Q&A

Is Cultural Appropriation Still an Issue If the Culture Is Gone?

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The attitude here is that writers should tread lightly with marginalised cultures that they don’t belong to: don’t try it if you’re not fully prepared to research heavily, to accept insider input, and to give credit where it’s due. I agree with all of that (especially since some marginalised cultures have sacred elements that are closed to outsiders, period). But I’d like advice on handling historical non-European civilisations like Pharaonic Egypt, Sumer, the Phoenicians, and the Olmecs. I’d figure that cultural appropriation would be less of a problem for cultures whose members aren’t alive to be harmed. But even assuming that’s the case, I’d want to avoid whitewashing or stereotyping those cultures and to research them using sources that aren’t too Eurocentric. Do you have any thoughts of your own?

-Anon

Hi Anon,

The big thing to keep in mind here is that there are many cultures that we may think of as dead, but actually there are living people associated with the culture. For instance, you don’t want to treat the ancient Inca or the ancient Aztec as cultures as having no people, because there are still those in the Americas descended from these empires who have inherited much of those cultures. I’m guessing the same is probably true of Pharaonic Egypt.

In most cases, it’s better to err on the cautious side and look for the living descendants. People from related cultures can also be relevant. A dead Native American tribe, for instance, is not something I would recommend writing about, as that would probably be upsetting to current day Native Americans from all the living tribes.

At this point, we don’t recommend using a full setting from a marginalized culture at all unless you’re part of that culture or you have the resources of a full movie studio or something, just because it’s that hard to get it to a place where the people of the culture are okay with it. I’m sure there are rare exceptions when it would work out, but we don’t want to set people up to fail.

But theoretically, yes, a culture that’s actually fully gone would be less sensitive, but as you said, I would still try to treat it respectfully.

Best of luck,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Kat

    I just remember my British ass sitting in a history class listening to a classmate give a presentation on the Celts, and he clearly had not done any research on the state of the modern Celtic nations. One thing that really irritated me was he kept pronouncing it ‘Selts’ like the sports team. As someone with a Welsh mother and a Scottish father who grew up being very proud of my Celtic identity, I corrected him he came back with ‘well the Celts are a dead people so who cares’, and I had to say ‘I’m Celtic, I fucking care’.

    Definitely made the rest of the class very awkward, but having grown up listening to my Nain’s stories about being beaten for speaking Welsh in school and her tentatively teaching us words here and there, or my Nana driving us to the wool mills to buy me and my sister our first kilts in clan tartan, it made me so unbelievably angry to hear someone dismiss the culture of my family as being dead and gone, like we’re dead and gone. Just because a culture got crushed under a colonial power (like what happened in Wales and Scotland) doesn’t mean the culture and identity of those people is gone.

    • Daniel O'Donovan

      I know what you mean. I have have heard people refer to Welsh being a ‘dead language’ and some even complain about bilingual signs. Which is funny when it is a first language in some parts of Wales – not to mention there being a small Welsh speaking community in Patagonia. I consider myself Welsh before British and I am somewhat embarrassed that I don’t speak the language.

      Also interesting sidebar: I googled ‘Nain’, since I was unfamiliar with it as a Welsh word for grandmother, and found it also means dwarf in French.

  2. LeeEsq

    I think the issue is that a lot of authors like to base their fantasy cultures on real world ones because it is a lot easier to do that then come up with unique cultures on your own. Using existing cultures also has the advantage that their readers aren’t dealing with something totally strange to them. Since most authors stick to their own background, no harm no foul. When you go into other backgrounds the trouble kind of sort of starts or really starts depending on how seriously you take the concept of cultural appropriation.

  3. Cay Reet

    I think it doesn’t matter whether a culture is still alive or not, you should always research it carefully if you plan to use it. With cultures not easily found today (dead cultures), that mostly means going through scientific texts – and, preferably, recent ones, because our knowledge changes and you want to be on the current level of knowledge if you plan to use them. With cultures which are still alive, it’s a little easier, because you can ask people – it’s amazing how many people you can ask today, what with the internet and everything. You can also run things you’ve written about the culture by people who are part of it, so they can tell you whether you’re doing it right or not.

    Whether it’s still appropriation when a culture is considered dead is hard to answer. Some dead cultures have influenced history greatly and, to a degree, live on in modern cultures. Some have no visible influence on today’s societies, but there still may be underlying influences there. And there’s certainly people who consider themselves , usually rightfully, part of that culture, even if it’s no longer really ‘alive.’ They do have a right to see that culture treated respectfully as well.

  4. notethecode

    “I’m guessing the same is probably true of Pharaonic Egypt.”

    huh, have you realized the number of other cultures that have come and gone in Egypt since the time of the pharaohs make the idea that there are living people associated with that culture rather far-fetched.

    • LeeEsq

      I think that Coptic Christians see themselves as the descendants of the Ancient Egyptians. The relationship between the current inhabitants of the MENA countries and their past cultures is very complicated even in those countries. The Iranians obviously take great pride in their history from the first Persian Empire to the present. For other countries, the relationship with pre-Islamic cultures is much more ambivalent from what I’ve read. Many see the start of Islam and the Arab conquest as their starting point while others have at least some feeling of connection to the pre-Islamic period.

      Another thing to note is that the Thousand and One Nights is not popular in the Middle East. The secular Arab nationalists and the early Political Islamists hated it. They hated it for slightly different reasons but still hated it. The more secular types didn’t like how it exorcized the MENA countries. The religious types didn’t like the Thousand and One Nights for its earthiness and irreverence. You aren’t going to see a lot of love for what can be called Mythic Arabia in MENA countries while say Japanese and Chinese people love fantasy inspired by Mythic Japan or Mythic China and Westerners are getting really into fantasy Medieval Europe.

  5. Armando M

    Hey Chrs, just one nitpick with the answer.

    There is no relation whatsoever between Aztec and South America. Aztec empire was located in the Mexico Valley Area which is in fact North America.

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