Is it always wrong to misrepresent other cultures in art, or only when the culture in question is condescendingly considered to be “marginalised” and therefore insufficiently robust to withstand inaccurate portrayal in a book or movie?
The latest public figure to unintentionally step on a hidden Identity Politics landmine and self-detonate in an explosion of outraged Twitter condemnation is none other than Harry Potter creator JK Rowling.
The Guardian picks through the shrapnel for us:
JK Rowling has been accused of appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new story.
The Harry Potter author posted the first part of a four-part series, the History of Magic in North America on her website Pottermore, on Tuesday. Subsequent episodes are being published each day at 2pm until Friday. Tying in to the release in November of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the short piece of writing deals with the magical New World in the 14th to 17th centuries.
Although the new insights into the universe of Harry Potter were welcomed by many, the author was strongly criticised online by a number of voices from Native American communities, particularly over her writing about skinwalkers, which in Navajo legend are said to be evil witches or wizards who can take on the form of animals.
Needless to say, JK Rowling has been summarily tried on Twitter and found guilty of the high crime of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation for taking Native American legends which were not her own (and God forbid that cultures ever intermix or borrow from one another) and using them for her own grubby commercial purposes. For shame.
And public shaming is exactly what was swiftly visited upon Rowling by the Twitter mob:
But campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene told Rowling on Twitter that “it’s not ‘your’ world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skinwalker stories have context, roots, and reality … You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people. That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”
The academic also took issue with Rowling’s use of the phrase “the Native American community”, saying that “one of the largest fights in the world of representations is to recognise Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another.”
[..] Navajo writer Brian Young wrote on Twitter that he was “broken hearted” about the new piece of writing. “JK Rowling, my beliefs are not fantasy. If ever there was a need for diversity in YA lit it is bullsh!t like this,” said Young. “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”
Well, when you put it like that, let’s waste no time No-Platforming JK Rowling, emptying library bookshelves of Harry Potter volumes and throwing them on the fire we have already set ablaze to dispose of our unwanted Cecil Rhodes memorabilia. Because the difference between the sins of these two “colonialists” is only one of severity, not of kind, at least according to the Identity Politics police who act as judge, jury and executioner in these cases.
One such typical virtue-signalling, outraged response to Rowling’s creation comes courtesy of Katherine Trendacosta, writing in Gizmodo:
Rowling reveals a lack of knowledge of American history that makes this an extremely hard read. She also either doesn’t realize the sensitive nature of some areas she’s treading on or does not care.
Who could have predicted that a white lady from the UK would have problems with appropriating Native American culture? Oh, wait, that should have been completely obvious to anyone even thinking of doing what J.K. Rowling did. When you’re combining a history of magic with Native Americans, you’re falling into an already prevalent trope of making them “mystical.” And Rowling not only didn’t avoid that trap, she leaned into it.
[..] Associating Native Americans with “animal and plant magic”—with, it should be noted, no more detail than that—is leaning so hard on a stereotype it’s hard not to find it offensive. It’s also not great that she says that wands originated in Europe, which reads very much as a Europe being the center of innovation and building in the magic world. You know, Native Americans and their “Earth magic” while European wizards were the ones smart enough to make wands.
Rowling may say that great things can be done without a wand, but it doesn’t offset the implications—that Native Americans may have raw power, but it’s refinement that only comes from Europe. Implications that she, with her background, was completely blind to.
You get the idea.
This level of wand-obsession is more commonly associated with the likes of Donald Trump than Social Justice Warriors, but when it comes to the Identity Politics brigade clearly no literary or descriptive detail is too small to be pecked over and analysed to death in the search for smoking-gun evidence of cultural insensitivity.
Note also the constant references to JK Rowling’s ethnic background. It almost seems as though Trendacosta’s anger is not so much that somebody misrepresented Native American culture, but rather that a “white lady” did so. It is almost as though there is some latent anger and rage against whiteness bubbling away under the surface, and that this whole cultural appropriation furore is just a convenient device with which to bash “white privilege”.
And this is the key question (to which we already really know the answer). Is the failure to represent every culture in a painstakingly accurate way always such a terrible crime, or is it only truly offensive when somebody from a majority (i.e. white) culture do it to a supposedly marginalised culture?
I’m British, and constantly see my culture represented less than wholly accurately in all manner of ways, particularly in American movies and television shows. A character might be studying at Oxford University and yet inexplicably live in London (because of course England is just one small, uniform place), or everyone might speak like Hugh Grant in one movie and like a soot-smeared Cockney in another. More galling still, Hollywood seems to go through phases where every villain in every movie has to be a suave, upper-class British guy, speaking in an accent not unlike my own. Sure, it’s irritating, but am I incurring “harm” when this happens?
Or is any harm that I might have suffered because of the misrepresentation of my country and people in the popular culture negated by the fact that as a British citizen, I hail from an Evil Colonial Power, responsible for so much that is terrible in the world? The sun may have set on the British Empire, but has it set on my apparent share of our collective guilt for the actions of kings and queens and statesmen who lived and died centuries before I was born?
The fundamental question is this: are JK Rowling’s critics angry because Navajo culture was misrepresented or because Navajo culture was misrepresented? Was the offence to commit an apparently heinous act of cultural appropriation against Native Americans specifically, or to have misrepresented any culture in the first place?
It hardly needs pointing out that it is the latter. Because the whole Identity Politics culture is based on the neo-colonial and racist assumption that certain cultures are “weaker” than others, and that the people belonging to those cultures are childlike victims with less agency than those from white, Western backgrounds.
Without a steady supply of “victims” to protect – and unwitting “villains” to blunder into their cultural booby traps – Identity Politics practitioners would have nothing to do, and so have no means of asserting their power over our language and discourse (which is the ultimate goal).
Of course, this dogma presupposes that those from minority cultures can actually be physically or mentally harmed by the mere act of having their culture, customs or history either accidentally misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented, even if they are not necessarily aware that it is happening at the time – a hugely condescending attitude to hold toward racial and cultural minorities in the present day.
At every stage it is taken for granted that even today, those from minority cultures totally lack any agency to seize control of the narrative for themselves and disseminate more truthful and accurate perceptions of their culture if they wish to do so – and if how they are perceived by complete strangers really matters that much to them.
And as always, it is the Identity Politics practitioners and those who believe that individuals can be harmed by non-malicious misrepresentations of their culture in the media who display the real contempt for these “marginalised” groups, even though that contempt is dressed up in the language of care and concern.
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