Cultural Appropriation: Rights and Wrongs

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by Frances Howard-Snyder

Is it wrong for a white woman to write a novel that includes black characters? I keep hearing people – locally and internationally – saying yes. Lionel Shriver recently said no. Her speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism and counter-criticism. Both sides erected ugly straw men versions of their opponents’ positions and then knocked them down. If we listen to both sides more carefully, though, we may find considerable agreement.

First, I’d like to set aside the issue of whether writers have the right to write about various things. I often read or hear the thought that “I can whatever I Goddamned please. No one’s going to censor me!” The word “right” is ambiguous. But it is clear that (at least) American writers have a constitutional right to write about anything, and the same constitutional right to express outrage at the writing of others.

But we need to distinguish the question of whether someone has the right to do x from the question of whether doing x is wrong. I think we can all agree that some writing and other speech can be morally wrong. Donald Trump has a right to talk about grabbing a woman’s genitals against her will, but such talk is still wrong. Similarly, fiction can be morally wrong if it describes minority characters in stereotypically and inaccurate ways. E.g., Westerns portrayed Native Americans as blood-thirsty and cruel. So, I think we can agree that some portrayals of characters, even if protected by First Amendment rights, are morally wrong.

I am interested in whether it is always wrong for white writers to write about black characters, or for heterosexual writers to write about gay characters, or abled writers to write about disabled characters, or for that matter, for men to write about female characters. Surely not, at least when it is done well. We shouldn’t ban Othello, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn. Even short of banning these books, it would be a mistake to boycott them, just as it would be a mistake to boycott Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, on the grounds that its author was of a different ethnicity from its characters.

Maybe we can all agree on this point. Maybe even Shriver’s most vociferous critics will agree that it would be absurd to tell white, middle-aged, straight women to write only about white, middle-aged, straight women. Surely interesting stories happen when people encounter others who are different from themselves and deal well or badly with them? Surely, trying to get into the mind of someone different from ourselves has the potential to increase our empathy? As my friend Laura Rink says, any constraints on who can write what diminishes the pool of art and creativity.

If we all agree on this, I can stop. Bad portrayals of people from other groups are morally wrong. Good portrayals are fine. We might disagree about whether a particular portrayal is good or bad – e.g., about whether Shriver’s The Mandibles or Stockton’s The Help do a good job of portraying their black characters, but that seems to be a subject for another venue – e.g., for detailed critical reviews of the particular works. I would urge that an imperfect but well-intentioned and carefully researched characterization should be critiqued as imperfect but not held up for moral opprobrium.

But I do get the sense that some of Shriver’s critics do want to argue that whites should not write about black characters at all, not just that they shouldn’t write stereotyped or distorted descriptions of black characters.

According to Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the woman who walked out of Shriver’s speech in protest, “It’s not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with.”

Here is the charge of cultural appropriation. Whites, even when they do it well, shouldn’t write about blacks because when they do so they are taking something they have no right to, they are depriving others of something that belongs to them.

But this is a false dilemma. My writing about a subject doesn’t prevent you from writing about it. Your writing about a subject doesn’t prevent me from writing about it. A white man writing about a Nigerian girl does not prevent Nigerians from writing about Nigerians, or Nigerians from writing about white Americans for that matter. There are infinitely many fictional story possibilities. My writing one doesn’t decrease the number available for you to write.

There are lots of wrongs that white people have done and continue to do to members of other races. We should acknowledge and address those wrongs. But this is not one of them. This is the wrong target.

Author’s Bio:  

frances-hsFrances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University but prefers to explore ideas through fiction. She has published short stories at Cirque, Oxford Magazine, Everyday Fiction, Silver Pen, Wordhaus, and Short Fiction Break. When not writing, she enjoys time with her family, reading, walking, and playing chess (badly). 


11 Responses to “Cultural Appropriation: Rights and Wrongs”

  1. kenneth w meyer

    Good essay Francis, thanks.

  2. Shannon Hager

    I don’t have to have HIV infection to be able to write about the impact that illness has on peoples’ lives. All I have to have is ears to listen, a mouth to ask questions, eyes to see and read and a heart to understand what I’m being told by those afflicted with it.

  3. Kate Miller

    You’ve made some good points here which I appreciate. Having worked in bookstores and interacted with publishers though, there is a major issue around, not who can write what, but who can get published. So I do agree with the woman who said part of the issue is who can get published and reviewed, as well as who can afford Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own”, the time and space to write.

  4. Judy Shantz

    Thank you for inserting some balance into this contentious issue, Frances. I don’t believe we should co-opt someone else’s story if we possess none of his or her cultural reference points and experiences. That would just create characters that do not ring true and could be downright insulting. But as human beings we share far more similarities than differences and those similarities cross all cultural, racial and social divides. We need to be able to write about all of us.

  5. Dawn Quyle Landau

    This topic came up at the Chuckanut Writer’s Conference this summer, and set the room on it’s ass… to say the least, and to say it crudely. I honestly hadn’t given it a lot of thought prior to that day, but have thought a lot about it since. You and I are on the same page, I think. I find it hard to imagine that any of the amazing writers I’ve enjoyed should only write from the POV that each of them personally inhabits. I also agree that each of us has a responsibility to tread carefully, when writing from another’s skin. It’s a subject that will, no doubt, be discussed much more, but I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, Frances.

  6. Frances Howard-Snyder

    You’ve done a great job with her, Nancy. At least, in my imperfect opinion. I’d be interested to know how your advisor likes her.

  7. nancy Adair

    Before I got too deeply into my novel, which has some point-of-view chapters from a young, professional black woman, I consulted a black female author for advice. She told me–write her from a human point of view. Don’t try to be “what you assume” is black. Don’t use/misuse black slang. Just make your character a well-educated person.

  8. Carol McMillan

    As an anthropologist I know the immense difficulty that exists in attempting to think in another culture’s worldview. The differences are not small. After spending 30 years on and around the Colville Indian Reservation, I would feel comfortable having Native characters in my writing, but I would not write from their POV. I’m sure I could do so well enough to impress non-Indian readers, but I doubt I’d pass muster with a single native. Having said that, I agree that it is a constitutional right here to write whatever one wants.

  9. Diane Wood

    Thank you for this provocative post. I have delayed reactions to most everything. I need to process this and see where my mind decides to land on this issue. Again, thank you

  10. Marian Exall

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking.


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