Thursday, 26 November 2015

A QUESTION OF APPROPRIATION & TOKENISM

Hello, Dear Readers! Today's post is based on a question by quite a new blog reader, Cecelia, who writes all the way from Italy (ooh!). Her question was prompted by last week's guest posts about diversity and responsibility. This is unedited except a little in places for length:
Technically speaking, I'm the "standard" (?) and even privileged Italian girl. White, middle-class, good education, straight, from a little city near Milan... Ok, I'm a practicing Catholic and it's becoming less and less common, but still. 

Then I had the idea to wrote a Alternate History Urban fantasy set in NY, "Iraq" and "Istanbul", an AH where the last two are still the Sumerian kingdom and the Roman Empire, who never fell. Most of the friends, the "partner at job as close as a sister" and the love interest of the heroine are PoC characters, because USA are still the USA and the other country were not whitewashed just because history went different. 

I'm doing a ton of historical research for getting the cultures right but I'm still uncomfortable. What about real world readers? Will they perceive as offensive the changes in their history or the literally deletion of their countries? Turkey or Iraq were never born, Native Americans never lost all of their land, and I don't want to hurt someone. It's like I told them "If only magic like this existed, your people would never suffered as they have in our world" or "I didn't want to preserve your home in my work" and sometimes seems cruel. 


I'm falling in love with the alternative history and the characters I've created, yes, and the more I study, the more I like the cultures of the real-world Natives, Mesopotamian or romani people, but... I don't know what to do :(

And last (I've almost finished, worry not :P ), the thing I fear the most: supporting chart and love interest are PoC in most of the stories set in that AU, yes, but the main heroines/heroes are all white. I've checked: bar one bisexual sumerian man and a ancient Greece gay man, every single protagonist is a white, cis, and christian girl.
 

Is it acceptable or is a more subtle tokenism/racism? Every character has at least one reason to be as she is, that is for contrast to her beloved, her supernatural partner who's a devil (and doesn't like religious people as much as we are supposed to hate and fight them) or because she's the descendant of an ancient noble Italian family. 
Thanks for your question, Cecilia - it's a thorny one. Well, actually, it's a couple of thorny questions, and this post might run a little long in consequence, but I'll try to be as clear and helpful as I can.

So your first issue really breaks down to the question of whether some real world readers may find your re-imagined alternate history world offensive. And the answer to that question is: yes.

But this is not because there's anything wrong with imagining a world where the American continent was not as violently/completely colonised by white Christian settlers and the Native American people were never slaughtered and oppressed, or where the Roman and Sumerian Empires never fell and therefore national borders and identities are drawn differently. The reason some people will find your ideas offensive is because some people always find any idea offensive.

Now, sometimes it's because the idea itself is inherently a racist (like the book where innocent 'pearl' skinned white people are oppressed by evil and bestial 'coal' black people in a Dystopian future, to use a real example) or sexist or homophobic or ableist one. And in that case, when people - especially people from the affected groups - point out that flaw in the idea you need to be willing to listen and accept that you've missed something and either scrap your idea or re-work it drastically.

However, most of the time when people are offended by an idea it's because of the execution - which is a much more subtle and subjective area of criticism. Recently I've seen a single book lauded as beautifully diverse, Feminist and important by one critic while another reviewer called it misogynistic, racist and puerile. Each of those people obviously has a valid opinion - and each was able to back that up with examples from the text! - but it's likely that neither of them was entirely right or wrong. This is the beauty of books. Every new reader examines the story the author put on the page from within their own unique perspective, which is shaped by a lifetime of lived experiences, their culture, their beliefs, by other books they've read and loved or hated, films they've seen recently and over the years, and by their own personality (not to mention their level of reading comprehension).

So: constructing fantasy worlds or alternate histories where the status quo is entirely different from our own universe is part of a grand tradition in speculative fiction. There's nothing inherently offensive about it and you are not the first person to imagine a modern human world which looks entirely different because some elements of history developed differently.

If you're doing tons of research into what life for First Nations people was like before their land was invaded, and imagining a 21st Century version from that perspective, and doing the same for the Roman and Sumerian Empires, and you care about getting the details right, presenting something dimensional and nuanced, then you are on a good path. Some people will not like what you've written, because that is the nature of writing (and every other creative field where people react to your work subjectively) but it is unlikely to be because the premise of your work is inherently offensive.

HOWEVER.

Part two of your question, in which you reveal that - despite writing about modern day versions of the Roman and Sumerian Empires, and an alternate version of modern Native American culture - all or a majority of your main characters are white Christian girls... that raises a serious red flag in terms of the execution of your idea.

Here's the thing. No one is saying that you, as a white Italian Christian girl, are required to write about people different to you. Plenty of writers (usually white males) make an excellent living from writing books about the inner turmoil of characters exactly like them - who live in the same world as them, do work in the same fields as them, and could pretty much pass for them in a police line-up.

I personally think that writing about not just one but several characters who are very similar to each other in their key traits (as well as being the same as you), is likely to make for a book or series of books where readers find it hard to tell the voices of the characters apart - where things seem a bit samey, even when that wasn't your intention. I also think that a book or series of books where the vast majority of major characters reflect the completely unrealistic dominance of straight, white, cis, and either Christian or lapsed-Christian characters on TV, film, books, print and film advertising and mainstream media in general is a real failure in your imagination. And I know you have a powerful imagination - a passionate, enthusiastic imagination - or you wouldn't have come up with this sprawling and potentially amazing alternate history world in the first place.

But you don't have some kind of duty to write main characters who reflect reality. I can't make you, and I wouldn't if I could. In fact, no one has a duty to write anything that they don't want to. Clearly falling back on these kinds of characters is making you feel more comfortable in the world you've created on some level, which would be fine... if you were writing about your neighbourhood, your city, your comfort zone.

The problem is that you're setting yourself up for everything that you clearly fear - the derision and hurt and anger of people of colour, people from the different cultures that you're utilising - because your Comfort Zone characters are being shoe-horned into this immensely diverse, Uncomfortable setting where they feel, frankly, out of place.

This is a world which has huge potential to provide characters from a massive range of ethnicities and religions and backgrounds, a world that naturally offers up all kinds of fascinating and unique roles for characters precisely BECAUSE of the diversity of ethnicities, religions and backgrounds that would be at play. You've got a bisexual Sumerian guy in there, and a gay Greek guy - just a small sample of the vast array of realistic and fascinating people that are available to you as the writer to play with.

But somehow despite that, practically the only characters to whom you chose to give top billing are straight, white Christian girls.

This is hurtful to many readers (basically all the ones who aren't white, straight and Christian) because what you're indirectly suggesting is that the stories of all those other kinds of people inhabiting your alternate history world are not important. Not worthy. Not good enough. They can't be good enough or why would you chose to make the majority of your protagonists so determinedly of a single type? It can only be because people who are different don't have anything worthwhile to add.

Let me ask you a question, Cecelia. Why do you write? Really think about the answer.

I think it's because you have that amazing imagination I praised above, isn't it? Your brain spins alien horizons out of tiny fragments of inspiration. You hunger to explore different worlds, to pull apart the realities we all take for granted and see what makes them tick. You long to march down that enticing path of What If and follow it right to its most interesting and unexpected end in fantasy universes and parallel worlds.

But you have to realise - that's no good by itself. You can't imagine these exciting, radically different worlds... and then populate them with the same old characters that automatically popped into your head. The same old characters that always pop into everyone's head. The same old characters you and everyone else always sees everywhere already. If you do that, you're literally only doing half the job that a writer should do. You're keeping your imagination on a leash.

What is the point of writing if not to thrill and scare and stretch yourself? Not just in the world-building but in the emotions and experiences and beliefs and hopes and fears and dreams of these people that you conjure into being and share with the reader?

It's far too easy to visualise your new world through the eyes of old characters. Characters you agree with on everything that's important, characters whom you already understand completely because you built them around their similarities to yourself. But if you do this, you're not having to work to develop or empathise with these characters on the page. You're not having to interpret new experiences in a new world to a reader in a way that will excite and transform them and make them see our world and themselves in a new way. These mirror-image characters won't teach your readers anything that they - and you - don't already take for granted.

This is what makes the difference between writing something which is beautiful and inclusive and diverse... and appropriating other people's cultures and then, yes, sticking a few token characters in there as support for your decidedly un-diverse, non-inclusive main cast.

If you're going to utilise diverse cultures and ethnicities to make your alternate history world rich and fascinating and diverse but only tell the story of white Christian people within that world, then no matter how much research you put into those other cultures, you're effectively using them as a sort of crispy bacon topping on the standard white-person salad of your story. And that... it's really not OK, honey. That is something that MOST people will find offensive. Because it is.

You need to turn that powerful imagination of yours onto your characters and really examine them without making excuses for yourself or trying to explain away your choices, my lovely. I know it feels as if your characters 'just come to you' the way they are. I know you didn't make any kind of a conscious decision to have them all be straight white Christian girls. That you never intended to exclude the viewpoints and stories of people of other religions, ethnicities, sexualities etc. But you did both of those things anyway and that's all readers are going to see in the end.

It sounds harsh, I know. But there's hope there, because although you say that each character has at least one reason to be a straight white Christian girl, you have obviously twigged - albeit reluctantly - to the fact that there's more than one very good reason for at least a few of these people to be something else entirely. So why not make them something else?

You can do it if you want. It's up to you.

Look at it like this. One girl is white and Christian and straight because that way she's a contrast to her beloved. But why? Why does there need to be a contrast? Characters - people - aren't matching vases. They don't need to contrast in their skin colours and religions in order to look nice as a set on the mantle piece. If there does need to be a contrast - a clash of cultures - why must one of the cultures represented be white and Christian? We've already seen white Christians clash with every other religion and ethnicity in the world. Why not try something different for once? If the beloved person is an actual demon, wouldn't - say - a black Atheist heroine be just as much of a culture clash, requiring both the lovers to do just as much work to reassess their beliefs and each other?

Another girl is white and Christian because she's the descendant of a noble Italian family. But again, why? Why does having been descended from Italians who were noble/rich mean that only white Christians have married into or had children with that family ever? Especially in the last hundred years or so! Do you need this person to be white and Christian because that's a part of their immense privilege as a child of a noble family? Fair enough... but then you need to engage with that in the story, and show how this person's struggles and challenges are different than those of people within your story world who *aren't* white, straight, and very well off.

If you feel that you need to anchor yourself in your story by having a character who shares certain traits (traits that are part of how you define yourself) in there, then I think there's certainly room for that. But if more than one character is a mirror image of you, then you're weakening your work on several levels.

Ultimately, every single thing you put on the page is a choice. When readers pick up your work, all those choices will be laid bare before them and they will take away a message from them, whether that's one you intended to offer up or not. And you must take responsibility for that.

So make good choices. Be brave enough to admit when you've fallen back on safe, familiar characters without thinking it through, and be brave enough to fix those mistakes. Then your work will not only be stronger, more vibrant and more realistic, but if you're called on to defend your choices? You can do so with a clear conscience and a sense of pride in what you decided to put on the page.

I hope this is helpful to you, Cecelia. If anyone else has any writing or reading related questions, on this topic or any other, feel free to leave them in the comments. Read you next week, my muffins!

7 comments:

Cecilia said...

Hullo Zoey, here I am!

That’s quite a long post here, and you don’t now how grateful I am for your answers. Thank so much, really.

Now, given that the “how about this AU” part is the less troublesome and I basically only need to go right ahead with studies and research (“you care about getting the details right, presenting something dimensional and nuanced”, yup, I do. All the three “real ones” of them were so great that they deserve this and more), let’s talk about the other one, where my little standard-wired-brain revealed itself.

Last week, when I posted, a part of me was already saying “You already know that yes, it is racism/tokenis”.
Something sounded off (“diverse cast and world in all 7 works... and 5 protagonists are exactly like you? WTF, girl?”), but I couldn’t or didn’t want to admit it. It doesn’t help that friends/other writers were saying “Why bother? 90% of people write like that, and italian editors doesn’t seems to care”. A part of me was screaming “but THAT’s the freakking point! No one cares and it’s wrong!” but keep everything unchanged was simpler. Comfort zone, indeed.
And then your post come and literally call me out of these bullshit. A healty cold shower, I needed it. Good.

to be continued...

Cecilia said...

I read the 2nd part of the post almost 3 times, then I went and checked the “protagonist list” with new eyes. Do really all of the them need to be exactly like that? Nope, of course. An hour or so of brainstorming and then only one character (out of seven! What the hell was I thinking when I created them?) was still “white, straight and christian” and I still think she has to stay that way.
The “white” is probably sacrificable (and I’m already thinking about it, look at what have you done), not so the straight part or the love story with the hero will be lost (she can also be bisexual, I know, don’t bite me! XD) and it’s one of the most important cores of the story.
For the christian part, now. I thought about it, I went to re-read all my notes about her and I realized that the her faith is one of the cores of her character and the one that allows me to explore the theme/story “religious person whose only chance to obtain what xe searched for all of xir life is... ally with the worst evil ever of xir faith, who actually need xir for the same reason and really hate it, good luck and dont’ try to kill each other!” and so far I like how I'm developing both them and their relationship.
In this case “christian” depends more on the fact that I wanted to use and explore the Devil. Not the “pop-culture” one (“angels are worse, devils were misundertood/right all along), but the scary, evil and cruel monster of my/her faith. Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey and Supernatural authors wrote 2 great “pop culture Devil”, I love them both, but I aim at the other.
If as “all the evil of the world” creature had I wanted to use Angra Mainyu, the protagonist would have been Zoroastran.
Even if in this case I didn’t change my mind, your post made me think back to the reasons this character is like she is: question them, deepen and put them in verification, and now I’m more aware.
And, anyway, she’s literally the only one who survives the brainstorming XD

For the other girls the excuses/apologies have literally fallen apart after a short time and now the “protagonist list” is full of Poc people, different sexual orientation and different religions (or no religion at all).
And you know? It’s great! :D

I look at them and I’m excited as when I decided “screw this!” about my Jeanne d’Arc and changed the blonde anime beauty in a peasant girl with dark hair, dark eyes and whose skin was burned and scarred because of her work in the fields and the army. She was still herself, but now was more real, more like the historical one and more like people who really work like that (I’ve never seen a soldier with a perfect skin, have you?).
The same when I give back Gilgamesh his -likely- original sexual orientation or when I beat myself into thinking that yes, my ancient greek character was almost certanly gay and, bloody hell, I would not have written him differently from who he was, nope.
It will be a difficult task to question my “standard character”, but I promise I will try my best.


There’s probably more to say, but this post it’s alrealdy a wall of text, I think i can stop here for now.

THANK YOU, let me just say so ^^

Zoë Marriott said...

Cecelia: Yay! I'm so glad that it was helpful. I could tell that you really already knew what you needed to do, but (like most of us) you just needed that little nudge to engage your imagination on a different level. Good girl.

max den said...

Amazing post.

Leonard Moore said...

Hello Zoey, I love the way you think about the world in that way and understand what is international politics of essay writer online all about as one nation is holding the affairs of all the world according to its own wish and we are still not able to provide the real history to the children of our own who really deserve to know that what has happened in past by the big guns of our world.

Anonymous said...

Is appreciating music / architecture / history / fashion styles cultural appropriation?
Don’t alter them, don’t fetishize them, don’t pretend you’re an authority on them, don’t profit off of them, don’t speak over people who are actually of that group, even if they seem less well read up on the subject. And as for the fashion specifically, sometimes the answer is to just flat out not wear it.
Is (x) cultural appropriation?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you profiting off it?
- If someone of the culture in question did that, would they face negative treatment that you would not?
- Are you altering it and divorcing it from its original context?
- Are you supporting members of the group when you buy it / consume it?
-Are you respecting it? And that doesn’t just mean having feelings of respect, that means respecting all boundaries set for you. So if someone tells you to not do something, you don’t do it. That’s respect. (Hence why being invited to participate makes a difference.)
(If you answered yes to the first three and no to the second two, then it’s cultural appropriation.
BUT, you can appreciate the culture by using the thing in question in the correct cultural context and alongside people of the culture who either invited you to do so or whom you know are okay with you doing it. It is important to note that using a cultural item is not CA in and of itself. Nuance matters.
---------
Isn't calling people muffins and saying stuff like good girl super condescending and not seeing them as equal human beings and rather as food and dogs?

Anonymous said...

What is cultural appropriation? Why is it bad?

So there’s a lot of confusion about what cultural appropriation is, when it’s really quite simple. The word “appropriation” means the act of taking something that does not belong to you, especially without the permission of the owner (in other words: stealing). It is used in many contexts; for example, appropriation is a common practice in modern and contemporary art (think of collage). So, with that in mind, we can define cultural appropriation as the act of taking something (an object, an image, a practice, etc.) from a culture that does not belong to you.

Ultimately this is harmful in several ways. Primarily, it has been used as a strategy whereby the dominant class suppresses the lower classes. In terms of race in a Western context, what this means is that the white dominant classes appropriates the culture of marginalized non-white groups, claiming ownership over their objects and practices. In practice, this does a couple things. First of all, it cheapens the meaning of the object or practice and, as such, is disrespectful. Secondly, within the structure of capitalism, it profits off the labor and exploitation of non-white bodies. As such, we are relegated to producers who no longer have the agency to control the consumption of the objects and practices we originated; in many cases, we are taken out of the picture entirely, as white people create versions of our objects for sale without sharing any of the profits or benefits of consumption with us. In short, it not only cheapens the meaning of the object, it literally cheapens our culture.

Basically, you can't even begin to consider your next so-called book.

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