I guess I should say that I like cultural appropriation (I'm using this term in the neutral sense; at first I was going to change this line to say 'cultural borrowing' instead, but I don't know if it's fair to play language games like that: what I like is good, what they do is bad). I get annoyed at books populated entirely with white, American, Christian characters; I love bad pulp fantasy, but I am so very sick of every single one being set in generic Europe.
However. Is appropriation problematic? Hell, yes.
The dominant culture- which here and now happens to be mainstream America- has power. And not just political or economic power, but the power of being known. You can go anywhere in the world and find American music, movies, and celebrities. The ability to be recognized is itself power: you don't need any explanations, you can just be. How frustrating would it be to have to explain why you celebrate on July 4th, and what do fireworks have to do the signing of a document anyway? And yet last month, I heard several people ask what the point of Cinco de Mayo was, and isn't it funny that we celebrate by getting drunk. Those silly Mexicans, they make no sense.
If a Japanese manga portrays an American as a loud, gun-carrying maniac, it's cultural appropriation of an entirely different sort than an American movie that portrays a Japanese person as, I don't know, an extremely polite, nerdy accountant. The difference is that no matter how many manga repeat the stereotype, it will always be countered by American portrayals of themselves; American pop culture is so ubiquitous that there's no way for any appropriation to become dominant over the original. However, it is possible for there to be enough American movies with mystical zen fighting monks for some of the audience to accept that appropriation as reality. For people with no experience of Japan, the appropriation becomes not a borrowing, but the truth, an accurate portrayal.
And so appropriation is always problematic because no portrayal is accurate. It's just not possible. Even if there was a writer who was so amazingly talented that s/he could convey the entire experience of Japanese culture (because Japan is apparently the metaphor I'm going with here), the question becomes "whose Japanese culture?" A businessman's? A housewife's? A teenager's? The culture in Tokyo? In a rural village? Now? Five years ago, when s/he was doing the research? Five years from now? There's just no way to convey all of that, and so appropriation has to fail.
Which is why appropriation by a dominant culture raises far more questions than appropriation from one. When you borrow from a dominant culture, you are one of many. There are a million generic medieval European fantasies out there; if you write one more, it's probably not going to do much to change anyone's mental picture of medieval Europe, no matter how wrong you might get the facts. But if you decide to set it in medieval India (like the godawful fantasy I read last fall; I think the author's sole knowledge of India came from an out-of-date children's textbook lesson on castes), it's going to weigh heavier in your readers' minds simply because most of them (assuming, of course, that you write it in English and publish in America) will have less experience with the topic. The less well-known the culture you borrow from is, the easier it is for any mistakes, stereotypes or problems to be accepted by your readers as accurate. It becomes possible for the dominant image of a culture to be not the culture itself, but the appropriation of it. When the authors have done a bad job with the appropriation- if they've been disrespectful or inaccurate- it's worse, but any time an appropriation becomes more well-known than the original culture, people are going to be angry, and for good reasons. For instance: how many people have a knowledge of Native American religion based solely on how it's portrayed in fantasy novels?
That'd piss me off if I were Native American. But I don't think the solution is to only write about your own culture (not that I've actually seen a lot of people arguing this point. It seems to be something many people are reacting against, but I remember only one example of someone even coming close to saying it). Just because we can't do something perfectly right doesn't mean we shouldn't try; if that were the case, no one would ever do anything.
Maybe it would be better if there were, instead, lots of appropriation going on. If there's only one book in existence using sub-Saharan myths, there are going to be things that book gets wrong. It's inevitable. If there's 500 books on the topic (assuming that the authors are coming from many backgrounds rather than only the dominant culture, and assuming that each author is doing research rather than copying each other, which may be unrealistic assumptions), the picture has got to get broader and more accurate. Also, if using elements of other cultures became more common, it might be harder to fetish the Other as something exotic and weird.
I took a writing class a few months ago. I happened to be one of the last to turn in my manuscript for critque, and so got to read nearly everyone else's before writing mine (because I didn't write mine until the night before it was due, of course). I got so annoyed with every single person writing about a white, middle class, suburban character who was living in Ohio that I deliberately wrote about an exteremly poor Middle Eastern character and set it in an unnamed location, but which was clearly not Ohio. And nearly every single one of the comments I got back wanted to know- how does this character feel about her race? Why didn't you talk more about her race? I want to know how her race affects the way she feels about this other character. I was furious. Because this was not a story about race. I mean, obviously, the details were different than if the character had been white, or black, or Asian, but at its base, it was a romance story. And the feeling I got from everyone else was- well, the only point of having a character of another race is so you can talk about that race. Why bother otherwise?
There are issues raised by the fact that I, as a white person, was writing a character of another race. There are lots of issues there. But there are also issues raised by the assumption that American culture is the only 'real' or 'appropriate' culture from which to write, and anything else is just exoticization. That's prioritizing American culture in a way which isn't fair. But writing other cultures as fun trappings without regards to the reality of the culture, or to the possible consequences of your writing, is also not fair.
So. Um. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say with all this, really, except that I still find the topic fascinating.