In the last few weeks since Lionel Shriver’s amazing display of white privilege and tears at a book festival it seems nothing has been on (white) writers' minds so much as cultural appropriation.
More specifically: how dare you tell me I can’t write poorly executed stories about marginalized groups I don’t belong to without consequences?
The reality is, no one is telling you what you can and can’t write. Just like no one is stopping you from dressing up in a Klan hood and going to a Kanye West concert. Sure, it’s probably not a great idea, but you’re free to do whatever you want. And I'm free to tell you that was a stupid idea when you get your ass beat. Yay, self-determination!
The bigger issue I have is the number of people who patently do not understand what cultural appropriation is, despite Amandla Stenberg’s awesome video on it last year. There are a lot of white writers propping up strawmen just to knock them down in poorly written blog posts. And really, if you’re going to create strawmen, they should at least be created within the framework of the real issue.
So, let’s discuss cultural appropriation with owls.
Imagine you’re a snowy owl. But you’re the only snowy owl in the entire zoo. There are lots of owls in the zoo: barn owls, great horned owls, even a screech owl. Yay, owls!
Now, imagine all of the other owls make fun of you for your beautiful white feathers. Maybe because of your feathers they make you eat last, pass laws so that you can’t join in owl games, or even force you to live in the worst part of the enclosure. Pretty soon you’d start to hate your white feathers. You might even think about plucking them out. After all, you’re all owls! If you didn’t have your white feathers you wouldn’t be so different.
One day you show up to eat, last because that’s the law, and you see the great horned owl decked out in white feathers. Everyone is oohing and ahhing the white feathers, talking about how amazing they are, praising the great horned owl for being so cutting edge. Yet here you are, with your seasonal white feathers, ridiculed for the same thing. And when you speak up about it the rest of the owls shush you and tell you that you should be happy someone wanted to have white feathers besides you.
But you’re still eating last and living in the worst part of the enclosure because of your white feathers.
That is what cultural appropriation is. It isn’t the fact that you wrote about someone not like you, it’s the fact that you wrote about someone not like you and got rewarded for it (or expected to be rewarded) without acknowledging the inequities in the system that allow you to benefit while others are punished. It’s about taking from people who already have so little within society, and expecting to be able to do it without criticism or complaint.
It is, at its heart, entitlement.
Why would you want that?