Cultural Appropriation for the Worried Writer: some practical advice

So, you’re a writer and you’re worried about writing outside your immediate experiences and identities. You hear people can get screamed at online about this and you want to do this right. And you thought you’d ask someone at convention about this.

Which is all to say that I get asked on panels a lot about white people writing about cultures and identities that aren’t their own, often by white people. I’ve been deeply dissatisfied with the answers I’ve given over the years because it’s impossible to say everything in five minutes.

So here is a run down of what I recommend someone do if they’re worried about appropriation and writing outside their identities.

Examine your motives. Why do you want to write about this?

Are you trying to solve racism/sexism/colonialism/homophobia/transphonia/etc with your work?

As writers we love stories about heroic writers whose work has changed the world. And as such we like to look to our own writing to solve societal problems or raise awareness of issues. And I understand this completely, not the least because I’ve felt the pull.

But if you’re looking to play saviour with your words, it is unlikely that you will do the marginalised people you are trying to save justice.

And I understand this very often comes from place of good intentions, but there is a reason that most of the moralising plays written by white abolitionists are deeply uncomfortable to read. It is incredibly easy for works looking to play saviour to become patronising or traffic in simplistic stereotypes that ultimately hurt the people they are looking to speak for.

It’s not uncommon, for example for a parable about racism being taught via a racist protagonist learning a lesson. But as such, you are still making the reader read about someone being awful to people like them for most of the story. It can reduce those marginalised people to props in the personal growth of your racist protagonist.

It is also worth bearing in mind that many seminal works of anti-racism that white people love, such as Huckleberry Finn, are not equally beloved by black readers. Many works like American Heart and American Dirt, that were written with that intention to play saviour instead backfires. Learn why.

Are you looking to “cash in” on all this trendy diversity that you’ve been hearing about?

There’s an uncomfortable murmur going around the writing world over the last few years that the only way to be successful is to write about marginalised identities (or be from them). Despite publishing as a whole still being overwhelming white and unqueer, the break out successes and award winners are seen as a new normal.

But the overall publishing landscape really hasn’t changed that much at all.

So if you’ve somehow gotten the impression that this is the path for quick and easy success, I would recommend writing something else.

Are you looking to write a story about that identity?

There’s a huge difference between writing a story with a diverse cast that reflects the complexities of the world and a story which looks to represent them to the world. The latter seeks to speak for them, seeks to be an exploration about that identity.

It is fine and good to write a story with gay characters if you are straight. I would strongly advise against writing a story that centres on the specific struggles of being gay in a oppressive society if you are straight.

It is excellent and representative of reality to have black characters, but if you’re a white American writer, I urge you not to try and write the next Hate U Give.

Ask yourself what your story is about.

Everyone worries about getting it wrong.

Very often, I feel people are implicitly asking me for permission. And I understand, there is this weight of expectation and responsibility that you want to be free from. I desperately want to write with the freedom that I felt when I was ten, when I didn’t worry about what other people thought about my work or who was reading it. Self awareness can be uncomfortable, and you think perhaps this can help you return to that state of grace.

There is no simple fix that can be done once and allow you to stop worrying about cultural appropriation forever. It doesn’t work like that.

And we all worry about what we write. We all worry about hurting the people we are writing about. Marginalised writers, if anything, worry even more about such because we intimately know the hurt that can be caused, we remember the books that have failed us and the disappointments we have felt. We worry about doing our own cultures and subcultures justice. We worry about accidentally confirming or validating stereotypes and further entrenching them in our culture. If we are diaspora, we worry about our authenticity and being estranged from those cultural impulses.

So you, worried writer, are not alone in this.

We all worry and I sincerely believe this is a good thing. It is what keeps us honest. It is what makes us do better.

Stop looking for rules.

There is a tendency in humans to desire rules, of what should and should not be permitted. It is very easy, however, once you’ve reduced things to rules, it is all to easy for some to forget why something is bad. Some will begin to argue that the rules seem arbitrary.

It is easy to point out loopholes and exceptions to rules. But it was never about the rules to begin with. And it is the constant societal repetition of certain stereotypes and ideas that creates harm. Symbols gain meanings. Very often, a single instance will seem trivial. The point, however, is not contributing to that deluge and as such you have to understand these things in aggregate, as patterns.

Stop trying to find equivalents. Stop it with the thought experiments about likening cheongsam to lederhosen or asking if blackface is the same as a child wearing a long-sleeved Thor costume that has that bare arms with white skin.

These things come back down to the power and privilege of different groups within a society. It’s about history and repetition and cultural memory. Symbols and actions and tropes all gain meaning through the people who have used them, who have weaponised them before.

This isn’t about you.

Stop worrying about people criticising you.

I know it feels bad to be shouted at when you know that you have good intentions and I know you want to shield yourself, to point to the people who liked your book, to point to all the due diligence that you have done, that any mistakes that have been made can’t possibly your own.

The hurt of cultural appropriation causes is very real and the best way to avoid it isn’t to approach this defensively. This isn’t about how to lawyer up before the verbal accusations begin.

Worry about the harm you can cause and understand it. Listen and believe people when they say something is bad.

And yes, there isn’t always consensus on if something is bad. You will find works that are beloved and inspiring to some and hated by others. No culture is monolith. The lack of consensus does not make the hurt any less real.

It is very possible for some people to love your work and for others of the same marginalisation to hate it. It is not your place to demand those who love your work to defend it. It is not your place to demand conensus.

And there are a thousand and one articles and websites and workshops out there just a google search away. Only by actually understanding this can you avoid these issues.

Never mistake the confidence necessary to write as reason to shut down criticism.

If you’re doing research, be aware of who wrote the books and articles you are reading

Be very aware that there are many people who are more written about than writing. This isn’t to say that only portraits from within a culture are accurate or insightful, but if your only sources are written by outsiders, then it is very easy to pick up those unconscious biases. There will be misconceptions that have been rattling around that literature for years because people are just citing each other in an echo chamber.

If you’re writing about Norse myth, know that Nazis have an intense interet in it and there many very racist and sexist interpretations of it out there. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t write about Norse myth but that you should check your sources.

If you’re writing about ancient Egypt, make sure you’re reading more than just Victorian accounts of adventure archaeology. If you’re writing about Irish myth, maybe throw in some writing that isn’t by Americans.

And this all applies all the moreso if you’re looking to write about living people and living traditions.

Also, be aware of the purpose behind a book. Things written for tourists, for example, will often be looking to package the culture in a way to appeal to the traveller, to sell them that experience. A culture is more than just lists of foods and festivals.

Marginalised people often have a culture invisible to the dominant one.

One of the reasons why marginalised people are so able to write about the dominant culture is that we often don’t have our own fiction, we are used to empathising with the Aragorns and the Tony Starks.

But more than that, marginalised cultures are definitionally often depicted in problematic ways or just not depicted at all.

This isn’t for a second to suggest that they are fundamentally different or alien in some way, but there will likely be things that you are not familiar with. Many white people aren’t aware about the discussions around the “double eyelid”, for example, and why eye shape is a complex issue to East Asians. People who aren’t black probably don’t know about the hair chart, or how natural black hair has been deemed unbeautiful and unacceptable by dominant white society in America.

So when I urge you to research, these are the things you should look for.

Be aware of tropes that have gone before.

If you’re writing about a culture that is not your own, it is very possible that you’re not aware of those tropes about it and within it. You won’t necessarily know what has been done to death and what you should perhaps avoid.

White women, for example, are sick of being the love interest. But for black women, being seen as desirable is still very rare in fiction. Here is an old but still very relevant blogpost about how Uhura being single in The Original Series was not empowering.

And remember the opposite of a stereotype is likely also cardboard nonsense. So whilst trying to avoid the evil, inhuman savage, be aware that the opposite stereotpye of the noble savage is equally insulting and two dimensional. The docile doormat woman is annoying and ubiqutious but so is her opposite. These dichotomies are themselves toxic and should be torn down.

Pay the people who are teaching you.

The wesbites and many resources on the internet. Writing the Other is an excellent place to start, they have a specific section on cultural appropriation that I recommend you read. Attend a workshop.

Many of these resources are available for free on the internet, so consider contributing to their patreons or ko-fis. Buy their books. This is labour and they deserve to be paid.

Raise up marginalised voices.

Returning to the first point about wanting to play saviour with your own writing, remember there is more that you can do than just write about something. Don’t set yourself up as a spokesperson.

Remember that appropriation isn’t just about “getting it right”; it is also about structural power within the world. It’s about which voices get the spotlight, arts funding or big promotional pushes from publishers. I know that for many, this statement doesn’t feel applicable because you’re a student, you’re a mid-list writer, you’re a unpublished, you don’t write in English, you have many other marginalisations. But things don’t cancel out and even if your writing is flawless, you should make space for others and not speak over them. Who speaks matters, not just what is said.

So raise up the marginalised voices. Tell people about their books. RT their tweets. Cite them as your sources and your inspiration. Recommend their books to your friends. Include their books on lists you write or interviews you give. Review those books. Promote them.

This and many other excellent articles on creative writing appear in The Writer’s Book if Doubt.

novelist, hair wizard, game designer