A few weeks ago, an author I respect (who is a shade of brown, not pure bleached white like my almost-aryan ass) said something like this: "I don't like brown elves." That was explained by a belief that tradition is important, and her European ancestry was just as important as her native american culture -- but mixing the two waters them both down. Elves are a European myth. Therefore they are white, and should remain so. Extrapolating, we should not change or use other culture's mythologies in ways they have not been used before, approved by dead people.
Obviously, I disagree. The author in question is of two ancestries. She had to have grown up in a household that celebrated both. And were they watered down? Have both cultures been lost, their importance and history ruined by impure mixing and changing? Since she professes to value them both, I doubt it.
The title of this piece references a wonderful essay by Terry Brooks: Why I Write About Elves. If you've never read it, you should before you go any further. (although the amazon shlick sheen on the essay is new. And unlikeable)
TL;DR. Terry Brooks writes fantasy because fantasy, like Science Fiction (albeit SF is more direct) speaks about the real world, and real issues. But spirituality and culture are real. Racism is real. And yet these are stories that SF rarely engages in, because they are less tech-focused. And nobody cares what colour you are when you can just change it at any time.
But fantasy has all of that. Fantasy, with its medieval trappings, is full of our modern cultural values, our beliefs and superstitions, and our racism. Arab authors complain of overuse of "those people in the east who wear turbans and live in the desert and abuse their women" in the fantasy genre. The entire Forgotten Realms universe is a shining example: to the East, lies "the Orient."
Keeping elves white only adds to this problem. Segregating fantasy to protect real-world cultural identity isn't the solution to cultural misappropriation. If you've never heard the term "cultural appropriation" it basically means this: The West, esp white americans, are stealing from cultures (most offensively Native American and Asian groups) by wearing headdresses or calling themselves redskins, or forcing anyone who uses a katana to speak with a fake japanese accent (transformers). The argument against this is that anyone who isn't from that culture shouldn't be using these clothing items or saying things a certain way or whatever.
The argument for is mostly "we're all post-racist and so we should all be able to share! this is America, melting pot of the world where we all come together equally!"
I'd really like the argument for to be true, but it's not. The world is not post-racist. America is not post-racist. One look at how Arabs in the West are treated and you see that cultural emnity and the racism borne of that are alive and well. Our cultures are clashing, and we have no idea how to reconcile them.
Except we do. Every child with parents from two different cultures should know that. Every child from parents of ONE culture should know that. Culture is ephemeral, and is different from home to home. You may share one thing or another, and the distances may grow wider the farther you go from your home, but this is the digital age now. We are all connected, we are all flying around in airplanes to every part of the world, and everyone lives everywhere. Even our animals are "invading" where they weren't before.
Because we brought them.
All this makes it all the more important to write about brown elves.
I treat my cultural appropriations in fantasy novels like I treat tattoo ideas. With rules.
1. Does this fit who I am (what this novel is about)
2. Can I explain why I have this tattoo (is the reason for this use compelling)
3. Does this do harm (does this use reinforce negative stereotypes, either actively or passively)
4. Would I do this exact same thing with a cultural relic of a culture I am closer to? Eg: Would you dress up in a headdress but not a pope-hat? If so: you suck, go die. Or realize you're wrong. Either one.
5. IS IT AWESOME: Y/N (this is really the most important one)
The world I created in Leylined is one of many cultural leftovers. They are clustered in strange ways, and have mixed and moved throughout. Just like me. I have lived many places, and will live in many more. I have learned many languages, and eaten foods from many countries. I am white, I am male, and I am more than that.
We must recognize when we are stealing from a culture, and when we are celebrating hand in hand. When I make fun of christianity, I must be ready to do the same to Islam, or even Buddhism (tho it's pretty hard to poke fun at buddhism. OHM) When I celebrate the rich culture of native american mythology, I must be ready to admit that christianity had some cool myths too.
Educate yourself on the context of your use. Don't just put angry turban wearing brown people in your deserts wielding scimitars. Learn why those clothes are worn instead of others. Learn why those people look the way they do -- there are many brown people across the earth, and they all look different, just like us poor ass paleskins. We're all human, and in fifty years I hope our kids are all as hot as this foretelling says they will be.
Will it be wrong to write about brown elves then? And white genies? Will anyone care?
Know what you're doing. Realize why you're doing it. And if it's for awesome, if it does awesome, if you know why it's awesome, then keep on truckin'. If it's because of stereotypes, if it reinforces cultural emnity (and not for plot reasons), if it leads to lesser understanding for the reader if not more, then drop it. Change it. You choose every word with care. Now choose your settings.
I don't put every character in a headdress. In fact, I haven't so far. But when I do, it's gonna be great, and they're gonna wear it right.