Inspiration vs. Appropriation: Where is the Line?

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There’s a term that’s been popping up a lot lately in regards to story-telling which has caused a great deal of friction online: “cultural appropriation.”  The strict dictionary definition states that: “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements from one culture by members of another culture.”  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean, cultures all over the world have adopted from one another via trade or conquest since the dawn of human history.

But now this term is being seen and used in a completely negative fashion.  Worse, it seems to have no limits or boundaries.  It seems that one can come under fire for celebrating Cinco de Mayo if you’re not Hispanic, wearing Native American costumes (especially the admittedly tasteless and stereotypical Halloween versions) if you are not a Native American, or for wearing cornrows if you are not of African descent.

Those are fairly benign modern examples, although there are more disturbing ones.  Like the wearing of blackface, which was used to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks to maintain segregation in post-Emancipation America, or Hollywood continuing to cast Caucasians into roles that really should be given to someone else.  (See the controversies over having Matt Damon save the Great Wall of China or casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.)  So, obviously there is negative cultural appropriation that has happened in the past and continues to happen now.  But where do you draw the line between legitimate concerns and people making a mountain out of a mole hill?

This is especially concerning to me as a writer.  One of the first things one learns about writing is that there is nothing new under the sun.  We all absorb ideas and inspirations from everything we see, hear, read, and experience.  “Steal Like An Artist” is the title of a book that summarizes this writerly reality quite well.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we should rely on lazy stereotypes.  Whenever we write, especially if we are writing about something or someone outside our direct experience, then we need to research.  To me, that’s a given; how else would you get a tone of authenticity to your story?  Contrary to popular opinion, we can’t (and don’t) just “make stuff up.”  It all has to come from somewhere and since most writers are blessed (or cursed) with an abundance of curiosity, we follow those threads of inquiry with glee.

And yet there have been concerns expressed about writers, white writers in particular, trying to craft characters and stories outside their personal experience.  In other words, as a young, white, female writer, I should not try to write old, black, or male characters because I haven’t had that experience.  Which to me is ludicrous.  I understand the desire to avoid reinforcing old, harmful stereotypes and misinformation. But isn’t the point of fiction to try to step into the minds and hearts of those who are not like us?  To expand our levels of knowledge, understanding, and empathy?  We can’t do that if we stay confined to our own tiny box of “Write what you know… literally.”

What really frustrates me about this entire debate is that it is so skewed towards the negative.  So many blogs and tweets express anger and point out how a writer “got it wrong,” like when J.K. Rowling tried to write stories of wizards in North America.  But I have yet to see any examples of cultural appropriation “done right” on the literary front.  For example, I just read a wonderful book called Breath of Earth by Beth Cato which takes place in an alternate-history version of San Francisco in 1906 and incorporates Japanese, Chinese, western American, and steampunk elements with earth magic.  It’s an amazing mix, and she even lists several books that she consulted while researching and writing the story.  Did she “do it right”?  Was her cultural appropriation appropriate?  Respectful?  I personally think so, but someone else might believe otherwise.  If they do, then I really hope they explain how it could be done right as opposed to the impractical and unhelpful: “That’s offensive; don’t do it.”

It’s harder to draw the line with stories and writing as opposed to, say, fashion design, because the threads, inspirations, and sources are harder to trace against the background radiation of one’s life experiences.  And it’s easy to get discouraged with the outrage that’s flying around on the internet, especially if you are trying to do your research and be respectful while still using your creative and inspirational repertoire to its fullest, hoping you do it well enough to avoid being lambasted as insensitive at best and racist at worst.  It’s a horrible, corrosive atmosphere that simultaneously tries to pigeonhole one into a certain class and then chides one for not being diverse enough.  It’s a zero-win game.  So, what’s a writer to do?

Lionel Shriver put it best at the end of her controversial speech at the Bisbane Books Festival on September 8, 2016:

“Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything. The answer is that modern cliché: to keep trying to fail better. Anything but be obliged to designate my every character an aging five-foot-two smartass, and have to set every novel in North Carolina. We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats—including sombreros.”

So sit down, grab that stack of reference books, and get back to writing.  Be aware of the controversy around you and the tools that you are using, but don’t let that fear stifle your creativity.  Write what the story needs or wants, not what the masses on Twitter or Tumblr say you should or should not do.

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“Read Lionel Shriver’s Controversial Cultural Appropriation Speech” on Time

“A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation” by Katie J.M. Baker on Jezebel

“We Need to Talk About Cultural Appropriation: Why Lionel Shriver’s Speech Touched a Nerve” by Stephanie Covery on The Guardian

“On the Topic of Cultural Appropriation in Fantasy” from the Tumblr blog People of Color in European Art History

“Diversity in Fantasy Mine” by Cindy Pon, Shveta, Gretchen, Dawn, and Lena on The Enchanted Inkpot at

“Part 3: Green-Eyed Asian Love Interest” by Linda on

“Native Americans Try on ‘Indian’ Halloween Costumes” by BuzzFeedYellow on YouTube


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