I was listening to an episode of the Walking Eye podcast the other day that brought up an interesting, and important, topic in the roleplaying hobby. Cultural appropriation.
What that means, for those who didn't spend several years and many thousands of dollars in the university of their choice, is one cultural group adopting the elements of another cultural group. You might think of non-First Nations people who hang dreamcatchers from their rear-view mirrors, or maybe Elvis drawing a lot of his act from the music of black musicians. Or, to reference a current hot-button topic from the news, white chefs who practice "southern cooking" without any acknowledgement of the ethnic origins of that food.
So what's the problem with cultural appropriation? It's a problem because a great deal of the time, when this happens, it is done without any serious attempt to understand the culture that's being "borrowed" from. (Okay, let's be blunt - "stolen".) A player might take the part of a First Nations character, but only know as much about that character's culture as they saw in a few old Westerns or Jonah Hex comics. Then it's very easy to fall back on tired stereotypes, or worse, racist caricatures.
This is an issue for roleplaying to grapple with because our hobby is largely about taking a walk in another (fictional) person's shoes. Sure, sometimes that person is an elf or a wookie or whatever, but there are a lot of games where players might be in the position of playing a person in the real world. (And a lot of the time, even if you're playing a character that's clearly not a part of the real world, you might be playing that character as though they're a part of a real-world ethnicity; who hasn't played a game where someone played a Dwarf that spoke with a Scottish accent?)
Add gender or sexual identity to this, and things are really starting to get complicated.
I have to admit, I've done this before myself. I have played black characters on more than one occasion as a player, and I just got done taking the part of a First Nations character in a Deadlands game. I know many players who do the same, and others who play across gender lines on a regular basis. There's a very good chance that those portrayals might have been seen as stereotypes at best (or even racist), if someone from one of those ethnic groups had been sitting in. I'm sure there are women who find it problematic when men play female characters, if it's not done with great sensitivity.
So what does this mean for the hobby? Should all us white middle class male nerds restrict ourselves to only playing white, middle class male nerds? This is a problem I had to grapple with as a writer for a time, because the problem is only magnified in the sphere of writing -- it's all too easy for a reader to spot when a writer is speaking outside his personal experiences, relying on tired stereotypes, or tokenizing members of a different ethnicity / gender. Who hasn't read a book or watched a movie or TV show when they said about a particular character "They would never say / do that"?
Does all art with a claim to legitimacy have to boil down to autobiography?