Friday, September 3, 2010

the dangers of single narratives and cultural appropriation

A recent discussion with native students who had been asked to go into a classroom to talk about native knowledge/traditions left me thinking about cultural stories and authority. The students were reticent to go into the classroom because they felt like they'd be on display but all I could think about (but not figure a tactful way to ask it) was "who do you want to be in charge of telling your stories?"

I grew up with a mother who was very concerned with voice appropriation (cultural appropriation) in native communities and who would never dare to make a button blanket despite her love of them, because she felt she had no right to infringe upon the traditional craft of another cultural (particularly one who had been infringed upon so much).

As a student of literature, this idea of cultural appropriation (taking on the voice of another culture, or attempting to speak for another culture) was something that was a deep interest to me (in fact, I hummed and hawed for a long time before finally allowing myself to write about Indian (from India... because for some reaons that's never clear to people) literature. After all, who was I, the white girl who'd descended from Europeans who'd visited horrible atrocities on other nations (I'm part Dutch... and the Dutch and South Africa don't have the best track records). So how could I possibly dare to think I could become a literary (sort of) authority on sonnets from India... really?

In fact, this is still an issue that doesn't sit well with me because I think western culture is engaging in a whole new form of cultural imperialism through ESL and globalisation. But if the people of a culture won't step up to tell their stories, and if they are stories that need to be collected and told, is it wrong for an outsider to step in and tell them? To at least open the door so that another can enter it and finish the story? I'm not sure what the answer to that question is. And while I sat with these students, who understandbly don't want to be a token native spectacle for their peers, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted to be blunt and rude and say, "dammit, if you don't tell the stories, someone else will. Do you really want someone else to tell your stories? Do you want to let them take ownership and authority over your narrative?"

But how do you ask that in a polite conversation? I've been chewing on that question for the past few days now, and I still don't know how... but I'm starting to suspect that maybe, I should just ask it, bluntly, as is... and let them do with it what they will.  Because the risk of not telling your own stories, in your own voice, is that of letting a single narrative take over and tell an incomplete story of your identity, which only perpetuates the stereotypes out there. Which is why, when I listened to this TED talk on my ride to work this morning, I couldn't help but be struck by the synchronicity of it (and also inspired to want to create a literary course that starts with this argument):

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