Cultural Appropriation: When the Chicken Doesn’t Hatch from the Egg

I recently wrote a short story for a creative writing class that had a heavy emphasis on feminism, equality, and the removal of appropriative stereotypes (not the story; the class). Throughout this class, I’ve felt more and more dour about my place in it: every day we meet, I am told how I have flouted my power to oppress and dehumanize everyone not me. I am aware of this. I work hard to remove the bias in my life. I work hard to use my privilege for good, if possible. I watch preference given to others who have had to work twice as hard as me to get where they are, and I respect the preference. I don’t know how to write about what I want to write anymore because of all the boundaries and expectations. This gives me a whole new twist on “write what you know.”

But this short story has me confused and bewildered. A long while back, I wrote a story about the most fierce and independent women I had ever met: my ex wife. She was a warrior, a fighter, broken and not, flawed and abusive and everything complex about a person you could possibly want. And exotic. And powerful. Given this class is about the empowering of women, and minorities, and those traditionally without voice, and she’s as untraditional a person I had ever met, I revived it, revised it, reviewed it, revised it again, and handed it in.

If I had problems with the insane amount of, “you can’t write effectively about this because you’re white,” and, “you can’t write about this because you’re male,” restrictions–and then being told I must write it in a social justice vein, where I’m expected to write about an issue I have no business writing about–surely I found a way around it by telling a fairy tale story based strongly on a real life, honest-to-god person.

Not so much.

I wrote about a woman who walked the line of the spiritual since she was a child: she saw ghosts, fought psychological warfare, spent years dealing with some entity she called Jack, helped others along the way with their own demons, you name it. I wrote about a woman who shaved her head because she spent years in India studying at a temple. I wrote about a woman who was raised Catholic but left due to abuse, picked up Wiccan practices but left due to abuse, found Animism and spiritual Shamanism were words that fit what she did and not so much what she wanted to do. She healed spiritually, emotionally. She healed. She walked the spiritual planes and met me and we had our first date and she read my tarot without reading anything (metaphorically speaking; it was actually more of a walk through a park).

I got a high C for my fairy tale, with notes saying how I wrote with appropriation, how my woman character is a figment that exists solely for the main character, that she isn’t human, isn’t real due to her perspective, isn’t flawed enough, that I objectified her by mentioning her shaved head and being attracted to her body (even though it was a first date!?). How her metaphorical journey with me through a tarot reading means she “exists in your masculine psyche to guide you through your maleness.” How using the word “shaman” stole from Native Indian practices and dehumanized them as a culture; to “research the word Shaman and its complex history.”

Here are all the things that have been taught to me this year as bad and wrong for me to write about, as a privileged middle-class white cis male (a statement I’ve used as a disclaimer in this class more often than not, and one my professor uses just as often), and here I am being told I can’t write about it, even though she actually exists as a person.

I don’t know what to do. Change who she was so it fits a different narrative? Inject flaws that don’t fit in the story to weaken her? Change the story so she doesn’t do what she actually did? Leave all the important stuff out so a specific, specific discourse is created? Rewrite the story through her eyes, even though I have absolutely no business being in her eyes as a (see above)? Moreso, I couldn’t do it a lick of justice. She was the expert: not me.

I honestly could have gone safe-as-anything, written a vanilla story about a vanilla fairy tale re-imagined, with a vanilla twist where the vanilla character got her vanilla wants met independently, and I’d’ve got an A. I know this because other classmates did that. Beauty and the Beast where Beauty was the woman and Beast was another woman that was misunderstood and everything worked out great, they lived happily ever after, beast turned into a woman and–98%. A+

I feel lost. In the five years I knew her, she spoke at great length about Eastern Europe pagan practices, Hindu pagan practices, Wiccan practices. She spoke about how it was something she’d done her whole life, and only in the past ten years had she found a word that actually identified the kind of healing she practiced, actively, as a person. I researched and found how the Wiccan community sees shamanism, how it got its roots in Eastern Asia and introduced to Western culture somewhere around the 1400’s, how every religion has strong aspects of shamanism (but NOT THE WORD ITSELF), including Catholicism (Jesus descended to the underworld to retrieve the dead; classic shaman move). Jung writes about it on a psychological level as a fundamental part of every single human being on the planet. Of course, Jung is (see above) so maybe his research doesn’t count?

I’m not trying to stomp all over people’s cultures; if I were writing a fantasy story, from my own experiences, I sure as shit wouldn’t write about this. I’d write dream symbolism where the MC is a woman who has everything on lock, dominating in the only way she (I?) know how, and get a mediocre, mid-level B because I did the assignment (yet still wrote too masculine-like).

Can someone BE something she isn’t SUPPOSED to be given class/culture/religious affiliations/gender/sexuality, and not (mis)appropriate?

My questions for this class are, for anyone who has any interest in straightening me out, how can it be appropriation when she did it before she knew what it was, when she was even made fun of as a kid–as her brothers verified–for doing the things that made her a shaman later in life? Is it because she’s white, and because I’m (see above), she’s racist in what she’s doing? Is it because, since she was born with a certain skin tone and imprinted religious affiliation, she’s not allowed to define herself with the only words she can find?

If she used the phrase, “broken faith healer with an emphasis on astral travel and spiritual mending” instead of “shaman,” would this not be an issue?

Or is this because, again, I’m a (see above) who has no right talking about other cultures, even though I lived with an expert in herself for five years with only the limited English language to identify? I MEAN THAT WAS THE REASON I USED THIS PAPER! It pushed against stereotypes, it made me uncomfortable to write about, to study, to put my name on. It forced me to look at it from an often marginalized person’s perspective. And despite all that marginalization, she still spent time and energy helping me.

I’m spiraling down because I feel trapped; I can’t write about my (see above) experiences because, shit, not what the class is about; I can’t write about others’ experiences because, shit, this isn’t what the class is about…?

Last class we literally talked about not staying quiet or else it’ll punch you in the mouth from the back (Lorde), and I’m debating keeping my mouth shut for the sake of a decent grade. Yes, Prof, I will write something else. In fact, I have four other stories written because I actually worked my tail off to get something great and have a perfect layout for what you’re looking for in a cookie-cutter story.

My answer is to go in and talk to my professor, ask her some of these questions (minus the charged language), and try and figure out if this is a big misunderstanding.


2 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation: When the Chicken Doesn’t Hatch from the Egg

  1. Have you talked with her about the how “shaman” is an anthropological term? That culture =/= race? That cultural appropriation is not limited to American cultures? (i.e. Han Chinese)

    Culture is learned behaviors, and race is something you’re born with based on a social construct. You can’t even tell ‘race’ from phenotypes alone! I would have completely berated the teacher with anthropology (science), if I were you.

    Sorry I am probably too late though.

    • I appreciate the input and support!

      We had a convo outside of class and I discussed with her at length who I was writing about. She started the talk with a disclaimer that she’d only focus on the writing and not the content of my experiences, which was good in a way but also severed talks about shamanism. We got it worked out–I wrote a far less inflaming story for her.

      And berating would probably get me a worse grade, given the environment, but I absolutely considered throwing all of it on the table.

      Thanks for stopping by! I feel inspired to write more. Thank you.

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