On Cultural Appropriation

Recently on Facebook, I was criticized for not knowing what cultural appropriation is. A friend had posted a side-by-side shot of Princess Leia and a Mexican soldadera, showing how Leia's two side buns had been inspired by the woman revolutionary, confirmed by Lucas years prior. A fellow commenter called it cultural appropriation, and I disagreed. Her response: you clearly don't know what cultural appropriation is. But I do. And Leia wearing the side buns which were inspired by the soldadera is not an example of it. One honors, the other exploits. It's that clear. And for this person to call it appropriation means that she would claim to know Lucas' intent, which is ludicrous because she can't know the heart of a person.

So, what's the test? How does one know it is exploitation versus a simple use of, an inspiration from, an attempt to honor, right or wrong?

I think it's easy: does the use of a hairstyle (that I've actually had a hard time finding more examples of) come across as Lucas "knowing" or "getting" what it is to be a soldadera? In other words, does he use the image/icon in such a way that it comes across as him "being" on the inside or from the inside? Or does he use it simply as an image influenced by? Does he speak about its use as expert despite being from the outside, a know-it-all? Or does he say, instead, "I was going through some images of women warriors and I came across this one of a Mexican woman revolutionary and I thought, 'Cool, just what I was looking for'"?

Now, there is also this other thing: the misuse or misrepresentation of a culture, which is not appropriation but another sort of mistake that an author or illustrator will make. And again, we have to deal with his/her intent. Usually, the intent is innocent: he/she wants to be more representative, more diverse in the work. It's a two-edged sword. Do it, do it wrong, pay for it. Don't do it, the writer is bigoted. These these are not evil people we're dealing with in the publishing industry, though. They just don't know, or don't realize that they don't know. I'm among them. I've gotten called at least once, before publication, I made the correction, and it didn't harm the integrity of the story nor of my work as a writer (thanks, David Bowles for speaking up that one time). To do it well, I need to check with others in the know if I'm going to write a Black character into my story, or a First Nations character. Though I do believe that there are universal elements to our stories--that we all know great happiness and great sadness, that we all experience love and hate, that we feel anger and joy--I have discovered that we don't all express them or experience them in the same ways. And sometimes, a culture's expression or experience is distinct, and I need to honor it. For me to write that into one of my stories without really understanding it means, at best, I'm doing it superficially, at worst, I'm doing it wrong, and the one who suffers is the younger and more impressionable reader from within that culture; the other from without, too, suffers.

I do think we have allowed ourselves to become too soft, in need of safe spaces too quickly over the years. We are too sensitive about almost everything. That a writer elects not to make reference to another's culture because we're likely to get called on it is censorship of the worst kind: self-censorship. I choose not to write something because I'm scared that there will be pushback is a bad thing. I'm not saying we need to lighten up, let things go, let writers and illustrators off the hook. But we cannot take offense at everything like this woman on Facebook did with this image of Leia and the soldadera or with me disagreeing with her. This diminishes the more serious and legitimate work that other folks are doing.

One last thing: these books are out there: those that abuse or exploit a culture, and those that misrepresent. I would recommend to fellow teachers to, on occasion, use them with our children in the classroom as opposed to avoid them. Instead of shielding our children at every turn, we need to teach them how to distinguish between a book that gets it right and one that fails miserably. We need to teach them how to be strong that way, to look at a text critically and how to be critical of it. We need to teach them to stand up for and against these major errors in curriculum. More importantly, we'd be teaching them to become independent and strong. To themselves know when and how to do so. That's what I want for my own kids. And for others' too.

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