The “Other” Problem: Does Literary License = Cultural Appropriation?

by Ron Hayes

As a lover and observer of language, I’ve come to the realization that I am, for all intents and purposes, a linguamorph. Or maybe it’s lenguamorph. I don’t know. Not sure which would be correct really but, given the fact I’m making up a word to match a concept, the question is moot. My point, however, isn’t. As a lover and observer of language I find it inevitable (and largely enjoyable, I admit) to adapt my manner of speech to the situation in which I find myself. I first noticed it in my first college go-round. Barely a four-hour drive from my home, tiny little Saint Francis College was located in a place that was linguistically separate from suburban Erie, PA. There they said “soda” instead of “pop,” they pronounced certain vowel sounds with a decidedly more nasal twang, and their vocabulary, both in Standard English and Non-, was sprinkled with liberal elements of full-blown Yinzer Pittsburghese. And I picked up all of it. That Christmas I came home for break and my parents looked at me funny, laughing uneasily when I talked. My younger brother made no pretense of his contempt for my new (and, to him, inexplicable) “foreign” accent. Some of my friends called me out on it but I laughingly denied it every time.

Fast forward 3o years and I’m still up to the same old tricks. But instead of benignly referring to fizzy drinks as “sodas” or adding extra syllables to a smattering of vowel-dominant words, I can’t help but think I now talk–in certain situations–in a way that my younger brother may not even be able to begin to comprehend. As a linguamorph teacher at an urban high school, I’ve been fascinated to slowly realize that my typical, strict adherence to the Queen’s (Americanized) English has become more and more Non-standard. In my twelfth year of teaching, I now talk like my students talk. Or, as they would say, I be talkin’ the way they be talkin, like… And honestly? I love it. It’s engrossing and fascinating. And from the perspective of an untrained, amateur linguist, it’s fun, too! But should it be? Is it altogether fitting and proper for me to appropriate their manner of speech?

Frankly, it’s an issue. Sure, some may not necessarily agree, but trust me when I tell you–it’s an issue. Here’s why: As a language watcher and as a writer, I naturally incorporate all manner of experiences in my life into the work I produce on the page. I’m one who believes that writers absorb various realities of their existence and then bleed those realities into their writing, unconsciously or otherwise. The problem arises when we writers make certain conscious decisions about how we reflect certain aspects of our personal realities in the speech, vocabulary, and mannerisms of our characters. At its core, the question is this: Do writers, regardless of their ethnicity, have agency as observers, recorders, and reporters of reality to write in the voice of the “other”? Is all writing in the voice of the “other” cultural appropriation? Is writing in this way acceptable? When it happens, do the unwritten rules of cultural appropriation apply to everyone or only some?

The stark realities of my students’ lives affect me personally as well as professionally. As a poet, one of the ways I deal with the violence and the poverty and the apathy and the tragedy (and, yes too, the joys and triumphs) of the kids I teach is to incorporate it into my work. I’m not alone in that, I’m sure. But in my career I’ve been fortunate to work with some tremendous poets with tremendous intellects and one of the poets I most admire swatted me down rather forcefully in a criticism of some poems I’d written in which I’d chosen consciously to recreate the speech of my students. In these poems, I faithfully and, I believed, accurately reproduced speech, vocabulary, inflection, slang–all of it. If I’d heard it from my students I made use of it on the page. I was, I felt, reflecting my reality.

My professor didn’t agree. He was vague but insistent. I did NOT possess the agency to “write black” simply because I was not black. He never used the term “cultural appropriation” and, thus far anyways, we’ve avoided any discussion of privilege and how that impacts our work. (For the record, yes, I do believe white privilege exists and yes, I know I’ve benefited from it.) I respect my professor deeply–particularly because he’s far smarter than I and infinitely more talented–but a healthy portion of my own intellect can’t help but disagree with him on this. I feel I do have agency as a writer to reproduce as authentically as I deem necessary the manner of speech my students use in a work of art that neither disparages nor takes advantage of my students or how they talk. Especially when I now talk like them. Am I wrong?

A quick Google search of the term “cultural appropriation” yields the following Oxford definition: “A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.” The parameters of the definition are particularly germane to this discussion (and my work) because my work is drawn from my students, their lives, their environments, and the issues that confront them daily as obstacles to their learning, to their success, to their happiness. Key for me is the conclusion of the definition: “exploitation and dominance.” To settle my own internal debate as to whether I’m wrong to play linguamorph in my writing, I’m heartened and emboldened to consider “exploitation”–clearly I’m not exploiting anyone. Exploitation presumes malice concomitant with an interest in securing undue acclaim or financial gain at the expense of others. I advocate for my students, I don’t exploit them.

The second word, however, is more troubling: “dominance.” This is where it gets tricky. Of course, as a white male, I get to check off the top two of two in the World Dominance Characteristics Checklist. Ergo, strikes one and two. But just as I advocate for my students, I also must advocate for myself, and in this I say that I am neither inclined nor interested in perpetuating the dominance of either trait over any other trait. Thus the question becomes one of intent: Does one who appropriates another’s culture for artistic purposes commit the sin of cultural appropriation as defined above? I venture to say that the answer is yes–when the intent of said art is to perpetuate stereotypes, extend subjugation, or advance the interests of exploitation. Does engaging in none of these get me off the hook? I still don’t know. I’m still grappling with it. I probably always will.

What does it mean to you? It means you should be careful. It’s often easy to overlook the problems of cultural appropriation in producing the written word because it isn’t as overt as tasteless Halloween costumes or casting white actors over others for undeniably ethnic movie roles. Writing as the “other” has benefits that can outweigh its drawbacks, but, improperly executed, it can easily blow up in your face. And as the line between cultural appropriation and honest authenticity of voice continues to blur, the complexities continue to multiply like endless fractal patterns. As with virtually everything, the answer lies in awareness and action: know what you’re doing, know what you’re talking about, research the issue, and ask the questions too many are afraid to ask. Be honest in your work and sincere in your intentions and more often than not, the voice of the other that emerges on your pages will fall far short of exploitive and serve you in the best interest of authenticity.

  1. #1 by disdainfulbeauty on November 9, 2015 - 10:12 am

    I am so glad we are friends! I can tell you that you must not grapple with this sort of thing if you are loving in the word and what they express. I dare say, you are.

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