Cultural appropriation: So what’s all the fuss about?

by Vaseem Khan

From films to books to hairstyles, the issue of cultural appropriation has become a hot button topic in recent years, inciting debate and outrage in equal measure. But what exactly is it?

Let’s start with an exercise. I’d like you to click here and watch this video. It’s only 10 mins long, and you don’t have to watch all of it to get some idea of the background to this divisive topic.

This video is the result of a project I carried out this year examining the landscape of diversity in the publishing industry and seeking to provide authors with advice on how to include characters from diverse backgrounds into their fiction, an endeavour that is increasingly fraught with anxiety. The project is called “Turning the page: a guide to writing cultural diversity in fiction.”

Free Event: 7pm, UK time, Dec 7th – You can attend an event where I will present the results from this project and launch a free PDF guide. Register here.

The Oxford English Dictionary now has an entry for the term “cultural appropriation” defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.”

Yet, the truth is that writers borrow from other cultures and experiences all the time. When we talk about cultural appropriation, what we really mean is cultural misappropriation: the adoption of elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture in a way that is deemed to cause offence.

But who is drawing the lines here? Who gets to decide what is or is not offensive? And how do evolving viewpoints in society move the goalposts?

Take the crows in the 1941 movie Dumbo, a Disney classic. Today, these once loved characters are considered by some as racist caricatures because of their parodied speech patterns. More recently, the Oscar-winning film La La Land faced criticism because the lead character, a white musician, is shown “whitesplaining” jazz to an African American musician. Jazz is traditionally considered an African American art form. This example illuminates the divisiveness that sometimes arises with modern attitudes to cultural appropriation. After all, who says a white man shouldn’t be passionate about jazz music? At what point does his display of said passion become cultural misappropriation?

In a survey I carried out as part of this project, out of 1033 respondents, 95% stated that all authors should have the right to write characters from ethnicities different to their own. Yet, according to 86% of respondents, there is currently “a climate of fear in the industry around issues of cultural appropriation and voice”.

The fact is that authors are sometimes vilified for writing characters hailing from backgrounds other than their own, with some accusing them of taking the spotlight away from more authentic voices. In some cases, this is justified, particularly where authors have been lazy in their research, indulging in stereotypes and otherwise being disrespectful to the truth of the community they are portraying.

Yet there are also numerous instances of books where authors have been successful writing characters outside of their ethnicity or lived experience. Examples include The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, or Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, both of which won the Booker Prize.

So how do authors avoid accusations of cultural appropriation? In my project, I attempt to provide a detailed answer to this question, covering such areas as carrying out good research, avoiding stereotypes, and using sensitivity readers where appropriate.

Ultimately, we have to remember that fiction is about creating stories, and stories, by their very nature, are peopled by characters who are not necessarily like us. Writers must have the license to write whatever inspires them. In 2019, Booker-prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo, a black woman, voiced her opinion that it is ridiculous to demand of writers that they not write beyond their own culture.

Most of us would agree with this sentiment.

Free Event: 7pm, UK time, Dec 7th – You can attend an event where I will present the results from this project and launch a free PDF guide. Register here.

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