Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Although a lot has been said about cultural appropriation since it entered mainstream cultural vernacular, accounts are often confusing. There’s a lot of emotion behind whether a work does, or does not, contain cultural appropriation, and those new to the term can often be left no wiser by discussions that focus on a specific work.
In fact, you may be feeling confused about what cultural appropriation is and/or worrying that it’s something you’re doing in your work. To ease your concern, here’s everything you need to know about what it is, what’s wrong with it, and how to avoid it.
What is cultural appropriation?
Here’s something you’ve probably been dying to hear – the short answer: cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of a marginalized culture that is not their own. A non-Native American person dressing up in a ‘Native American’ costume for Halloween is an obvious example.
Cultural appropriation is acutely different from white-washing, which is about cultural erasure; assimilation, which is when people of a marginalized group adopt parts of a dominant culture in order to survive within that dominant culture; and cultural exchange, which (as the name implies) is a mutual sharing of ideas between different cultural groups.
Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity In American Law provided this handy list in an interview with Jezebel in 2012:
[Cultural appropriation is] Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
Why is cultural appropriation a problem?
Out of their domestic context and taken without the permission of their creators, expressions of culture can easily become devoid of their proper meaning. This results in objects, symbols or beliefs that are considered sacred or intrinsically valuable to a particular marginalized culture becoming easily commodified, trivialized and misunderstood by a dominant one, which can make members of that marginalized culture feel disrespected, offended and even more ostracized, especially when they are also expected to co-exist peacefully alongside the perpetrators.
Cultural appropriation fuels misunderstanding – the bane of any relatable character.Click To Tweet
Think, for example, of the portrayal of Native Americans in various iterations of Peter Pan. A frequently underrepresented culture presented in a kitsch, patronizing way to a naive audience. Of course, there’s a darker side, and many examples of cultural appropriation depict specific cultures as inherently aggressive, foolish, or inferior to the dominant culture.
How do I avoid cultural appropriation?
Again, Scafidi has a handy crib sheet for us to use. In reference to whether non-Natives should refrain from purchasing Native American made or inspired goods, she had this to say:
Consider the 3 S’s: source, significance (or sacredness), and similarity. Has the source community either tacitly or directly invited you to share this particular bit of its culture, and does the community as a whole have a history of harmful exploitation? What’s the cultural significance of the item – is it just an everyday object or image, or is it a religious artifact that requires greater respect? And how similar is the appropriated element to the original – a literal knockoff, or just a nod to a color scheme or silhouette?
One important factor to consider is the role of agency and self-determination in the representation of Native peoples, culture and art. As sovereign Nations, Indigenous peoples have the right to speak for ourselves and not have dominant Euro-American society project and profit off of an artificial and socially constructed image of “Indian” identity. When you have major corporations commodify and take possession of various components of Native culture and intellectual property it speaks to the ongoing dehumanization of Indigenous peoples.
Though Scafidi and Brown were speaking specifically about fashion and design, these same rules can easily be transferred to other art forms, like writing. In fact, it seems that the process of avoiding cultural appropriation is akin to the process of just, you know, doing your research.Worried about cultural appropriation? Research is the best solution. Click To Tweet
Based on Scafidi’s 3 S’s, here’s a handy checklist you can use to avoid cultural appropriation in your writing. Ensure that:
- You’re sourcing as much information as possible from those with accurate first-hand experience of a particular culture.
- You have permission to use that information in your story.
- You try and find proofreaders who can verify you’re using that information appropriately and accurately.
- You fully understand and appreciate the significance and meaning that information has for a particular culture.
- You use that information to inform original character creation and storytelling, rather than just replicating another culture’s traits, stories, beliefs or symbols and passing them off as your own. There’s a difference between inspiration and similarity.
Will this restrict my creative freedom?
This is a totally fair question, and one that many artists and authors have been forced to grapple with as this issue has gained prominence. The problem is that penalizing cultural appropriation seems to put a lot at stake. If we went through the history of music with a fine-tooth, cultural-appropriation comb, for instance, we might end up weeding out some of the most influential musicians who ever lived. You could argue that The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Jack White, The Beastie Boys and Iggy Azalea have appropriated genres considered the cultural property of African-Americans.
Lionel Shriver (We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Mandibles) certainly had some strong opinions on the subject of cultural ownership to deliver in her keynote speech during the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in September 2016:
What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job. I’m hoping that crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder… The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.
Author Aminatta Forna (The Memory of Love, The Hired Man) agrees with Shriver to a certain degree. “Literature is an imaginative art. To suggest that a writer cannot depict characters unlike themself is patently absurd. Books would have to be peopled with characters exactly like the author.” But she thinks Shriver’s delivery was, “crass and unhelpful; she turned an important creative question into ‘whites versus chippy minorities’.” Her advice? “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand. I write from a place of deep curiosity about the world. Every writer is free to write about who and what they want, but that does not mean the work cannot be critiqued.”
It’s also important to note that Scafidi didn’t give a hard ‘no’ to the question of whether we should avoid borrowing from other cultures entirely. She merely offered more respectful and authentic ways of doing it.
No art exists in a vacuum
Cultural appropriation is not about restricting creativity; it’s about being more creatively responsible. Don’t underestimate your authoritative power as an author. If people can cite the statuses of their friends on Facebook as credible news sources in this day and age, you can be sure there are people out there who will take whatever they read in a book as gospel, even if you know you’ve written a work of pure, reality-removed fiction.
The discussion around cultural appropriation is less about policing inspiration and more about coming to terms with the fact that no piece of fiction – no matter how escapist it may seem – is created in a bubble. Even if you’ve burrowed yourself into a Wi-Fi-free shack in Wolverhampton like Alan Moore, you’re not writing in a culture vacuum.
(Disclaimer: I have no idea whether or not Alan Moore has Wi-Fi.)
Avoiding cultural appropriation when writing groups
One of the biggest danger areas for authors trying to avoid cultural appropriation is in the creation of groups. These may be alien races, fantasy creatures, or just fictional nationalities.
Often, in reaching for a visual signifier, authors accidentally grab hold of an image or idea that links the fictional group to a real culture. Literature is full of rampaging hordes who are identified by their turbans or feathered headdresses, and mystic or ‘elder’ characters often borrow sartorial details from established religions. Even worse is when authors draw on negative stereotypes as the basis for a race of aliens or monsters, leaving readers free to read them as disguised stand-ins for particular cultures.The clothing, philosophy and traditions of fictional groups often come from real cultures.Click To Tweet
Some of this imagery is hard to catch – curved swords, for instance, seem to have picked up a villainous connotation that’s linked to their cultural associations – and the only answer is research and appreciating that everything comes from somewhere. In borrowing visual cues from past works, you may be picking up intentional or unintentional cultural appropriation that sends a message you didn’t intend. Yet another reason to think through every detail.
Being mindful of cultural appropriation could make you a better writer
Avoiding cultural appropriation is all about the right kind of research, intent, context and message. But above all: authenticity.
The root of harmful stereotyping is the lazy misconception that all cultural groups are homogenous. As a person of Jewish descent who grew up in an atheist household, my own sense of my Jewish identity is completely different to Jewish friends of mine who grew up celebrating Passover and observing other traditions that my family didn’t. I don’t think that ethnicity alone informs who you are – it’s the treatment of that ethnicity that does, be it positive or negative. Just being a Jewish person alone doesn’t make me feel any different from anyone else, but being aware of my cultural heritage and observing the way that others treat my culture does make me feel different. And although I may laugh at Nazi jokes and Woody Allen caricatures, that doesn’t mean other Jewish people who might be more sensitive about their cultural heritage will.
Using this example, the question isn’t how you should write any Jewish character, but how you should write one specific Jewish character.Authenticity is the opposite of cultural appropriation. Avoid one, you get the other.Click To Tweet
Every writer strives to create realistic characters, right? In that case, really getting to grips with the significance of your character’s culture shouldn’t be a chore or inhibitor to your creative freedom. It should simply be a requisite part of your process to make them as fully fleshed-out as possible.
For more on achieving cultural sensitivity in your writing, check out How To Use Empathetic Writing To Craft Humane Stories and When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue? Or for more on how research can help you write more realistic characters, try Why Authors Need To Take Care When Writing The Other Gender and Learn How To Research Your Book With This Beginner’s Guide.