Tag Archives: appropriation

Is it appropriation?

Thank you to Jenny who flagged up questions of how we tell what’s appropriation and what isn’t on a recent post. I’m currently in a deep exploration of many different aspects of Japanese life and culture – including sewing techniques, festivals, and language – although I’m not getting very far on that score!  It is always important to ask what it’s appropriate to do when working with material from another culture.

Good things to explore – history, geography, language, culture, traditions, folklore – if these things are in the public domain they are excellent places to start. If some of those things aren’t being put in the public domain by people they belong to, tread carefully. Avoid white American/European takes that don’t closely reference named sources or demonstrate having had direct teaching.

 On the Japanese front I would flag up the number of people writing about Zen who have never studied it in Japan or with someone whose tradition that actually is. We have a lot of people learning  partial Zen from other people who have learned it partially – if you want to study it in earnest, go for source material not bad recycling. That we mostly know about Zen and mindfulness from non-Japanese sources in New Age and Pagan circles is an example of what appropriation does – it distorts and removes the context. If there’s a feeling of entitlement to own and represent someone else’s tradition, that’s really suspect.

If a culture is making something into a tourist attraction, or is actively pitching it to the rest of the world, then you are clearly ok to explore or celebrate that. Many Japanese festivals are offered as tourist attractions. These are not secret or closed practices. There are however things around Shinto that seem to me to be very closed and secretive – what happens inside the shrine, what even is inside the shrine can fall into this category. It’s not supposed to be for everyone. That needs respecting.

Where possible, get content from people whose culture you are interested in, not other people interpreting that culture. That may mean content in translation. If you can’t find these kinds of sources, look for people who have engaged deeply, but be aware that they are speaking from outside.

It’s important to look at power balances, too. Is the culture you’re exploring struggling to maintain its identity and traditions in face of colonial pressures and history? Are you dealing with the cultural legacy of an oppressed minority? What’s your relationship to this culture? How are people from the culture you are exploring likely to feel about your interest in it? What are you interested in? There are far too many examples of people making money out of colonising other people’s cultures. Whether that’s charging for courses, selling versions of traditional objects or creating a power base. Consider white sage, and dream catchers.

If something is freely offered by people from a culture, then engaging with that is fine. If your desire is to learn, not to profit, you’ll get this more right than not.

I learned about Sashiko from youtube videos made by a man from a family of Sashiko artists. What I do isn’t Sashiko, but I am inspired by the tradition. I’m learning about festivals from what sources I can find online. I’m staying away from anything location-specific, and focusing on things that are more social than religious. What reading I’ve done around Shinto inclines me to think that it’s not something I could or should explore that deeply, but that there are things I can learn from what’s more generally available. I’m sharing notes on my journey, but I am not presenting myself as an expert on a culture that is not my own when there are plenty of people from that culture who can speak about it perfectly well. I think that works.

Happy Hana Matsuri

My plan for this year was to honour Japanese festivals as part of what I do with my altar. This is partly because I’ve been trying to learn Japanese. I’ve not made much headway in the last month, but there we go.

Today is Hana Matsuri. It’s a festival celebrating the birth of the Buddha, and it is celebrated much earlier in Japan than anywhere else. This is a consequence of Japan adopting the Gregorian calendar and having a date shift on festivals – something that may also have happened with traditional festivals in the UK when said calendar came in.

I spent some time wondering what, if anything I was going to do, and in the end I’ve not done much. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m really not a Buddhist in that many of my personal beliefs are at odds with Buddhism.  I’m not held by a cultural context that celebrates this as part of its calendar – and I think that would be very different. Japan has festivals that are secular (as with the doll festival last month), there are a lot of Shinto festivals – about 300,000 of them, focused on local shrines. There are Buddhist festivals, the western New Year, Christianity has been present in Japan for some time…  It’s very different showing up for a festival that isn’t part of your religion but is part of your culture.

I have longstanding unease about the way in which western Paganism appropriates from eastern cultures. We’ve lifted so many things, taken them out of context and bundled them together. Such that a person can talk about mindfulness and chakras in the same breath without flagging up that these come from totally different backgrounds. I am deeply uneasy about the way many modern Pagans take Zen out of context, and talk about it with no reference to the history, and culture it comes from.  The only Pagan writer I’ve ever seen talking about Zen from the basis of having spent time in a Zen Buddhist Monastery had a radically different perception from every other white Pagan I’ve seen trying to talk about these concepts.

Today I am not celebrating Hana Matsuri, because I don’t know enough about it, and because I don’t have a context.  I’m honouring the festival by talking about it, because that’s something I can do.

Projection and fantasy are always potential hazards for anyone following a spiritual path. We should be extremely vigilant when we’re attracted to practices from living traditions to make sure we aren’t appropriating, misrepresenting or exploiting. Taking those traditions and turning them into what we want them to be isn’t respectful, or useful. No one really learns from perpetuating their own fantasies, or gains much from studying the fantasies of other white westerners.

Fiction and Appropriation

A good writer should be able to write about anything. Cultural appropriation is something we talk about a fair bit around Paganism, but not so much around fiction. When is a story an act of appropriation? Are there things authors shouldn’t be writing about unless they have experienced them? Write what you know is common advice, and highly applicable in this case. At the same time, why should any subject, place, person or time be off-limits to any author based on the accident of their birth?

On one hand, there’s an important case to be made for including people who are often excluded, by putting them into stories. Authors are less likely to be disadvantaged people, and can champion those who are. Writing about the people who have no voices – both the living and the dead is important. Writing about people who are unable to speak for themselves. On the other hand, there’s theft, misrepresentation, and exploitation. How do you tell, as an author or as a reader what it is that you’ve got? What should we be celebrating in terms of good diversity in writing, and what should we be discouraging?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought of late, and I don’t think I have anything like all the answers, but I may have a place to start.

Who does the story serve? If the author is writing beyond their experience, is that because they think it makes them seem cooler, more exotic? Is it to capitalise on a timely story? Is it to express their own assumptions and beliefs about the people they’re (mis)representing? If so, then I think there’s every reason to call it exploitation.

Imagining what you think it would be like to be trans, or disabled, or from another culture, and so forth, is not the same as knowing. Sure, imagining is a good thing, but its easy to cough up prejudice and assumptions. If an author wants to write outside their experience well, they have to do the research. Find out. Most essentially, listen to the people they want to write about, or those close to them. Find out how things really are for them. If we want to give a voice to someone else, we need to know what their authentic voice sounds like. Or could sound like. And of course people are individuals, and one voice is not a social grouping, and we should not be ok with one character being made to speak for a whole group of people, especially when the writer doesn’t have that background.

If the point of the story is to reveal something true, to support, to empathise, then its probably acceptable. It’s not acceptable to make a fetish item of the ‘other’. It’s also important to avoid indulgent redemption narratives that show people like the author saving people who are not like the author – all too often with ridiculously little effort. Rescue narratives often perpetrate myths, and power imbalances.

Respect for your subject matter is key. The author who respects what they’re writing about handles it very differently from the author who sees a cheap thrill to exploit for cash. Work based on genuine insight tends to have a lot more integrity. Imagination rooted in research tends to be a lot more engaging than people making inaccurate guesses based on assumptions.

Anyone who wants to argue with appropriation as a ‘PC’ issue, had better be prepared to defend their work on the basis of its inherent quality. It has to be said, people talking out of their arses seldom write good books.