Cultural appropriation: a cautionary tale

The term cultural appropriation has a few definitions, but all contain the idea of members of one culture using elements of another culture, particularly the exploitation and distortion of those elements. Among the ways to misappropriate a culture, you might err because you don’t fully understand that culture, even if you’re sure you do.

Here’s an example. When I was living in Spain, I belonged to an English-language writers critique group, and members came from a variety of countries. For some of them, the United States was a far-off, exotic land, and occasionally they tried to write stories and poems set there. Sometimes they failed spectacularly.

A little background: I was born and grew up in the United States. My father, shown in the photo, played on Marquette University’s football team. Wherever you’re from, you probably know that the sport called “football” in most of the world and “soccer” in the United States is very different from the sport we call “football” in the United States, even though they share historic roots. I’m a casual fan of American-style gridiron football, and I know a few things about it.

One day, an Irish author in our critique group submitted the start of a novel with this conflict: a young man in Chicago wants to play college football, but his father disapproves of anything that would detract from his studies for medical school, so the young man hides his participation in the Northwestern University football team.

The author was a big fan of soccer, and he assumed that American gridiron football would be similar. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

To start with, the author did not understand how hard, how treasured, and how public a spot on Northwestern’s team is. In fact, it’s a Big Ten team, the stuff of legend. Player recruitment involves years of preparation, the whole family, scholarships, sometimes lawyers and agents, and very often intense media attention.

After one game in which the young man in the novel makes a key play, he’s worried his father might find out about his deception, but, he reasons, no one pays much attention to college sports; apparently college sports don’t get much attention in Ireland. In fact, Northwestern games are televised live and covered by the news media in excruciating detail.

In one scene, the player talks to the coach, an underpaid, unimportant man who works out of a grim, tiny office in a basement corner of the school gym. In fact, the Northwestern football program is located in a fieldhouse that could be described as palatial. The current coach, Pat Fitzgerald, reportedly earns $5 million per year and could be described as fairly well known.

The coach orders the young man to “get kitted up and go out on the pitch.” In fact, American football is played in what we call uniforms and on what we call a field.

In one game, the play is described as moving fluidly up and down the pitch, now advancing, now protecting the goal. In fact, American football has been described as controlled violence interrupted by frequent committee meetings (huddles), very stop-and-start, and there are separate offensive and defensive teams as well as special teams.

Clearly, our author had never seen an American football game, but it’s a lot like soccer, right?

I tried to be gentle as I advised the author to abandon his novel. He would never be able to do enough research from his home in Spain to get the details right.

Cultures are complex. It’s easy to blunder. If you want to write about something from another culture, perhaps you can successfully, but the first step is understanding the other culture and yourself. American football is tough enough to withstand a lot of misappropriation. The elements of some other cultures might be fragile and should be approached with care and respect. In fact, you might even discover that you aren’t the right author for that story.

Even though I live in Chicago now and I’ve known some real-life American football players, I’m not qualified to write a novel about a member of the Northwestern University football team. I know more than enough about American football and Northwestern to understand how very little I actually know.

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