At times this blog can set off a chain reaction. When Anna Williams wrote about childhood reading, I began exploring my fading cranial archive. Anita Jenkins focused my search with her comments on Grey Owl’s cultural appropriation.
I must confess that a lot of the books of my youth would be, in today’s climate, politically incorrect. They were written mainly by European explorers about other civilizations. Narratives on North American Indigenous Peoples were notable. But don’t ask me for titles or authors; memory fails. Unlike the classics cited by Anna and others, these nonfiction accounts have vanished from libraries and second-hand bookstores.
Today, books telling of the lives of minorities likely would be condemned as vehicles for cultural appropriation. White authors would be branded as colonialists and denied funding by the Canada Council for the Arts. However, I believe a case can be made for exempting such accounts.
I can be stirred to empathy for these advocates when art and music, even material for fiction, are at issue. Our house used to have a throw of Navajo pattern purchased at J. C. Penney in Minneapolis; I doubt the designers received their due royalty. This was cheating.
But there are genres where an outsider’s perspective is indispensable. This is the case with nonfiction accounts of other peoples that fall within the ambit of cultural anthropology, the method of my childhood books. The argument that there are now members of minority cultures capable of producing such work overlooks this key point. It takes an outsider to notice what is unusual about a culture and to relay this to an inquiring reader.
When you visit the United Kingdom the first thing you notice as you step outside a Heathrow terminal is that the cars are driving on the “wrong” side of the road. This anomaly is unlikely to be noticed by an Englishman who is not an outsider. Would Samoan writers have found the sexual behaviour of their youth remarkable, as the outsider Margaret Mead did a century ago?
I clearly recall the memoir of an Arctic bush pilot who worked among the Eskimos, as they were then called. He admired their mechanical aptitude. They could fly a single-engine airplane with minimal instruction. When a boat’s motor failed they would dismantle it and replace a broken part with one fashioned from seal bone. These feats stood out for the European witness; an Inuit writer might assume all people could do this.
Thus an outsider, whether traveller or explorer, can provide fascinating insights into another culture. If in an effort to avoid cultural appropriation we rely only on members of a culture to describe it, we could miss a lot.
Most critics of appropriation maintain it amounts to theft from a minority culture by members of the colonial class. In other words, they see it as the exploitation part of the heading above.
But what of exploration? Without it can we ever learn?
Previous post from Wilf Popoff: Wasted Words: Salvaging a Thesis
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