In particular in the past couple of years, a conversation has arisen whether the major populace (read, the white man) has the right to use the images and symbols of minority cultures in art or popular culture. I’ve mostly followed the Finnish part of the discussion, due to availability, but the broad outlines are applicable everywhere.
The first time I can remember hearing about this issue is way older, though.
Way back in the late eighties and early nineties certain Finnish comedians created a sketch for their TV program about two very drunk Lappish men (link to a Youtube clip in Finnish). It was/is a common caricature that the Sami people use a lot of alcohol and especially since the comedians were wearing the traditional Sami clothes, the implication was clear. I doubt anyone in Lapland drinks any more than anyone else anywhere else in Finland – those who drink a lot are equally marinated everywhere and those who drink smart, drink smart.
Obviously, and for a very good reason, many people took offense. I can’t recall the program being cancelled or getting any repercussions, though, and they are actually airing re-runs of it. I’m assuming the audiences are marginal and no-one has made a fuss because no one is watching anymore. I saw a few minutes of the show one evening and it wasn’t any funnier than the first time around.
The Sami dress has caused a few other incidents. I understand why they are particular: many traditional dresses have a lot of unwritten code about how they should be worn and by whom and when. I know my own dress (traditional dress from western Finland) is supposed to be worn the way I have it only by married women and very differently by unmarried.
Then came the case of the book Oneiron, a Finlandia prize winner by Laura Lindstedt.
I haven’t personally read it, but it is a conversation between women of different backgrounds. One of the women is an American Jew who has suffered from an eating disorder. There are also parts in the book in Hebrew, which have then been translated for the advantage of the non-speaker.
Particularly the case of this fictional Jewish girl incensed an actual living Jewish girl with a similar past. She wrote about it (in Finnish), asking why Lindstedt couldn’t write a book from the viewpoint of a white Finnish woman? Why does she have to steal from someone else’s culture for profit?
But why should Lindstedt, me, you, Salman Rushdie or the president of South Africa only be limited to writing about those exactly alike us?
Isn’t it truly the most enlightening experience to learn new things about ourselves and others in both trying to think like them while writing or reading about them? Especially writing in this aspect is more important, because in order to create something believable, one must be able to put themselves in the character’s shoes. If that does not bring about true friendship between peoples and an end to discrimination, I don’t know what will.
But of course it is easier to keep on bickering, and especially when something is said by the wrong kind of person (in this case, although not male, still a privileged white westerner), it is easier to dismiss it as colonialist patronizing. It is easier to say they’re trying to profit from non-white tradition without having to experience the oppression it used to come with.
Sure, as a white westerner I personally cannot know a thing about being a black person in America in the 60’s (1860’s and 1960’s both apply), or about being casteless in India during the caste system (or even still today in places). I cannot even realistically put myself in my great-grandmother’s shoes, because I have no idea what it’s like to live without electricity or running water. That cannot and should not stop me from trying, though.
I process the world through writing and reading. In the opinion of these other people I am stealing their culture if and when I write about it, should anyone else see it. I’m not yet sure if it counts if I’m the only one who sees it. Even if it just to better understand them and said culture. Would they prefer I remain ignorant and insult them through ignorance?
Do writers of all ethnicities, no matter how minor or major, from now on limit themselves to only writing about the kind of experience they might have garnered? That will make for a poor literary future. Do these people themselves always stop themselves from writing about what they are not, just not to steal that culture in return?
It is true the literary world has for long been dominated by man, white man to be more precise. That cannot be changed by limiting subject matters for others, but by going and writing something worthwhile of your own.
One must remember, that to reach true equality one cannot only try to reach it just for their own group but for everyone. And truly the best option would be to forget groups altogether.
Culture is not just tradition and history and what has been, although that is one part. It is a very big and important part, no doubt, but also not the whole thing.
Culture is personal, interpersonal and surpassing the personal. No one person can say what it is or what is accepted, because that changes over time and between people.
Culture is also not a resource that runs out when used. No, it grows and multiplies and evolves every time it is used, no matter how and by whom.
Don’t make boxes where no boxes need be, people.
I really do hope we can have some discussion about this in a constructive manner and also that I got what I’m thinking written down here so that my actual point comes across. I’ve been mulling about this for about four months or so, and it’s getting a bit messy…