Cultural appropriation is the use of another people’s culture or identity wholesomely or parts of it. It is an act that individuals or groups perpetuate from a more privileged or dominant culture (Michael, 2020). The result of such acts of cultural and identity theft disadvantaged the minority groups. The cultural appropriation of Black writers by their White counterparts has been controversial and laced with racial and prejudicial tendencies, as is common in the United States. Cultural appropriation has different spheres. Theft of identity and cultures can be done through other areas of the arts like music, dance, film, poetry, and several other creative areas (Michael, 2020). Adopting a certain way of doing things by a person or group identified as privileged is known as appropriation.
Literature has been a historically important avenue for many marginalized communities. Whether in America or the rest of the world, generations have expressed their ways of life through literature works (Riley & Carpenter, 2015). Many ethnic minorities have chronicled their struggles in the face of possible annihilation by majority tribes. From the days of the European migration to America, the slave trade, and slavery in t she Southern plantations, Blacks and minorities have employed literature as the screen through which their experiences were observed. White authors have consistently usurped their privileges to the dismay of their Black counterparts. The numerous cases of White authors adopting Black culture as the basis for their books have been controversial. The memories of slavery and segregation that brought the American cultural diversity have fueled the emotional racial debates. Appropriation has been continually cited as a tool that privileged Whites use to discredit the Afro-American struggle.
Several works of fiction have emerged in the United States and invoked bitter resistance from the Black communities. A notable example is the 1967 book titled: The Confessions of Nat Turner by controversial author William Styron. The emotions evoked by the publication of this book were unprecedented (Styron, 2020). A subject as highly important to the Black minorities was bound to create unease all across the United States. William Styron was a privileged White American who chose to impersonate Nat Turner, a Black preacher and anti-slavery crusader of the 17th century.
Black people identified with Nat Turner as a pioneer in their race’s struggle for recognition and equality. Turner led a rebellion of slaves in the Southern United States plantations for almost a week (Styron, 2020). Over fifty slaves died in the riots at the hands of their White masters. Nat Turner was hanged as a punishment for his defiance to the White slave masters. When William Styron decided to impersonate this slave leader, he was stealing from the Black community their identity. A White author could in no way be trusted to paint the struggles of the same people his race sought to undermine. By depicting how the Black people suffered in the rebellion and the general effects of slavery on their race, his efforts were termed racial (Vaseem, 2020). Despite his sympathizing narrative in the book, Black people and their scholars condemned him. His adoption of a Black man’s life was appropriation that could not escape criticism.
The line between writing about a minority and being labeled as racist and complacent is very thin. Privileged authors in the US cannot effectively explain their roles whenever they try to juggle the race card with emancipation (Klee, 2017). Blacks cannot trust the intentions of their White counterparts even after the past centuries living alongside one another. Cultural appropriation has been affected by the mainstream American political environment. Many White political leaders paint themselves as progressive and equality-driven proponents. However, their policies in and outside of the various levels of legislatures in the United States system speak the opposite.
Laws are passed with thinly veiled racist clauses. Blacks are accorded limited opportunities in the public and private sectors. This continuation of the segregation witnessed since the slave struggle makes any White author purporting to chronicle the Afro-American journey falter. The recognition of the William Styron book by the mainstream American publishing and literary scene worsened things. Black authors accused the majority of White-owned publishing houses of bias and racism (Styron, 2020). They claimed that publishers showed disinterest whenever a Black author penned their books on the slave and Afro-American struggles.
Alternatively, they alleged that if accorded a chance to publish, most mainstream players in the industry shunned their works, leading to poor reviews (Vaseem, 2020). In addition to that, Black authors were paid very low royalties for their literature. In contrast to their Black counterparts, Whites received premium rates for their culturally appropriate books (Styron, 2020). William Styron received the highest royalties for any writer by the publisher of his book The Confessions of Nat Turner. No writer had previously been paid an amount of money similar to Styron’s. The book’s success and adoption as a movie later made Black authors and critics angry. It went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, further cementing the Afro-American’s claims of bias and inequality in reviewing and criticism of White authored books.
How Cultural Appropriation Has Changed
Cultural appropriation has changed throughout history in America. The Black consciousness and call for unbiased publishing and recognition of authors have eased tensions (Vaseem, 2020). To limit the effects of producing a work of literature, an author should adopt the following mechanisms:
Soul-searching whether they are the right candidates for the writing
Before embarking on the writing of any literature that touches on a minorities’ way of life or event, it is essential to gauge ones’ suitability. The author should ask themselves questions regarding their suitability to produce a certain work of literature (Vaseem, 2020). If they find it fit to proceed, then they should observe care and stick to details.
Identify stereotypes and other negative attitudes
Most minorities are defined through stereotypes and negative attitudes by their oppressors or other dominant groups. An author should keenly study the negative attitudes that others use to describe the minorities he/she is writing about (Vaseem, 2020). This identification of negative energies could assist in approaching the writing from an informed and less invasive perspective.
Research the minorities well
By delving deeper into the practices and ways of life of the people a writer is chronicling or basing their fictional work on, the author avoids untruths (Vaseem, 2020). The near-perfect writing about a minority group could breed acceptance of the literature work and lead to author recognition as a true champion of minority rights. On the contrary, poor research could produce flawed works and lead to anger and resentment from the minority groups.
Allow members of the minority group to read and critic the work before publishing
If accorded an opportunity to read and offer their insights, minorities could point out areas that require changing and correction. This positive review could enable the author to align their literature to the realities faced by the minority group (Vaseem, 2020). The acceptance of a literature piece after advice and input from the target audience could build the author’s profile as a true defender and minorities’ sensitive person.
How Cultural Appropriation Has Changed Over Time
People have become more acceptable of the practices of others. Alternatively, many countries have adopted standards that act as guiding principles in the publishing, review, and criticism of literature. Authors acknowledge that most writing is based on borrowing and incorporating ideas of others (Vaseem, 2020). In avoiding labeling as appropriators, international literary standards require people to indicate the source of the material they use in their writing. This is called plagiarism in scholarly and academic circles. When an author acknowledges the material they have used as belonging to another author or scholar, they build their credibility. Such an act makes the original publisher of the literature be recognized and receive his scholarly attributes (Riley & Carpenter, 2015).
Additionally, to avoid bias and appropriation, all authors in any work of literature are accorded the same treatment and recognition. The individuals who contribute to the realization of a publishable work of literature are indicated. Any person who reads their published works either in a journal or as a book should see a list of all authors. This accreditation allows readers of the published material to understand a particular author’s contribution to the literature. Also, many minorities have been incorporated into mainstream lifestyles. The previous segregation and prejudicial tendencies adopted by privileged ethnic groups have lessened over time. Diversity and inter-personal relations between both minorities and dominant groups have contributed to the acceptance and changing views.
Additionally, international law that recognizes the unique attributes of minorities has enhanced recognition. Property rights protect the interests of groups and individuals identified as minorities and vulnerable. Cultures, artifacts, music, and dance styles, and different audio-visual works of art are protected (Suh, Hur & Davies, 2016). Countries have legislated against theft of artistic rights under property rights laws. The acknowledgment of individual contributions to the production of various creative works has made cultural appropriation less desirable. Many dominant groups are wary of being labeled property right’s thieves. Additionally, most developed and economically powerful nations have strict copyright laws. They discourage and punish persons and organizations engaging in infringement of artistic rights (Suh et al., 2016). The publishers and authors have a right to earn a monetary share from the proceeds of selling books and other materials.
How Scholars Have Written About Appropriation
Scholars have approached cultural appropriation from a multi-pronged dimension. They acknowledge that the originality of artifacts is hard to maintain and protect. Alternatively, the obsession of dominant groups to suppress and discriminate against their minority subordinates fueled appropriation (Ashley & Plesch, 2002). The dominance was adopted as a mechanism to keep the ways of life of the minority groups under check. Their oppressors perceived their lifestyles as primitive and culturally inferior. The literature works available were seen as less inconsequential and inappropriate to the dominant ethnic groups.
Many minorities were forced to hide their original artifacts from the dominant groups for fear of cultural annihilation. Many original cultures were diluted through the influence of conquering dominant groups (Suh et al., 2016). People were forced to adopt alien cultures and lifestyles. For instance, many Europeans were assimilated into foreign doctrines like Christianity by Roman imperialists. Their untainted, time-tested cultures could not be accepted by the Christian puritans (Ashley & Plesch, 2002). They either accepted to change their ways of life or end up destroyed.
For fear of the conquerors, minority groups discarded their cultures. The culture appropriation that resulted made the original minority cultures sink into oblivion. After the invaders left or were defeated, dilute cultures remained. The ways of life of many conquered people were mixed with the foreign cultures and became the new cultures (Manderstedt, Palo & Kokkola, 2020). As time passed, the inclusion of newer lifestyles created new cultures. Consequently, some original aspects of the original cultures remained.
Additionally, translators of works of literature adopted strategies that sometimes passed for cultural appropriation. The produced works after translations were different from the original manuscripts that were availed to them. Stereotypes and prejudice for minorities formed the basis for distortion of translated material (Ashley & Plesch, 2002). Superiority tendencies could not allow translators to stick to the details inside the original literature materials. Dominant groups perceived their languages as more superior and culturally acceptable. In depicting their bias, many original words had different meanings from the new literature works available. The translator had to include materials and words they felt served their purposes better than the original author’s words.
Cultural appropriation makes minorities lose their distinct identity. The various aspects of artifacts like literature that form a people’s identity make them prone to diluting their originality. Scholars attribute the incorporation of alien cultures into the lifestyles of others as a contributor to cultural changes. Protection of property rights and copyrights enables artists to reap from their creativity and remain relevant. Attributing literature and other works to their original authors makes those citing them credible while acknowledging the owner’s contributions. Dominant groups writing about minorities’ cultures evoke emotions and could be termed as cultural appropriation.
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Ashley, K. & Plesch, V. (2002). The Cultural Processes of Appropriation, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 32(1), 1-15.
Bradford, K. T. (2017). Commentary: Cultural Is, In Fact, Indefensible, Code Switch. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/06/28/533818685/cultural-appropriation-is-in-fact-indefensible
Klee, M. (2017). Why Do White Writers Keep Fictionalizing Black Experiences, Culture Trip.https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/why-do-white-writers-keep-fictionalizing-black-experiences/
Manderstedt, L., Palo, A., & Kokkola, L. (2020). Rethinking Cultural Appropriation in YA Literature Through Sámi and Arctic Pedagogies. Children's Literature in Education, 1-18.
Michael, R. (2020). Cultural Appropriation, Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Styron, A. (2020). The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation, The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/other-peoples-stories/607606/
Suh, Y., Hur, J., & Davies, G. (2016). Cultural appropriation and the country of origin effect. Journal of Business Research, 69(8), 2721-2730.
Vaseem, K. (2020). Cultural Appropriation (Part 2): when authors crash and burn, VaseemKhan. https://vaseemkhan.com/2020/09/09/cultural-appropriation-part-2-when-authors-crash-and-burn/