On Cultural Appropriation

Approaching authenticity across geographic and cultural-landscapes can be made possible through active listening and authentic engagement. An impressive panel of diverse and award-winning writers from ethnically and culturally varied backgrounds delved into this value-laden conversation. Moderator, author and creative writing professor, Laird Hunt, led the discussion.


Blackfeet Native American author and teacher, Stephen Graham Jones, began the conversation with his perspective on the OutKast scandal at the Grammy Awards when Andre “3000” Benjamin took the stage wearing a headdress. He claimed that American Indians were upset about the incident because it is not his culture, but that this only cast them as victims.  Jones commented, “when we get mad at a headdress in a music act, we are falling for bait. We are distracted and we should be paying attention to the real issues of sovereignty and repatriation…not who is wearing a feather or not.”

While identity politics and land-grabs are part of Jones’ fiction, he wants the text to have authority, not to lay the responsibility on himself as an American Indian author. He argues that a text’s authenticity comes down to whether a writer is plugged into their culture or not. He feels it is dangerous to create a “country club” where some are in and some are out.


Yassmin Abdel-Magied is passionate about making diversity the norm, and believes “there is nothing in culture that is absolute.” As a mechanical engineer, social advocate, and writer, she began with the practical observation that we must look at the context and be aware of the power structures that exist in society. Who has been allowed to have a voice and from where have they received their authority.  There is a responsibility for authors to take the time to write truly nuanced characters and  not stereotypes that further marginalize people without power. People believe stories and the “ ‘stories we tell affect our reality.’ ”


Poet Jovan Mays approached the topic in basic terms by first asking why it is so hard for people to simply ask questions. He believes that most writers are appropriators to some degree and admits to often appropriating his own grandmother. Mays confessed to not knowing the etymology of the word ‘appropriation’ and simply said, “we are just jacking someone else’s stuff.”  There has to be a balance to how permission works but all artists will look to the people in their life and want to use their experience with them for their work.


Caucasian novelist and journalist Anne Hillerman writes about the Navajo nation in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. She related an Arapaho saying that there are only a certain number of stories in the universe and the story waits until the person comes along who can tell the story.  From her perspective, the stories her father, Tony Hillerman, wrote about the Navajo were meant to shine a light on Navajo culture and history. He was a fiction writer who did a lot of research and did his best to “make his books authentic.” She continued with his stories because she felt it was a form of cultural appreciation and that she is writing good, compelling mysteries about people whom she respects. “Diversity is what makes literature fascinating. The world is open to us and we need to appreciate the resources and treat them with respect.”


English and creative writing teacher and author, Saikat Majumdar took an academic approach to the topic. He believes that writing itself is appropriation and that it is intrinsically about inhabiting otherness. “All art is an endless tension between the familiar and the alien. We need both.” Majumdar wants writers to transcend the autobiographical voice and to appreciate historical and cultural realities that do not belong to them. Writers have to appropriate in order to escape feeling trapped, but problems arise when we assume the voice of someone who is disadvantaged compared to us.  “Literature is a bourgeois art form that is more exclusive than music, dance, or film.  You have to be literate and have a certain degree of leisure and privilege to sit and write. Groups who are not part of this modality will have their culture appropriated.”


Laird Hunt followed up by quoting Maisha Z Johnson in Everyday Feminism who wrote, “In short: Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own. A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”  Hunt also cited Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, who defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”


Stephen Graham Jones immediately responded to the concept of permission and felt we shouldn’t ask for permission, but should write about what we want to write about. Who has the authority to give permission for any particular group?


Anne Hillerman feels that “creativity doesn’t work well if you have to ask permission.”  It is annoying for her to only write about where you belong. Part of the pleasure of writing is to write about places we might never get to visit.


Contrastingly, Yassmin Abdel-Magied retorted that one can write whatever one wants, but fundamentally it is all connected to power dynamics. “Our words have impact in this world.” There is a double standard for writers and certain ethnic groups are exalted while others would be jailed or killed for voicing their opinions. “I can’t write about whatever I want. If I wrote my version of the other side of the war on terror, I would be thrown into Guantanamo Bay.”


Saikat Majumdar added that “truly marginalized people don’t have a voice.”  When these groups are excluded, postcolonial writers feel compelled to represent their own culture in a responsible light, but this takes away some of the freedom to write about despondent or stagnant worlds.


There was a brief Q&A at the end focusing on the need to question authority and to understand where power lies in our society.  While the panelists did not reach any unanimous conclusion, it was clear that the speakers and audience were deeply engaged in the conversation and that beliefs around culture, ownership, and exploitation are emotional and essential topics for global society.

Photo Credit – Abhijit Sur

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