Cultural appropriation is one of the most exhausting topics on the internet. Not because it requires nuance and a sense of understanding about how cultural issues have developed in Western society for generations, but because of the bad faith people bring into the conversation whenever it is discussed.
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs continues a conversation that has been going on for a long time, carried by the momentum of Ghost in the Shell, Iron Fist and many other “whitewashing” and cultural appropriation controversies about Asian culture. On Twitter, I’ve seen Asian movie and culture critics like Justin Chang, Angie Han, and Jen Yamato engage in thoughtful conversation, not even bashing the film (in fact they praise multiple aspects of the movie) but when they discuss how they feel about its depiction of Asian culture and the problematic aspects of it, they are vilified.
This, to me, is one of the problems when we talk about cultural appropriation, is that because we look at twitter and we use the extremes to define everything and we also ignore that sometimes that rage (if it is really rage and not just hyperbolic twitter speak) builds from a place of frustration over time. Now that we have made it to the point where we have people of color who are successful and are making great art that is highly regarded, there is this idea that we no longer have anything to be mad or frustrated about in terms of representation in media. In the words of Solange, “[we] got a lot to be mad about.”
The successes of Aziz Ansari, Donald Glover, Issa Rae and Lena Waite is the success of individuals, not an entire group. It is still hard for Asian-led movies that are not martial arts movies to be made here, darker skinned actresses still do not get cast as often in films as their lighter skinned counterparts, LGBTQ creators are still breaking new ground in terms of representation.
We are still putting in the work and we are always aware that it could end at any time. We had plenty of black shows in the 90s, but they all went away. Fresh off the Boat is the only East Asian family sitcom on television. Jane the Virgin, One Day at a Time, and the upcoming Charmed reboot will be serving Latinx representation, but don’t have much color diversity when it comes to what a Latinx family can look like.
Back to cultural appropriation, the great battle for our media’s future, there is a feeling that it is all a “no-win” situation where you are either creating a “white savior”, “appropriating someone else’s voice” or you are lambasted for ignoring diversity altogether.
Since this seems to be the pushback I’ve seen almost across the board when cultural appropriation comes up, let’s break these down.
First, there’s the “white savior” or its Great Wall counterpart, white dude put in the main role to be in a sea of non-white people. Why do we hate this? Because of the “mighty whitey” trope which was popularized in the 18th and 19th century by the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars/Barsoom series) and H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines/She). All featuring white people in either Darkest Africa or “othered” societies where the white character was able to not only stand toe-to-toe, but actually best the natives. All these stories put whiteness as inherently superior (and in Tarzan’s case also his noble blood), which allows the protagonist to best everyone. The descendants of that trope are characters like Danny Rand in Iron Fist or Tom Crusie’s The Last Samurai.
Secondly, the issue of appropriating someone else’s voice. This is a trickier issue because, in many ways, it is subjective. I may find a white author or non-black POC’s take on blackness more authentic than another black person. Not to mention there are white creators like the people behind The Wire, Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror), or Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, and others who I think do manage to create nuanced depictions of blackness. So it’s not as if POC don’t recognize that non-POC creators make good art “for” us. The issues are that (a) white creators so often get the ability to tell those stories and authors of color do not and (b) there are certain narratives we are, frankly, tired of reading.
I don’t want to read another story written by a white person, about a person of color teaching a white person not be racist. I don’t care if it’s from the perspective of a POC or a white person, let it die. If you are engaging in a derivative narrative, even in a “well meaning” way, doing research isn’t gonna save you.
Anything you put out into the world will be seen differently by different people. Some black readers liked Underground Airlines by Ben Winter, other did not, and the conversation around the book went further than what he had written, but to be quite frank, if you write a book about an alt-reality where the Civil War never ended from the perspective of a black person … you better be prepared for it.
Finally, there’s the erasure fear. Look, if you grew up in white town USA and you don’t know how to write a black person or another person of color, not even a Stephen King style magical negro, then you make sure that your stories take place in white town USA forever and all time.
Don’t do what Sofia Coppola did in The Beguiled and create a narrative that takes place during the Civil War, that actually features a prominent black female character in the source material, and then say “I can’t write anyone but white women in my film dissertation on southern femininity.” Which became even more cringe-worthy after Lady Macbeth came out an manage to show the power dynamics between black women and white women in an adaptation of a Russian short story.
To wrap everything up as simply as I can, let me just say this: We have all appropriated culture at some point or another. There are plenty of things involving language and culture that we grew up thinking was the norm because we were not able to hear all the voices saying “this is bullshit.”
These are difficult conversations because no ethnic group is a monolith, especially if we consider mainland vs diaspora experiences, but at the end of the day, the most important thing we can do is listen. Just listen. Stop assuming that a mob of angry POC is coming to burn off your Dragonball Z tattoos, break all your rap CDs, and throw out your Ganesha ring you got in the East Village.
All anyone is asking, at the core of all these arguments, is to consider the larger issues. Not just your individual enjoyment or pleasure or fun, but to think about the larger things. The racism, the oppression and the historical background as to why people are bringing this up. Go enjoy the Isle of Dogs, but when Asian critics are posing the question “why did this movie take place in Japan?” do not just toss them aside because it may make you pause for a moment in your enjoyment.
And to creators out there who are anxious about what they can and can not do as artists, I think Marc Bernardin from The Hollywood Reporter offers the best two pieces of advice anyone can give:
“First: Do the work. […]And second: Don’t be a strip-miner. Don’t treat culture like some kind of Vegas buffet, filling your plate with exotic flavors and setting it in front of a Caucasian protagonist to be tickled and amused by. Remember the importance of empathetic weight: Who is the story about? And if it’s about a person from the culture you are drawing from, you’ve already gone a long way towards achieving a fidelity of intention as well as execution.”
(via The Hollywood Reporter, image: Fox Searchlight Pictures.)
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