I want to bring up a complicated issue here that has been coming up very often lately in my conversation with artists, and which I deal with often in my role as a creative director in publishing: What is cultural appropriation, and how does it affect what artists make? As media becomes more and more diverse, the question comes up: who has the right to tell which stories? Can an author write a character that is a different ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or gender expression than they themselves are? Can artists depict cultures and experiences not their own?
The short answer is: of course. The fiction world and the art world would get terribly small very quickly (and the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre wouldn’t exist at all) if we could only create from what we ourselves experienced first-hand. Artists (whether of the writing kind, the painting kind, or any other kind) can’t be held to only depicting the experiences they have had first-hand and the cultures they themselves are from. This issue gets especially complicated in the world of fantasy — if a fantasy world is inspired by another culture, where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? Is a Magic: The Gathering set inspired by Ancient Egypt profiting off cultural appropriation? If I have an author who’s fantasy world is inspired by Native American culture, can I only commission a Native American artist to create the cover art? Can a concept artist lift ornamental designs from a Geisha costume from feudal Japan and apply it to their non-asian character design? These are all conversations I have had in the past year — and they are all complicated.
The short answer is: Yes, artists and writers are free — and encouraged— to explore themes from cultures not their own. But they can and should be held accountable for how they depict those cultures, bodies, and experiences. One of the most important steps an artist can take: Research & Respect your inspirations. The #1 thing you need to think about when you are considering depicting cultures and experiences foreign to you is this: Am I showing respect to this person or culture by doing the proper research into the origins of the cultural elements I want to bring into my art? Am I showing disrespect for the things I am using because I don’t know the history of how they were originally used? Am I erasing the origins of the elements I am using in my art?
Cultures adopt aspects of each other all the time. This is fine when both cultures are exchanging equally — called “Cultural Exchange” — but if there is a power imbalance between the cultures then it is not an equal exchange. If a minority culture is adopting aspects of a dominant or colonizing culture in order to fit in or survive oppression then it’s called “Cultural Assimilation”. If it is a dominant or majority culture taking aspects of the minority culture and taking them out of context of that culture and profiting by them in some way the original culture is not free to do, then it’s called “Cultural Appropriation” (or “Cultural Misappropriation”). I want to dig into the issue of Cultural Appropriation a bit deeper, because more and more often I am hearing the term being misused, and a lot of artists are not sure what they should or should not feel able to depict. What we need to aim for is proper Cultural Appreciation.
The issue of cultural appropriation comes up in the larger world at least once a year at Halloween. Dressing up as a “slutty indian” with a feathered headdress is cultural appropriation because the headdresses were signs of honor and used in rituals in Native American culture. They were only able to be worn by certain people who earned them. And there is a long history of Native American people being persecuted by settlers of European descent. If I, a caucasian woman, were to dress in that outfit, I would be taking sacred cultural elements completely out of their original context in an extremely disrespectful way. I would also be wearing that costume, without penalty, when there has been a history of the original culture being persecuted for wearing the same thing.
However — and this is where most of the recent conversation has been centered — would it be cultural appropriation if I used Native American motifs in a piece of artwork I was making? The answer is: It depends. Have I done my research? Am I depicting the elements properly, as they were meant to be used, with cultural meanings intact? That’s fine. That’s properly appreciating a culture. Or am I just copying the style of things “because it looks cool” and not know the origins of what I am using? That would be cultural appropriation.
Again, I am a white cis-gender woman. I am operating from a place of privilege on this issue, and I’d rather have people that face this issue constantly take over for a bit. Here are some of my favorite starter resources on the topic (and if you have others, please share in the comments):
This is an important quote from the article above specifically speaking to why artists need to continue to depict other cultures: “the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie called for more, not less, imaginative engagement with her country: ‘The moment you say a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying: As an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.'”
Article: “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation” from Everyday Feminism this is a good article because it addresses how blurry the line can be between the two.
Article: “7 Things You Might Not Realize Are Cultural Appropriation” from Bustle some are obvious…some maybe not so much.
A lot of these links and videos are specifically talking about white people culturally appropriating black fashion, culture, and slang, but the potential for cultural appropriation and just plain old disrespect can happen whenever we are using motifs and characters that are inspired by other cultures. And we have to be so very careful, because ignorance can really trip us up, especially when we’re trolling Google Images for reference. In the rush to find bits and pieces of inspiration to make something cool, do not miss or erase the origins of that coolness. A good example of how easily you can trip up on the issues of rascism and cultural appropriation was a recent Prada window display:
Which reminded many many people of:
If you happened to not know anything about the history of blackface and minstrel shows in America, you might not think anything was wrong with the Prada characters. The truth is they are referencing a very specific (and very rascist) time in American history. I find it hard to believe that Prada meant to signal such an awful period of time…more likely it was ignorance on their part…but it’s still the artists’ responsibility to know what we may be referencing, even if it’s accidental. Is it cultural appropriation? Is it just plain rascist? Was it an honest mistake and not meant to signify anything particular? We don’t know, but the outrage was very swift. I’m bringing this specific example up because within the last year, I sent a European concept artist a message about character designs in their portfolio that, to me, were obviously using elements of black minstrel makeup and costumes. I assumed (rightly) that they didn’t realize what they were referencing. Not having had knowledge of this period of American history, they had just found some old illustrations online and took design elements from them and incorporated them into the characters, I believe thinking they were genuinely tribal African. Regardless of their intent — which was obviously not to offend anyone — the pictures were shocking and offensive to anyone recognizing the elements. This kind of thing happens more often than you think, and while as artists we can’t have an exhaustive knowledge of the visual history of all ornament, we need to be more careful of what we’re grabbing from online reference without properly researching the source.
In publishing, we have something called “sensitivity readers” — when there is a character in a book that is of a certain cultural background, or gender expression, or sexual orientation, or differently-abled then we make sure someone(s) from that community read it through to make sure there is nothing problematic in the depiction. I think artists, when dealing with these kinds of issues, should maybe start using “sensitivity viewers” — if you are depicting someone who’s culture or heritage is not your own, run it by someone who may know more about it from experience. It will not only keep you out of trouble once that art hits the internet, it will also make your work better, by potentially including subtle details that person might be able to share with you to make your art more authentic to their experience.
Again, and I want to reiterate this for emphasis, I am wholeheartedly not saying you shouldn’t depict people that don’t look like you in your art. I am not saying white artists can’t paint black characters. I am not saying a white European concept artist can’t use elements of Native American costume in their next character design. I am not saying that a cis-gender male author can’t write a queer trans woman character. All I am saying is…Do Your Research, and show Respect. Because proper research is the difference between Appreciation and Appropriation.