Cultural appropriation.

It’s a subject that I’ve spoken briefly on here and here.

There’s quite a bit I want to say  about this because over the past two years, I’ve noticed a strong push back against authors who feature characters from different ethnicities or cultures.

I had hoped it was a fringe topic, limited to the extremes of  radical identity politics, but I’m sad to be mistaken.

This past week the United Nations  is looking at drafting legislation to make cultural appropriation illegal.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

The United Nations: accountable to no one, which allows oppressive governments to sit on panels to determine Human Rights, has been responsible for the spread of cholera in Haiti, whose “peacekeepers” have committed war crimes in the form of rapes in Central Africa and has exacerbated human misery because of its inefficiencies and corrupt practices.

This is the organisation which is being used to eventually tell you what food you can cook, what art you can perform, what earrings you can wear and even how you wear your hair.

Yes, yes, it sounds like I’m traipsing through tin-foil hat territory here, but check out the links above.

I didn’t make them up.

It might be worth to get a clear understanding on a few things, so you can understand where my disquiet about cultural appropriation comes from.

Cultural Appropriation v Copyright

Copyright is the protection afforded by the creator of an original work.

It doesn’t extend to the people (or culture) who created the tools for that expression.

That means a person who writes a song for piano and guitar owns the rights to the song.

She doesn’t share royalties with the people of Italy (home of the piano-forte) or Spain (which invented the guitar).

Don’t laugh, there is already enough confusion regarding the law regarding art which may reflect or impinge on what is considered Australian Aboriginal art.

The first question on that web site is: ‘Is it OK to use dots in my painting like Aboriginal artists do?’

Sadly the web site doesn’t actually answer the question, which might lead some well-meaning artist to believe the answer is either ‘No’ or ‘Yes, but you have to seek permission’.

Neither answer is correct.

Australia’s copyright and other intellectual property laws do not protect the idea of painting in dots or using hashes, symbols and style that may be directly taken (but not copied) from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) art. There is no copyright protection for copying original images because the material being copied is determined to be “outside” the duration of copyright protection and there is no protection available to cultural symbols or the people whose totems they represent.

If an indigenous community paints as an unidentified group there is no copyright protection available unless the group can be named and identified. If an indigenous community tells its oral history and it is not transcribed, there is no copyright protection. If it is transcribed, the laws state that the writer owns the copyright – but of course, it may not be the scribe’s story.

Now that’s clear – you create something original and the copyright (intellectual property) is yours.

Copy an identified individual or group’s original work, you are a plagiarist and a thief – no soup for you (and, quite rightly, a possible fine and hefty damages).

So, if cultural appropriation is not the protection of copyright, then what is it?

“It doesn’t belong to you”

The line of thinking seems to be that if you are not of that particular culture, you don’t have  ‘permission’ to use or adapt items from that culture.

That’s really going to screw my local bakery which is owned by a Malay family who do fabulous Cornish Pasties, Aussie Meat Pies, French Croissants, Belgian cheesecakes and delicious Italian cannolis. (We’ll fight the  Kiwis for ownership of the Pavlova).

Here’s another conundrum, the Japanese language and religion were lifted from the Chinese. Anime which is a hugely popular artform from Japan which features characters of an exaggerated caucasian form (big eyes and frequently for female characters, blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin). It ‘appropriates’ storylines from all around the world to create a highly original artform.

The Japanese are apparently bemused by it all. About two years ago, an exhibition of Kimonos was sent to a gallery in Boston. Among the treats for visitors was the opportunity to wear a kimono and have a photo taken. University students protested – ‘cultural appropriation,’ they screamed (you’ll notice they don’t do anything less than a shout).

The Japanese media were fascinated, they sent a news crew. While a small percentage of the protestors were of Asia origin, not one of them was actually a Japanese national.

A school friend of mine who lives in Japan interviewed a traditional kimono maker to see whether he was offended by cultural appropriation.

That message, recently iterated to me by an employee at the Nishijin Textiles Center in Kyoto, is this: Anyone can appropriate and creatively modify kimono styles whenever and however they like.

This message should be broadcast to counter those who misguidedly oppose the appropriation of Japan’s fashion traditions by “the West.” Japanese are not the West’s victims, and the kimono industry is ill-served by obsessions about Orientalism and politically correct “understanding.”

Kaori Nakano, a professor of fashion history at Meiji University put it to me this way: “Cultural appropriation is the beginning of new creativity. Even if it includes some misunderstanding, it creates something new.” It may be the key to the future of kimono fashion.

A very sensible attitude indeed. And not a unique one.

And this is how ridiculous the current situation has become – an author got trolled on social media this month for cultural appropriation because she had written a fantasy story in which a Minotaur (of Greek mythology) was female and not male.

If you didn’t laugh, you’d weep. Truly.

Another question I’ve not seen satisfactorily answered is, if one has to seek permission to use, borrow, adapt a tool, a style or an object from a culture which is no one’s own, to whom do they apply?

The United Nations?

To a group which may or may not truly represent people of a particular culture?

Would such a group charge a licence fee? If so, how much?

Once you start going through the thought exercise and bring it to its conclusion, cultural appropriation activism begins to smack of stand-over merchants, grifting, extortion and rank opportunism.

“You’re telling someone else’s story.”

Fiction, it may surprise some people to know, is fictitious. It is made up – sometimes for pure entertainment, sometimes to explore universal human themes.

To do that, we assemble a cast of characters and give them goals, motivation and conflict.

From what I can gather, the cultural appropriation crowd seems to think that there is only one kind of experience someone from a particular ethnic or cultural group can have.

If you, as an author don’t follow this convention, (which usually appears centred on a hierarchy of victimhood grievances), then you are somehow being disrespectful or inauthentic to that subset of humanity as a whole.

That seems narrow-minded to me.

It’s like deciding that there is only one shade of blue in the world.


An individual’s life experience is as unique as they are because the sum of a person’s life isn’t just what is ‘done’ to them, but how ‘they’ choose to react to external forces.

Just think of the hundreds of forks in the road you experience every day that require a choice. Each individual choice results in a slightly different outcome/perspective no matter how many other common factors there might be.

Just think, six billion plus unique perspectives.

The only time you can be telling someone else’s story is if you’re writing a biography.

“Your privilege is preventing the *other* from profiting from their story.”

This is something that requires quite a bit of unpacking and I’m going to focus on four things: privilege, preventing, other, profiting.

I quite readily concede that living in a first world country not riven by war, crime, systemic corruption and unending natural disasters is a privilege.

But as we identified earlier, the cultural appropriation advocate appears to believe in a limited set of lived human experiences.

So it appears if you are white and ‘cis-het’, you have powers far beyond that of mortal men (or women). A Superman, an ubermensch, if you will.

It’s rubbish of course.

How does my white friend struggling on a disability pension have more privilege than my black friend who is a successful accountant?

Preventing. While acknowledging that discrimination can exist to a greater or lesser extent (in reality, I would suggest that it is lesser, rather than greater), the notion that any artwork I might create is ‘preventing’ someone who is not white and ‘cis-het’ from creating art is ludicrous on its face.

Other, others, ‘othering’… ::shudder:: is there a more dehumanising term in socio-political thought?

Other simply means ‘someone who is not you’. Well join the club. There are more than six billion people who fall into this category.

Treat others as you would like to be treated – a unique, precious individual who matters because of who they are, not what they are.

There is a reason why that rule is golden, you know.

Profiting. According to the cultural appropriation advocate’s canon, your success comes from stomping on the backs of the downtrodden.

The truth is making a living out of artistic pursuits (or even being picked up for publication, a recording contract, a gallery showing, or an acting gig) is a crap-shoot, a roll of the dice.

All any of us can do is work as hard on our craft and show some business acumen. In this respect artists are inventors and entrepreneurs. There is never any obligation for the public to buy,  just a hope.

Cultural appropriation is how art works. Cultural appropriation is how people with so many differences find a common language, a common experience, a greater understanding of one another.

The world would be a poorer place  if Dame Kiri te Kanawa could not sing, if Albert Namatjira had not painted, if Janet Collins had not danced.

Cultural appropriation doesn’t take anything away from the original, but instead takes its inspiration and creates something  new and unique that we can all enjoy.

On that basis, one has to question why some people want to  create barriers instead of tearing them down.

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