What Cultural Appropriation Is And How To Avoid It

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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?

What constitutes a legitimate ‘source’? Allow Sasha Houston Brown, American Indian academic adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College from Dakota’s Santee Sioux Nation, to explain:

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

Yes, really!

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.


16 thoughts on “What Cultural Appropriation Is And How To Avoid It”

  1. Interesting article, food for thought, but invites questions.
    For example:

    “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. ”
    Question: Without permission from whom? All Native-Americans? All African-Americans?

    “You have permission to use that information in your story.”
    Question: Permission from whom? Footnotes from research, maybe?

    ” In reference to whether non-Natives should refrain from purchasing Native American made or inspired goods, she had this to say:”
    Question: How does purchasing items for sale from anyone or any culture require permission?

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the comment. Obviously the best person to answer those kinds of questions would ideally be the academics I sourced that information from, but while I hate to put words in their mouths, I’ll try my best to answer.

      I think the permission thing comes down to both actively discussing cultural identity with people of the particular culture you want to write about (i.e. first-hand experience and knowledge), and then authentically communicating that in your writing. Crediting where you got your information in footnotes, as you suggested, sounds like it might be something to consider.

      It seems that the idea of “permission” in this case is rooted in respect. If you have real respect for say, Native American culture, wouldn’t you rather buy an authentic dreamcatcher crafted by someone of Native American descent than a knock-off made by someone of non-Native American descent?

      This is all my own interpretation, but I hope it helps.


    1. Hi Marc,

      The object of this article is to help you learn to do exactly the opposite of that. Give it a read and you hopefully won’t have to worry about offending people.

      Have fun in the cozy cave!


    1. Hi Becky,

      You’re very welcome. Yes, Aminatta Forna is the voice of reason on this issue for me!

      Thanks for the kind words – glad you found the article useful.


  2. I totally reject the idea of “cultural appropriation” which is part of the PC/progressive world view, a view that is increasingly totalitarian and now seeks to control artistic freedom as well. Artists must write and imagine whatever they want. Nor must they show sensitivity or respect to every other culture. How would a novel set in Nazi Germany show sensitivity or seek permission for its views or use of symbols? Or perhaps it should only be written by a sympathetic modern German neo Nazi? This whole concept is nonsense but not surprising from progressives who wish to fragment society into different identity groups. We are individuals not ambassadors for the accidents of our birth such as race, culture, gender or sexual orientation. Writers are similarly not defined by the accidents of their birth either. Should Kazuo Ichiguro have confined himself to writing stories set in Japan or Joseph Conrad to writing only of Poland? Writers need to stand up and denounce this totalitarianism.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the comment. If you want to write stories that don’t show “respect or sensitivity to every other culture”, you’re completely free to do that. You’ll probably get a lot of backlash from members of whichever culture you choose to not show respect or sensitivity that happen to read it, though.

      The Nazi Germany example is an interesting one in the context of this particular subject considering their mission statement was to wipe out people of “lesser” cultures to their own. Unfortunately it also doesn’t work as an example because, as I mentioned in the article, cultural appropriation is defined as members of a dominant culture adopting parts of a marginalized culture that is not their own. I don’t think it gets much more dominant than Aryans and Nazis, so writing a Nazi-sympathising book wouldn’t offend on that particular front. Getting an authentic perspective from a German Neo-Nazi might still be a good idea for research purposes though.

      This is all really part of an ongoing discussion within the creative arts, so I think its helpful to continue the debate and consider one another’s perspectives rather than shut it down completely.


  3. Elizabeth Forrester

    Hi Hannah,

    Thanks for this article! It’s really shed some light on a difficult area of writing to navigate, as well as giving me some signposts for future reading.

    Thanks again,

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks very much for the comment and I’m glad you found the article useful. It is indeed tricky subject matter but also makes for fascinating debate, I believe.


  4. Great article. I have 2 secondary characters who are of a completely fictional culture (and treated as equal, not just a sidekick), one of which is pretty much a co-protagonist. I wanted to give them a chapter that completely puts the PoV on them and delves into that culture.

    After debate with myself over how to do it right, I unfortunately decided to cut that chapter, so right now that part’s basically like, they were going to the island to get something to help the protagonist, he goes to sleep, 6 hours instantly passes, “We’re back. Here it is”, which feels like a gaping hole in the timeline 🙁

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for commenting. While it can be difficult to rethink existing work, the kind of insight that led you to do so will also, I’m sure, enable you to fill the newly created gap.


      1. Thanks 🙂

        I’m going to re-do it, but I decided to completely revamp the culture. I was trying too hard wanting to have a tribal sort of thing. Now it’ll be its own small sovereign country that’s unrecognizable from what I was originally going for (but the characters from it will still be PoC)

  5. Finally good article about cultural appropriation. I’m liberal and tolerant person, but I didn’t understand that cultural appropriation thing.
    Like, I knew that races/cultural stereotypes are bad and racist, but that’s all. Now I know a few new things, thank you.

    I’m young writer, I want to write science – fiction space opera book. I want to create new alien species. I want also create interesting characters with different skin colors, genders, orientations and cultures. But I’m not POC. I’m white women – I live in Eastern Europe. My country is monocultural, there are mostly white people (like 90% or more). Only minorities in my country are some Jew, Romanian, Vietnam and Armenian people. So I’ve seen in my life mostly white people.

    There is one thing that I still understand about cultural appropriation vs appreciation. In my book, I want to find inspiration from the current living (or non-existent) cultures when I create science fiction civilizations. Is it okay? Of course, I want to avoid racial stereotypes. I just want to know If it’s even okay to create alien civilizations/nations like that.
    You know it’s hard to create anything new … human imagination is limited.
    I love various mythologies, beliefs and other cultures, even those that are already extinct. I would like to refer to what interests me, make interesting references.
    For example, one of the main characters was supposed to come from a civilization that is humanoid-like. I have always imagined her as a black person, even though she would have a completely different skin color and features that would make her different from a human.
    This civilization would be inspired by the Ottoman Empire in which black people also lived. Another two main characters are humans; half – Asian siblings from Earth.

    Sorry for my english, it’s not my native language.

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