Julia Serano on appropriation

Almost a decade ago, Julia Serano wrote a wonderful essay on appropriation. I keep on coming back to it, because it clarifies a debate which recurs again and again in activist contexts. In particular, she captures some of the discomfort I felt in the early 2000s, as allegations of appropriation became a big deal in my social and political circles. The picture is very real, even though she is writing more narrowly about trans activism:

trans activists often encouraged forms of gender transgression in the cisgender majority, as it was generally believed that such expressions would help undermine binary gender norms throughout society.

And suddenly now in 2013, some trans people are essentially taking the exact opposite approach by discouraging cisgender people from transgressing gender norms (via accusations that such actions represent an appropriation of transgender identities and culture).

Critique of cultural appropriation, which is what I mainly encountered, was definitely in part a needed correction to some existing attitudes. But there were (and continue to be) times when that critique seemed to preclude any interaction, and send everybody back to their own parochial background.

Serano starts by identifying the most clearly bad forms of appropriation, in a satisfyingly clear-cut way. Appropriation is bad when it is used to Exclude, Exploit or Denigrate the target group.

Beyond that, opinions differ. Serano now situates the debate about appropriation in the context of wider political movements, on two axes. The first is stigma. When a group is heavily stigmatised, then it is a brave and costly signal for an outsider to adopt their markers. Therefore the insiders are more likely to appreciate this as a gesture of support and solidarity. If the stigma decreases, it becomes possible to adopt the markers of a group without much personal cost, and doing so can look like ‘tourism’. The outsider takes advantage of the culture of the group, without having risked or contributed anything.

The second axis differentiates activists aiming at separation, from those aiming at integration into mainstream society. Discouraging appropriation helps to maintain a clear boundary between you and the mainstream, which can be very appealing. But if your endgame is to be accepted within society, you would prefer to welcome others to adopt aspects of your identity.

I would add another angle, which Serano gestures to but underemphasises. That is, whether you see group membership as innate or chosen. If you believe that people can join and leave your group, then you almost need to accept those who are in a transitional stage. I’m very much of the attitude that most identities can be chosen. But even I have to accept that some are unavailable, perhaps because they are in the past, e.g. a certain kind of upbringing.

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