Sensitivity Writers. AKA: avoiding cultural appropriate in writing

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Bedrockgames

Adventurer
But like any form of expression, freedom to express yourself does not free you from the consequences thereof. In this context, we’re talking about criticism, maybe protests and boycotts. Not death threats.
This is true, but again not all consequences are reasonable or well thought out. And some are more divisive. Being respectful and sensitive is one thing. I think that makes sense and most people understand what that entails. But cultural appropriation is a much bigger concept that makes it very hard to cross cultural lines and play with ideas from other cultures. Now I get there are strong arguments in its favor. I think most of us have seen the pro and con bullets of each side at this point. At the end of the day for me though, I think it is too dangerous to empathy, cultural exchange, art and free expression. And I don't know that fretting over cultural appropriation really solves anything in the end either. Just on a personal creative level, I found as concern about cultural appropriation increase I found myself a lot less comfortable as a designer (and not in a good way).

What I would say is creative people should obviously not try to be offensive to anyone and should be sensitive to cultural issues (provided they are reasonable). But I think they should be free to explore ideas from cultures outside their own, in ways that they want otherwise. And I think audiences and consumers should be somewhat charitable in their assessment. We shouldn't limit ourselves to working only with cultures in our creative efforts that match our background and skin tone. That seems like very dangerous territory to me. I know in my own experience, the only way I've learned more about other cultures is through experiencing their different elements directly.

I also think there is this notion in this debate that the best way to handle other cultures is to bring them in 100% accurately, with a perspective grounded in the culture you are borrowing from. But some of the most delightful movies and books are a product of people misunderstanding the culture they are handling. It creates something new and interesting (and this is something I see in my own culture but also from cultures borrowing from my culture).

One major concern I have about the appropriation debate, is it is a lot easier for people with masters degrees and PhDs (and to a lesser extent BAs) to navigate. And I do think it makes it harder to be creative if you are not versed in liberal arts disciplines at a high level. So I think there is a class and elite issue that arises from it.
 
It is a very difficult topic, one where there is going to be disagreement. It is also one where it isn't easy to parse through all the different points of view and all the different lines of argument.
While there are a lot of gray areas in the topic of cultural appropriation, I would also like to point out that there are also some pretty clear areas of black and white (no pun intended). For example, pretty much everyone agrees that casting white actors in blackface isn't okay anymore. And while some historical cases of "savage Indian" mascots stick around (like the famous case of the Washington Redskins), its easy to say that a new team wouldn't get away with a similar name.

As a writer, it may be difficult to figure out every instance of cultural misappropriation in your work. But it shouldn't be so hard to look at the overall picture and make sure you're not being outright offensive. If you use influences from African/Native American/whatever culture, do you only use it for the bad guys, or do the good guys have it too? And remember to flip it the other way. Are European/Christian/whatever influences visible in only the good guys, or do the bad guys have it as well? While having a full blown sensitivity editor may not be practical, having at least a couple diverse test-readers familiar with the cultures you pull from will go a long way.

TLDR: You don't have to be the most culturally aware to not be evil.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
While there are a lot of gray areas in the topic of cultural appropriation, I would also like to point out that there are also some pretty clear areas of black and white (no pun intended). For example, pretty much everyone agrees that casting white actors in blackface isn't okay anymore.
But that isn't appropriation. That is a taboo in US culture because of our history and because it comes from a style of entertainment that mocked black people. It is simply considered offensive. It isn't the cultural borrowing that is at issue. It is about wearing makeup that is a racist caricature of black people.

So again, I think the issue you can focus on rather than oppriation is simply: is this offensive? It handles most of the major concerns without getting into the 'stay in your lane' territory that, at least in my view, makes it harder for people to interact across cultural lines. We should be able to enjoy one another's cultures and not be so afraid of exploring cultures outside our own that a we have to hire sensitivity writers and walk around doing surveys with each step.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
For clarification, stereotypes are not the same as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriate is basically taking an aspect of a minority culture (dress, symbols, religion, etc) and adopting it yourself. Like sports mascots, or when white people say they have a spirit animal, or tribal tattoos. Etc.

In regards to how this relates to my OP, I'm not too worried about stereotypes (I can avoid those pretty easily). What I do want to avoid are the "another white game designer writing about African/Asian/etc culture and profiting from it by appropriating aspects of those cultures"
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
For clarification, stereotypes are not the same as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriate is basically taking an aspect of a minority culture (dress, symbols, religion, etc) and adopting it yourself. Like sports mascots, or when white people say they have a spirit animal, or tribal tattoos. Etc.

In regards to how this relates to my OP, I'm not too worried about stereotypes (I can avoid those pretty easily). What I do want to avoid are the "another white game designer writing about African/Asian/etc culture and profiting from it by appropriating aspects of those cultures"
I think twitter is going to be your best bet in terms of finding a gauge for that because there are a lot of creative communities where this is discussed and commented on. If you are active there, I would be happy to send you some suggestions by PM.
 

Derren

Adventurer
That’s pretty...cynical.

I would retort that the discussion is NOT arbitrary, but rather evidence that people are starting to finally hear and understand long-standing complaints.
Sure it is.
The first arbitrary selection is which cultures can be appropriated and which not. No one complains when German culture is appropriated (Oktoberfest, Lederhosen, etc.). The general response is that it is ok to appropriate "white" cultures because they are "in power" or something like that. But for example the Greek were not "in power" for a long time, but are still fair game.
Entirely arbitrary.
The second arbitrary selection is which culture "owns" what. Are dreadlocks part of "black culture" and no whites are allowed to have them as it was claimed? What about Vikings (ignoring for now that as white people no one cares if they are appropriated), who owns them? The Swedes? Norwegians? Danish? British? French? Ukrainian?
And it was already mentioned that the selection who is allowed to use which culture is arbitrary, too. Can an african american safely use things from an central african culture even though he never visited it just because of his skin color? What about cultures that have been gone for centuries? Why does an ancestry make someone qualified to use a culture?
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I am not 100% sure what you mean by restrain themselves, but I think it would depend on the criticism. Not all critiques have the same value or merit.
What I mean is, mere criticism will not prevent you from making something. Barring actual use of tactics like denial of resources, only your own self-restraint will.

So if A&F wanted to do something Native Americans themed that, for sake of this discussion, used sacred imagery in a way considered to be disrespectful or profane, mere accusations of cultural appropriation wouldn’t stop them from doing so. Ditto protests or boycotts. They could still release said product and let the chips fall where they may. And there are no guarantees as to how that could turn out.

There was a guitar pedal released last year that had a name that some women considered offensive. Certain outlets refused to sell it, including some used gear resale sites. They released it anyway, and not only did it sell well, a certain portion of the market bought it precisely because there were protests.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
And I don't know that fretting over cultural appropriation really solves anything in the end either. Just on a personal creative level, I found as concern about cultural appropriation increase I found myself a lot less comfortable as a designer (and not in a good way).
Has your empathy and awareness that some people might find X, Y, or Z increased? Are you more conscious of the impact of relying on negative stereotypes? Are you less likely do rely on such?

If “yes” is your answer to any of those, I would assert that’s a good thing.

What about being more culturally aware has harmed you? Has diminished the quality of your output?
 
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Bedrockgames

Adventurer
Has your empathy and awareness that some people might find X, Y, or Z increased? Are you more conscious of the impact of relying on negative stereotypes? Are you less likely do rely on such?
No, I think if anything the fretting has made me more skeptical of peoples complaints and I have had to remind myself to hit the reset button and take every argument and criticism I hear seriously. But after a while the constant criticisms on these grounds start to water down other, more legitimate complaints, because I think it gets easier for people to dismiss it as an overreaction (even if it isn't). I think the things that have increased my awareness and my empathy have nothing to do with people saying this or that is cultural appropriation, and everything to do with knowing people from other places, reading about other cultures, and generally having an open mind. I've always been very open to other cultures and points of view. And I think if anything the increase in this kind of concern about appropriation has made me feel more reluctant to engage with other cultures (an impulse I resist, but you can feel it when you try to explore things). In my experience it has just made people incredibly self conscious and hesitant.

If “yes” is your answer to any of those,mI would assert that’s a good thing.
I think my answer to the above is no.

What about being more culturally aware has harmed you? Has diminished the quality of your output?
Being culturally aware hasn't harmed me at all. But that isn't the same thing as the dialogue about cultural appropriation. Being culturally aware is good. But adhering to the dogma surrounding cultural appropariton concerns isn't the same thing as that. In fact, I've found talking to people in cultures outside the US and Europe that appropriation is even less of a concern. Like I said, cultural sensitivity matters. I not denying the importance of avoiding being offensive and of respecting people. But I think cultural appropriation offers a very simplified solution to that problem, and I think it is a solution that actually separates people, makes movement between cultures more difficult and creates resentment.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
Has your empathy and awareness that some people might find X, Y, or Z increased?
My main point about this is that I think empathy comes from engaging with other cultures. Getting to know people. Playing with cultural concepts outside your own. I think that is hard to do when battle lines are drawn around appropriation concerns and when people are postured for negative reactions rather than open to one another. I think openness is the most important quality here. But what I get from the cultural appropriation discussion isn't openness. It is more of "don't go there", "don't do it that way", etc. It is like if you have ever had a boss at work where every little detail was criticized and you ended up freezing anytime you sat down to work on something. It is just a very paralyzing phenomenon in my experience. And I think that makes openness and crossing boundaries hard.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Sure it is.
The first arbitrary selection is which cultures can be appropriated and which not. No one complains when German culture is appropriated (Oktoberfest, Lederhosen, etc.). The general response is that it is ok to appropriate "white" cultures because they are "in power" or something like that. But for example the Greek were not "in power" for a long time, but are still fair game.
All of those mentioned are considered a part of the dominant European/Western culture, to which most of the people in the USA or Europe can lay some kind of claim to. There are literally hundreds of millions of Caucasians who could- but do not- complain about the use and depiction of their culture.

The second arbitrary selection is which culture "owns" what. Are dreadlocks part of "black culture" and no whites are allowed to have them as it was claimed?
Dreadlocks, while not unique to any one culture, are strongly linked to the religious beliefs of a particular subset of blacks. It is understandable that they complain about outsiders adopting the style. And, F.Y.I., some are not only displeased with the Caucasians who so, but anyone.

What about Vikings (ignoring for now that as white people no one cares if they are appropriated), who owns them? The Swedes? Norwegians? Danish? British? French? Ukrainian?
They are free to complain. No one is stopping them.

And, for the record, some do. Especially some of the neopagans I’ve met.

Can an african american safely use things from an central african culture even though he never visited it just because of his skin color? What about cultures that have been gone for centuries?
How many Irish Americans go nuts on St. Patrick’s Day without having ever left the USA? How many Italian Americans strongly embrace their roots without having visited Italy?

Considering that many of us have absolutely no way of determining which African cultures we can genuinely claim as part of our ancestry because that knowledge was forcefully and deliberately eradicated whenever possible, you might want to reconsider your articulation of a double standard.

There are Africans who are just as prickly about the use of kente or batik patterns as there are Scots who bristle at non traditional plaids.

Personally, because I know my non-African heritage far better than I can ever know my African roots, I minimize my use of symbology from that continent. So I have an eye of Horus pendant, an ankh or two, but that’s it.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
Dreadlocks, while not unique to any one culture, are strongly linked to the religious beliefs of a particular subset of blacks. It is understandable that they complain about outsiders adopting the style. And, F.Y.I., some are not only displeased with the Caucasians who so, but anyone.

How many Irish Americans go nuts on St. Patrick’s Day without having ever left the USA? How many Italian Americans strongly embrace their roots without having visited Italy?

Considering that many of us have absolutely no way of determining which African cultures we can genuinely claim as part of our ancestry because that knowledge was forcefully and deliberately eradicated whenever possible, you might want to reconsider your articulation of a double standard.

There are Africans who are just as prickly about the use of kente or batik patterns as there are Scots who bristle at non traditional plaids.

Personally, because I know my non-African heritage far better than I can ever know my African roots, I minimize my use of symbology from that continent. So I have an eye of Horus pendant, an ankh or two, but that’s it.
But this kind of thinking keeps people locked inside their own cultures. It feels like a form of ethno-nationalism.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
No, I think if anything the fretting has made me more skeptical of peoples complaints and I have had to remind myself to hit the reset button and take every argument and criticism I hear seriously. But after a while the constant criticisms on these grounds start to water down other, more legitimate complaints, because I think it gets easier for people to dismiss it as an overreaction (even if it isn't). I think the things that have increased my awareness and my empathy have nothing to do with people saying this or that is cultural appropriation, and everything to do with knowing people from other places, reading about other cultures, and generally having an open mind. I've always been very open to other cultures and points of view. And I think if anything the increase in this kind of concern about appropriation has made me feel more reluctant to engage with other cultures (an impulse I resist, but you can feel it when you try to explore things). In my experience it has just made people incredibly self conscious and hesitant.



I think my answer to the above is no.



Being culturally aware hasn't harmed me at all. But that isn't the same thing as the dialogue about cultural appropriation. Being culturally aware is good. But adhering to the dogma surrounding cultural appropariton concerns isn't the same thing as that. In fact, I've found talking to people in cultures outside the US and Europe that appropriation is even less of a concern. Like I said, cultural sensitivity matters. I not denying the importance of avoiding being offensive and of respecting people. But I think cultural appropriation offers a very simplified solution to that problem, and I think it is a solution that actually separates people, makes movement between cultures more difficult and creates resentment.
Methinks you’re overthinking.

Why would the existence of complaints make you more skeptical that people might have a point?

Why would criticism of cultural appropriation make one less likely to experience another culture? I got to travel the world as an army brat, and go to cultural events of all kinds. Almost no one has given me the hairy eyeball for being the black guy at* the Polish fest, the local Irish-Native American festival, Oktoberfests, the annual Native American convention, Lebanese cultural & culinary fairs, etc. No, they’re all happy to see someone dipping their toes in.

So go looking for a local African, Hispanic or Asian cultural event and forget your worries. Go looking for a good time, and you’re probably going to find one.





* heavy metal shows are a little different in that regard, though.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Sure it is.
The first arbitrary selection is which cultures can be appropriated and which not. No one complains when German culture is appropriated (Oktoberfest, Lederhosen, etc.). The general response is that it is ok to appropriate "white" cultures because they are "in power" or something like that. But for example the Greek were not "in power" for a long time, but are still fair game.
Entirely arbitrary.
I don't think it's arbitrary at all, and here's why. A few weeks ago I actually had a conversation with two of my Native American friends. They were talking about how they were sick and tired of white people using terms like "spirit animal", since that was a Native belief that held a sacredness to them. I mentioned how I am of Germanic and Celtic heritage, and that my heritage also has something like a spirit animal (the fylgjur), so couldn't I also lay claim to that?

Here's how the conversation landed. We both agreed that pretty much in both cases, white Christian colonialism subjugated and assimilated both of our cultures into theirs (white colonialism of the United States, and what the Romans did to the pagans). The difference? And a big one? In my case, that was 1500 years ago. In their case? It was recent, and still going on today. There are Native Americans alive today who have had to experience this blatant attempt of eradication of their beliefs and heritage through assimilation. I don't think that should be lost in the context of this conversation.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
But this kind of thinking keeps people locked inside their own cultures. It feels like a form of ethno-nationalism.
How? It isn’t like growing dreads suddenly gives you insight into Rastafarianism.

As Al Roker pointed out, you don’t have to put on blackface to dress up in a costume honoring Ray Charles.* Likewise, Al doesn’t put on white makeup to Don Caucasian themed costumes.

You can experience a culture without emulating it. In fact, doing so first greatly reduces (but does not eliminate) the possibility of giving offense.





* not that he’d notice.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I don't think it's arbitrary at all, and here's why. A few weeks ago I actually had a conversation with two of my Native American friends. They were talking about how they were sick and tired of white people using terms like "spirit animal", since that was a Native belief that held a sacredness to them. I mentioned how I am of Germanic and Celtic heritage, and that my heritage also has something like a spirit animal (the fylgjur), so couldn't I also lay claim to that?

Here's how the conversation landed. We both agreed that pretty much in both cases, white Christian colonialism subjugated and assimilated both of our cultures into theirs (white colonialism of the United States, and what the Romans did to the pagans). The difference? And a big one? In my case, that was 1500 years ago. In their case? It was recent, and still going on today. There are Native Americans alive today who have had to experience this blatant attempt of eradication of their beliefs and heritage through assimilation. I don't think that should be lost in the context of this conversation.
And I bet, given that, they’d have less of a problem with YOU rocking your totemic animal than, say, a Caucasian from Sidney.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
How? It isn’t like growing dreads suddenly gives you insight into Rastafarianism.
No there isn't any instant pathway.
Why would the existence of complaints make you more skeptical that people might have a point?
It isn't the existence of complaints. It is the proliferation of complaints under the banner of cultural appropriation, which often seem like frivolous complaints compared to more serious conners about offensive material. I think what happens is people start to file any concern under the same grouping as that, and they start taking concerns overall less seriously. There is a big difference between using the N word for example and a Kate Perry video. But the more people hear complaints about a celebrity borrowing from Egyptian culture, the more the dismissive they become overall.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
As Al Roker pointed out, you don’t have to put on blackface to dress up in a costume honoring Ray Charles.* Likewise, Al doesn’t put on white makeup to Don Caucasian themed costumes.
But you would need to play his music, listen to his music and emulate his music if you were a musician who wanted to understand and honor him. I think regardless of whether your a kid in Japan, the Midwest or Africa, and no matter what your skin tone, it is a good thing to do that. And I think the whole cultural appropriation thing puts that under so much scrutiny it makes people not even want to try.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
You can experience a culture without emulating it. In fact, doing so first greatly reduces (but does not eliminate) the possibility of giving offense.
* not that he’d notice.
But there is nothing wrong with emulating culture. If you see something in a culture you like and want to incorporate into a work, I do not understand this new mentality that you somehow shouldn't do that. That is how new ideas come about. What you are advocating is keeping cultural ideas locked in their original context. Or at the very least gate kept by people within that culture so they only evolve at a rate set locally. I look back on the history of the world and think what an awful place we'd live in today if that is how things were done. Ideas need to spread, and people need to absorb them, rework them, and turn them into new things. Otherwise ideas decay.
 
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