Sex. Feminism. Lesbian Werewolves.

Resisting Exotification

Posted on Jul 12, 2010 in Feminism, Writing | 3 comments

Many of the characters in Lunatic Fringe have their feet in two worlds.  Renee is biracial, Sharmalee is an immigrant, Archer dances the line between species, Lexie struggles to move from her working class background into an elite class, and all the werewolf characters live in two distinct forms.

As a white woman writing about characters of various races, I’ve got an eye to my white privilege, trying to stay vigilant against any cultural objectification or exotification that may creep into my writing.  While I’m pretty aware of the perniciousness of white privilege, I realize that I, like everyone, has some blind spots.  It’s my job as a writer to make sure I’m speaking to all my readers without exotifying or commodifying bits of culture I want while discarding the rest.

In my own writing I notice a distinct trepidation when dealing with aspects of Native American culture.  I attribute this to the fact that most non-native American kids know a lot about aspects of Native American culture academically, yet know little about in reality.  I, like a lot of schoolkids, studied Native American cultures in history class- thus learning about place names, Thanksgiving and genocides, but very little about the realities of Native culture now.

This purely academic understanding of other people contributes to a sense of Otherness that drives serious wedges between people and sets the stage for objectification.

Because the population of indigenous folks is quite small compared to other ethnic minorities, its rare that most kids are exposed to real, contemporary first-nation people unless you live in areas of the US where native populations tend to be concentrated.  I learned the most about African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American and other cultures by having friends of those cultures, and many of them likely learned about my culture from me.  Even in popular media, while Blacks and Latinos have made decent gains in their representation, contemporary Native American voices are woefully underrepresented.   So kids growing up in areas lacking AmerIndian populations can’t even turn to popular media to learn.

While writing about Renee and Sharmalee is fairly simple in that they are based on real people in my life, and thus I don’t fret much about doing my due diligence around the way I represent them, I do tread carefully when using aspects of indigenous culture in my book.

Nisi Shawl breaks down this concern expertly in her essay “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.” :

…audience member Diantha Day Sprouse categorized those who borrow others’ cultural tropes as “Invaders,” “Tourists,” and “Guests.” Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.

Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.

I would go one step further and add a fourth category to her trifecta- Traveler.  Traveler is a class between Tourist and Guest, a mindful state of gratitude and openness, attempting not to place value judgments upon a culture, while still acknowledging that one has not been expressly invited into the culture.

I certainly aspire to be a Traveler, aware of my privilege at being allowed near the campfire, and hoping I can provide something small in return, even if it’s just my silence.

In her essay, Shawl relays a particularly cringe-worthy example of cultural appropriation by way of pastiche.  The author she refers to in the anecdote picked and chose among some cultural details and discarded the rest as a means of adding some “flavor.”

In my book, there are some small aspects of First Nations cultures.  Lexie, for instance, is one quarter Shoshone.  While not something she pays much mind to, this is a salient detail because I wanted to imply that her family has been in the area for generations.  It ties her strongly to place, which is an important part of her character.

I also make some use of chinook jargon, a creole trade language.  Lexie’s dreams are often in a language she can’t interpret and she’s never heard spoken.  I love chinook jargon both aesthetically and representationally. It formed as a language between First Nations people and European immigrants, a pastiche of words from many different tribal and European languages.  This language, like most of my characters, is something both known and other, both accepted and misunderstood.  It belongs to no one, so it belongs to everyone.

I don’t know how people will interpret my use of these details.  I’m trying to be a mindful Traveler, but I also worry about my blind spots.

While it’s easy to dismiss cultural appropriation that results in classifications of “savages” and miscreants, it’s just as pernicious to place entire cultures on pedestals such as with that exotification orgy, Avatar.  Defining cultures as “more evolved” or “more spiritual” than one’s own culture still creates the Other/Self dichotomy.  I notice this more than ever as well-meaning white people describe Obama as “articulate” thinking it’s a pure complement or equating the 2012 fervor with some kind quasi-magical wisdom they attribute to ancient Mayans.

It seems to me that Native-American cultures still suffer the wise warrior trope more than anyone.  Native-Americans are still culturally perceived as more evolved- as environmentalists, conservationists, pure of spirit, deeply in tune with natural rhythms, able to commune with animals, tapped into some magical ways of interpreting the natural world, wise, patient, forgiving, and so on.  Few would contend these are negative traits, but they’re stereotypes nonetheless. “Positive racism” is still racism.

I can’t stand the grocery-aisle version of spirituality that so many rudderless Westerners grasp at while seeking transcendence.  I fear that the presence of magical aspects of my story, too, will reek of cultural appropriation.

I am working to be a Traveler as a writer- aware of my own Otherness, treading carefully and respectfully, while open to my ignorance and ability to learn, while still realizing that I haven’t necessarily been invited to sit around the campfire.

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3 Comments

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  1. Casey Lybrand

    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. This resonated with me:

    “I certainly aspire to be a Traveler, aware of my privilege at being allowed near the campfire, and hoping I can provide something small in return, even if it’s just my silence.”

    I see that I aspire to be a Traveler as well. That analogy helps. (Reminders about the importance of silence also help.)

  2. laura pearce

    three comments; first, have you read louise erdrich? i think she writes wonderfully about modern native cultures in that she neither romanticizes them nor demonizes them. second, i don’t agree with your assessment of white people calling obama articulate as being a racially-tinted impure compliment… consider the presidential time-line! i, being an almost exact replica of obama racially, have listened to obama speak with dreamy-eyed wonder and called him “magnificently articulate” due to the comparison of his style of speech with our former president– it is less a comment of surprise like “i thought black people were inarticulate” and more an appreciation for silk after 8 years of burlap. third, it IS difficult to write reliably on a population as an outsider, and even more so if you haven’t been exposed to them…good writers do their research! have you thought about volunteering for an organization that would put you in contact with them, allow you to spend some time with them? :)

  3. Allison

    @Laura-

    Thanks for your feedback. I haven’t read Louise Erdrich, but that’s a pretty powerful testimonial- so I’ll be sure to look her up. As for point 2, I agree that it’s not always racist to suggest that Obama is articulate. He certainly is articulate, especially compared to the feeble-minded dolt who preceded him. I meant that I consider it racist when people mention his articulacy with thinly-veiled surprise. But I wasn’t clear about that in the original post. Your third point is well-taken. If anything, it makes me confront my white guilt a bit- I’m very comfortable working on behalf of communities in which I see myself as a Guest (to borrow Shawl’s term again) or a Member (such as with LGBTQ work). I get nervous when considering working with “disenfranchised” populations of color because it makes me consider uncomfortable savior models of service- as a white woman helping communities of color, because presumably, “they can’t help themselves.”

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