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In Which a White Guy Talks about Cultural Appropriation

it's all about the hat

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in today’s post do not necessarily reflect those of Writer Unboxed or its other contributors. They are solely the opinions of the author of this post, and should not be read while flossing, practicing goat yoga [1], or ghost-writing a book [2] for James Patterson. 

Last September – before being eclipsed by our current all Trump, all the time zeitgeist – a flurry of conversations erupted across the internet focusing on cultural appropriation. Fanning the flames of this topic was a keynote speech best-selling author Lionel Shriver [3] gave at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival. Regardless of where you stand on cultural appropriation, it’s well worth reading the text of her whole speech [4].

Taking the stage wearing a sombrero, Ms. Shriver quickly made it clear where she stood, lashing out at political correctness and flat-out dismissing the concept of cultural appropriation – particularly when writing fiction. She cited a recent incident where some college students were excoriated on social media for a cruel and hurtful act of “ethnic stereotyping” – because they had been photographed wearing miniature sombreros at a tequila-themed birthday party.

Ms. Shriver observed, “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.” She went on to offer numerous examples of important books that would not have been written if the authors hadn’t dared to explore experiences or cultures other than their own:

“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 [5].”

A disrespectful vocation

In her speech, Ms. Shriver pushed back – hard – against the notion of writers being somehow morally restricted to writing only stories that are “implicitly ours to tell.” Instead, she maintained that “any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.” Taking her defense a step further, she said:

“This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.”

Stating her hope that the concept of cultural appropriation is just “a passing fad,” Ms. Shriver worried that if writers restrict their work to only what they have directly experienced, “all that’s left is memoir.”

I agree – in theory – with much of what Ms. Shriver said. But it soon became clear that plenty of people didn’t…

The art of the dramatic exit

Several people walked out on Ms. Shriver’s speech. Among them was Yassmin Abdel-Magied [6], a writer, mechanical engineer and social advocate who had spoken at the event earlier that day. She went on to post this op-ed about the event [7]. I have to admit, I found the initial description of her departure a bit melodramatic:

“As I stood up, my heart began to race. I could feel the eyes of the hundreds of audience members on my back: questioning, querying, judging.

I turned to face the crowd, lifted up my chin and walked down the main aisle, my pace deliberate. ‘Look back into the audience,’ a friend had texted me moments earlier, ‘and let them see your face.’

The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.

‘How is this happening?'”

Once she shifted her focus away from herself and back to Shriver, I found Ms. Abdel-Magied’s tone and reasoning much more compelling:

“Her [Shriver’s] question was – or could have been – an interesting question: What are fiction writers ‘allowed’ to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?

Not every crime writer is a criminal, Shriver said, nor is every author who writes on sexual assault a rapist. ‘Fiction, by its very nature,’ she said, ‘is fake.’

There is a fascinating philosophical argument here. Instead, however, that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others,’ simply because it is useful for one’s story.”

As Ms. Shriver’s speech continued, Ms. Abdel-Magied found the speaker’s tone more and more offensive, to the point where it became intolerable. She summed up Ms. Shriver’s keynote as “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension,” and condemned Shriver for advocating an attitude that “drips of racial supremacy.” She was apparently not alone in this reaction…

A calmer take on some “dangerous” ideas

A much less hand-wringing response was posted here [8] by blogger Yen-Rong [9], who describes herself as “a writer, reader, musician, scientist, and an aspiring academic.” She also attended Ms. Shriver’s speech, and in its early stages found herself grudgingly agreeing with the speaker. But that all changed when Shriver claimed that “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity.” Ms. Yen-Rong states her problem with those remarks both eloquently and pointedly:

“Identity is important, and yes, making sure that we don’t pigeon hole ourselves into one thing, or into what others want us to be is also important. But it’s easy to say that ‘Asian isn’t an identity’ when you haven’t experienced what it’s like to have to confront racism (both casual and overt) in your everyday life.”

In what I thought was a particularly perceptive observation, Ms. Yen-Rong also called Shriver out for the way she leveraged rhetorical techniques to couch her message:

“Shriver covered her musings with humour (which was admittedly only humorous to those who agreed with her), and under the guise of their being dangerous ideas. But as far as I’m concerned, it is unfair and enabling to call harmful ideas ‘dangerous’ . . . Dangerous is too often used (incorrectly) as a synonym for ‘subversive,’ or ‘a challenging of the dominant discourse’ – things that we so desperately need.”

From reading Ms. Shriver’s speech, there’s no question that she was being purposely provocative. While she definitely pushed some social hot-buttons with her keynote, it doesn’t seem like she made any real progress in accomplishing her overall goal. As this piece in The New Yorker [10] observes: “A common lesson in every fight about cultural appropriation is that no one appears to be changing anyone else’s mind. Shriver wanted her detractors to be less touchy, and instead she reinforced their position.” [emphasis mine]

A shared complaint

Both Ms. Yen-Rong and Ms. Abdel-Magied highlighted another issue they felt Shriver’s speech only exacerbated: that writing about a culture other than your own can take opportunities away from writers who actually do hail from that culture. As Ms. Yen-Rong put it:

“The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their ‘right’ to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share. In other words, the subaltern continue to be silenced, and still cannot speak.”

Ms. Abdel-Magied was even more vocal in expressing the same complaint:

“It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.”

I will be the first to admit that these are two very articulate women whose cultures I do NOT share, and in whose shoes I have NOT walked a mile – let alone ten yards. That being said, I just don’t know if I agree with their take. Here’s why.

What about the P-word?

While the term is not being bandied about quite as much as it was a decade ago, you’ll still find that most agents and editors love it when a writer has a strong platform. For those not familiar with the dreaded P-word, it’s usually about the writer having some unique experience that makes them “qualified” to tell a particular story. Agents love a good platform for one reason: it makes the book easier to sell. As an example, if Serena Williams and I each decided to write a novel about a female tennis player, which one of us do you think an agent or editor would be more interested in?

This makes me question the notion of stolen opportunities. While it was daring of American author (and white guy) Arthur Golden to write the best-seller “Memoirs of a Geisha [11],” don’t you think that if an actual Japanese (and – here’s a crazy idea – female) geisha approached an agent with a book pitch about the life of a geisha, the agent would at least request a look at the manuscript?

Similarly, I can think of quite a few non-white writers whose works focus on their own cultures, to the point where their expertise and experience really differentiate them in the literary marketplace. I mean, I sure wouldn’t want to compete with Amy Tan at writing about the complexities of Chinese-American identity, nor with Khaled Hosseini at writing about the Afghan immigrant experience – would you?

Before you grab the pitchforks, let me add that I am not naïve enough to think non-white (and non-male, while we’re at it) writers don’t face serious challenges and disadvantages within the publishing industry (and okay, pretty much everywhere else). But for the highly specific scenarios Ms. Abdel-Magied cites, I would think writers who are actually from those cultures and/or situations would have a far superior platform from which to pitch their work. But maybe I’m kidding myself. If so, I’m sure you’ll let me know in the Comments section.

Dealing with appropriation guilt

I’m well aware that I write this from what seems like the least defensible perspective: that of a white middle-aged male American published author. That’s not a culture anybody’s appropriating – at least to my knowledge. Probably the worst “cultural pain” I have to endure is seeing a writer or a musician poorly portrayed in a movie or book – or hearing yet another “dumb drummer” joke.

But I do take the concept of having the right to tell a story very seriously. The main characters in my debut novel are stroke victims and their care-givers. I am neither, nor is anybody in my immediate family. Stroke is literally a deadly serious topic – killing 130,000 people a year in the U.S. alone, and injuring hundreds of thousands more, often permanently. So I struggled long and hard over whether I had the right to tell this story – a tale of personal tragedy created solely to be sold as entertainment.

During that soul-searching, I learned that I am nowhere near as bold and brash as Ms. Shriver, who would probably consider me a wimp. In the end, I assuaged my “cultural guilt” by donating a percentage of my book’s earnings to stroke research. Sure, it’s a nice thing to do, but I did it purely out of guilt. Because for me, something felt wrong about writing a made-up story about a topic with such real and serious implications for so many people, particularly when I didn’t have any “skin in the game.”

Clearly, Ms. Shriver would think I need more gall.

Appropriation, or voyeurism?

I’ve also indirectly experienced a kind of after-the-fact appropriation – and I sure didn’t like it. Working as a musician in the early and mid ’90s, I was poor. I’m talking pawning my drums to pay our rent poor. Things started turning around for me in the late ’90s, but I vowed never to forget what rock bottom felt like. So when I was in business school and heard about a book called “Nickel and Dimed [12]” by Barbara Ehrenreich, which purported to shine a light on what it’s like to be poor in America, I got the book and read it.

And became enraged.

The author, touted on Amazon as “our sharpest and most original social critic,” decided to “go undercover” as an unskilled worker to “reveal the dark side of American prosperity.”

In other words, Ehrenreich – a highly educated and financially comfortable professional – pretended to be poor, and spied on poor people.

Her stance was that by living as one of them, she would gain a true sense of what being poor was really like, and share the experience with her readers. But here’s my issue: while she might have experienced what it’s like to work at a crappy job, her “undercover assignment” was self-imposed, and she could bail out of it at any time. When you’re actually poor, you don’t have that escape hatch. I know that feeling all too well. And that’s what she failed completely at capturing.

A big difference worth noting here is that this was a work of non-fiction. That changes things – at least for me. I’m pretty sure that author Thomas Harris, the creator of the fictional character Hannibal Lecter, never killed (and, I hope, never ate) anyone. But I can’t for a minute consider him guilty of “appropriating” the “culture” of a serial killer (or a cannibal). I accept that he’s telling me a story, and doing so in an incredibly distinctive and powerful way. By contrast, Ehrenreich purports to be sharing firsthand what it’s like to be poor, in what to me amounts to an act of literary blackface.

“Nickel and Dimed” has been hailed as an important social work, and became a huge best-seller. To me, Ehrenreich’s book is nothing more than “poverty voyeurism,” and the disrespect and condescension she showed poor people by portraying them as something so alien and wretched infuriates me to this day.

Okay, Keith. Deep cleansing breaths, pal. Deep cleansing breaths…

You can’t please all the people…

One thing I’ve learned – and I think it’s a key point Ms. Shriver was trying to make – is that your work is inevitably going to offend somebody. But I feel that Shriver is exhorting us not to live (or write) in fear of offending. After all, as writers, we want to evoke an emotional response in our readers. Sometimes, that response is going to be negative.

Ms. Shriver maintains that “the last thing we fiction writers need is restrictions on what belongs to us.” And she closed her speech by saying, “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.”

That sounds great in theory. But in actual practice, I’ve learned it’s harder than it seems.

How about you?

What are your thoughts on Ms. Shriver’s speech? What did you think of the two responses I cited? Have you had any aspects of your own culture appropriated? How did that make you feel? For a fiction writer, are any topics off-limits? Why or why not?

Please chime in, and don’t pull any punches. This is a sensitive topic, I know, so I’m aware that some of my views may not align with yours. That fact makes me no less interested in hearing your views, because I strongly believe this is a conversation that needs to be taking place far more frequently. Thanks in advance for any insights you choose to share, and as always, thanks for reading!

About Keith Cronin [13]

Author of the novels Me Again [14] (originally published by Five Star/Gale), and Tony Partly Cloudy [15] (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin [16] is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and alligators with his ukulele.