If you’re not appropriating culture, you’re not paying attention.

We’ve all seen the amusing Facebook meme: There are two kinds of countries in the world — those which use the metric system, and those which have landed on the Moon.

You could also easily say: there are two kinds of civilization in the world — the ones which culturally appropriate, and the ones which get left behind. Maybe even die?

It’s 2017, yo. Get your woke-ass panties out of your crack. Nothing you eat, read, listen to, drive, wear, or do for a living, was created in a vacuum. Each and every bit of your modern existence, is the result of people borrowing and stealing good ideas from somebody else. Doesn’t matter if it’s Hong Kong, or Paris, or San Francisco — every modern city is a gleaming, rich example of what happens when cultural appropriation is carried out with gusto.

Consider the nearest Chinese food establishment, employing Mexicans in the grill, a Filipino girl at the register, and serving food which bears little resemblance to anything anyone in China was eating a century ago. Because once people figured out how to jazz things up for an American palate, there was no stopping the culinary freight train. It was Mongolian Beef and General Tso’s from coast to coast. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

Did anyone ever ask the general if his recipe could be used for this purpose?

Hell no!

And it doesn’t matter anyway. The general’s descendants are over at KFC, eating the colonel’s chicken. While listening to South Korean hip-hop. Wearing synthetic clothing made from artificial fabrics invented by a company founded by a Frenchman. That same company also supplied almost half of the Union Army’s gunpowder, during the American Civil War. Gunpowder: another Chinese invention, imported to the West via Mongolian and Arabic means, and originally used for fireworks, as well as rockets. Rockets, which entered liquid-fueled prominence thanks to a New Englander named Goddard, as well as a German named Werner von Braun, who competed with a Russian named Sergei Korolev — to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying hydrogen bombs to the other side of the world, but which put human beings onto the lunar surface instead.

So, there you have it. From Americanized Chinese food to Armstrong’s, “One small step for man.” A cavalcade of glorious cultural appropriation, end to end.

Which begs the question: what culture in its (collective) right mind wouldn’t borrow or steal somebody else’s bright ideas? That’s what human beings are good at! We wander around, bump into other people, see how those other people are conducting their business, say, “Aha, that’s the ticket!” and suddenly things are going Gangnam Style. In Yonkers. In Dubai. In Saskatchewan. Everywhere. A global orgy of people ripping people off. Happily. In every way possible.

Anyone who says things ought to be different, not only doesn’t understand how history works — she doesn’t understand how people work, either.

Because culture is not a genetic trait. Nobody is born with culture. It’s not property. You cannot trademark or copyright it, though you can trademark and copyright specific fragments, which the Peoples Republic of China will steal and facsimilize anyway — because they don’t give a fuck. “Suck our dicks, capitalist pig dogs!”

No, culture is absorbed, at the same time it is constantly re-synthesized. Doubt me? Go talk to the middle and lower-middle class white kids who grow up in the Cherry Hill area of Seattle, or maybe out in the Rainier Valley. Do they sound more like George Plimpton, or Sir Mix-A-Lot?

Clearly, nobody owns culture. So why do we worry about appropriating it?

(Cough, when I say “we,” I mean American progressives and Social Justice Zealots who clearly have too much time on their hands, cough.)

My take: If you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer, you have more to say on this topic than anyone. Because you’re extrapolating futures, presents, and pasts. Alternative histories. Possible horizons. The “What if?” that makes SF/F so much fun in the first place. There are no rules which you aren’t automatically authorized to break. The entire cosmos is your paint box. Nobody can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Are we really going to be dumb enough to pretend that SF/F authors of demographics X, Y, or Z, cannot postulate “What if?” for demographics A, B, and C?

We’re not even talking about homework — which is a good idea, simply because some of your best syntheses will occur when you take Chocolate Culture and Peanut Butter Culture — kitbash them together — and come up with the inhabitants of a frontier planet for your thousand-year-future interstellar empire.

We’re talking about authors voluntarily yoking their creative spirits to somebody else’s pet political and cultural hobbyhorses. A game of rhetorical, “Mother, may I?”

Quick: how can you tell that a strident fire-breathing feminist is full of shit? Put 20 randomly-selected women in a room, ask them all to tell you what a “real woman” would do in a specific situation, and you will easily get half a dozen different answers. All of which are valid! Because nobody “owns” womanhood. Different women define their paradigms differently. Hell, we’ve even gone so far as to let dudes into the game now. Still have your junk attached? No problem! Just say you’re a woman, and we’ll be forced to believe you. Otherwise the Correctness Patrol will be along to Twitter-shame us into submission.

“Mother, may I?” is a lunatic way to go about imagining possible futures, and could-have-been pasts. You — as the creator — have your vision. Set apart from anyone else’s. Unique to you, and your specific blend of experience. You will have insights about, and inject flavor for, your world(s) in ways that nobody else can match. Because they are yours. It’s your blank canvas. Do what you want to do. According to your inspiration. Kitbash the hell out of those cultures! Intergalactic Comanche Samurai Inuit space whale hunters! Flat-earth fantasy Zulu Highlander elephant-riding clansmen! Cyborg Brazilian disco geisha Valkyries! Nobody can say you’re fucking it up, because you’re not writing a history paper. You’re doing what people have done throughout time: looking at the universe around you, taking the parts you think are awesome, and incorporating these parts any way you damned well choose.

And if the Wokeness comes to your digital door — torches and pitchforks raised — give the assholes a dose of the old phased plasma rifle, in the 40-watt range. They can go do their own heavy-lifting. It’s not your job to appease them. Especially since they cannot even agree among themselves, about what the “right way” looks like.

When they’re not busy being dicks to decent artists, they’re being dicks to themselves.

Not your circus, not your monkeys.

Go forth. Have fun. Make awesome shit. That is all. Carry on.


  1. And if you are reading and writing in English, you are using a communication medium that has appropriated, looted, liberated, absconded, and borrowed from almost every language family on the planet. (I say almost only because I’m not sure about Basque and some of the South American tribal languages.)

    Oops. Now what do you do, oh Seeker of Social Justice? *smug kitty smirk*

    1. Ah, but we have “appropriated” from Basque! The word “anchovy” comes from the Basque language (according to the website quicksilvertranslate). English is a great language. We borrow from everyone!

      1. Forget thee not that the French (at the time, Normans) imposed a whole bunch of French on the English, starting in 1066. And the Vikings, starting around 800 (+/-), imposed Vikish.

      2. Also “chaparral,” via Spanish, comes from Basque “txapar,” dwarf oak (which frequently makes thickets), which comes from Basque “sapar,” thicket.

    2. “English does not borrow from other languages. English clubs other languages in dark alleys and goes through their pockets for loose grammar!”

      1. Sauna was probably bought, not stolen by English. Sold by a slick speaking Savonian. Or Karelian, although the Savonians are the used car salesmen types here, Karelians just speak a lot but usually don’t try to swindle you by selling you something you don’t want or need. You only think Finns are taciturn if you have never met a Savonian. You know the saying about selling sand in Sahara? Finns have sold sand to Saudi-Arabia. Was probably a Savonian doing the deal.

  2. File off the serial numbers, change names, and abscond with the good ideas. People have definitely been doing that for millennia. The ones that do succeed, the ones that don’t are history. or even footnotes to history.

  3. Culture may not be genetic per se, but it’s downstream from IQ, which sure as hell IS (in fact, over 50 relevant genes have now been ID’d, some of which impact behavior, which is basically culture at the individual level). Which is to say, the elevated ability to repurpose existing ideas into new and hybrid cultures. Without which we’d never have so much as tried to tame fire — oops, appropriated that from Mother Nature, and boy is she pissed!

    And yeah, we have a word for cultures no one wants to appropriate: “extinct”.

  4. “Quick: how can you tell that a strident fire-breathing feminist is full of shit?”
    As soon as I find out she’s a strident fire-breather; I mean, at that point it’s a GIVEN.

  5. Paladin is right… If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying… They show up at my door, heh… Let’s just say they ‘won’t’ like the reception…

    1. Ahem. I’m a baaad man. They show up at my door, I may appropriate a couple of the better looking ones by feigning interest and inviting them only to come inside and better explain it to me. My excuse? I’m of Irish, English, Welsh (yes, I admit it), and Bohemian ancestry. A whole lot of invade, rape, pillage and rape back there. You said rape twice. I know, they liked rape. And enslavement of women. Appropriation was a survival tactic.

  6. They want us to write more diverse stories, but if we do, we run the risk of “appropriation” . . .

    This feels suspiciously like a trap.

    1. If you have a diverse hero, that’s “cultural appropriation.”

      If you have a diverse villain, that’s “[victim group]phobia.”

      If you have a diverse sidekick, that’s “tokenism.”

      If you have no diverse characters, that’s “whitewashing.”

      There is no way to win this game, so you might as well tell “them” to go perform some anatomically impossible acts.

        1. Have you ever noticed that while bovines don’t appear to be the brightest animals on the planet, they are anatomically unable to put their heads up their butts? Those things on their heads make great stops. Humans? Not so much. Reminds me of the prison scene in Hancock.

  7. Yep, kafkatrapping for sure. The Church of Wokeness will always move the goal posts. Always. No win for you. You cannot possibly satisfy the demands of anyone who is determined not to be satisfied.

    1. Those are the ones you tell to go and pound salt, or so I’ve always thought.

  8. I have grown weary of the game. If someone is so abysmally ignorant or astoundingly stupid or wretchedly bigoted as to buy into “cultural appropriation,” they are a lost cause to begin with, and trying to teach them otherwise is like trying to teach a hog to sing.

  9. Har! Brad, so reserved! Tell us how you really feel!

    I went Full SJW with my books. They’re all 6 foot blondes, except for the token 6’8″ Chinese one and the 10,000 year old Sumerian. I will admit to a little bit of Diversity(TM), I do have the odd brunette and red head. Couple of gay characters too, they seem pretty happy with the huge Valkyries wandering around shooting stuff.

    Because why? Because I tried adding some Diverse Black Characters early on, and it read like bullshit. Black characters did not want to be in my book, they pretty much told me to shove off. As we know from other discussions, when the characters yell at you, you should listen.

    Besides, everybody keeps screaming that Ethnicity(TM), GenderExpression(TM) and Religion(TM) are what brings UniqueVoices(TM) to SF/F, so I thought I’d bring mine. Sorry if Scottish Cismale Taoist-Presbyterian* is not as cool as other people’s, its what I got.

    (*Taoist-Presbyterian: If shit happens, you were probably asking for it.)

      1. Awesome of you to ask. 🙂

        They will be up on Amazon, someday Real Soon(TM). Currently in the home stretch, lacking only a cover. Be assured that when I -finally- get it done, I will post links.

        1. The check is in the mail, I just need your bank account to confirm for my Nigerian partners.

    1. A gay couple made an appearance in a story. They weren’t intended to be gay. First, in-laws, next friends, but neither worked. What did was the toss-off implication they were gay, and one was never reconciled with his father before he passed away, and thus could relate to the protagonist, who was estranged from his father for an issue of alien culture. No stereotype to be seen, either. They were just gay. And it worked.

      1. Happens sometimes with me. All of a sudden, I realize a character is gay.

        Characters just won’t behave.

        1. Interesting. Maybe I’m asking this wrong, but do you think homosexuality is the easiest way to inject a psycho-social internal or interpersonal conflict into a story?

          1. “…inject a psycho-social internal or interpersonal conflict into a story.”

            The word “inject” implies I run this show. Like they would sit still for that. I don’t get to plan these things. I follow along behind with a movie camera. Some characters showed up in the story, turns out they’re gay. Who knew?

            Little Sarah in my story is a blonde, a full-on Goth, an accomplished artist, and she’s secretly crushing hard for the big, shapely Valkyries. She likes the pink-haired Emo girl that runs the cappuccino machine too, but she’s too shy to say anything. Spends all her afternoons drawing pictures of them in the cafe.

            Why did I write that? No idea. Robots were misbehaving at the cafe, and Sarah was sitting in the corner. That’s just how she is.

    1. It’s a cute mem, but I’ll point out that nations that use the metric system still have a manned space program and we don’t, so we can’t exactly gloat.

      1. It’s fun because they’ll almost invariably make a sneering comment about water freezing at zero C, that 3/4 of the earth’s surface is water, and that you’re a chauvinistic troglodyte.
        At which point, you note that salt water freezes at zero F.

        It really never gets old.

        1. And the Fahrenheit scale did that because it was *more reproducible.* (It’s a lot easier to saturate a salt solution than it is to be *sure* that’s *pure* water.)

      2. As a matter of fact, even if most U.S. citizens ignore it, the United States not only uses the metric system for the Space Program and generally used in science, but the pound, the yard, and other common units, are defined based on the metric system

        1. That’s an interesting story in of itself. The US originally looked at the metric system, but by then even Napoleon was cool on it, and we passed. Decades later, we discovered the standard yard in Britain was shrinking, said “Forget this,” and tied it to the metric system, as it was felt the standards were more stable.

  10. Did you read in your geography books about those cultures that didn’t practice appropriation?

    Neither did I, only in the history books. Usually, archaeology texts, because that’s the only way we found out they existed.

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