Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other

I talked about representation in my keynote at Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and also participated on a panel about diversity with Chuck Wendig, Gail Carriger, and Carol Berg. One of the questions that came up during the panel and afterward was about the line between writing diverse stories and cultural appropriation, and whether there were stories and characters it’s just not okay for someone to write about?

My first response is that I hope I’m not the first person you asked. I’ve thought and read and talked about these issues a fair amount, but coming to the straight white guy for any sort of authoritative answer about appropriation is all kinds of problematic. I strongly suggest starting with resources like:

ETA: I’d also recommend Ada Hoffmann’s response to this post: Autism and Appropriation

I do believe stories should reflect the diversity of our world. To do otherwise suggests a lack of imagination, a barren and narrow vision. It’s lazy storytelling.

It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own. It’s even more important to do so respectfully and well, to write fully-realized characters instead of caricatures and stereotypes and tokens. That means paying attention and listening. It also means taking the risk that someone will tell you that you got it wrong. Sure, that can be hard to hear, but welcome to writing. I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism more than once. It’s not fun, but most of the time — if I don’t let my ego and defensiveness get in the way — I come away with a better understanding than before. I come away a better writer. And shouldn’t we always be working to improve?

When I was speaking about diversity and appropriation at the conference, one of the things that came to mind was Kevin Smith’s movie Chasing Amy. I remember years ago talking to a bisexual friend who was upset by the movie. Among other things, she said, “He’s trying to tell our stories.”

In Chasing Amy, our protagonist Holden falls for a woman named Alyssa, who is identified as a lesbian. She ends up falling for him, and the movie tells the story of their relationship, including Alyssa’s conflicts over Holden, and backlash from other lesbians. When I first watched the movie, I saw it as entertainment. My friend saw her life and experiences and identity being misunderstood and  misrepresented by a man who wasn’t a part of that community.

It’s the difference between “I want to include you in my stories” and “I want to tell your stories.”

Another facet of the conversation: when talking about autism in fiction, the titles I see people recommending again and again are often written by neurotypical authors. I wouldn’t say that automatically means these authors are appropriating the stories of people with autism. Some of those stories are very thoughtful and well-researched. But it troubles me to see whose voices are being promoted, and whose are being ignored. And while some of those stories may be well-researched, others are not. They portray a shallow understanding of autism, reinforcing myths and cliches for the entertainment and consumption of neurotypical readers.

That’s another piece of what appropriation means to me. Appropriation is when I take a part of your identity, your culture, your history, and I use it to create a story that isn’t for you.

In Boy Scouts, we had a service group called the Order of the Arrow, which was supposed to be based on Native American ceremonies and cultures. We dressed in headdresses and regalia, we donned face paint, we performed our own ceremonies… Not once can I recall seeing a Native American at an Order of the Arrow event. Not once did we really stop to talk about the cultures whose trappings we were playing with, or the meaning of those trappings.

I think most of us took OA seriously, and the group did a lot of good service work. But we also appropriated aspects of Native American cultures and wore them like costumes from a Halloween store.

We’ve all read stories that do the same thing. They play with the “shiny bits” of a culture without respect or understanding. They perpetuate the exoticization and fetishization of the other.

I don’t have any easy answers, but I think it’s on all of us to continually work to do better. For authors, that means writing honestly and respectfully about the world. It means doing our research. It also means listening, and not just to me. If you’ve read this entire post, thank you, but please don’t stop here.

And if you have additional resources or thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments. Thank you.