cultural appropriation and the playground

Shortly after pursuing the “representing other ethnicities than my own” post, I started reading 50 Shades of Grey.

The combination made me think about cultural appropriation, since, apart from the criticism of 50 Shades’ literary merits, one of the most common argument I hear against it is, “This isn’t representative of the kink community.” (No it is not.) And while I don’t think there’s any useful comparison I can make between the kink community and racial groups in America, there is the superficial similarity of being, in some ways, outside the mainstream and yet “represented,” with varying degrees of respect and authenticity, in the mainstream.

So I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it, and here’s what I’ve figured out:

It’s like kids on a playground.

There are lots of games happening all at once on a playground. A kid who wants to join a game will do best when they ASK FIRST, “Can I play?”, rather than joining in without anyone saying they can play. Once you’re in, great, you can follow the rules about sharing within the group. But first you need that permission.

There are two ways that it gets complicated, depending on whether the kid is trying to join the Mainstream Game or trying to join a Subculture Game:

(1) TRYING TO JOIN THE MAINSTREAM CULTURE GAME: In the mainstream game, the rule is: You can’t say you can’t play. Everybody is allowed to join in, like the largest game of Red Rover EVER. You just hold hands with the person nearest you and you’re in.

Technically that mainstream game is the one I was born into, though there are times when I look around and feel like I have no idea what the rules are. There was this concealed rules game we used to play in middle school where you’d go around the circle and say or do things, trying to infer rules that only the game leader and experienced players knew. I was not very good at it, but I clearly remember the feeling of finally clicking in, figuring out the rule, and being able to understand why everyone was saying and doing what they were saying and doing. I get that in real life sometimes too. Fortunately, you don’t have to know the rules to play. Everyone is allowed to play. Some people have advantages, some people have more skill at it than others, but we’re all allowed to play.

Obviously there are some jerks, some bullies who want to say others can’t play, but they’ll be out-competed by the folks who play fair.

(2) TRYING TO JOIN A SUBCULTURE GAME: Cultural appropriation happens when someone from the mainstream game tries to join a subculture game without asking permission first. They join in, they take stuff, and they take it back to the mainstream game, where they use it to play that game. And the folks in the subculture game are like, “HEY! THAT’S OURS!!”

But that’s not the only way it happens. Suppose one kid says you can play, and then somebody else in the group says you can’t. You say, “But this person said I could,” and then then there’s an argument between those two kids, and then we might end up with two games – one where you can play and one where you can’t.

Or suppose no one in the game says you can play, and you get mad because, “That’s not fair!”

But it is fair. The only game where it’s not fair to say, “You can’t play,” is the mainstream, dominant game. Different game, different rules. That’s fair.

How does this play out in real life? Take me, for example. Because I have a pretty powerful social identity (white, cis, middle class, able-bodied, etc etc etc), I pretty much ALWAYS have to ask if I can play before I join a subculture game. And if people say, “No you can’t play,” I need to suck it up and go find a different game, or wait patiently until I earn the right to be invited into the game.

And that is what I have learned about cultural appropriation, thanks to 50 Shades of Grey. Let it never be said that even the lightest of fiction can’t have beneficial consequences.