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?
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.