama, rather than medicine”
    – “Yeah, the producers arranged for us to follow around a team of paramedics for a month, but… instinctively… that felt wrong”
    – “I mean, a MONTH!”

    But your and @Ikeke5’s point that putting sincere effort into research is at least a step is well taken.

  23. And getting back to the music analogy, I instinctively get why, say, Iggy Azalea tends to set people off, and, say, Justin Timberlake normally doesn’t. but I’d still be hard pressed to formally define the difference.

  24. John Scalzi “A guy’s vernacular”? I’m not sure what that means”?
    Not the best word.. I meant that the thought- to- voiced words sounded like the way men talk…which is different than women… Can a man really appropriate ( not approximate) the mind of a woman?…
    Zoes Tale and Sagan’s diary were voiced by women through you, but I am not quite as convinced of their authenticity.as I am of the male characters in your other books.
    After saying this I Know that some of the greatest novels about women have mostly been written by men…Whatever………
    BTW. I read everything you write with great pleasure.. Keep going!

  25. Another factor that can be relevant here is that established writers writing about groups not their own, might be necessary for those groups to being published at all, or start writing, or even in some cases start reading.

    My go-to example of that is what happened with Swedish literature in the 1920s and 30s. All of a sudden, Swedish literature gained several superlative authors with their roots among landless farmers and workers, almost all of them being autodidacts. Part of that was the labour movement having started papers and educational options, as well as created publishing channels. But I think a very important factor was that a generation earlier, in the 1890s from then on, already privileged and established authors had started writing about landless farmers and workers.

    Almost all of that was, if not appropriating, at least romanticising their experience, like Hedidenstam’s hyper-nationalistic history of the Swedish people. But it might have created a realisation to young landless farmers and workers that their story maybe deserved to be told, and it primed the publishers to be receptive to authors from those backgrounds.

  26. PS: The female character I liked best in Collapsing Empire: was the ships Captain Gineos
    But she has disappeared…..? She has the Scalzi wit and chops that many of your other lead characters have… please bring her back….

  27. @Jay B Keene
    What kind of men? I mean there is not really one definitive difference between the language of men and women when you consider the entire human race as a whole. There tends to be a difference within cultures and sub cultures at particular points in time but none of those are fixed and Mr Scalzi’s work is not usually set in the here and now.

    There are areas which I would expect a man who is writing here and now to be really careful with (and do the goddamn research) no matter where and when he is setting his book (sexual assault for example) but in general I would expect less of a gender difference in speech patterns in books set in the future.

  28. One way to have diverse characters without showing your ass is to ask questions of people from the group you’re including and get diverse beta readers. Jim Hines did an excellent job of this when he was writing a story with an autistic protagonist – he actively engaged the autistic community and really listened to what people said.

    Another unrelated point I’d like to share is that IMHO it’s important for people who’ve experienced cultural appropriation to be respectful of others who experience. I’m white and from a religious minority, and have been slapped down when I expressed offense at a video where a church appropriated something from my religion. Many of us belong to both majority and minority groups (whether racial, ethnic, religious, disability, gender identity…). I try to be respectful of people from other groups, and appreciate if others accord me the same respect.

  29. >> I Know that some of the greatest novels about women have mostly been written by men… >>

    Like that George Eliot fella.

  30. @Jay B Keene: Off topic, but Gineos is referred to several times over the course of the book, just not by name.

  31. I don’t know if this is as big an issue for you as it is for other writers- you have minimal to no descriptions of your characters in your books, and leave it more to the readers imagination to fill in the gaps.

  32. Heck, I’m happy when the *aliens* don’t come off as white middle class Americans ;-)

  33. The sentiment might have been better if expressed to straight, white, mostly-male military scifi writers….or maybe not 😏.

  34. Hmm.To me, maybe it’s the word,”Appropriation” itself. Appropriatin doesn’t just mean a poor interpretation of another cultural milieu or experience, another person’s cultural identity. Appropriation means borrowing or stealing facile aspects of that culture and whitewashing them and acting as if it was yours all along. Or something rather like that.

    I’m a white guy. I’m middle class (or lower class now). I’m handicapped. I’m gay. I’m reviewing Spanish and French to regain and expand fluency. I’m from a very diverse city and I grew up around people of many races, religions, etc. — But I have not been nearly immersed in another culture until now, even so. The apartment complex where I now live is mostly Hispanic. Spanish is often the primary or only language, and thee are a lot of residents who are between that and truly bilingual, somewhere along the scale.

    So although I do have some pretty good idea of what it’s like to be white or Hispanic or a few other minorities, I only know at the deep level, my own white-boy experience. Since I’m handicapped, I know very well that an average (“normal?”) non-handicapped life is outside my experience from birth on, and I am no expert even about my own handicap. But I have some idea what being handicapped is like, for several different kinds. I have no real idea what it’s like to be female, though sure, I’ve been around plenty of women and girls. And I’m gay, so er, I’m not entirely sure what it’s like for other guys, and I think I don’t know a lot about what it’s like to grow up as a straight boy / man / guy / dude….

    And yet I’d like to write well about any of that and more.

    However, there’s a difference between someone “appropriating” culture versus truly knowing it well enough to embody it in writing or other areas of life. — I’m Texan. I grew up with Tex-Mex food as one of many local kinds of food. It’s always there. I don’t really even think of it as being “Mexican” or “Hispanic,” say, because I grew up with it. It also is related to Texas cooking in general, in Anglo and Black cooking styles, in, say, Texas barbecue. — And I’m so familiar with it that when I’ve eaten in other parts of he country (cough, Indiana, etc.) at say, (cough, Monterrey House) which is admittedly a franchise and not necessarily authentic Tex-Mex — wow, the food was only Tex-Mex because someone put that label on it and the ingredients sort of matched. Kinda-Sorta-Maybe. But it wasn’t really Tex-Mex. It had been “Appropriated.” — However, ahem, I like Jack in the Box’s tacos, ;) and as a Texan and an Anglo American, I don’t mind too much if drawing that line on what’s OK in Tex-Mex, or where I’ll eat, say, is OK enough for me. (Locally, both Anglos and Latinos do much the same. We eat at fast food and other franchises, and some of us do the cooking, too, so, yeah.)

    Even so, I hope my point about what’s “appropriation” makes sense.

    @Scalzi — It felt to me as if your post missed that, while you did a thorough job otherwise, covering why the heated debate over all that has happened.

    I think it’s hard for anyone to write a truly diverse and authentic story. I thnk too, the target changes over time as our own cultures reshape themselves, blend in bits of each other, or innovate their own new things, often through contact with others. I think also, for some of us who are in constant or frequent contact with many different groups because of where we live, we are more aware of it yet still prone to miss things, or to mix up things because we live in a tossed salad / melting pot of multiple cultures. And we are only somewhat experts in our own background, if that. — But hey, there are a lot of people in this world (and right in my city and apartment complex) who are not quite like me, but still pretty dang awesome, and they have plenty to offer. For many of us, they are so much a part of our lives, we would feel we are truly missing part of ourselves if they were not represented in our stories, in books, video and audio, and other media.

    (I’m dealing with near immersion in Latino and Tex-Mex culture here where I live now. My Spanish ought to get better soon. I’m practicing by necessity. My rusty Spanish is better than some of the neighbors’ and maintenance workers’ English.)

    Diversity matters. Without it, we are not showing all of ourselves, so the picture is incomplete and not so true. Appropriation? Not a good thing. Strive to be authentic.

  35. I agree with Chris; I don’t think there is a widespread consensus on what “cultural appropriation” means, either. As Scalzi describes it, it’s “writing characters that are not like me.” But I have seen the term also applied to any cultural borrowing, and I think that is a different thing entirely. The trouble with the solution offered, “ask the group most disadvantaged by its use and use that definition,” is that you can’t really ask a group anything—you have to ask individual people, and you aren’t likely to get identical answers from any two members of a group, and have no guarantees that the individuals you’re talking to are actually representative of the group itself.

    EJ thinks there’s a “general consensus” on the term. Ikeke35 says “there is a consensus among the people it most frequently happens to” and then that “PoC are individuals. What’s inoffensive to me, a Black woman might greatly upset some other Black woman. So they need to take into account that they might not get a consensus on how well their character was written” (which is pretty much my point, above).

    Eons ago, when I was a mere undergraduate struggling to a degree in cultural anthropology, we studied the phenomenon of “cultural diffusion,” which is the spread of cultural elements from one culture to another, much as a drop of food coloring might diffuse into a glass of water. At first it’s clearly and distinctly a drop of dye, and then it spreads out and is diluted and what one ends up with is not dye, and not water, but dyed water. That’s how cultures grow and change and spread—and ultimately, evolve, and survive.

    If what we are talking about is writing characters from another culture, or stories set in a culture which is distinct from our own, then I wholeheartedly agree with Scalzi’s argument: We should write characters who are not like us, and we will not necessarily do it perfectly. (I would add that perhaps people are not as different as all that in many important ways, and we should remember we are writing individuals, not cultures. And individuals can do anything.) We will fail and try again and fail better and, we hope, gain some perspective in the process. The ONLY way to fail better is to RESEARCH.

    If, on the other hand, we are talking about borrowing cultural elements to use in our own work, I think that calling that “cultural appropriation” and claiming that it is a) wrong or b) disrespectful is a flawed argument. If we’re borrowing, as writers we have an obligation to know what it is we’re using and what it IS before we start using it for our own purposes—if for no other reason that it will probably provide a lot more depth to our own work—again, RESEARCH–but that does not mean that we shouldn’t do it.

    Equally, we should recognize (again as Scalzi points out) that we also gain needed depth and information from reading works from other perspectives. That’s called learning, and what is reading, and writing, but learning? We learn from new things, things that are new to us and things that are new in the world, like an admixture of water and dye. How is that bad? Encouraging diversity in writers is how all the cultures involved will grow and change and survive, including the ones we individually identify with.

  36. Having a diverse group of close friends surrounding you in real life who have become comfortable enough to speak openly while you listen raptly with respect and empathy is – for me – the best way to grasp diversity. If said circle is willing to check your manuscript for believability, that is an even greater aid. Remember that, even if many general things are right, personal experiences differ. If you don’t have that circle, go find it. You will be rewarded with greater humanity.

  37. Cultural appropriation is connected with colonialism/imperialism. It’s when a group that has historically dominated through violent force and ruthless repression of other cultural groups, uses that domination to exploit, gut and steal/steal credit of the repressed culture for its culture, art and products, considered exotic and novel as the “Other”, making an enormous profit from it and consolidating their dominating group’s political, military and social dominance through the appropriation (theft,) additionally rewarding themselves for those appropriated products with awards and hailing their use of the different culture as superior and innovative, while at the same time declaring that same culture to be inferior when created and used by the original repressed culture, and continuing to ruthlessly repress those in the repressed culture from creating the cultural products or expressing their culture, profiting from them, being praised for them, recognized for their contributions, and achieving any social, political and legal equality through them as much as possible, and sometimes using violent force and imprisonment to keep the repressed culture submissive and helpless concerning appropriation and exploitation.
    Cultural appropriation, like other forms of bigotry, is an economic tool. It is a highly inefficient and limited one culturally, but it can make a select percentage of the dominant group very wealthy and in control of trade, it keeps hierarchies in place and controlling populations. People in the dominating group are used to it, trained from an early age to support it, do not listen to the people in the repressed groups because they’ve been trained not to as people in repressed groups are seen, consciously and unconsciously, as having an inferior understanding of cultures to those in the dominant group, and they make everything concerning the issue about them and their feelings and their status and reputation (centering.)
    Thus, people in the dominating group are “confused” when they or others in the dominating group are challenged about cultural appropriation because it is not central to their dominating experience, does not put them in charge of the situation/conversation and they think it makes them look bad (rather than as benevolent and generous overlords doing good works,) and therefore has to be vigorously denied. It becomes increasingly important to deny that the people in the repressed group have anything accurate to say or that they even have the right to say it. Everything must instead be about how the dominating group’s members see things about what is being done or not done to people in the repressed group and how those people get to live their lives.
    And it is this assertion by the members of the dominating group of confusion and negation that is responsible for most of humanity’s ills and has been the justification for everything from uncomfortable diner parties to atrocities, slavery and genocide. And you end up with things like this magazine’s unthinking and egotistical white blight and a bunch of white people then trying to protect a member of the dominating group from the supposed menace of the members of the supposedly inferior, lacking in true understanding group, who should be grateful that any white folk care anything about them at all, enough to borrow their culture for white people’s continued profit and dominance in the marketplace.
    Diversity is reality. White people are a minority on the globe and always have been. Women outnumber men. LGBTQ may be a minority, but there are a billion of them, etc. And yet, we’ve been conditioned to regard diversity as a construct — an act of generosity by the dominating groups that should be controlled and interpreted by them, unchallenged, and for which everybody else should be grateful, praising and deferential. And it just so happens that this mostly keeps the dominating groups’ domination in place in all areas, steering all the profit, power and respect towards a top percentage of the dominating groups.
    Look at it this way, when people in repressed groups criticize those in dominating groups for bias, discrimination, appropriation, inequality, etc., active or unthinking, the only way you’re going to stop them from doing that is repression. So do you want to repress them (further)? Have an award that is the Repression Award? Contribute further to the obstacles they face every day? Or do you want to listen to them? Merely by listening, you acknowledge the current power dynamic, including intersectionalities, and start changing it. And by not insisting that they interpret the situation as you in the dominating group view it, by not making the discussion about your concerns, you acknowledge them as a real equal, rather than lip service, and start changing the current power dynamic. That is the least of what anyone can do.
    We don’t always do it well, largely because we don’t even notice we’re not doing it in the first place. We’re trained not to notice, not to understand and to reject the experience of the people in the repressed group and tire them out or scare them in dealing with us. And emotions are involved in all sides. We have to stop and think first. We have to be willing to check with others and go through criticism. We have to be not so concerned with consequences if we mess up that we lash out and dismiss what those who are most impacted in society are saying. And no, we don’t need everybody else to be nice to us to do that. We need substantial changes to publishing in this area, and these situations just show why that is.

  38. I write characters (yas, I is white) based on those in my close circle of friends (multi-ethnic and female) and give them real characteristics/personalities based on what I’ve observed/experienced over the years. I don’t even remotely go through landmine of cultural appropriation, just the twin landmines of a woman’s personality/being and interracial relationships (I have friends who are in those types of relationships). I’m also smart enough to realize that if I need help, I ask to get clarification. No more, no less.

    For what it’s worth, I thought his apology was vapid, lame, insincere and strictly designed to get everyone off his back so that he could continue his career (such as it is).

  39. I think that like erotica/porn, we usually know appropriation when we see it — even if we can’t precisely pin down in words why we believe this. Listen to that voice at the back of your mind going “umm… something uncomfortable here.” The voice isn’t always right, but you should always listen to it and think again. There are certainly edge cases, but they’re not the majority.

    As usual, John, I think you’ve nailed it: we majority types must both start with an appreciation that we are not the only beings in this universe worthy of inclusion in a story, and we must encourage publishers to encourage other voices to contribute to our communal dialogue. Neither alone is sufficient. On the plus side, we’re starting to see far more diverse voices in our genre, and on the whole, I think it’s been a wonderful thing. The only real omission imho is that we don’t see enough work in translation. Ken Liu’s been doing great work in this vein; James Morrow too. We need more.

    If you’re a member of the majority, it’s natural to approach this subject with trepidation… there are so many ways to go wrong, and it’s not always obvious when you’ve pushed a toe over the line. I recall once being accused of appropriation for calling myself a feminist (i.e., yet another white hetero male appropriating a female right/role/responsibility). On balance and in hindsight, I think that was nonsense, but since the political schisms within feminism aren’t my battles to fight, I’ve taken to calling myself a female chauvinist. Not really the same thing, but whatever. It’s close enough, and nobody accuses me of appropriation. I’ve also been accused of “mansplaining” when I tried to share expertise that I’ve acquired over 30 years in my profession (editor). I’ve turned it into a joke: my passion in life is as a teacher, and I don’t mansplain — I Geoffsplain (i.e., teach anyone and everyone, and if you just happen to be a woman, that’s not the relevant part of my ‘splaining).

    I’ve begun to tiptoe out of my own comfort zone (writing about my own peeps) and diversify my writing to account for other perspectives. To me, a simple dictum is sufficient guidance: write about the person as a person, and use their differences to make them interesting and distinctive — to add color, if you’ll pardon the pun. If their difference from the majority is defined by the character playing a role with little or no agency (e.g., “the Black guy in the background”) rather than being a person first and foremost (e.g., “the ship’s engineer, who is also proudly Black”), you’re not doing it right.

  40. @iandavidmartin

    Lionel Shriver recently addressed this and absolutely nailed it.

    If you’re talking about this (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad), I’m afraid the only thing Ms. Shriver nailed was the fine art of reducing an enormously complex set of questions to a dizzyingly absurd (if elegantly phrased) collection of straw men.

    As our host says, the failure mode of clever is “asshole.” We’ve all been there, but Ms. Shriver got her audience to pay for the privilege of listening to her do it — which a rather clever species of assholism in my book.

  41. Here is a link that to the best of my knowledge violates no copyright laws: https://www.writersunion.ca/sites/all/files/attachments/WRITE_Spring2017_Web.pdf

    On page 8, you will find the offending article, which I was not bale to easily find a copy of through the links in John’s post.

    It feels to me (I’m a white person) that Hal’s mistake was originally one of ignorance. He did not appear in his essay (assuming good faith on his part and a desire to support indigenous writers) to have a full understanding of the meaning of the term “cultural appropriation” and therefore how his poor use of it was harmful. As many have noted above, cultural appropriation is a different beast than respectful dialogue with another culture. It connotes exploitation of cultural artifacts often historically denied to their originators, even so far as with the use of violence, for commercial or personal purposes by (primarily) members of the majority culture that committed the above-mentioned crimes in the first place, and is still not so great at respecting the culture which it is “borrowing” from. Therefore, coming from a white writer, the name “appropriation prize” with a goal of getting white writers to intentionally appropriate from minority cultures is an act of cultural violence.

    Even in the softer terms of a hypothetical prize for a majority writer who does the best job of respectfully reflecting a minority culture in their work, there is still a failed assumption, that such a thing is worthy of a prize rather than being the default expectation. Kind of like how so-called “nice guys” seem to be under the impression that meeting the bare minimum requirements of being a decent human being entitle them to positive reciprocation from the target of their affections, ie. sex or a romantic relationship. Not being a culturally violent, selfish asshole is the floor of proper behavior in terms of writing the Other, not level which should bring accolades.

    Even though I believe Hal meant well, and does work to support indigenous writers, I do think his mistake due to ignorance is worthy of condemnation. *Because* of his work with such communities, he should be held *more* responsible for his marked ignorance, rather than being excused. Note that I do not say Hal himself is worth of condemnation, though he may be. I’m here specifically judging his action rather than his character. I don’t know that he needed to resign over this mistake. Although I found his apology somewhat lacking. Pro tip: glibness never worked out for anyone. Especially not in such as charged space as marginalization of minorities. Being glib in this instance in and of itself is a reason for a good scolding, especially from a dude in a position of privilege.

  42. When writers write about some culture they know nothing about, and they fall back on stereotypes, that’s bad because it’s just reinforcing bigotry. And bigotry is bad. But calling it cultural appropriation? Appropriation is defined as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission”. And that just seems to encourage some people to relate to their culture as if they “own” it and that it’s immoral if anyone else uses it. And that’s just silly.

    Is there a specific example of cultural appropriation that does NOT get into stereotypes or bigotry, that is an obvious immoral act?

    When the movie “Moana” came out, there was a bit of a flap over a halloween costume that was a shirt of Maui’s magical tattoo’s. I remember reading a quote from one person who complained that Disney had stole their “intellectual property”. I’m sorry, but no. If there was something racist in the movie, that’s bad. If the movie perpetuated cultural stereotypes, that’s bad. But this person was arguing that myths from millennia ago are still proprietary works.

  43. Hi John —

    Full disclosure: I work in the Canadian publishing world and I’ve met Hal, the editor in middle of this controversy, 2-3 times. So I’m acquainted with, but don’t really know him.

    Some additional points about this controversy here in Canada. The magazine in which this editorial appeared isn’t a literary magazine, but rather a magazine for one of the largest writers’ group, The Writers Union of Canada (TWUC). The diversity committee, whose recommendations were mentioned, above is TWUC’s diversity committee and so it’s an internal committee making recommendations to TWUC’s board of directors (who are the people that oversee this mag). So this controversy is a bit like the one that happened over the SFWA magazine.

    As Peter mentioned in the first comment the CanLit world has had a series of controversies erupt around diversity, (mis)representation, privilege, and power (and he hasn’t even mentioned all of them). So it doesn’t help when the TWUC’s magazine issue, which is supposed to celebrate and showcase some of the exciting new voices from Canada’s Indigenous and Métis communities, has an introductory editorial that is 2/3 about how important it is for white middle-class Canadian writers to take risks and stretch themselves and 1/3 actually about the works in the issue and how important these Indigenous and Metis writers are to the CanLit scene (and these were the last 2 paragraphs). That editorial was thoughtless and clueless – my first reaction when I read it was how could anyone not see this and my second was this is is perfect example of what Scalzi says about the default mode of clever. FWIW I think for Hal this is exactly the problem, he thought he was being clever, when what he was being was clueless — however that absolutely doesn’t excuse him and I think that he did the correct thing by resigning as editor of TWUC’s magazine

    As for the Canadian journalists and editors and senior publishing executives who, unlike Hal, ARE important and influential people at major Canadian newspapers and magazines — what they did was reprehensible. Not only were they openly racist (and punching down at people without their privilege), they have made life even worse for Hal, the very person they claim they were supporting, since he is now tied to their stupid antics in most people’s minds even though he’s not associated with them (and in fact Hal has spent most of his publishing life in small press/zine/anti-large media world). So I expect that Hal has learned a very hard lesson about the default mode of clever and how your too-clever words can be transformed and turn you into the poster-child for very ideas that you abhor and do not want to be associated with.

    The sad irony of all this is that it is how these magazine pages filled with Canadian Indigenous and Métis writing have been transformed into one page of an editorial about the white, middle-class writing voice — that is, everyone has been spending their time focused on the editorial and not on the work published in the issue. Something tells me that NYT, Globe and Mail, Star, etc. would not have published anything about this magazine issue if there had been no controversy, even if Twitter had been completely filled with positive tweets about this issue and the amazing work in it.

  44. The thing is, writers make stuff up – poets even have a license to do so – and some of them make stuff up well and some badly. At a guess writer’s lives are reflected in their work (I write technical papers, so for me not so much) but a good writer can explain the strange much better than a bad writer can explain the familiar. On the whole, I’m inclined to stick with the good writers, and their personality and background is of little interest to me.

    (This is in fact a very, very old argument and I don’t think it will ever be resolved.)

    C W Rose

  45. I want to heartily agree with all the people commenting who have said that it’s great when writers from the dominant culture make an effort to shape their own writing in more diverse ways and learn from their mistakes along the way, BUT the more important thing for the future is for publishers to actually print and sell more work by minority authors. To recruit them and give them a platform.

  46. I always try to understand the viewpoints of people born into other demographic groups; but the very fact that this is a choice on my part, instead of a necessity for survival, is an example of white male privilege.

    There’s a long history of well-meaning white writers telling stories about people of oppressed minority groups; a problem that often comes up (especially in Hollywood) is that they still feel the need for a white protagonist as a viewpoint character. “Glory” is one of my favorite movies, but I wish it focused more on the black soldiers than on their white CO (although Colonel Robert Shaw really was an interesting historical figure).

    I just watched the movie “Hidden Figures”, which was great. (Just sent off for the book, which covers a lot more.) One of the many good choices in making the film was to keep focus on the black female “computers” at NASA. There were important male and/or white characters, but the main POV was with Katherine Johnson and her colleagues who had to deal with Jim Crow bullshit while trying to push America into the space-traveling future.

    The hero of my next novel is a female German-American Jew in 1928 Pittsburgh (it’s still sf, technically, just set in a version of the past). The characters will reflect the many nationalities represented by the city’s immigrant population. Now I’m second-guessing the whole thing.

  47. There’s a long history of well-meaning white writers telling stories about people of oppressed minority groups; a problem that often comes up (especially in Hollywood) is that they still feel the need for a white protagonist as a viewpoint character.

    Yup. And this is not unconscious; it is overt. Screenwriters are often told to change the ethnicity of their major characters to white. Jaimie Ford, author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet makes no bones that his novel, with a Japanese American and Chinese American pair of protagonists, set in a backdrop of African American musicians, has had lots of offers for the screen–but only if they could change one of the protagonists (usually the male) to white. Needless to say, he’s turned down every one of them…until he got an offer where the ethnicities are as he created them.

    Also, I think there’s a clear case of cultural appropriation in food, where white chefs often reap the benefit of “discovering” new cuisines, while the creators of said cuisine continue to operate in obscurity.

  48. What sets me off is when the cultural appropriation warriors claim that artists must get permission (from whom?) in order to incorporate “other” things or people into their work. We’ve just had this with Damien Hirst, we had it with Dana Schutz, and those won’t be the last of it. The same people who would (rightly) throw a major fit if the government tried to punish Stephen Colbert for his comments want themselves to be gatekeepers of who may write what and who may act in what and who may produce what art.

    And given that artists with a conservative bent aren’t going to care what the CA police think, it’s all going to turn into the usual circular firing squad of liberals eating their own for being insufficiently woke, while being mocked for it.

    Tl,dr; If you demand that an artist must first get permission to work, you are wrong and must be fought.

  49. D) I’m still holding out for a Zombie POV that is published posthumously! Hopefully a long time from now!

  50. FYI – Jonathan Kay, one of the guys involved in this episode, resigned as editor of The Walrus magazine today.

  51. @Kathryn: That was a very illuminating comment.

    CW Rose, well, by definition, if they’re culturally appropriating, they aren’t that great of a writer, at least in that area?

    The good writers thing is a common derailer for this discussion, though. “Oh, well if there were good indigenous writers they would be being published”. One of the major arguments against appropriation is that institutionalized racism is keeping many good non-white(whatever marginalized group) writers from getting published. If a publisher has to choose between Stephen King writer a novel with an indigenous character and some talented but mid-list or debut writer, chances are, they choose King. And so the marginalized voice is effectively silenced. That’s just one example of how cultural appropriation can negatively affect marginalized writers. And we’re talking about King, who is probably one of the writers more likely to respect the source material. NOw imagine a writer who despite their skills in other areas of writing, doesn’t believe cultural appropriation exists, and that a certain stereotype or misrepresentation of the marginalized culture will serve the story. Book gets famous. This is lit-fic or contemp fiction. People expect a modicum of reality. Many people can and will assume that this is a somewhat accurate representation of the culture. And no “It’s fiction!” is not an excuse. Because who is going to correct this misinterpretation of the culture?

  52. This is a very political post by Mr. Scalzi – which I like! – so I hope he will not mind some pushback. Mr. Scalzi says, “Which is a point in itself, i.e., the easy conflation of ‘diversity of characters’ with ‘appropriation.’ Very basically, the former says ‘I as a writer acknowledge there’s more to the world than me and people like me and I will strive to represent that as best I can,’ and the latter says ‘The imaginary version of people I’m not like, that I have created in my head, is as valid as the lived experience of the actual people I claim to represent in my writing.’”
    Mr. Scalzi emphasizes “very” in “very basically”, presumably to show that he is aware that he is employing a broad generalization about the stance of those he criticizes. That’s not nearly enough, however. The comparison is a particularly invidious straw man. I have never heard anybody on the pro-“appropriation” side (or more accurately, the folks that scoff at the silliness of most “cultural appropriation” critiques) suggest anything in the vicinity of the neighborhood of the zip code of “The imaginary version of people I’m not like, that I have created in my head, is as valid as the lived experience of the actual people I claim to represent in my writing.” That’s just bogus.

  53. Will:

    “I have never heard anybody on the pro-‘appropriation’ side (or more accurately, the folks that scoff at the silliness of most ‘cultural appropriation’ critiques) suggest anything in the vicinity of the neighborhood of the zip code of ‘The imaginary version of people I’m not like, that I have created in my head, is as valid as the lived experience of the actual people I claim to represent in my writing.'”

    Well, of course they wouldn’t, would they?

  54. There is such a thing as being so open-minded your brain falls out. When I was in college, I saw a lot of mock outrage over, say, somebody dressing as a ninja for Halloween because that was offensive to Japanese people. Puh-leeze. On the other hand, I hate it when right-wing douchebags mock us SJWs just because we, you know, try to treat other cultures and points of view with respect. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while it is definitely important for non-white, non-male, non-straight/cis-gender writers to have their voices heard, it doesn’t mean that straight white men should be afraid to take a step outside of their comfort zone and tell a story about, I don’t know, a gay Native American cricket player or whatever if that’s what they want to do.

    So yeah, cultural appropriation is a thing. Acting as if you “discovered” some group of people who have always been there and are performing some noble service in sharing their story with the world (usually through the POV of a white outsider who learns their culture in a ridiculously short amount of time and becomes their savior) is more than a little condescending. At the same time, I don’t think white people should be afraid to write about non-white cultures, as long as they, you know, do their research and don’t try to act as if they can capture a whole cultural experience in a single book. Just don’t expect a prize if you get it right. The story should speak for itself, regardless of who it’s about.

  55. I think it’s fair to say that stories are the common property of all mankind, and that nobody should be setting limits on what stories we can value by retelling them. Neil Gaiman has recently retold the Norse myths (a book I’m looking forward to getting my hands on); I don’t think anyone is going to accuse him of cultural appropriation. On the contrary, I hope he makes the myths accessible to a whole new generation of readers.

    The problem of access is interesting and complicated. It’s certainly true that there are limited numbers of books that conventional publishers can publish given their budgets and other resources. That’s a significant structural barrier that affects all authors, including majority authors. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that more good fiction is being written than ever before (in my purely subjective opinion), leading to increasing competition for the available spots. But I see few overt examples of racism influencing the choice of publishers than there used to be; I see an increasingly diverse list of names appearing in magazines and book catalogs. It’s a process that will take some time, but I’m optimistic it will continue and that quality will win out in the end.

    The opposing perspective stems from the difficulty that authors like James Morrow have had in getting translated works into the English distribution chain. Ironically, for a genre that prides itself on embracing the new and different, we seem to have a poor record of paying money to read new and different things. I’m not sure what we can do about this other than vote with our wallets: find the interesting nontraditional voices and buy their books. Tell magazine editors how much you enjoyed their stories. In short, give them a reason to keep publishing new and different. Clarkesworld seems to have a mission to explicitly seek out new voices, and they seem to be selling well. (Objective confirmation of that belief would be appreciated.)

  56. @greg
    . But this person was arguing that myths from millennia ago are still proprietary works.

    Tattoo/tatau/ta moko is not millennia ago, it’s a current cultural practice in the pacific with real meaning and real consequences for real people (including loss of employment opportunities).

    As it happens Disney employed a group of pacific people to help shape Moana’s depiction of pacific culture so Maui’s tattoos are unlikely to be treading on anyone’s toes in terms of intellectual property ( they probably should have been more careful about their merchandising spin-offs).

  57. Cultural appropriation is commonplace and it does more harm than people realize — mainly keeping groups of people in the marginalized position. It’s not simply about sampling cultures (which is essentially what having better representation of characters does.) It’s about taking cultural material from cultures that have been condemned, stolen from, repressed and controlled by the main dominating groups for the benefit of the dominating culture. Norse culture is not one of those cultures in the West — it’s a dominating culture. Norse heritage is seen as “white” culture (far more than it ever actually was, particularly by white supremacists.) But Japanese culture is one of those cultures. And western white people have been exploiting it for profit for centuries, while also discriminating against and repressing the Japanese for being Japanese, and thus of an inferior culture supposedly to western white culture. (Including in the U.S. imprisoning them in internment camps, killing many of them, while stealing all their stuff.)

    For instance, the fetishizing of ninjas and others facets of Japanese culture and history has been extremely profitable for white people, such as a ninja costume, the money for which goes to a white company, and profitable in movies made or exploited by white people. At the same time, Japanese culture has been knocked and mocked for ninjas and the very same aspects that white people exploit, as an inferior culture to be used only for white entertainment and interests. The concerns of Japanese people that their history and concepts such as ninjas that are important culturally to them are accurately and fairly portrayed are also mocked and seen as unimportant and not allowed — repression and negation. The work of Japanese artists to use ninjas — their own culture — or Japanese historians, etc. is seen as inferior to the use of white artists using it, keeping Japanese artists more marginalized in the profit of their own culture in favor of white people — repression and negation. The appointing of white actors to play ninjas and martial artists — using Japanese culture without the Japanese — that’s appropriation and it’s repression and negation, deliberately keeping Japanese people from getting ahead while using their culture for the profit and power of white Westerners.

    So yes, a ninja Halloween costume when you aren’t Japanese or of Japanese heritage is cultural appropriation. And pointing that out is not being over-board sensitive (negation and gaslighting,) but a cultural critique of an existing, repressive power dynamic in the society. We get to play dress-up for a day in the costumes of cultures whom we condemn, block, use and harm for having that culture.

    So black people are condemned for black hair styles like braids and banned from having them at work or school, whereas white people having those braids are lauded as daring fashion stylists. We shower white rap and hip-hop artists with awards, acclaim for innovation and give them more money, while condemning black rap and hip-hop artists as thugs, being too black, and inferior at their own cultural arts. And we use and exploit Intuit art while keeping them from making a profit on that art, demanding that they speak English, not hiring them for jobs in favor of white people, and polluting their water, etc.

    And we never worry about the optics of it because the dominating group takes and uses whatever it wants, because we’re used to it and don’t see why that should ever bug anyone else. And if it does, that’s one more excuse for enforcing the supremacist hierarchy, and making sure that the people in the repressed group are never listened to because they made us look bad.

    The best repressed cultures can mainly hope for is a mix of cultural appropriation with some positive representation that might help change the myth that their culture is only valuable and profitable if filtered through a white lens and in white hands. So Moana was a mess — it was a weird mix of different and random Polynesian cultural traits that treated them as one non-diverse cultural group, with minimal respect for any of their history and its own made-up mythology, that made loads of profit for super white dominated Disney and Pixar. But it also did involve Polynesian people in the production and gave a positive if almost fully inaccurate portrayal of Polynesian culture and people for a fun story that will take its place in Disney’s empire. It gave them crumbs, and from crumbs you can get a wedge and if there’s a wedge, then you can maybe change more the next time. (Which is why the manbros freak out about Rey and Finn in Star Wars, etc., because they’re a wedge and they know it.)

    But that doesn’t mean that Polynesian people have to be grateful to Disney for giving them crumbs or laud the company for bothering to exploit them. It doesn’t mean that they or their allies can’t be critical culturally of appropriation mistakes Disney made, because that criticism helps improve the next projects down the line. It doesn’t mean that they have to be quiet or are being over-sensitive. They’re being realistic about what’s going on and pointing it out as cultural examination and as an example of how they are being repressed and blocked. Don’t like thinking that Moana contributed to repression as well as to more equality at the same time? Tough.

    Canadians are as bad about cultural appropriation as the rest of the West, especially when it comes to the First Peoples. And they don’t like to be reminded of it. But that’s the only way anything gets changed. Because otherwise they will continue to do unthinking, white obsessed blathering like that magazine editor. Or defensive threats like the other media people did. And that contributes to First Peoples dying, being poor, not being able to work, reservations without decent plumbing and electricity, and so forth — we use their spirit animals as we like and spit on their spirit as inferior, usually in clueless fashion. But that cluelessness and refusal to listen to them about their own cultures lead to awful things for them.

    This article is a pretty good one on the subject: https://thenerdsofcolor.org/2016/09/17/the-martian-view-of-cultural-appropriation/

  58. >> If a publisher has to choose between Stephen King writer a novel with an indigenous character and some talented but mid-list or debut writer, chances are, they choose King. >>

    No publisher has ever had to make that choice.

    With King’s earliest novels, Doubleday might have had to choose between publishing King and some other writer, but once King was popular, they were going to publish his next book regardless of whether there was an indigenous character in it or an evil clown or an alien invasion of shitweasels or whatever. They didn’t have a slot on the publication schedule for “indigenous character,” they had a slot for “next Stephen King bestseller.”

    That slot was going to be filled by King. The slots they had open for new writers were going to be filled independent of what the King novel was about — I mean, it’s possible they would say to someone, “We actually already have a novel in which the climax involves an underage sex scene and a cosmic turtle,” but not that “Steve’s new manuscript happens to have an old Indian guy, and that uses up all the space we have for novels with Indians.”

    There’s nothing, after all, preventing them from publishing two novels that have Indians in them. King’s audience isn’t going to refuse to buy his latest book because there’s a debut novel that also has an Indian in it, and the debut novel isn’t going to sell worse because King’s novel somehow glutted the market for fiction with Indians. They can do both; the audiences don’t overlap in that way.

    This is not to say that white writers don’t have advantages, merely that at King’s level, there just isn’t a deliberation over whether to publish King this year, or someone else, based on the content of the books. King’s one of the tentpoles in the publishing schedule, making those other books possible.

    On the flip side, it’s quite possible that Tony Hillerman’s publisher may have at times turned down a Native American writer because their crime-in-the-Southwest novel felt too much like Hillerman, and Hillerman already had a deal. But at the same time, Hillerman’s success made publishers aware that readers were actually interested in novels rooted in Native American cultures, so other publishers who couldn’t get a Hillerman might snap that Native American writer up in the hopes of piggybacking on Hillerman’s success. Six of one.

    But Hillerman generally avoided charges of cultural appropriation because he was good at what he wrote, he was respectful in how he treated the cultures he wrote about — he didn’t just throw in Hollywood cartoon Indians for “flavor” — and when he made a mistake, he’d freely admit it and do better next time.

    That’s the real solution, I think: Do your research, treat the subjects with respect, and you’ll do okay. Write shallow crap that doesn’t bother to try to understand the material, but just uses it as the equivalent of making up Mickey Rooney to pretend to be Japanese, and you’ll get called out on it. Appropriation isn’t merely about writing diversity, it’s about faking it or fucking it up, trying to get “exotic” content in your work without trying to understand what you’re writing about.

  59. This isn’t directly related to the appropriation issue, but your post reminded me of the first time that I watched the movie “Dead Again” (Kenneth Branaugh, Emma Thompson). I remember getting to the twist at the end of movie and having my jaw drop, because it truly caught me by surprise. As the credits rolled, I sat there with two thoughts. First, the ending absolutely made sense in terms of the movie that had come before. And second, it would NEVER have occurred to me (as a writer) to go that direction. It’s the first time I remember thinking “that’s a story that I would never have been able to write”.

    I thought of that experience because that it why we need writers with all kinds of voices. There are stories that it is very easy for me to write, but there are also stories that I would never even think of, let alone be able to tell adequately. But those stories are still important and still need to be told. That’s why we need writers with all kinds of experiences, so that someone else can tell the stories that I can’t.

  60. Since, as Kat says, appropriation is a relationship of power, it’s highly dependent on context, and could mean many different things, depending on the appropriator and the appropriated. Which does not mean, “it’s so complicated and subjective it might as well not exist so don’t worry about it.” Indigenous people in North America are a different case than Norse people, and even than Japanese.

    Native peoples went through not just one, but several genocides over the last few hundred years. Cultural genocides which deliberately cut children off from their communities, and from learning their own languages and religions carried on until far into the 20th century. The stated goal of residential schools was to “kill the Indian in the child.” My friend, born in the 80s, relates that her mother was told to give her up, my then-newborn friend being light skinned enough that she could have a “good home” with a White family (not an isolated case: research how many Native kids in North America were taken away from parents agains their will).

    In such a case, when a nation has their culture not only banned and sanctioned by another group with absolute power over them, but that the conquering group immediately manufactures an i”idealized” version of that culture (see the origin of the Boy Scouts)…. If the nation, once they get a few rights and a voice in the media says, “our art is copyrighted forever, our religious ceremonies are secret and copyrighted forever,” I say, fair enough.

  61. “Cultural appropriation” is an imaginary boogeyman. The definitions are too vague and shifting; when you have to post several hundred words or more to explain what it is, it’s not a real thing, it’s a pile of jargon trying to hide old-fashioned bullshit.

    Arrogance, presumption, bigotry, prejudice, theft (e.g. literally stealing religious artifacts), plagiarism (stealing credit for something you did not create), discrimination, misrepresentation, hypocrisy, libel–these are real attitudes or actions, and cause real wrongs. They have concrete definitions that don’t changed based on the ethnicity of the perpetrator or the perpetratee. People have understood for ages that these things are wrong, or at least heading in the wrong direction.

    Every bad thing that gets claimed for “cultural appropriation” comes down to either some flavor of the old-fashioned sort of wrongs mentioned above, or simple rudeness. Everything else is fuzzy-wuzzy, wibbly-wobbly argle-bargle vagueness and means nothing. “Cultural appropriation” is a meaningless term that should be dropped down the memory hole and lost. It is useless except as a cudgel to beat up your political enemies with. If people do something wrong, call them out on that particular wrong.

    Note: I am a software engineer by trade, and hang out on legal blogs. Thus, I have a low tolerance for vague definitions and jargon-infested magic hand-waving to cover lack of substance.

  62. You’ve misunderstood my King example. It’s not that King doing Native Americans pushes out all other portrayals of Native Americans. It’s that King pushes out *all* other books, and *if* he writes about Native Americans/includes representations of NAs and their culture, the chances of another book including that subject which might correct any mistakes in King’s version. And of course King is likely to sell far more copies than our theoretical indigenous author. This magnifies the effects of King’s errors because the chances of a competing narrative balancing them out is so small.

    I’d like to note King was the first famous author that came to mind so I used him as an example. I am not suggesting that King has ever appropriated anyone’s culture. He may have, but I’m not accusing him of it here. Replace his name in these comments with your famous author of choice.

  63. John, while I agree with you here, I’d like to make one other point. Which is that, while language does matter, these huge furores over language do the left no good in the long run. It reminds me about how Benedict Cumberbatch got his arse kicked a while back for mistakenly using the word “coloured”.

    As we have seen with Trump, there are a bunch of fundamentally decent people out there, who don’t feel that they are racists, or bad people. Some of them may be your neighbours in Ohio. But we are never going to persuade them that they can get on the bus with us if they are constantly terrorized they might say the wrong thing and be humiliated, and lose their job like this guy did. This isn’t a free speech point, it’s a point about how we can co-opt the majority and get them onside. Because if we don’t, someone else will (and has both in the US and here in the UK in the last year). And the trouble is that, when someone else co-opts the majority, they are in the majority.

    One other point: I lied about language mattering. In 50 years we have gone from ni**er, to negro, to coloured, to black, to african-american. And everyone in the club can feel jolly smug about the fact that they use the right word, and that Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t get the memo. But, you know, in the meantime, black people are still being shot by the police all the time, brutalised in the cells, punched at traffic stops, denied employment and advancement. It’s much easier to froth about Benedict Cumberbatch’s “awful” use of a “terrible” word than to actually solve those problems – and I suspect these things are exactly that – displacement activity.

  64. Does getting past the common use of the n-word solve every racial issue in the world? No. But nobody claimed it did. We can care about language, which absolutely does matter, while also caring about the host of other issues.

  65. It is an empirical question, but I suspect King would crowd-in Native American work, not crowd it out. It would be an interesting case study.

    About half of these comments feel pretty creepy. Usually not such large numbers in a Scalzi don’t be -ist post. Is that the effect of Trump, or is it that the subject matter is about appropriation, or are they always about half creepy and I didn’t notice?

  66. The 21st Century increase in activism and dialogue around diversity and equality exists because a few centuries of white supremacy have left self-aware non-white populations feeling less than patient waiting for our lives, culture, and intellectual contributions to be equally valued and respected in the places where lingering systems of white supremacy still dominate. You can’t scare people of color by saying “be patient, suffer in silence until all self-identified white people support your side” because we know that people choose sides every time they get offended when historically oppressed people demand respect and equality. Waiting another hundred years for those who benefit from the caste system that elevates a social category called “whiteness” above every other category to voluntarily abandon that privilege won’t work. Does that mean a race war is inevitable? No, not as long as common sense prevails. Being “equal” means sacrificing some of your entitlements, and not expecting the historically oppressed to preserve your entitlements.

    To paraphrase Octavia Butler, humans appear to be hard-wired for hierarchical behavior. People seemingly enjoy dominating or denigrating other people. This is not really a sustainable survival trait for humans. Sure, it’s good to be the king…right up until people start demanding the end of monarchy.

  67. @nicoleandmaggie Yeah. Thus my disclaimer above with regards to King specifically. I also didn’t want to start an argument by directly accusing a well-known author of culturally appropriative behavior here, since it seems pretty likely to result in a derail.

  68. “Well, of course they wouldn’t, would they?”

    Duly noted.

    But seriously, the meme of cultural appropriation seems deeply confused and exceedingly likely to cause more problems than it sets out to solve. In order to fight racism, sexism, etc.-ism, we should … create a counter-narrative of strongly essentialized cultural identities? Really? People “belong” to one culture or another, and certain elite individuals get to decide who is “authentically” part of that culture? Essentializing difference is cool if your motives are pure? Yikes. This seems like a perfect example of what Mencken was talking about when he griped that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

  69. In a free exchange of ideas, a person who had a good thought and presented it poorly would spark a discussion of what was good and what was not good about the thought. Only tribal theology feels the need to excommunicate. Cheers to Eric Flint and Griffin Barber for taking on the challenge of diversity of characters despite the danger of being called a witch from so many corners.

  70. Thing is, if there really were awards for best writing about people very different from you, wouldn’t they nearly all go to dark-skinned, gay, or female writers? I mean, to use a couple 50-year old examples, isn’t Ellison’s Invisible Man more accurate about white people than anything a white author has written about Black people, or Tennessee Williams better at writing straight relationships than any straight person writing gay ones?

    That the original proposer seemed to think the awards would be for straight white men, I think says something or another.

  71. Does nobody anywhere understand the concept of a power differential? This same blindness seems to crop up in any discussion of bad behavior, from rape to racism. If each culture (or the people belonging to it) had equal influence and power in society, sure. In a contextual vacuum where residential schools, the genocide and treaty-breaking, the horrific racism and treatment of the ancestors of the marginalized culture didn’t exist, you could buy borrow or steal whatever you wanted. But in the real world we have context and consequences. You’re mad that some famous white guy got slammed for cultural appropriation or racism lite? Welcome to literally every single day for many marginalized folks.

    Also, I think the entire conversation has been about how cultural appropriation is *not* clear or simple. Jeez.

    White folks, men, cis-hets, whoever is the dominant group has this really annoying habit of insisting on making everything about how they’re being oppressed. Black person says don’t call me the n-word: “censorship!” “You’re violating my right to freedom of expression!” Woman complains about sexism or harassment: “Can’t even compliment a bitch nowadays without getting called a rapist!” Someone calls for cultural sensitivity: “You’re always claiming you believe in tolerance but when I say all immigrants are rapists from ISIS you try to silence me!”

    Literally close paraphrases of stuff actual people have said in my hearing in real life, much less online. But sure, feel free to accuse me of straw-manning or whatever.

  72. Language matters: but the fact that we have to keep changing it, from cripple to disabled to differently-abled, each with a shorter half life than the last, suggests failure on the underlying issues, not success.

    No one is suggesting either or: but it *is* a matter of priorities, and prioritising those underlying issues. And for me it’s far more important to challenge real racists, and support embattled minorities, than to push away potential allies by “calling them out” on terminology. Whether I’m gay or homosexual or queer and who calls me those things is important. But my time is spent worrying about Iran hanging gay people from cranes, and Chechnya starting up gay camps. And whether Liberal Muslims are today being threatened with death by fundamentalists, persecution (with all Muslims) by fascists, or denunciation by the left as “Uncle Toms”.

    And worrying about those things is, frankly, what I’m now going to spend my time on, rather than whether Canadian magazine editors used the wrong words. YMMV.

  73. Thanks for covering this, John. I’ve been completely grossed out by the ugliness of this over the past few days. I was relieved to discover I was not following on twitter any of the really out-of-touch authors who displayed such disgusting smug self-righteousness in this debacle. I actually cancelled my subscription to The Walrus months ago because it went from interesting and inclusive to completely repellant (included a story in which a man rapes an owl to death) in the first issue under the new editor. I am glad to hear he resigned.
    Great comments from Kat Goodwin and Kathryn here. Thank you for making this issue more comprehensible.

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