On Cultural Appropriation and Literature

Lionel Shriv­er gave a provoca­tive speech at the Bris­bane Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, where she raged against the idea of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion as essen­tial­ly destroy­ing lit­er­a­ture. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, like many white peo­ple who are made upset by this dis­cus­sion, Shriv­er engages in some straw man slay­ing, along with more than a bit of ten­den­tious­ness, while miss­ing the point of the dis­cus­sion entire­ly.

But first, here’s part of her case for why lit­er­a­ture is under threat:

But I’m afraid the bram­ble of thorny issues that clus­ter around “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” has got all too inter­est­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly for peo­ple pur­su­ing the occu­pa­tion I share with many gath­ered in this hall: fic­tion writ­ing. Tak­en to their log­i­cal con­clu­sion, ide­olo­gies recent­ly come into vogue chal­lenge our right to write fic­tion at all. Mean­while, the kind of fic­tion we are “allowed” to write is in dan­ger of becom­ing so hedged, so cir­cum­scribed, so tip­py-toe, that we’d indeed be bet­ter off not writ­ing the ano­dyne dri­v­el to begin with.

Her evi­dence for this rather strong asser­tion? A racial­ly-insen­si­tive “som­brero par­ty” at Bow­doin Col­lege, and a book review that com­plained crit­i­cism one of her books con­tained most­ly white peo­ple with a prob­lem­at­ic por­tray­al of its one black char­ac­ter (who was chained in a yard after suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s). It’s help­ful to unpack the first thing, since small inci­dents like this are increas­ing­ly becom­ing the “hook” for aggriev­ed white intel­lec­tu­als to com­plain that they’re being silenced.

At Bow­doin, which is a small pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­lege in the North­east (mean­ing: it is not remote­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of acad­e­mia or high­er edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­ca), some stu­dents held a Mex­i­can-themed par­ty where white peo­ple drank tequi­la and played with goofy-look­ing mini som­breros. As Shriv­er recounts the inci­dent, the minori­ties on Bow­doin’s cam­pus were so aghast at the pres­ences of som­breros that they erupt­ed in a PC-rage and demand­ed safe spaces and trig­ger warn­ings, shut­ting down an inno­cent par­ty in the process. From this, Shriv­er derives that the very act of cre­ativ­i­ty is under threat because white authors will be for­bid­den from includ­ing non-white char­ac­ters and expe­ri­ences, while also being sub­ject­ed to end­less crit­i­cism for being white.

If this sounds like the most ridicu­lous florid bull­shit, that is because it is. For starters, Shriv­er bad­ly mis­rep­re­sents what actu­al­ly hap­pened at Bow­doin, rely­ing on the retelling by self-inter­est­ed race-baiters at con­ser­v­a­tive media (who over­whelm­ing reject the idea of racism by redefin­ing it in such a way that it could nev­er actu­al­ly hap­pen in 2016) instead of the accounts of the actu­al stu­dents involved in the inci­dent. The real­i­ty is that white stu­dents at Bow­doin have been host­ing race-themed par­ties for years, where they use props of oth­er cul­tures as an excuse to get black­out drunk and mis­be­have (from “Cracks­giv­ing” involv­ing white peo­ple in Native Amer­i­can head­dress­es, to a “gang­ster” par­ty where white mem­bers of the sail­ing team dressed up like black gang mem­bers), and the som­brero thing was a last straw:

Sev­er­al Mex­i­can and Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can stu­dents expressed exhaus­tion and frus­tra­tion at the pub­lic com­ment time at Wednes­day night’s Bow­doin Stu­dent Gov­ern­ment (BSG) meet­ing. “As a senior who has seen mul­ti­ple racist inci­dents at this col­lege, I’m at the point now where I’m real­ly, real­ly tired,” said BSG Vice Pres­i­dent for Stu­dent Gov­ern­ment Affairs Michelle Kruk ’16.

So, the inci­dent Shriv­er thinks is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the end of cre­ativ­i­ty is actu­al­ly just minori­ties push­ing back against an end­less string of racism by white stu­dent. This is recur­ring theme in the col­lec­tive freak­out by white intel­lec­tu­als against “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness,” where­by they com­plain of cen­sor­ship when the peo­ple they casu­al­ly con­de­scend to raise their voic­es and say “enough.”

That being said, “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion” is a con­cept that can be abused, and it has been. Many peo­ple had a laugh last year at Ober­lin stu­dents who thought Amer­i­can Chi­nese food and “inau­then­tic” Viet­namese bahn mi was “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion.” This is clear­ly a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the term, and of how food works (bahn mi, for instance, is as much French as it is Viet­namese, and Amer­i­can Chi­nese food was cre­at­ed by actu­al Chi­nese peo­ple liv­ing in Amer­i­ca). It was a sil­ly protest, and we were all right to laugh at it.

But the cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion dis­cus­sion should not be reduc­tio ad ober­linum — pre­tend­ing small pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­leges rep­re­sent any­thing oth­er than them­selves is a very odd fun­da­men­tal attri­bu­tion error for osten­si­bly smart peo­ple to make. There are very real prob­lems with deploy­ing the arti­facts of a minor­i­ty cul­ture as a prop for laughs or mis­be­hav­ior: beyond being dis­re­spect­ful (the vast major­i­ty of com­plaints about polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness are real­ly com­plaints about white peo­ple being told to stop being dis­re­spect­ful), with­in the acad­e­my and the worlds of lit­er­a­ture and art it actu­al­ly is a malig­nant pres­ence. The con­stant drum­beat of mes­sages, explic­it and implic­it, that a minor­i­ty cul­ture is not worth pre­serv­ing along­side the con­stant drum­beat of mes­sages, explic­it and implic­it, that the major­i­ty cul­ture must be pre­served at all costs (wit­ness the col­lec­tive freak out over Col­in Kaeper­nick declin­ing to stand for the nation­al anthem in protest of police bru­tal­i­ty against black peo­ple), serves to sup­press that minor­i­ty cul­ture. To be bru­tal­ly hon­est, when oth­er coun­tries do this — when the major­i­ty eth­nic­i­ty of anoth­er coun­try deploys sys­temic acts of appro­pri­a­tion and con­de­scen­sion to sup­press minor­i­ty expres­sion — we are com­fort­able decry­ing it as abu­sive and anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic. When it hap­pens in the U.S., peo­ple defend it and whine about the “PC police.”

Shriv­er made the oppo­site point. In her up-is-down uni­verse, being aware of how cul­tur­al ques are employed (often unin­ten­tion­al­ly!) to silence minor­i­ty voic­es, she claims that lit­er­a­ture itself is at stake.

In the lat­est ethos, which has spun well beyond col­lege cam­pus­es in short order, any tra­di­tion, any expe­ri­ence, any cos­tume, any way of doing and say­ing things, that is asso­ci­at­ed with a minor­i­ty or dis­ad­van­taged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t‑touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “iden­ti­ties” – eth­nic­i­ties, nation­al­i­ties, races, sex­u­al and gen­der cat­e­gories, class­es of eco­nom­ic under-priv­i­lege and dis­abil­i­ty – are now encour­aged to be pos­ses­sive of their expe­ri­ence and to regard oth­er peo­ples’ attempts to par­tic­i­pate in their lives and tra­di­tions, either active­ly or imag­i­na­tive­ly, as a form of theft.

Yet were their authors hon­our­ing the new rules against help­ing your­self to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Mal­colm Lowry’s Under the Vol­cano. We wouldn’t have most of Gra­ham Greene’s nov­els, many of which are set in what for the author were for­eign coun­tries, and which there­fore have Real For­eign­ers in them, who speak and act like for­eign­ers, too.

In his mas­ter­work Eng­lish Pas­sen­gers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained him­self from includ­ing chap­ters writ­ten in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the rich­est, most com­pelling pas­sages in that nov­el. If Dal­ton Trum­bo had been scared off of describ­ing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not per­son­al­ly dis­abled – because he had not been through a World War I maim­ing him­self and there­fore had no right to “appro­pri­ate” the iso­la­tion of a para­plegic – we wouldn’t have the haunt­ing 1938 clas­sic, John­ny Got His Gun.

This is, again, a ten­den­tious straw man. The thing peo­ple react against is not rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but con­de­scen­sion. Matthew Kneale was not con­de­scend­ing to abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture, he was try­ing to high­light that cul­ture. Con­trast with Rud­yard Kipling, whose beau­ti­ful writ­ing in The Jun­gle Book cov­ers up some rather shock­ing racism, or Mark Twain’s casu­al racism in Huck­le­ber­ry Finn. Does that mean they stopped being impor­tant authors, or that their books should nev­er be read? Absolute­ly not: being racist does not make a book unwor­thy of read­ing — just as own­ing slaves does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly inval­i­date the Found­ing Fathers’ polit­i­cal ethos. But it does allow us to tem­per the oth­er­wise bound­less admi­ra­tion for these men: they were imper­fect, and their imper­fec­tions are as impor­tant to under­stand­ing them intel­lec­tu­al­ly and artis­ti­cal­ly as their mas­ter­pieces are.

More­over, in 2016 we can do bet­ter. You can under­stand why Kipling did­n’t think twice about pro­mot­ing the British Empire and talk­ing down to the jun­gle natives in his books: that’s just what peo­ple did back then. We know bet­ter now! And we should strive to be bet­ter than that, and we have been and can con­tin­ue to be. It isn’t the end of lit­er­a­ture, but rather the begin­ning of it.

Let’s use an exam­ple from sci­ence fic­tion. I recent­ly got around to read­ing Alas­tair Reynolds’ Posei­don’s Wake tril­o­gy. In essence is it an epic space opera sto­ry of an East African fam­i­ly as in the peace­ful after­math of a hor­ri­fy­ing glob­al war, and they build a space empire and even­tu­al­ly cre­ate sen­tient ele­phants that col­o­nize oth­er star sys­tems. Real­ly, it’s a bet­ter tale than that makes it sound. But Reynolds, a white Eng­lish­man, choos­es to have very few white Euro­peans in his book at all: the vast major­i­ty of the char­ac­ters are African and South Asian. In his uni­verse, Earth­’s polit­i­cal cen­ter of grav­i­ty is the Indi­an Ocean, and wealthy African expats set up in low­er-mid­dle class Euro­pean cities for the cheap rent. In his books, the races of the char­ac­ters are not the sub­ject of any part of the sto­ry — no one stops to remark “oh look, an African in space, how nov­el.” Reynolds did­n’t use race isn’t a prop for any preach­ing, or for laugh­ing at anoth­er cul­ture’s expense (LOL som­breros, right?) — rather, he used race as a way to play in a sci­ence fic­tion­al uni­verse with dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al queues than Anglo­phone cul­tur­al ref­er­ences. And guess what? It was­n’t remote­ly con­tro­ver­sial!

Now, this does not mean that the term “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion” can­not itself be appro­pri­at­ed for an inap­pro­pri­ate pur­pose. That Ober­lin protest about cam­pus food was one exam­ple. But why not just say that? “This is not appro­pri­a­tion.” To point to a mis­use of a term as rea­son to inval­i­date that term is men­da­cious non­sense — it is the very act of silenc­ing that the cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion debate is meant to com­bat. It is the embod­i­ment of ass­hole cul­ture: “I found a thing that was mis­used slight­ly, so all things are now invalid.”

And yet. “Don’t be an ass­hole,” which is how I sum­ma­rize this entire debate, seems to be a for­eign con­cept to Shriv­er, who seems to think the only way to por­tray minori­ties is to be cru­el:

Thus in the world of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, fic­tion writ­ers bet­ter be care­ful. If we do choose to import rep­re­sen­ta­tives of pro­tect­ed groups, spe­cial rules apply. If a char­ac­ter hap­pens to be black, they have to be treat­ed with kid gloves, and nev­er be placed in scenes that, tak­en out of con­text, might seem dis­re­spect­ful. But that’s no way to write. The bur­den is too great, the self-exam­i­na­tion paralysing. The nat­ur­al result of that kind of crit­i­cism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black char­ac­ters, lest they do or say any­thing that is short of per­fect­ly admirable and love­ly.


Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.