Guest post submitted by Akhetnu.
Furry is a unique exploration and interpretation of the human experience, warts and all, through the lens of animals both real and fantastic. Many of these creatures are unique to certain parts of the world, especially the imaginary ones that form part of the mythological archetypes of the cultures other than our own. When it comes to looking at humanity, we also tend to investigate these various cultures as they existed and continue to exist throughout time.
As a result, there are many fursuits, fursonas and furry art of beings such as dragons from East Asia adorned in silk kimono, wolves dressed as Navajo warriors, and raptors wearing uniforms of the imperial Prussian army (that was a shameless plug for myself, incidentally). Still others may adopt a small piece of a cultural artifact such as a ying-yang symbol, Alpaca poncho, or a Chinese character tattoo. Furries may even refer to their fursonas as ‘totems’, at least if that concept is in the popular consciousness of their society.
Many of these furries are not themselves descendants of the cultures portrayed on their fursonas or suits. This had led to concerns over cultural appropriation, which is believed by many to be problematic in that is dehumanizes the people of other cultures and robs them of their own identities, as and hence is thought to represent Western white oppression of minorities.
An example in the real world was at Yale University where a letter was circulated urging students not to adopt Halloween costumes portraying other cultures, as it was allegedly harmful to others of those cultures. An art exhibit wherein people could try on the kimono used in a painting by Monet was shut down after protests accusing the art gallery of cultural appropriation. A Columbian student in Canada was told not to wear his own Columbian poncho and hat for Halloween, not because it was him culturally appropriating (can you appropriate from yourself?) but because other students may have mistaken it for such.
What, then, is the appropriate way to appropriate? I would first offer the suggestion that cultural appropriation is not in itself problematic or objectively harmful. Rather, it is a natural and historical outcome of the interaction between any two cultures, and is invariably two-way. For example, American blue jeans or cowboy images are popular throughout the world, even as samurai literature fueled cowboy Western films, which were themselves produced in Italy. Not only that, but specific cultural ideas and artifacts adopted from one culture by another will invariably be altered by the latter to suit their own needs.
Voodoo came from West African slaves incorporating Christianity into their native religious practices. Many Chinese in Shanghai would don a Western fedora and scarf with their own cheongsam, Japanese tempura was adopted from Portugese deep frying, Japanese Judo is practiced in Brazil, while Zen Buddhism came to the US in the 1950s and adopted a unique character all its own, even as Japanese Zen was different in some ways from the original Chinese Chan Buddhism.
Some may counter that the difference between such cultural exchanges and cultural appropriation is the latter involves one culture dominating another. Yet, it is impossible for any culture to encounter each other on a purely level playing field, technologically, militarily, politically or economically. In addition, the end results of the cultural exchanges between different power balances seem similar: each culture is influenced by the other regardless of who has more power.
Cultural appropriation may actually help keep fading cultures in the public consciousness. The Boy Scouts get accused of cultural appropriation of Native American symbolism in their Order of the Arrow group, but that many native tribes actually like what they do because it keeps their traditions alive. In fact the Order of the Arrow is advised by representatives of Native American tribes. Meanwhile, the Japanese love when others adopt elements of their cultures so much that they have a term for it, “cool Japan”.
When you look at who is accusing other people of cultural appropriation, it often comes from those outside of the cultures they claim are being harmed. In fact, it tends to be people who were born and/or raised in the US. Even Speedy Gonzalez is loved by many Mexicans; they recognize that as a comic character he will have humorous exaggerations, but his ultimate heroism and amusement is something they find enjoyable. Polling consistently shows many native Americans do not mind mascots patterned on their people. When an Arab character was shown in a recent Street Fighter video game, audiences in the middle east cheered while some Americans wrung their hands. As with anything, opinions vary inside and outside the cultures portrayed in Western media.
Another issue brought up is appropriation being undesirable in the context of commerce: using other cultures for marketing or selling items inspired by said cultures. Again, I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing…trade is among the first interactions between cultures, after all. Settlers and native peoples would usually exchange ornamentation and fabrics they created. In fact, cultural exchange is often enabled by trade. That much of it took the form of bartering means it also took place outside of a purely ‘capitalist’ system. All cultures have also bought and sold most of their artifacts among themselves, such as clothing, food and other items, to begin with.
While cultural appropriation is natural and largely beneficial, it does not seem unreasonable to take certain steps when adopting the trappings of another culture, if one is presenting themselves as authentic representations of that culture. At that point, they are fulfilling the role of educator in a sense, or at least a reenactor, and hence it is useful to follow the rules reenactors adopt.
Essentially, they should undertake research and attention to detail with all due diligence. They should clarify, if needed, that they are not from that culture, not pretend to know what they do not know, and can point to a good source for more information. That way they do not misrepresent what they are portraying, and faithfully represent it all they can within the limits of their budget and research.
At the same time, if someone is just using a symbol, cultural artifact or idea as part of their fursona, with a different interpretation or as part of an eclectic presentation, they need not have to fit any strictly traditional or historical pattern. All they need is to be honest about that too, drawing a distinction between “portraying X” versus “being inspired by X”. After all, being inspired by someone or something is to respect that aspect of them, because you feel it is worthy enough to incorporate into your own experience.
In addition, it is courteous at the very least to not portray the other culture in a mean spirited manner that mocks it. This is ultimately a judgment call, since some comic exaggeration is not uncommon in any furry portrayal. As long as the intent of the suiter or fan is not to ridicule the other culture, it is reasonable to avoid reading a mocking intent into it without asking. For example, in San Francisco Chinatown I have seen conical hats and even caps with fake queues for sale. These can be considered ‘costumes’ but even the ethnic Chinese shopkeepers sell them voluntarily, and seem happy to make money off of what may be very silly looking tourists donning their wares. Of course, all countries have their own ‘national costume’, so cultures ARE costumes. Everything is a costume if it’s not what you normally wear.
In furry we are all about costumes: we appropriate species by definition, and if you ask enough vegans, you’ll find out that some view humans as oppressing animals as well.
In spite of all this, there is one aspect to cultural appropriation that does seem more clear cut: adopting unearned honors. Any society will use symbols to designate those members who have proven their merit in some aspect of the social hierarchy. Military medals for valor, the Nobel Prize, and doctoral degrees come to mind. To wear an item of such importance that is still being awarded by an existing culture, while not having done what is necessary to earn it, can be construed as misrepresenting one’s self and diluting the honor associated with the item. Since those cultures still exist, their members expect those symbols to represent and communicate certain things about the wearer.
In my own Prussian officer fursuit, I wear only two medals: the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge (a real, modern German award I have actually earned in the Army), and the WWI version of the Iron Cross Second Class (a defunct award no longer given, with no living recipients). I even wear military rank that corresponds to my current Army rank of captain.
So what if you are from a culture being portrayed in some way in fandom?
If you see errors, it’s certainly appropriate to politely correct any misconceptions or simply give additional information for the benefit of the “appropriator” and the audience. At the same time, one should also ask if the person is trying to be a full reenactor of their culture, or is just using part of it in a new way. Asking that person’s view of the culture is perhaps the most revealing: if they enjoy or admire some aspects of it, whatever they are doing is unlikely to be with the intent of ridicule. If they admit to disliking the culture and are portraying it in a manner that seems ridiculous, expressing one’s disapproval is equally valid. Just because someone can do something legally does not mean it is illegal for someone to likewise explain why they find it offensive.