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Appropriate Culture Like It’s Going Out of Style

So today I found myself drawn in to a trainwreck on the book of faces, where a particularly smug specimen was completely failing to understand why Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writers Festival was both necessary and important.

If, like me, your native culture is flat out inappropriate (it’s not my fault I was raised on dirty jokes, single entendres and in-your-face-ohs), chances are as a writer you’re going to be dealing with cultures not your own. Hell, even if your culture actually is appropriate you’re likely to be dealing with cultures not your own. Let’s face it, “Geek Odd” isn’t the most common culture out there, and “Introverted, filthy-minded geek odd” is rare enough it should be declared an endangered species. Except that would set off a whole new round of filthy jokes.

Anyway, the point here is that there are very few cultures around these days that have not appropriated, borrowed, and outright stolen bits from other cultures. One might go so far as to say there aren’t any, but then some smart-ass anthropologist will dig up a completely isolated tribe somewhere remote and metaphorically wave it in my face.

It would have to be a very isolated tribe. Even in the New Guinea highlands, which are so isolated each valley has its own language (the neighboring valleys are more or less mutually comprehensible, mostly), the tribes manage to trade, fight and generally interact with each other, and cultural exchanges of varying flavors happen. And yes, ideas and things move around between them.

American culture (any variety) has picked up so many bits and bobs from other cultures it’s impossible to tease them all out. There’s the Christmas tree (Germanic), Halloween (the mutant love-child of multiple versions of All Hallows Eve), Santa Claus (Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, etc.), clothing styles (trust me, those have origins everywhere), hair styles (ditto), you name it, it’s likely been through any number of cultural integrations, aggregations, and who knows what else.

For that matter English itself is living evidence of the richness that emerges from interacting cultures. If England hadn’t been invaded, conquered and settled by successive waves of celts, angles, vikings, normans, and then hadn’t spent the next five hundred years or so continually at war with somewhere in Europe, it would be a very different language indeed. The results of successive generations of invaders trying to figure out the right words to use to get it on with the cute barmaid (it being much more fun when your partner is playing along than when she’s trying to bean you with a cast iron frying pan) bred a hybrid with staying power.

The point here is any time cultures interact they will pull in the aspects of the other culture they like and adapt them for their own use. Any culture we write will have done this in the past, and probably do a whole lot more of it in the future. It doesn’t actually matter in the long run which one conquered the other, if conquest was involved, because ultimately the stuff that works better will get adopted and the stuff that’s in the way will get left behind. Conquest just drives the process a bit faster.

That doesn’t mean we writers have carte blanche to just paste on whatever we think looks cool: that way lies crappy storytelling. If you want your fictional culture to have absurdly large penis sheaths, then you need to have a reason this group would find absurdly large penis sheaths useful. Perhaps they started out as a way to protect the danglies before they’d got the hang of pants (like codpieces) and shirt hems got a bit short. Then they found that in a fight the codpieces became targets so they started padding the things. Then ornamenting them to show they didn’t need to fear getting kicked in the goolies in a street fight. Then things, as they do, progressed, until a well-dressed gentleman wouldn’t be seen dead without a penis sheath so big it had more structural support than his wife’s corset. And ran on wheels so it didn’t get dragged in the mud.

Then culture B started trading with these guys and thought this would make really cool art, and the next thing you know, all the furniture the B folks make is based on tripods. Two legs and a really big dangly.

Okay, it’s a ridiculous argument – but the point is, whatever the heck happens, there was a time when it was a good idea to someone. Possibly a lot of someones. And it’s guaranteed those someones got at least part of their inspiration from someone else. And so on, all the way back to way before there’s any way to document this stuff.

There’s are other words for cultural appropriation, after all. It’s called progress. Or growth. Or adaptation. Or integration. If you don’t like it, you’d best avoid the pot luck next week (because that’s been appropriated from the Alaskan tribes), shed all your clothes (we’re not entirely sure where the idea of clothes came from, but there’s a fair chance our not exactly homo sapiens sapiens cousins had a little something to do with it), and eat only what you can pick or catch with tools you make yourself. Because everything else in your life is there by way of interacting with someone else’s culture. And not interacting with other cultures makes for boring, bland fiction.

84 Comments
  1. C4c

    September 29, 2016
  2. For that matter English itself is living evidence of the richness that emerges from interacting cultures. If England hadn’t been invaded, conquered and settled by successive waves of celts, angles, vikings, normans, and then hadn’t spent the next five hundred years or so continually at war with somewhere in Europe, it would be a very different language indeed.

    Oh yes. And don’t forget all those places Britain subsequently invaded in the rest of the world which gave us thugs, curry, pajamas, boomerangs and so on. In fact curry is probably one of the best bits of cultural appropriation there is, right up along with denim jeans. The Japanese have a dish called “Curry rice” which is based on the sort of 19th century British institutional curry (of the sorts served for school meals and the like), that in turn is based on Indian curry dishes. These dishes wouldn’t taste the way they do without the chili pepper which was culturally appropriated from Latin America by the Spanish who then spread it around the rest of the world, including India.

    September 29, 2016
    • Rui Jorge #

      Actually I think the Portuguese were the ones who spread the chili and other American tasty stuff in most of Asia including India. A few of our dishes got appropriated there too, resulting for example in the vindaloo and the tempura. We also, of course, did some appropriating ourselves. :0)

      Regards,
      Rui Jorge

      September 29, 2016
      • And considering how often Portugal was invaded in ancient times and overrun in modern (like, French and Englishmen during the Napoleonic wars) we wouldn’t exist without er… cultural appropriation of a sort.
        Vive la cultural appropriation!

        September 29, 2016
        • Rui Jorge #

          Yup! We’re cultural Frankensteins! Made from all sorts of bits and pieces borrowed from other cultures. That’s true for many, probably most, cultures in the world though. We all have sticky fingers. :0)

          Regards,
          Rui Jorge

          September 30, 2016
      • So you guys appropriated the Chili from the Spanish! I did not know that, I’m happy to be corrected.

        September 29, 2016
        • Rui Jorge #

          Heheh! True! Of course among neighbors there’s always plenty of cross border appropriation going on, makes a bit difficult at times to know who first came up with something. :0)

          Regards,
          Rui Jorge

          September 30, 2016
          • During the conquest of Mexico, Portugal was part of Spain, so it gets weirder.

            October 1, 2016
    • This is why the only proper response to accusations of cultural appropriation, is brandishing a spice cabinet with “Yes. Tasty, Tasty cultural appropriation.”

      September 29, 2016
      • “Cultural appropriation is tasty.” This so needs to be a bumper sticker (or magnet).

        September 29, 2016
    • You mean serge de Nimes, you vulgar colonial!

      September 29, 2016
      • Precisely. Which got its inspiration and color from the Japanese Aizome

        September 29, 2016
  3. snelson134 #

    c4c

    September 29, 2016
  4. snelson134 #

    “Halloween (the mutant love-child of multiple versions of All Hallows Eve)”

    All Hallows Eve, the kidnapped Samhain (Celtic).

    For some reason, every time someone mentions cultural appropriation as a bad thing, my tattoo needle wants to ink this on them.

    Rudyard Kipling

    “When ‘Omer Smote ‘Is Bloomin’ Lyre”

    INTRODUCTION TO THE BARRACK-ROOM BALLADS IN “THE SEVEN SEAS”
    When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
    He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
    An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
    ‘E went an’ took — the same as me!

    The market-girls an’ fishermen,
    The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
    They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
    But kep’ it quiet — same as you!

    They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
    They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
    But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
    An’ ‘e winked back — the same as us!

    September 29, 2016
    • Luke #

      Don’t forget the Day of the Dead in its mutated-descended from samhain oddness.
      Or the Festival of Fools (sure, it’s English, mostly. But it’s from an entirely different time of year!)
      Or superstitions about Walpurgisnacht (despite it also being a different time of year).

      Or we can just make fun of the neo-pagans for believing that the ancient Celts used a calendar created by the Roman Catholic Church towards the beginning of the Enlightenment. (If you’re going to celebrate samhain, at least make an effort to do so at the right time. Otherwise, you’re just making clear that you care more about “freaking the ‘danes” than your supposed religious obligations.) For the record, it’s a solar holiday, located halfway between the equinox the solsice. Beginning at sunset. It moves around a bit, but generally falls somewhere between Nov. 4-6.

      September 29, 2016
      • So the earliest “Scary” holiday would be even closer to election day? That’s appropriate.

        September 29, 2016
      • And then we have this:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kekri_(fest)

        And are busy culturally appropriating your Halloween. 😀

        September 29, 2016
      • Mary #

        “Don’t forget the Day of the Dead in its mutated-descended from samhain oddness.”

        that’s impossible.

        As in, the original All Saints’ Day was in April. And the Irish were particularly late adopters of the November date, which was German in origin.

        September 30, 2016
  5. Cultural appropriation, one more idiotic idea hatched by Ivory Tower sinecureists to beat up working men and women out trying to make a buck.

    I fart in their general direction.

    September 29, 2016
  6. Christopher M. Chupik #

    “We need more diverse books!”

    vs.

    “Don’t culturally appropriate!”

    Make up your minds, SJWs.

    September 29, 2016
    • Martin L. Shoemaker #

      The diverse books must come from diverse authors or they don’t count.

      September 29, 2016
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        Well, I’m a Canadian libertarian. That makes me a minority. See, diverse!

        September 29, 2016
    • Joe in PNG #

      They have. Whatever you do = wrong.

      September 30, 2016
    • Mary #

      Logic is a patriarchal construct invented to oppress them.

      September 30, 2016
  7. Penis sheaths as cultural appropriation? Oh, well . . . I suppose they do make a vas deferens.

    🙂

    September 29, 2016
    • Robin Munn #

      Did you really just start the anatomical puns thread? With THAT pun?

      You’re in trouble now, mister!

      September 29, 2016
    • *snicker*

      September 29, 2016
    • Well, this thread is busted.

      September 29, 2016
      • slab1 #

        Or wursted

        September 29, 2016
        • aacid14 #

          Schnitzeled?

          September 29, 2016
          • Kate Paulk #

            That poor man. He’s just had his wiener schnitzeled.

            September 29, 2016
            • slab1 #

              I can’t think of a wurst idea.

              September 30, 2016
  8. TRX #

    Americans love culture. We knock off pieces and take it home as souvenirs…

    September 29, 2016
    • Not to mention how much rest of the world loves yours. And how many souvenirs we have taken already, and are taking as we speak.

      September 29, 2016
      • aacid14 #

        Feel free to take our pop stars…or sfwa

        September 29, 2016
      • Back in the dark ages my Jr High history teacher told how the Parthenon was closed the day he visited shortly after finishing college. He apparently looked pretty upset and an old man took pity, let him in, and showed him around. There was a dump truck delivering a load of marble chips. The old man told him that the chips were from the same quarry that the columns had been cut from. Twice a year a dump truck came in and delivered a load of chips to a fenced-off area, and the staff spread the chips around the site as needed. This allowed tourists to go home with their very own piece of the Parthenon without chipping any off, which had previously been a problem.

        September 30, 2016
        • slab1 #

          This is such a great story. Made everybody happy and stopped vandalism.

          September 30, 2016
        • Arwen #

          That’s cool.

          September 30, 2016
    • Ah, the American Way.

      September 29, 2016
    • Though we’ve not grabbed nearly so many as some foreign countries i can name. On the up side, this means fewer foreign diplomats haranguing our State Department over ancient trinkets and bits of stonework. We do have London Bridge and the Cloister – but I don’t think anybody’s asking fro them back.

      September 29, 2016
      • Why would London want that bridge back? We needed the space to build a bigger wider one. Some smart businessman sold you rubble 🙂

        September 29, 2016
        • Would anybody remember Lake Havasu City without London Bridge?

          September 29, 2016
          • slab1 #

            Most people there get so drunk they probably don’t remember a bridge.

            September 30, 2016
    • Alan #

      It’s an Anglophilic part of Americana

      September 30, 2016
  9. sabrinachase #

    Not sure potluck and potlatch are related…but the SJW’s should look up the potlatch tradition if they want to get their brains bent. Conspicuous consumption! Deliberate destruction of wealth to show how wealthy you were! All without any western connection! Of course they try to make it look like it was all “redistribution of wealth”, skipping over the accumulation in the first place. Oh, and the slaves.

    September 29, 2016
    • That sounds suspiciously similar to the “Big Man” conspicuous consumption tradition of some South Pacific Islanders.

      September 29, 2016
    • Have you seen my Grandmother’s book on Slavery among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest? Potlatches, slaves, and a lot more. http://amzn.to/2d9CiyA

      September 29, 2016
  10. “If you don’t like it, you’d best avoid the pot luck next week (because that’s been appropriated from the Alaskan tribes),”

    Bah. In truth it’s the medieval European tradition of nail soup (or, in iron-poor areas, stone soup). They stole it from us. Give it back. 😉

    September 29, 2016
  11. The more I see about cultural appropriation, the more I come to the conclusion that *culture* is appropriation. Because one guy borrowing/taking good ideas from his neighbor (and his neighbor doing likewise) is how culture develops and grows. Another example: two people get married, and each one comes from a different family culture (even if they both come from the same town). They have to figure out which bits work and which bits don’t, and as they do a whole new family culture develops that is appropriating bits from the first two, plus other sources as the couple sees necessary. This is normal, natural, and an elemental part of human nature.

    So really, complaints about cultural appropriation tend to strike me in much the same way as whinging children in the back seat of the car, one complaining “He’s *looking at me!” and the other going “She’s breathing my air!”

    September 29, 2016
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      Sadly, some of the people who talk about “appropriating culture” are also the type of people who appear to believe “culture is genetic”.

      September 29, 2016
    • Alan #

      That’s what’s so stupid about the whole thing. People who are proud of, or at least happy with, their own cultures are usually very willing to share and export. It’s the po’faced and greedy who care if somebody “appropriates” their culture – and why should we let THEM dictate what’s good and right?

      September 30, 2016
      • Alan #

        The related semi-valid bit, is that none of us likes having our culture mocked or laughed at by others. But that’s a courtesy issue, not a cultural appropriation issue.

        September 30, 2016
        • Ja, like the gal in my undergrad college who ticked off the students from India by trying to wear a sari and bindi dot “to be like them.” 1) they didn’t wear saris or the bindi because they weren’t Hindu, 2) she couldn’t figure out how to wear the sari. These were the same young ladies who pestered me for my curry recipe after I made Country Captain one night and the scent got pulled into the elevator shaft and spread through the dorm. Tasty, tasty cultural appropriation.

          September 30, 2016
  12. Matthew #

    c4c

    September 29, 2016
  13. The H. Beam Piper phrase about the English language (paraphrased) is: “English comes from Norman men-at-arms trying to get dates with Saxon barmaids, and about as legitimate as the other results.”

    September 29, 2016
    • Not to mention that the Saxon barmaids had been seeded by Roman tradesmen* in the wombs of German floozies in the first place.

      * Many of which came from Syria. So, aren’t those guys just moving it at their cousins’ today?

      September 30, 2016
  14. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    My native culture is:
    1. Perfectly legitimate mass killings.
    2. Friends come through the gates, enemies come over the walls.
    3. Seeing Jim Crow and Segregation through the lens of Democrats murdering, or attempting to murder, Republicans.
    4. If you fight the war again, or are still fighting, you are doing it wrong.
    5. Some opinions so generally offensive that one has difficultly sharing them in a tactful enough way for ATH, much less here.

    September 29, 2016
  15. Uncle Lar #

    When accused of cultural appropriation the only legitimate response in my opinion is: FOAD you puling simpering social justice wanna be. Go live naked on the veldt eating bugs and grasses and the remains left from real predator kills. Tools? Clothing? Fire? Bah, you didn’t invent that, none of those for you. May you live a fine natural life for the couple weeks you’re able to avoid those alpha predators.

    September 29, 2016
  16. Rowan #

    Naked potluck hunting party. Hmmm, not sure it sounds all that bad… 😉

    September 29, 2016
    • No thanks. There’s too many small biting things in the woods for me to go in my birthday suit. Plus the blinding white would scare away the animals (except the ones that died laughing.)

      September 29, 2016
      • Tick decorations… you might start a new body decoration trend, perhaps? 😀

        September 29, 2016
        • I doubt Lyme Disease Chic will ever be in.

          September 29, 2016
      • aacid14 #

        But cats are massively destructive predators in an ecosystem

        September 29, 2016
        • Yes, we are. Thank you for remembering 😀 *buffs little claws on fur*

          September 30, 2016
    • Alan #

      Nakedly hunting the wily potluck?

      September 30, 2016
  17. I’m not sure what this is, a Chinese talent show? But I like her performance, and it fits the theme. 🙂

    September 29, 2016
  18. So, there’s cultural appropriation in aggregate, which can come from unpleasant sources but happens all the same. The prevalence of amazing Indian food in the UK is an example of cultural appropriation that happened because conquest. You can’t stop that and telling people ‘don’t eat Indian food because of Imperialism’ is just dumb. Then there are celecbrities appropriating culture in a crasser commercial version of appropriation that I’m less okay with. There was a rash of indie musicians that got all into ‘native cultures’ for a while, and it really annoyed me.

    September 29, 2016
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I am deeply offended by everyone who uses the English language to complain about cultural appropriation. 🙂

      September 29, 2016
    • aacid14 #

      I think the ‘Do it right’ caveat comes in there. Yes you can write or use other cultures but understand why. It irks me when you get arguments over using a character different from you in a nonflattering way (e.g. a minority villain) but the accuser can use your stereotypes however they want. No, all rural folks are not rednecks dragging a body wrapped in the stars and bars behind their pickup. However a dispute or brawl starting over an argument about chili or barbecue could happen. One will toss me out of a story. One may make me laugh.

      September 29, 2016
      • Kate Paulk #

        And one day someone will start a brilliant story with “Hold my beer and watch this!”

        September 29, 2016
        • aacid14 #

          Lol…

          September 29, 2016
        • snelson134 #

          You’re too late….

          a href=”https://www.amazon.com/Bubbas-Apocalypse-Book-ebook/dp/B00E5575RM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475195463&sr=8-1&keywords=Bubbas+of+the+Apocalypse”>Bubbas of the Apocalypse (The Bubbas of the Apocalypse Book 1)

          September 29, 2016
        • Robin Munn #

          Ringo and Taylor’s Into the Looking Glass implies that this is basically what happened at the University of Central Florida, possibly* minus the “Hold my beer” part.

          * “Possibly” because the entire university (and much of the surrounding town) was wiped off the map by the explosion, including the physics professor whose experiment had caused it. So nobody could find out whether he had, or had not, handed off his beer to a lab assistant before pushing the button.

          September 29, 2016
  19. The Christmas tree is not Germanic. The oldest known record dates from a German 17th century chronicle. Though I have tongue-in-cheek suggested in the “Romanike” novel series that Christmas baubles are derived from those skulls that Germanics hung into their trees, according to Tacitus.

    September 30, 2016
  20. BTW, the archetypical example of cultural appropriation may be the British Museum …

    September 30, 2016
  21. Joe in PNG #

    “Cultural Appropriation” is another version of the Hipster’s Lament- “It’s Popular Now It Sucks!”.
    When the Right Kind of People adopt some Cool Thing From Foreign Lands (typically to brag about their two week sojourn to same), it’s all Cool and Hip (because it gives them distinction).
    However, when the Wrong Kind of People start doing it, it is no longer Cool and Hip (because it doesn’t make the Right Kind of People look superior). Now those yucky flyover people are participating, and who wants to hang out with them?
    But, since they can’t just kvetch about not being hip anymore, they shoehorn in a bunch of Socially Conscious Pap and do a lot of Virtue Signalling about this sort of nonsense.

    September 30, 2016
    • Alan #

      Same thing, different age group: have long observed that fashions developed for teens/young adults generally migrate to younger and still younger kids, sometimes with minor mods, at which point something new is needed for the teens/young adults to feel fashionable.

      I’m sure hipsters will be all over the idea that their hipness is nothing but an analog of kid fashions…

      October 4, 2016
  22. TomT #

    You sent me off on a digression of research on the history of Codpieces. I blame you for my gaining odd knowledge anyway.

    September 30, 2016
    • Kate Paulk #

      You’re welcome!

      September 30, 2016

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