It’s Messy in the Middle: Unpacking Cultural Appropriation

by Colice Sanders
published in Writing

As an author, does the phrase “cultural appropriation” make the tiny hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention? You’re not alone. 

Some conversations about cultural appropriation can feel about as useful as a pile of hot garbage. However, intentionally making space to listen to experiences with cultural appropriation has the potential to not only enrich our writing, but also our humanity.

The term cultural appropriation was first introduced, within academic circles of the 1980s, by anthropologist Edward Tyler, in reference to colonization. Within the publishing world, cultural appropriation refers to the common (often clumsily and misinformed) practice of incorporating elements of marginalized cultural identity or perspectives for personal gain. 

Representation Matters

At the heart of readers’ anger and sadness over culturally appropriated stories is the way in which society continues to devalue and discriminate against marginalized cultural traditions, while at the same time praising the “creativity” and “uniqueness” of those traditions when they are used by the majority.

Authors who appropriate content typically fail to conduct extensive research, gather community input, highlight current advocacy/support efforts, or simply acknowledge the community that they are “borrowing” from or “appreciating.” Instead, these authors tend to rely on their own majority perspective and ignore the way in which their depictions can create real-world consequences for marginalized communities.

In my first post, It’s Messy in The Middle: Answering the Call, I suggested that, if we are to answer the call for diversity and inclusion from our readers and publishers, we must be specific, honest, and intentional with our writing. 

In this post, I want to focus on how we must also be willing to be held accountable by actively working to avoid cultural appropriation in our writing. 

Mainstream conversations about cultural appropriation can feel pointless because they are often framed as polarized “debates” that are structured around the same closed-ended questions. Can authors write about situations that they have not experienced? Of course, they can, but they should also expect to be held accountable for the impact of their work.

A Spoonful of Sugar…

If we can be honest with ourselves—and I’m talking real, staring into a three-way mirror butt naked honesty—we have to acknowledge our appetite for appropriated stories. Box office revenues and best-selling book lists illustrate our preference for considering oppression and adversity through the lens of thin, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, white identities.

Majority audiences are not comfortable hearing about oppression unless a majority perspective guides it. This means we will delight in exploring fat-shaming if it is portrayed by a beautiful thin celebrity in a fat suit. We are willing to journey through the historical scars of racism if there are white allies included that save the day or thump their chests at injustice. 

We often rely on famous able-bodied actors to teach us about disability, and we are willing to suspend our hyper heterosexuality and trans misogyny if we can gain insight from cisgender heterosexual actors about LGBTQ experiences. Best-selling novels also illustrate our preference for appropriated adversity stories.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 best-selling book The Handmaid’s Tale, an American dystopia novel, faced a great deal of scrutiny for “borrowing” from the historical experiences that black women endured during chattel slavery. Atwood, a middle-class white woman, was accused of blatantly whitewashing black slave narratives by inserting white women into experiences of lynching, forced reproductive labor, branding, and limits on education in the novel. The Handmaid’s Tale was so successful for Atwood that it was turned into a television series that launched its first season on Hulu in 2017 and is nearing its sixth season.

The Help

Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 Novel The Help tells the story of working-class African American maids who worked in the south during the 1960s. It’s worth noting that Stockett, a Caucasian American middle-class woman, was sued for using the likeness and background of her brother’s African American housekeeper without her knowledge. 

Readers of The Help overwhelmingly rejected the overly simplistic portrayals of black culture and obvious white savior plot lines. The Help was so successful that it was adapted into a major motion film in 2011 that received more acclaim and success.

American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins’s 2019 American Dirt received heaping praise and accolades within the publishing industry, which landed her attention from Oprah and put her book on track to be adapted into a television series. 

American Dirt tells the story of a Mexican mother’s suspenseful fight to get her son to the border after their entire family is murdered by a drug cartel. Cummins was accused of rebranding herself as Hispanic to deliver a two-dimensional highly appropriated account of Mexican immigrant experiences. The vitriol over the “cliché” and harmful stereotypes presented in American Dirt ultimately derailed the book tour and film adaptation.

Yes, AND Expect Notes…

I believe that there should not be limits placed on art, expression, creativity, or imagination. Authors have always had the freedom to write about whatever they want, as they should. The fiction genre would not exist if authors were limited to direct personal experiences. 

We also desperately need more equitable representation of marginalized communities in all forms of media, but this should not preclude accountability for work that is exploitative, inaccurate, disrespectful, or full of harmful stereotypes.

We write novels and put them out into the world for people to explore, discuss and connect with. Authors should be expected to do extensive research, with the ultimate goal of crafting believable and realistic worlds. 

Novels that include historical events, space travel, or any professional job (police, doctors, firefighters, etc.) are often placed under a microscope for accuracy and believability. We should expect and prepare for this same level of critique when we are portraying marginalized and underrepresented identities. 

Moving forward

If we are going to craft complex characters and build dynamic worlds that readers with marginalized identities can connect with, we are going to have to be willing to do the work, get messy, and be held accountable. Here’s where to start:

1. Research 

Gather robust community input and seek to capture differing opinions and experiences. Research common societal stereotypes of this group and how they impact the community.

2. Give Credit

Acknowledge the community experiences that you are portraying in your book, in interviews, on social media, and when you receive praise.

3. Highlight Needs

Uplift and acknowledge current advocacy efforts to support the community you wrote about. Encourage others to learn more about these efforts and consider inviting advocates to join you on your book tour.

4. Make it Rain

Donate a portion or percentage of your profits back to the community. Consider creating a renewable scholarship. Hire sensitivity readers from the community.

Colice Sanders is a blogger and motivational speaker.  Colice writes YA, poetry, and memoir. Her blog chronicles her journey of radical self-acceptance through the lens of childhood trauma. You can reach her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!

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