Recently, there have been a few difficult discussions of cultural representation in roleplaying, both on Story Games and in Shreyas’ follow-up post on Knife Fight.
The discussions center, as they often do, on who has the ability to depict cultures responsibly: Is it based on the cultural heritage of the authors? Is it based on their education and knowledge of the subject? How are the problems exacerbated when privileged folks are depicting subaltern cultures? Do people have the “right” to control the representation of their culture or at least to limit the misrepresentation?
In talking to Shreyas about this, I said:
I automatically distrust non-Chinese scholarship on China, considering it inherently wrongheaded and biased until, upon reading it, I discover that the author is actually pretty knowledgeable. I think that’s a healthy stance to have. I like being constantly surprised by insights outsiders have, instead of assuming that they know what they’re talking about, because it allows me to treat insiders as the most authoritative source of cultural knowledge, even when a large swath of Chinese scholarship is pretty terrible. I think that kind of a stance is relatively rare among researchers and writers who are not directly involved in issues of culture and ethnicity.
It’s amazing to me how often people from outside Asian Studies (say political scientists writing about China) will take bad analysis seriously (often bad analysis by people who are also not Asian Studies people), because they don’t know how to find the right sources (because they’re not familiar with the field) and don’t consult native scholarship (because they can’t read it). The mangled, stereotyped picture of China that appears in books aimed at a general audience… it’s actually not too surprising. The authors are constantly reading misinformed scholarship like their own, which reinforces similarly misguided ideas about China. Whereas, if you read more nuanced scholarship about China, whether done by Chinese scholars or non-Chinese scholars closely involved in what’s going on in the field, the picture that emerges is rather different.
Likewise, I automatically distrust any roleplaying depiction of culture that is not firmly grounded in the cultural background of the author. Outsiders have to — in my eyes — prove themselves a trustworthy authority on another culture, both by showing that they’ve done their homework (in terms of research, education, and experiential background) and also by having description and analysis that are respectful, responsible, and insightful.
And honestly, I hope other people hold me to the same standards. People should not trust my writings on China merely because “Jonathan’s been to China and speaks Chinese and blah blah blah,” but because — each time — I’ve proven myself to be a trustworthy authority. And, unfortunately, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I don’t put in the time necessary to be trustworthy. Sometimes I just say stuff or make stuff up. And I hope people call me on that or, at the very least, don’t listen to the things I say when I’m talking irresponsibly. And it’s my responsibility to make irresponsible assertions as little as possible.
Now, determining who qualifies as an insider or an outsider is a separate and complicated issue. Is Shreyas — coming from an ethnically Indian background and having spent some time in India, but otherwise like a lot of other kids from New Jersey — automatically a trustworthy authority on all things Indian? No, but I trust him enough to be responsible about the limits of his own knowledge and experience, to say, “Y’know, I’m not really sure about that, but this is what I suspect is the case; let me go and double-check.” Other people I might give more or less credit to, based on what I know of them. Determining who you will listen to for information is ultimately, I think, up to each individual to determine.