Writing: Appropriation

I recently watched Raya and the Last Dragon (I know, I’m slow on these things). I wanted to see it because it said “dragon” in the title AND because I’ve heard some stuff about appropriation in it. Some hub-bub around the film’s release said it was insensitive to other cultures. You know, Disney perhaps not being known for their cultural sensitivity… I get it. Mulan is…. well it is based on Chinese legend but VERY westernized.

Specifically, when I use this term I mean social appropriation, which Dictionary.com says is:

the adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status.


Examples include white people wearing clothing/styles of Native Americans, or (white people) making art based on African cultural style(s). You have probably heard some of these things. In the past several years, there have been conversations about people dressing as Michael Jackson (if you aren’t black), transphobic costumes, dreadlocks (again, especially if you’re white…), wearing sombreros, or…. well the list just keeps going.

In my understanding, appropriation comes down to power and privilege. If you come from a culture of history power (white/European) and you are portraying something from a culture without that power (African/or slave descendants) it is almost impossible to NOT be guilty of appropriation. So if I, as a cis-white woman, tried to write a series exploring a black lesian – well there is a lot of cultural (historical for sure, I would argue contemporary imbalances) which make it sooooo inappropriate.

The difficulty comes when those lines are less clear. Raya was written by an American-Vietnamese and a Malaysian duo. It was produced by Disney which is the epitome of white-European culture. There were a lot of voice actors who were white portraying people who weren’t. Was there appropriation? I don’t know. I think it’s an excellent case-study in whether it is or not. I could probably argue both sides of that debate if I wanted to.

And it is even harder depending on the culture. For example, I spent a semester in Japan and one of my Japanese professors told us that the Japanese people want to be a dominant culture. They want other people to imitate their art, their clothing, their appearances – because it means they are the dominant culture. It was a fascinating lesson and it has definitely colored my view on appropriation.

I have seen it said occasionally, but there is also a conversation to be had differentiating between appropriation and appreciation. I am going to say something I have said before I am not an expert. I’m just another person trying to figure this out. I have written on here before about political correctness – sometimes what offends one person doesn’t bother another in the same group…

OMG- you mean these thing like skin color and gender and sexual orientation don’t make you part of a monolithic hive mind?!??!

And I think that does matter. There was a thing in the news about Justin Bieber wearing dreadlocks and he even said “I have benefited from black culture” (that is as much as I saw in the headline/blurb) and I cringed. No. This is not appreciation. There is STILL so much inequity in our society (black people making less with the same qualifications at the same job) as to make it pretty near impossible for a white boy to truly “appreciate” black cultural elements.

On the other hand, my host mother in Japan gave me a yukata (summer kimono) and helped me pick out a casual winter kimono when I said I wanted to buy one (I couldn’t afford a formal kimono). She taught me how to wear them, how to tie the obi… how to appreciate it. I don’t have many opportunities to wear it, but when I do I don’t have any doubt about my NOT appropriating.

You said this was about writing…

And it is. When I am writing based on real cultures, I think this is vital. Now, I have the benefit of preferring to write fantasy and sci-fi, so if I am writing about a culture I can make it loosely empire based enough to reference bits of all the imperial cultures throughout history. As long as I’m not making an exact replica of the Forbidden City and calling it the Forbidden City (or something so ridiculously similar), there are enough cultures with singular-male-head with many wives… I mean it’s not even limited to the Asian-pacific region.

However, if I was going to write a culture which had very dark skin, lived in a hot, dry climate who primarily used spears…. I mean I’m not saying African, but most people will go there in their mind and I need to be aware of it. Why I am picking that? Is it important or am I just being edgy? And am I making them a “poor, lost people” or “terrifying savages”? If a lot of that paragraph doesn’t have you cringing – go re-read the first part of this post again.

If I am writing in a desert and building a culture, it might make a lot of sense for the people to have darker skin tones (just looking globally that is common), but they might also have some of the most advanced legal practices, trade routes, and science in the world (I’m looking at you Ottoman Empire of the middle ages into the renaissance). If I’m writing in a jungle, the local power may have one of the most advanced forms of banking and money (looking at the Aztec empire).

Or if I’m writing about a country made of islands with a titular emperor but is really controlled by another family who merely claims to pay homage to the emperor all the while controlling power AND there is a lot of bamboo and the women were long, robe-like dresses AND everyone drink tea AND they have ceremonies with their tea AND… yeah you know who I mean. Maybe it’s appropriation. It might depend on what I’m doing.

It isn’t black and white (pun not actually intended, but I’m keeping it). And it is something I’m not sure I’ll always get “right.” I WILL be aware, and I will try to appreciate rather than appropriate – and sometimes that means I can’t use my favorite thing because although I like it – there is no way to disentangle the cultural history (or contemporary) oppression. I come from privilege, and in this context it means I dont get everything I want.