AKA How to appropriate cultures and lose respect in the process
Content notes: Aside from discussing racism in different forms across different cultures, this post also will talk briefly about the Holocaust and Transatlantic slavery. Note that I am AfroCaribbean and my lens is vaguely Western tinted as is much of the racism that I speak of. This doesn’t render my thoughts on racism (especially anti-black racism) invalid, but tends to kind of keep it narrow.
If you want to share your experiences with cultural or historical appropriation in fandom as a fan who is from somewhere else in the world or that has a different cultural background, feel free to message me and we’ll work something out in terms of posting here or on my tumblr.
If you’re arriving to this party a little bit later, head on over to the introduction post for this hybrid essay series so you can get a feel for how things are done here.
Last month, we talked about the techniques of erasure that fandom uses to decentralize people of color in popular media and prop up white (and often male) characters. We covered techniques from rewriting the relationships between characters to distancing characters of color from white characters they’re often shipped with.
It’s been a long month full of conversations about shipping and race. Many of these comments have been insightful and almost all of the responses that I have received so far have been positive.
This month, we’re looking at aspects of cultural appropriation in fandom and the ways that fandom frequently takes the culture and history of real and marginalized people and applies them to white characters.
In addition to defining cultural/historical appropriation and discussing why they’re not cool, we’ll also be looking at specifics like the use of horrific events in history (the Holocaust and the Transatlantic Slave Trade) as background/scenery for ship within fandom, and the Alpha/Beta/Omega trope and how fans tend to coopt and mutate actual history in order to manufacture gender/race –based oppression for cis white male characters.
We’re covering some heavy stuff both in terms of content and density. When talking about this aspect of how fandom gets it horribly wrong when creating fanworks, we’re going to look at:
- Defining cultural appropriation in fandom and why cultural appropriation seems small but is a big deal
- Defining historical appropriation in fandom
- Why certain kinds of Alternate Universe (AU) ideas are and should always be a BAD IDEA in fandom
- Manufactured oppression in fandom spaces & fanworks
- The way that cultural and historical appropriation in fandom doesn’t necessarily respect or honor anyone.
I know this seems like a lot of text content, it’s all for a good cause. So let’s get started!
How do you define cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation refers to the way that people take aspects of a culture belonging to marginalized people and turn it into something to be consumed. Divorced from their heritage and origin, these aspects of culture get carried off and turned into something else.
It’s something that usually comes at the cost of understanding of the culture and the people that originated it because you’re removing these aspects from its culture and therefore moving it away from its meaning.
What does that mean in terms of fandom?
In fandom, cultural appropriation often falls alongside the same lines I lay out in the examples above. What happens though, is that fandom tends to “borrow” from cultures in order to shore up the popular (and often, white) characters in their preferred form of media. Fanworks created by fans would “borrow” terms and imagery associated with indigenous Americans for example and then apply them to their favorite characters who aren’t indigenous Americans. It’s using settings, behavior, and clothing types in AUs that belong to diverse characters who most likely aren’t even represented in the main fanwork that’s being pushed.
Now let’s look at some examples!
Examples of cultural appropriation in the “real world” include:
- Non-Black models wearing afro wigs in editorials (afro wigs on anyone that isn’t black, to be honest)
- Native American headdresses worn by anyone who isn’t Native and therefore probably hasn’t earned it
- Wearing the bindi or mehndi designs because they “look cool”
- Every time the Food Network allows one of their top-tier chefs to do “Asian”/Mexican/African –inspired episodes of their shows and they wind up making something disgusting.
- Fashion designers that “borrow” designs from indigenous people for use in their clothing lines
Examples of cultural appropriation in fandom include:
- Drawing characters in clothing/settings that belong to another culture (that is not racebending)
- Writing alternate universes that borrow heavily from Mexican culture where everyone is white and there are no Mexican characters to be seen
- Actual kitsune!Stiles Stilinski
- That thing where fandom takes Nicki Minaj lyrics and plasters them over photosets that have zero Black women in them
- “[culture]-inspired” stories art and AUs that center absolutely NO ONE from that culture
Cultural appropriation is not:
- Participating in cultural events or wearing traditional clothing on occasions that you are invited to by someone of that culture (or having your characters do the same)
- Learning a new language
- Writing a story set in another country from the main canon (like an Inception story set in South Africa)
- Practicing a new religion
- Racebending characters
- Using chopsticks to eat your takeout with
There are ways to respectfully show your interest in and interact with cultures from a group of people that you are not a part of. Cultural appropriation refers to when you don’t do that and you head straight towards being disrespectful to someone else’s culture by the way that you interact with it.
Basically, anyone can participate in this. You can be African American and appropriate Native American culture. You can be Chinese and appropriate African American culture. No matter who you are, cultural appropriation is something that you can be complicit in.
Now that you know what cultural appropriation is, let’s talk about why it seems like a minor thing to get so annoyed about!
Cultural appropriation can sometimes be labeled as a microaggression.
Microaggressions, for those of you not in the know, are these everyday occurrences that kind of dig at your armor as a marginalized person. They can revolve around race, gender, and sexuality and the thing to remember is that even though the term makes you think that it’s not as important as something more overt, it really is. Microaggressions aren’t small and they definitely build up.
Here’s how that works with regard to cultural appropriation. One of the things that happens is that the people whose culture is being borrowed and adapted see themselves pushed out as “experts” of their own culture. (I know that you see this a lot with Western anime fans of all races lecturing Japanese people about their culture and it is weird – especially when other people listen to them.)
There’s also the stress of trying to react to cultural appropriation in a so-called “appropriate” way. Do you confront this appropriation? Do you stay silent? The inability to figure out what ‘side’ in the argument is the right one is incredibly stressful.
Many people look at cultural appropriation as something insignificant, a victimless crime if you will. But that’s not the case even in fandom spaces because it often comes coupled with a sense of superiority coming from the people doing the appropriating. How can something be a victimless crime if someone from a culture of marginalized people is saying that they’re not okay with it?
How do we define historical appropriation.
In the context of this post, think of historical appropriation as cultural appropriation‘s cousin when it comes to fandom. It’s when aspects and artifacts of history get turned into fodder for characters not from that area or time period. This is different from writing or drawing characters from Batman as if they lived in the 50s or writing medieval AUs.
When I use the phrase ‘historical appropriation‘, I’m referring directly to more harmful AUs that fandom latches on to all for the sake of supposedly “good” storytelling and art design. As with cultural appropriation, this hinges largely on erasure and replacement with other characters not from that culture (without the attempt to racebend the characters to fit the time and setting). There usually aren’t any characters of color, barely any women, and lots of co-opted experiences of oppression all over the place.
What historical appropriation does is remove people (of color, mostly) from their own history and replace them in fanworks with other characters. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing historic AU stories or doing related fan art except when it comes at the extent of erasing marginalized people who were oppressed, eroticizing oppression, or sympathizing with the oppressors in a historical setting.
I have two degrees in history, trust me: I know exactly how fascinating history is and how easy it is to get swept up in the thrill of casting your favorite characters in your favorite setting. Because of those degrees and my own experience as a writer, I also know how easy it is to get carried away and wind up creating problematic content. I’ve got more than my own history of incredibly shady and problematic attempts at historical AUs for my fanworks and experience getting called out for it.
It’s not the best decision to make and honestly, it’s not even worth the frustration in the end.
So now that we’ve gotten most of the definitions and explanations out of the way, let’s talk about:
Why certain kinds of Alternate Universe (AU) ideas are and should always be a BAD IDEA in fandom.
Let’s face it, there are some things that fandom really doesn’t handle well and about fifty percent of those things show up in fandom AUs. In fact, the more horrific the history, the more likely you are to see someone writing highly eroticized fanfiction for it.
And that’s not okay.
One of the things that helped drive me to make these posts was how I was constantly seeing so many AUs that took serious liberties in history in the worst possible way. I spend a lot of time on AO3 looking for good fic to read and in doing that, I come across a lot of duds and in my case, many of duds aren’t terrible because of grammar or characterization, but because of their setting.
There’s nothing like clicking into a story only to realize that you’ve run into a story that uses the unusable as a plot device. I know that in fandom, we tend to thrive on things like the freedom of expression and the opportunity to do something with canon that is new and cool.
We latch on to the idea that fandom is this perfect place for experimentation and expression and there’s an attitude that fandom and its members essentially can’t do anything wrong because of that free space. For every person that points out that you shouldn’t do certain types of AUs, there are an infinite number that will come to defend that behavior as “okay” because it’s “just fandom”.
But despite this drive for freedom to write and draw what you want and what feels good, let’s face it: there are just some AUs that you shouldn’t write and basically they can be summed up in two ways:
- Don’t create AUs that eroticize oppression (actual or imagined) or empathizes with the oppressor.
- Don’t create AUs that decentralize people of color, women, and other marginalized people from events/instances of real historical oppression or trauma that they faced in the real world.
What does that mean?
It means, fandom, that you don’t write a “Romance” between a slave and a slave owner in the antebellum South. Or a Nazi and a Jewish person of any gender at any point in history. It means that writing relationships to place characters (like Erwin and Levi from Shingeki no Kyojin who I’ve seen in both situations) in these roles is not okay.
These aren’t examples of power imbalances that can be eroticized and they have weighty history (that ended in the deaths of people and scars that exist in the collective unconscious of living descendants to this day).
It means that fandom needs to stop rewriting history to change the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements of the late sixties and seventies to be about anything other than people of color and women. You want to find a way for Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr to fight for mutant rights in the sixties while having a lovely romance? Don’t coopt the Civil Rights Movement to do it.
Don’t wipe the Feminist movement off the map and replace them with mutant rights. Even in the tiniest of references, this sort of erasure is still so hard to deal with because it’s so far from inclusive and so needless. Already, we know that women and characters of color are often pushed aside as mere footnotes in fandom’s M/M works, but for our history to be taken and torn in such a way in an actual footnote of a story where it’s not even necessary?
Want to write fan meta about your favorite season of American Horror Story? Maybe try not to do it in a way that frames actual slave-owning serial killer Delphine LaLaurie in anything resembling a positive light while ignoring the fact that the real life person that the character was based off of could’ve taught Hannibal Lecter a few tricks.
Or how about not writing a story set in the aftermath of a tragic natural disaster that killed tens of thousands of people — like I don’t know, the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti — and then focusing the story on two white guys. Because yeah, that was a thing in the Real-Person-Slash part of the Supernatural fandom back in 2010.
That was SUCH a thing. (I didn’t even know about it when it happened — as I am only on the peripheries of the SPN fandom and have been so for a long time — but now that I know, I can’t stop wondering about how you can care enough about a disaster to volunteer your services as a fancreator and then erase the very people impacted by said disaster in your fanwork.)
It should be simple.
But apparently, it isn’t.
There’s a post on Tumblr that has come across my dashboard several dozen times by now. It’s a simple post that lists some AUs and behaviors that fandom shouldn’t be part of with regard to the Holocaust and Nazi allegories in fiction.
And it’s so very clear: don’t do those kinds of AUs because they’re always poorly handled and hurtful to Jewish people and then don’t fawn over obvious allegories to the Nazis.
On top of that, these allegorical hate groups are pretty clearly RACIST HATE GROUPS. Fandom’s collective hard-on for Hydra, Voldemort’s Death Eaters, and whatever other fictional groups that are explicit or implicit parallels of the Nazis in popular media is messed up because essentially, they’re saying that they don’t care (or want to care) that they’re panting over that kind of evil. (Because some of the members are hot, interesting, or played by actors fandom gets mushy over.)
I mean, I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that there are people who not only don’t get that Hydra is essentially a continuation of the Nazis that killed millions of Jewish people, but that get actively angry whenever it’s brought up or someone doesn’t #StandWithWard because he’s essentially part of a Neo-Nazi cult.
Fictional group or not. Marvel’s rebranding to make the organization more palatable notwithstanding, there’s nothing sexy about that kind of thing.
But still, people have issues with the idea that they should have to think before they come up with an AU and have to be told on repeat to stay away from those kinds of AUs and that kind of thinking. Which is again incredibly messed up.
By flailing over these kinds of AUs that set the Holocaust and/or WW2 Europe as a background for romance (especially between one or more characters who are Nazis) fandom is actively making itself unsafe for Jewish fans.
I’m not an expert in any way here, but I know all too well what it’s like to see someone turn a horrific event in the history of my culture and people into a poignant background for a ship or fandom.
Something I said I’d mention earlier was the way that fandom co-opts the African American experience as well as our historical events in history. This is something I have come across multiple times in fandom and fan fiction and something that I really do feel confident to talk about.
From that one person who decided that Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” most aptly applied to Tony Stark to the time I found out that someone I collab’ed with on a fandom event later wrote slavefic set in the ACTUAL AMERICAN SOUTH WITH AN ACTUAL ENSLAVED AND UNDERAGE AFRICAN-AMERICAN SLAVE, I’ve seen some shit.
In my experience, there’s nothing quite like scrolling through your favorite kink or trope tags on AO3 only to come across a story that uses a bastardized version of your cultural history to shore up their ships.
Here’s an example of the sort of thing that comes up in fandom:
If you can’t read the text in the image, it says:
In a world where angels are enslaved in the South and free in the North, the country is divided by a giant wall. Dean Winchester lives with his family in the South, and although he hates slavery, he swore a long time ago to have nothing to do with slavery at all.
Funny how that works out.
Meanwhile, a battered and long abused Castiel struggles with his omega nature and his rebel, aggressive spirit, and what it really means to be free.
There’s just… a lot to unpack here.
But let’s just look at the fact that this is basically a Supernatural Civil War AU. And not a comics-Civil War AU (which would actually be interesting from this fandom), but one that takes the harsh realities of what happened to enslaved Africans and their descendants and just removed them from the equation.
It’s a twofer in terms of “stuff people shouldn’t do” because it eroticizes the experience of slavery in the American South and takes Black people right out of the actual historical context.
And the thing is that this isn’t an isolated event. So much of slavefic hinges on this kind of erasure and this kind of historical appropriation. (I’ve seen a couple where the Civil War was fought for Omega or Alpha liberation, and let me tell you, that’s stressful.)
It’s not okay.
By writing and supporting these kinds of AUs, you’re supporting a fannish culture that’s fine and alright with sexualizing slavery and eroticizing a dehumanizing experience.
Seriously, what is it about people constantly wanting to create fictional universes/stories about slavery (while not even remotely addressing the realities of it beyond providing the ‘Hurt’ for their “Hurt/Comfort” stories)?
I mean, is it even possible to go about that sort of AU without understanding what kinds of horrors were enacted upon Black people in America at that time in history and what came after? Even if you do only the smallest amount of research, how do you come away from that and still decide that an AU where the experience of slavery (including rapes and torture and human experimentation) and decide that what you need to do is make it about white guys?
That goes beyond ignorance.
What about the co-opting of the Civil Rights Movement?
Did you know that that’s a thing? I’ve seen it particularly in the X-Men fandom with the prequel series and as a backdrop in many Alpha/Beta/Omega stories’ background. And that’s just disrespectful.
For the most part, we see Civil Rights Movement co-opting as a background kind of thing, set in throwaway lines that help set up the setting.
I personally haven’t read an entire story set entirely in the Civil Rights period that focused on that (but we all know that one’s out there), but the act of changing history so that something that helped Black Americans be treated humanely by White America now becomes something else entirely is just fifty shades of fucked up.
Fandom prides itself on a culture of YKINMK (“Your Kink Is Not My Kink“) and YMMV (“Your Mileage May Vary”) where everyone, in the interest of “fannish diversity” just stays in their lane and supports everyone’s right to do what they want.
However, that’s not really responsible or possible. What that really does is foster an environment where you can’t critique fanworks or talk about why it really isn’t cool to claim that your preference (for certain characters or ships or tropes/kinks) negates everyone’s ability to point out what’s wrong with that behavior or trope. We don’t all have to like the same things in fandom’s wide internet spaces, but there’s got to be a greater focus on making fandom a safe space beyond “if you don’t like a kink/character/trope for legitimate reasons, just ignore it”.
Some things just aren’t to be made into AUs, some kinks are horrible, and some characters are irredeemable regardless of what they go through.
Seriously, look at the Marvel fandom’s response to Hydra members in the MCU. Despite the fact that we see repeated examples of how racist their organization is (if Captain America: The First Avenger didn’t spell it out clear enough for you), fandom still has latched on to these characters like Grant Ward in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Brock Rumlow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as totally okay guys.
How are they missing the fact that these dudes work willingly for an organization that set out to replace the Nazis? Marvel’s ridiculous attempts at reinventing and rebranding Hydra aside, they’re still part of an organization responsible for atrocities against human beings and are an actual fictional hate group that parallels real life hate groups.
And in response to that, fandom has created the “hydra trash party” (mentioned in the previous essay — it’s basically just sexual explicit material with Steve/Bucky/various Hydra agents and various levels of consent) and have turned Grant Ward into the ultimate woobie (despite his continued attempts to murder the heroes in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
I could literally go on and on about how the MCU fandom’s lust for Hydra and why no one should #StandWithWard, but I’ll save it for now.
Before I get absolutely off topic, let’s talk a bit more about manufactured oppression in fandom spaces & fanworks before we talk a bit about Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics in fandom.
What is manufactured oppression?
When I talk about manufactured oppression in fandom, I’m largely talking about allegories or replacements for modern day racism or homophobia.
Rather than write about characters of color or LGBTQIA characters dealing with the sort of oppression that people of color and actual LGBTQIA people face every day, manufactured oppression takes things (discrimination laws, prejudices, and the realities of oppression) and apply them to fantastic or otherwise inhuman beings.
It’s when you take something like segregation, institutionalized racism, or gender biases and apply them to a setting where 99% of the main cast you’re writing with is white and male.
Marginalized people wind up being pushed out of storylines that should center on them and in the end, you tend to have stories that revolve around these characters who don’t face real-world oppression for their race or gender, well–
Facing oppression for their race or gender.
And all because they have wings.
Or because they’re some kind of handily oppressed (but mega powerful) alien, werewolf, or vampire.
Or because they’re an alpha or/and omega and society can’t handle or doesn’t understand that form of gender.
The thing about these allegories for racism and other forms of fictionalized oppression that ignores stuff like intersections of identity or the realities of race/gender oppression in our world is that these allegories and stand-ins take precedence. They kind of say that the only time race or gender- based oppression is worth talking about or showing in fan made stories or fandom is when it happens to white guys.
And that’s really not something that fandom should cosign.
Cultural and historical appropriation in fandom aren’t respectful ways to honor anyone.
Now for the last part of this essay, let’s look briefly at the way that cultural and historical appropriation in fandom doesn’t necessarily respect or honor anyone. Like much of what I’ve been writing and speaking about in fandom, this should be easy to understand: commodifying someone’s culture or history for the sake of fanwork (especially when you don’t do it in a respectful way) isn’t honoring that history or culture.
Culture isn’t a plot device. History (especially a history of oppression) isn’t a thing you mold to fit your fandom’s favorite ship. Nuance is necessary within fandom as is the idea of recognizing when something isn’t a good idea.
Most people in fandom aren’t intending to offend. They intend to tell a good story or draw nice art with characters they love in situations that they find interesting based off of or set in cultures or histories that they are interested by.
But intent isn’t magical. It doesn’t fix errors in the portrayal of cultures or the use of things particular to marginalized people of color throughout history. A huge amount of the problems with these fan works and cultural/historical appropriation revolve around the idea that the intent kind of makes up for this sort of thing. And it doesn’t.
You want to show some love to marginalized people, a period of history you like, or a culture you’ve always been interested by via your fanworks? Do research. Do a TON of research. And talk to people about it.
Not just yes-fans and that ilk, but people who have experience living life as the characters you’d want to write. If you have even the slightest worry about how something might be construed, go talk it out with someone on a forum or blog who has the background you’re working with (make sure to ask first, don’t just dive in).
And if you’re unwilling to change the way you interact with experiences that aren’t your own as a fan and fancreator, you’re really not trying to respect or honor anyone. And you need to recalculate your trajectory. When you appropriate culture or history belonging to marginalized people in order to “spice up” your fanworks, what you’re saying and how it comes across is that these people and these cultures exist to add something to your work. You shouldn’t accessorize with identity, especially if it’s not your own.
Remember, there’s no such thing as “just” fandom.
Representation matters and a lack of representation (in fandom and outside of it) hurts.
Next month, we’ll be talking about how fans treat other fans (especially when these fans are fans of color) that are speaking out about racism in fandom spaces. Even more so than this essay, January’s post will be personal. That’s the point though, to show that what happens in fandom spaces doesn’t stay on one section of the internet.
We’ll be looking at the cult of the BNF, what happens when you break the unspoken bonds of fandom, and how fans (especially POC) are silenced or shunned by fandom when they try to make a difference. I’m going to be seeking the assistance of several other fans for some of this later on in December, sending out emails and other forms of correspondence in order to see about doing some kind of interview or essay series about these experiences in fandom.
For now though: Tell me readers, what do you think about cultural/historical appropriation in fandom? Is it a big problem or a little blip on your radar? What are some of the worst instances of co-opted culture or history that you’ve seen in fandom so far?
 (In later essays I’m going to talk in detail about how it really isn’t just anything and how what happens in fandom doesn’t stay in fandom, but let’s pin that for a minute. We’ll come back to it in a month or two.)