March 01, 2021

Weaponising cultural appropriation

The starting point for the idea of cultural appropriation is solid: it's problematic when some people (usually white) are rewarded or praised for displaying or producing or performing something when the originators of that thing (usually POC) are put down or reviled for it. The entire early history of rock and roll was plagued by this (see Pat Boone for some egregious examples but don't assume he was the only one), the entire "Indian sports mascot" business basically monetised the images of Native Americans even while suppressing the people themselves, and of course the theatre and film industries have historically been really really bad about putting white people in roles of all ethnicities (even when they weren't explicitly blackfacing) and not even letting non-white people act at all, or later, only letting them act in specifically designated "ethnic roles".

So, there's a lot of history, some areas are improving, and we have a lot of work still to do.

But lately we have a lot of people who haven't thought it through (or who have but don't care) that are putting forward a complete nonsense interpretation of the concept that goes something like: the only people who can most authentically interpret the works of an artist are people that match them perfectly on every demographic axis, and furthermore, nobody who isn't a perfect match should even be permitted to try.

Which is how we arrive at this caricature of a scandal, where a powerfully compelling Black poet specifically chooses a person as her preferred translator, but critics raise a fuss that because the person is nonbinary and white, rather than female and Black, that they shouldn't be permitted to write the translation. Apparently white nonbinary folks are only allowed to translate works by other white nonbinary folks? Which is obviously nonsense, and I think even the "critics" here would reject that formulation as nonsense, and possibly knock it down as a straw-man argument. But it's not. Stepping in to override the stated preference of the original poet, denying her agency in the whole matter, throws this all into crystal-clear relief, but this is just the most recent example of at least a decade of very strange demands and decisions and complaints. People have complained about Avatar and Korra because many of the voice actors are not themselves of Asian descent; there's plenty to complain about in the way Korra handled race and culture (in a big step back from Avatar) but the idea that the characters in a fictional land that is not even Asia. can only have voices that issue from pedigreed Asian Mouths is so offensively essentialist that it's hard to believe anyone could take it seriously (but they definitely do). You will hear people seriously claim that only gay actors should be playing gay roles, which is just as silly as racial requirements: actors have to play romantic attraction to people they are not personally attracted to all the time.

And more generally: translators and actors and performers have to inhabit feelings and emotions and reactions that are not natively theirs, and have learned their craft over decades, centuries, millennia, to figure out how to convey that thought anyway. Acting is applied empathy: you are never a perfect match for the role you're playing, but you find the place in your heart that your self relates to the role—perhaps in only a small way—and magnify it, with help from your director and fellow cast, until you've got the best interpretation of the role you can give. Your difference from the role might be sexual orientation; another actor's might be race; yet another might be different in that they grew up well-to-do and the character is poor. Gorman's chosen translator did not grow up Black in America and can't have a perfect angle on the Black female American experience. But they can read Gorman's poetry in English and dive into it and interpret it with their own lens into the best damn nonbinary-white-Dutch translation of Gorman's work that they can.

And why the fuck are we putting a stop to that?

"What would it take for these news organizations and pundits to actually break with the convention that both side are equally at fault? This is the clearest, starkest situation one can imagine short of civil war. If this won't do it, nothing will." --Paul Krugman

Posted by blahedo at 11:07pm on 1 Mar 2021
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