Cultural Appropriation or Cross-Cultural Dialogue?

written by Ken McDonough in June 1998

There are two areas where I have a particular interest: writing and theatre. I wish to share my feelings on the above issue from the perspective of these two art forms.

First, let me acknowledge that characters truly repre­sentative of “identities” other than those specific to the author are not always adequately rendered in the arts. There are numerous examples of stereotypes and biased interpretations which are used to substitute for what is, in effect, a lack of knowledge, insight, and comfort with the unfamiliar.
It has often been pointed out, for example, that many male authors create female characters who are coloured by male sexual fantasy, the culture of the day, or ambiva­lence born of the author’s personal experience with women. Thus, some feminists would argue, the female characters lack an authentic female voice and, since men have traditionally dominated the literary scene, these male perceptions have shaped the views of people for generations, to the detriment of women.

A similar argument has been made–and justifiably so–about dominant-culture representations of First Peoples, visible minorities, and gays and lesbians: they are frequently stereotypical and speak more of the domi­nant culture’s often immature perception of these groups than of their real lived experience.

Is the answer to demand that authors of one group decline from representing characters of another group or from writing stories about them?

I believe the answer is no, for two reasons. The first lies in the essence of artistic creation. Artists are engaged in a complex process, part self-exploration, part exploration of others, part exploration of human interaction. Their means are empathy and their skill at articulat­ing alternative experience; that is, the ability to plug into a character’s predicament and imagine all possible perceptions, reactions, and actions based on intimate, fleshed-out knowledge.

Artists, unless they are producing something for mass consumption, are not simply going through this process to create a work tai­ lored to an audience; rather, their art is motivated by a pas­sionate desire to understand
and articulate their world and its many disparate parts. I contend
that it is generally not the intention of artists to misrepresent other cultures or groups. However, due to ignorance (by which I simply mean not knowing), they often settle on old preconceptions, usually defined by their immediate cul­tural environment.

Ignorance, though, is not addressed through a prohi­bition on exploring others’ experiences but, rather, through continued creation by artists of all backgrounds. Their unique voices, by informing each other and the culture around them, will eventually effect a new under­standing and awareness of those experiences, which will be reflected across the broad spectrum of artistic expression.

The second reason is tied to this notion of education. I previously qualified the traditional handling of non­-dominant groups as “immature.” I know some would have preferred “totally unbelievable” and even “degrad­ing”; however, I put it to you that the core of the problem is immaturity. As in real life, maturity comes through actual contact and communication with others, followed by exploration, not in making everything beyond a per­son’s most immediate reality off-limits. Surely, each one of us can remember a time when we were afraid of someone because of some aspect of their identity. If we were lucky enough to put aside our preconceptions and learn about the person, we discovered that our precon­ceptions were unfounded. It was an opening to a new understanding and a richer life.

The problem has always been the lack of contact between artists of different backgrounds. Indeed, artists from the dominant community-and this is true in any country, not just those in the West- often write as though there were no one else around them; then, when this fact strikes them and the worlds they’ve been creating seem suddenly incomplete, they clumsily stitch together char­acters to fill the vacuum. Over time, however, as the writer seeks out experience and knowledge, these repre­sentations do actually mature and approach believability.

One need only look at the quantum leap that has been made in the depiction of homosexuals in the cine-­ ma. Or the numerous books by men and women which contain very sensitive renderings of the opposite sex. These are all healthy developments which, had the authors or filmmakers censored themselves, would not have occurred and their growing sensitivity would not have been used, in turn, to sensitize their audience.

I readily admit that satisfactory forays across cultures are still rare. I believe this is because writers are sensi­tive to their cultural limits and the dangers inherent in pushing too far into unfamiliar territory. However, I also believe that this will change as artists of diverse back­ grounds continue to contribute to the common discourse of Canadian culture and that, over the long run, the rep­resentations of visible minorities, both by “visible’ and ‘invisible” artists, will evolve accordingly. Indeed, for the urban Canadian experience to be depicted truthfully, this evolution is unavoidable.

I feel obliged to underscore the time element here. The claims of appropriation are an understandable reac­tion to having had one’s voice and image frozen out or shaped by the dominant culture over a long period. This situation is particularly frustrating for the First Peoples, for whom the problem has persisted for hundreds of years.

However, stopping an artist of one group from talking about or representing another group will only result in further marginalization. Cross-fertilization over a longer. time does achieve results: the dialogue of the past two or three decades, as we have seen in the case of women, gays, and lesbians, is just now beginning to bear fruit.

The key, then, is to promote as many articulate voic­es out there as possible so the scene becomes more reflective of reality and to support “cross-identity” collab­oration and debate. I think that artists, and ultimately their audiences, will quickly learn that, however unique our realities are, our human values and overall capacity for empathy and identification are very similar.

The problems in the literary world revolve primarily around content. With an international status and so many high-profile”visible” Canadian authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Mistry, Canadian litera­ture does not face the same practical hurdles as theatre or film.

Theatre has been slow to react to Canadian demo­graphics. There are more minority actors, but they are still refused roles on the basis of their physical attributes. Whereas it is not unusual for Othello and First Peoples (particularly native leaders) to be played by white actors in make-up and costumes, visible minorities are often limited to ‘ visible” roles. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to display the full range of their talents and less chance of making a living in theatre or cinema.

Is raising the cry of “appropriation” and demanding that minority parts be reserved for minority actors the answer? Again, I don’t see how it can be. The situation would only deteriorate, as such a restriction would sim­ ply reinforce an already intolerable reality. If the theatre draws a line in response, reserving majority roles for majority actors on the one hand and minority roles for minority actors on the other, I think we can safely guess who will lose out. Anyway, a viable solution would have to offer substantially increased opportunity, and a policy of reserving roles based on ethnicity or sexual orienta­tion, for example, would permanently leave minority actors competing over a limited repertoire.

A better solution would be if theatre made the shift to colour-blind casting, where, unless a person of a par­ticular background were absolutely required, roles would be distributed on merit. It is a known fact that when roles are played well, the audience sees only the charac­ters, not the colour of their skin.

To back this up, I give you my personal anecdote. In 1992, I co-wrote a play with Rahul Varma, No Man’s Land, about a South Asian family that leaves India after partition. I also played the lead role. After the play, sever­ al white Canadians approached me to explain that they could understand my predicament, even though they respected that my country was different. I am white, English-speaking and from Scarborough, Ontario.

On the play-writing front, old frustrations about mul­ticultural funding going to mainstream theatre groups that give a token nod to diversity are also fuelling claims of cultural appropriation. Yet it is also true that an increasing number of playwrights from diverse cultural communities are gaining recognition and, with it, access to mainstream funding bodies. In addition, Heritage Canada and the Canada Council have made significant strides to become inclusive and cross-cultural in recent years. The resulting exchange and cross-fertilization of art forms and creative innovation can only enrich the Canadian arts scene as a whole. The call to halt so-called appropriation would seriously damage this important trend by discouraging intercultural partnering.

In conclusion, while I acknowledge the obstacles that various groups have encountered in having their own voices heard, putting any restriction on the artist as to whom or what he or she can write about, direct or play, would be tantamount to censorship. More impor­tantly, it would not have the desired effect. On the con­trary, it would further marginalize groups which should be striving to assert their place in the mainstream. Ideally, all artists of all backgrounds would, through their contributions, effect change and sensitize others. Artists across the spectrum will gradually reflect that living awareness in their own work.

Finally, it is worth remembering that, as frustrating as it may be sometimes, change is often measured in very small steps over a very long period of time. The best antidote is bridge-building and persistence.

Ken McDonough is a professional translator in Montreal. He is also an actor, playwright and member of the Board of Directors at Teesri Duniya Theatre.