Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Privilege, appropriation, and my (very probably) unpopular opinion

Disclosure: I am a disabled, biromantic asexual, poly, pagan, fat, cisgender, white chick.

I use a cane to walk, and even then, I can't walk much or far. I've got a genetic disorder that causes a ton of secondary problems like early onset arthritis, fibromyalgia, and others. I've got severe asthma, exacerbated by a primary immunodeficiency that makes me more susceptible to respiratory illness.

I am romantically attracted to women and men, but sexually attracted to neither. I am "fully functional" as it goes, I just don't have any interest in pursuing sexual relationships. I'm involved with multiple partners (everyone is aware of everyone else), and everyone is cool with me not wanting sex.

I've been some flavor of pagan since I was about 15, and contrary to the opinion voiced to me when I told someone this at age 16, it's not a phase I'm going to grow out of. I know what persecution is, first hand. Have I been beaten or thrown out for my faith? Not quite, but nearly so - and only because of a strong mother who defended me.

I'm a fat woman. Much of my family is large, making me think there's a genetic component to it (since we live in far-flung places and don't all eat the same things), but my medical conditions contribute greatly to my size. I'm generally okay with my weight, though admittedly it would help some of my medical conditions from a structural integrity standpoint if I could shed some pounds.

I'm a white woman. Oh boy, am I ever white. I've been called "the palest white girl I ever met" by former colleagues. I've got a heritage that is so varied across Europe, and is so far back (in all but 1 case) that I don't identify with it. German, Polish (that's the 1 exception - it's only 2 generations back), various flavors of British Isles. Dark hair, light eyes, very pasty white skin.

I figure I'm in at least 4, if not 5, minorities with my list up there, and the only named privileges that I count myself as having are white and cisgender privilege. So, let's start there, shall we?

I am so, so beyond tired of talk of privilege and it's closely associated cousin, appropriation.

Yes, I get upset/annoyed/angry (depending on situation) when people are insensitive to the feelings and experiences of people who are disabled, or non-heteronormative, or members of a non-mainstream faith, or who defy the cultural standards of beauty, or are women. Can I get upset/annoyed/angry when people are insensitive to the feelings and experiences of people of color or transgender individuals? Of course I can. I don't have to be a member of a group to agree that some things Are Not OK to say or do to/about members of those groups. That would be ludicrous - that's why groups have 'allies' - people who fight their fight along side them, even when it isn't the allies' fight, personally.

So, if I can help fight their fight, why can't I express appreciation for cultures not my own, up to and including portraying them in my writing?

I'm disabled - sure, that makes me qualified to write disabled characters. But I don't have ALL the disabilities, so can I only write characters that share my disabilities? Oh, that's silly? Okay. It's okay if I write about a character who might be, say, autism spectrum, even though I've never had a spectrum disorder myself? I worked with autistic adults and youth, so maybe I get wiggle room on that one.

I'm pagan - I know an awful lot (but not nearly everything) about a bunch of different faith traditions that are not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. What religions am I allowed to write about, then? Wicca, I suppose - seems like everyone writes about Wicca (even if I, in my own humble opinion, think many of them get it wrong). Christianity is probably okay, since I grew up with it around me and I've picked up a lot through osmosis. But what about Islam? Judaism? Shinto? Buddhism? Hinduism? What about Native American traditions? I'm not from any of those faiths in specific (though I probably hold at least a few things in common with each of them), so does that mean I can't have characters from those faiths in my stories because I'd be appropriating a culture that's not mine? Now, I'm not talking about going into depth about faith practices - I wouldn't write about the innermost ritual bits and pieces of my own faith in a story, let alone a faith I wasn't immersed in - but if I'm a responsible writer and do my research, can I have Muslim or Shinto or Native American characters?

That brings me to my next bit: cultural appropriation in general.

As I mentioned, I'm a white European mutt, as far as heritage goes. If you tally up the percentages from my family tree, I've got a majority of German over the others in my background, followed by Polish. I know so little about German traditions as to be almost negligible. I know the New Year's tradition involves eating pork and sauerkraut (pork, okay - sauerkraut? Grossest thing ever.) and that Christmas trees are decorated with apples (I've got a cheap dozen of plastic apple-shaped ornaments from the dollar store that I use some of each year). Get beyond that and the most I know is a vague idea that people drink lots of beer at Oktoberfest.

Polish. Hmm... Does Polish sausage count? 'Cause that's about all I've got.

These may be my heritage, but I wasn't raised in a culture that reflected them in many ways at all (the holiday traditions above being the only exceptions), so I don't identify with them. My New Year's tradition is from Cuba, and I've got none of that in my background (disclosure: my fiance is part Cuban) - but it resonates with me far more to make lentejas de buena suerte to bring luck and good fortune in the year to come than it does to make a pot of stinky cabbage-based goo that I can't stand to smell, let alone eat. I spent years in Spanish classes that taught culture as well as language, and my college professora was (and is) enamored of Cuba. Am I wrongly appropriating Cuban culture by observing their customs, rather than those of my own heritage, because I don't have any Cuban blood? Or does my tie to my fiance give me a pass on that one? Can I write characters with Cuban culture? Am I restricted to only my culture and those I am directly tied to?

I've read a few things recently that sparked this rant up from a low, background simmer to a soft boil. Stuff like "white people should never use the words 'tribal' or 'ethnic' to describe something" or "if you aren't Hawaiian, you should never have luaus, grass skirts, or go to tiki bars because white people destroyed lives when they came to Hawaii and it's wrong/disrespectful/etc. to appropriate these parts of their culture now."

I get that some things are Off Limits when treading into territory not your own. Blackface (or yellow, red, etc.) is a don't-go-there thing. There is too much awful history associated with it for it to be reclaimed at this point, so it should stay as a part of history only. Insults on someone's ethnicity? Also a don't-go-there thing. Saying "jewed" or "gypped" to mean "cheated." Likewise, slurs on someone's sexual or gender identification or on their disability - definitely don't-go-there things. Using "gay" or "retarded" to mean "stupid" or "unfair" or simply "wrong." I can even understand why "gypsy" is considered a slur now (though I personally don't think this will change my enjoyment of the myriad of songs I know that have gypsy in their title/lyrics).

But tribal? Ethnic? These are descriptors. Adjectives. I've never heard of either, in and of itself, being a slur to anyone. If I'm wrong, please correct me. A good writer uses as few adjectives as is necessary to accomplish the task, but that doesn't mean I don't dearly love having as many varied and colorful little adjective-baubles at my fingertips, to play with as I wish.

If a white person gets a tattoo that is inspired by a tribal design from a native culture, how should that person describe it? Is 'tribal tattoo' bad? Can it be 'inspired by tribal design' instead? Should they just never get those tattoos? While I'm sure that last is preferred by some, I find the idea that it could about about as realistic as saying 'only men from Ireland or Scotland can wear kilts' - that is to say, not very. Along the same lines, why is it bad to wear clothing that is traditionally worn by a culture that is not your own? The first times I ever saw a woman wear a sari or a salwar suit, they were both very white women with no trace of the culture the garments came from. And I thought they looked like the most comfortable, prettiest things ever. I don't have a culture I identify with (as "American" isn't at all one, cohesive culture), so why is it so evil for me to wear things I find beautiful from other cultures? And can I write characters who are maybe from Panama that like to wear salwar suits?

An important distinction I'd like to make here (if you're still reading, congratulations and thank you for sticking this out): taking something sacred from another culture and using it for secular means isn't okay in most cases. I wouldn't take a Jewish prayer shawl or an Islamic prayer rug or a Wiccan athame and use it for other than its intended purpose. The flip side of that is that I would use them for their intended purpose - taking something sacred from a culture not your own and using it for sacred purpose is fine. But if I see someone with a sacred item from a culture that doesn't look to be their own, you know what? I won't be the one to judge if they're using it properly or not. I don't know the person, I don't know what faith they ascribe to, what culture they identify with, etc. Maybe they were adopted. Maybe they converted. Maybe it's just a fashion accessory to them. I don't know, and unless I get to know the person, I never will - so I can't judge if someone is being proper. It's kind of like looking at someone using a wheelchair or a cane or a motorized scooter - if the person looks 'healthy' then why are they using those things? Bzzt. Don't know them, can't see something invisible (like many disabilities, or faith, or culture), so can't judge.

With my stories, maybe I have a white girl who is Hindu. Or a brown girl who is Wiccan. The nice thing (or maybe not, I'm still figuring this one out) is that people make their own assumptions about characters, generally in spite of what is written. I've read stories where the setting was so typically medieval European that it took me a few read-throughs to notice that the characters were described as dark-skinned. I'm sure if I describe a character as Hindu, people will make their own assumptions about ethnicity (unless I make it a mallet to beat them over the head that the character is not what they expect).

People I adore and respect into itty bitty bits have said some of the things that have had this rant percolating, which is why I waited as long as I did to write it up. I took the time to 'check my privilege' as it were, and I think I've got this about as unbiased as I'm going to get it. Simply put, I don't think appropriation is quite the evil I'm constantly told to feel that it is. Are there things with giant Do Not Touch signs on them? Yep. Are there many more things that I think are beautiful and worth sharing? Oh, so very much yes.