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From Paranoid to Reparative: Narratives of Cultural Identification in the Social Sciences

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 193-211 | 10.1353/jnt.2012.0007

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

William was proud to be Scottish, proud to have lived the first two years of his life in Cammothmore, but he liked to tell the story that an ancestor of his had travelled to America on the Mayflower, and somehow got hold of real Red Indian blood. When he told this story he turned to show his profile, which was crooked with a hard slug of a nose, and even though his hair was blond, his eyes were narrow and ink black.

Like William, we all possess fragments of stories passed down through family generations, chronicles that we absorb and recount in an effort to understand who we are, where we come from, and, perhaps most significantly, where we might belong. Indeed, such narratives play an important role in affirming our very identities. It is interesting that the passage above already betrays a sense that we are looking for the real story of William’s heritage. Is he claiming a romantic American Indian birthright? Or, as the final line “his eyes were narrow and ink black” quietly implies, is there some truth in his tale? On a disciplinary level, the social sciences have dealt with this everyday question in an adjudicatory fashion, in which William either is or is not authentic, leaving no leverage for anything less clear-cut. In fact, the social sciences would likely balk at any suggestion that William is mythologizing, accusing him of cultural appropriation, that is, the direct taking of another culture’s specificity for one’s own cultural gain. In Borrowed Power, Jonathan Hart defines cultural appropriation as “when a member of one culture takes a cultural practice or theory of a member of another culture as if it were his or her own or as if the right of possession should not be questioned or contested” (138). Such a definition, through its inference of an intentional abuse of power, fails to capture the complexity of how we collate our cultural identities; indeed it fails to acknowledge the complexity of what an authentic cultural identity actually is. The counter-intuitive and multifarious ways in which we come to present ourselves as coherent, genuine individuals, or put together a persuasive life story, is a fascinating phenomenon and one which is sadly overlooked by a methodology that presumes a decision can and should be made. In repeating this narrative we limit our ability to gain insight into the way that authenticity, particularly in its application to identity, is socially contingent and surprisingly fluid. In a break from this perfunctory bifurcation, my argument seeks not to adjudicate whether a person does or does not have authentic claim over a particular identitystory, but to question the way that the fundamental human process of cultural identification is routinely assumed to be calculated appropriation. In detailing this occurrence, this paper seeks to encourage an approach through which the experience of cultural identification can be analyzed not in bad faith, but with genuine academic curiosity.

Beginning with an analysis of Canadian anthropologist Deborah Root’s work on “White Indians,” this paper will specifically demonstrate how accusations of cultural appropriation are dismissive of the sophistication of the necessary confections and nuanced complexities that attend all forms of social truth-telling. People like the “White Indians” whom Root describes are not necessarily maliciously motivated, and indeed their identification with others often reflects the fact that, socially, we value certain narratives over others, just as we do on a disciplinary level. As Gertrude Stein once suggested, genius rests in the ability to “at the same time [be] talking and listening,” and we author our identities with social reception in mind (qtd. in Will 85). In assuming a static agent and a static culture, social scientists use the narrative of cultural appropriation in such a way as to miss the intricate exchange that occurs during social storytelling. Rather than assuming a negative intention behind cultural identification, we need to ask what compels people to present themselves in the way in which they do and how even the most tenuous stories can inform their very identity in a tangible fashion.

Lifting the Veil: The Narrative of Cultural Appropriation

In “‘White Indians’: Appropriation...

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