Let’s say you’re a Martian. Let’s say you’ve been sent to Earth to study human society and culture. Let’s say you have a universal translator.
Let’s say you landed on Earth, randomly, a week or so ago in Brisbane, Australia, and followed the crowds to the Brisbane Writers Festival (culture! perfect!) just in time to hear Lionel Shriver’s keynote address about how cultural appropriation isn’t a thing and fiction writers get to have all the freedom. How is this going to sound to you?
Well, your universal translator tells you that “fiction” means prose literature having to do with imaginary things; invention or fabrication as opposed to fact. So — all other things being equal (and they are, because you are a recently arrived Martian) — this Shriver human’s logic that “The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with” and so fiction writers get to wear whatever hats they want to in their fiction, totally makes good sense.
But, being well trained in Martian Anthropology (as opposed to the Human variety,) you realize that it is your duty to also study the illogical position and understand it. So, you go to some of the proponents of illogic (who are, interestingly, often of a darker skin hue than those more logical humans; are darker-colored humans less logical than lighter-skinned humans?) and ask: What am I missing?
After a week of investigation, your antennae will probably be spinning, and your notes might look something like this:
Apparently, for the past five or six centuries (which is a long time to humans,) humans have been creating a rough hierarchy among themselves based upon that very skin hue you noticed, plus other physical and cultural attributes. (Apparently skin color and other physical features, called “phenotypes,” align often with specific cultures and geographical regions. This is called “race.”) For economic reasons, lighter skinned phenotypes and their cultures declared themselves to be better than darker skinned phenotypes and their cultures. (This is called “racism.”)
Using this justification, the lighter skinned ones then spent centuries taking the geographical regions of the darker skinned ones in an aggressive manner, killing a lot of their people (or with some darker-colored groups, all of their people), destroying or radically altering their cultures, moving a lot of the people around without their permission, forcing them to do work they didn’t want to do, prohibiting them from wearing their hats, and reorganizing their governments and economies and laws so that all the money and advantage was flowing toward the lighter-skinned humans and away from the darker-skinned humans. (This is called “colonization.”)
However, over the past century or more, the darker skinned humans started rebelling by asserting the falsehood of the supposed superiority of the lighter skinned humans. They started changing the laws that prevented their own advantage; reorganizing their governments and economies to make the money and advantage flow back towards themselves. (This is called “decolonization.”) But, because colonization worked for so very long, the ideas that made colonization possible were woven throughout the fabric of human society. So the darker-skinned people had to come up with theories and arguments against the superiority of lighter-skinned humans. (These are called “post-colonial” and “anti-racist.”)
The exciting thing for Martians is: decolonization is not finished! Colonization lasted over five centuries. One century of decolonization and antiracism won’t, logically, be enough to reverse it. (This means Martians get to watch it happen, rather than hear about it after it’s over!)
One of the many ways in which lighter-skinned humans promoted the idea that they were better than darker-skinned humans was through telling stories. “True” stories are a thing, apparently, but humans also like nonfactual or fake stories, which are the aforementioned “fiction.” In fact, fiction in all its forms is incredibly popular, even though humans know that these stories are lies.
To enjoy obvious lies, the observing humans do a thing called “willing suspension of disbelief,” which means that they “believe” in the fictional stories while they’re being told, but then stop believing in them once they’re over. However, (owing to a quirk of human anatomy) because they believed in them while they were being told, the fictional stories are stored in their memories as truth, and they have to spend time, after hearing the stories, picking out the true and the false things. Not all humans spend this time.
The advantage of fiction is that one doesn’t have to search out true stories to make their point. One merely has to make up the kinds of stories they want to tell. During colonization, fictional stories about darker skinned humans mostly told about how they were stupid or evil or less developed than lighter skinned humans. These stories weren’t true or “true”, but the humans who heard the stories believed them unless they spent the time, after hearing the stories, picking out what was true and what wasn’t. Most humans didn’t spend this time.
Also during colonization, fictional stories were almost exclusively written and “published” (that’s the word for making the stories available to people to hear) by lighter skinned humans. So lighter skinned humans were able to take things that were a part of darker skinned humans’ cultures and use those things to tell stories about how darker skinned humans are not as good as lighter skinned ones.
Some of these things became “symbols” of darker skinned humans’ inferiority. (A symbol is something small that stands for a much larger concept.) Sombreros, the hats that the Shriver human was complaining about, are one such symbol. The type of darker skinned human the sombreros supposedly belong to are called “Mexicans,” for the geographic location they come from. The stories told about Mexicans is that they are lazy, and drunk (addicted to a toxic fermented liquid that compromises cognition,) and stupid, and criminal (given to breaking encoded rules made for everyone’s benefit.) In the stories where Mexicans are portrayed as lazy and drunk and stupid and criminal, they are almost always wearing sombreros. So sombreros are a symbol of the untrue idea of Mexicans’ lazy, drunken stupid criminality.
However, as the Shriver human herself pointed out, sombreros are logical hats to wear in a geographic location where ultraviolet rays from the sun are particularly direct. Sombreros have a broad brim to protect the humans’ skin. Also, there are other types of broad-brimmed hat, but the shape and colors and weave of the sombrero arise out of the culture of Mexicans, and are therefore particular to them. So sombreros are actually good things for Mexicans to have and use, and also things that are particularly Mexican, rather than generally human.
However, because lighter skinned humans used sombreros as a symbol for how Mexicans are bad, nowadays when lighter skinned humans who are not Mexican wear sombreros in geographic locations where they are not necessary, at times of day when there are no UV rays from the sun, they are doing it to mock (create humor through insults) Mexicans by recalling the negative symbolism of the sombrero.
This is what is meant by the term “cultural appropriation,” which is a concept that comes from “decolonization” and “post-colonial” and “antiracist” theory. Humans from one human subculture take symbolic items from another human subculture and use them inappropriately: either to mock and denigrate the other subculture directly, or to make themselves seem “sophisticated” and “worldly” (both approved values among lighter skinned humans) by associating themselves with something “esoteric” and “exotic” (two of the very few characteristics attributed to darker skinned humans that lighter skinned humans approve of.)
Darker skinned humans object to lighter skinned humans’ cultural appropriation of the darker ones’ stuff as part of the broader project of antiracism and decolonization. Remember that antiracism and decolonization are in progress, but nowhere near finished.
One can see that clearly when one looks at whose fiction gets published the most (light skinned humans) and whose fiction gets talked about the most (light skinned humans.) Light skinned humans organized societies and cultures so that their stories dominated. This organization hasn’t been dismantled yet.
What darker skinned humans have managed to do is to build small adjacent structures alongside the larger dominant structures of the lighter skinned humans. From the position of these smaller, adjacent structures, darker humans are occasionally able to jump into the larger, dominant structures, but only if lighter humans want them to.
What’s missing, you write at the bottom of your notes, you Martian, is that the Shriver human is a lighter skinned human, a descendant of the colonizers who organized the planet to benefit themselves. The Shriver human benefits from the reorganization of governments and economies, the domination of storytelling, and the weave of culture that tells everyone — dark and light skinned alike — that lighter skinned people are better.
When darker skinned people tell the Shriver human that she can’t wear sombreros indoors or write darker-skinned-people stories, what they’re saying is: Enough with the colonization. It’s time to make room for OUR voices, for OUR truths. What the Shriver human hears, however, is what a newly landed Martian hears. (This is called “white privilege.”)