In case you haven’t been keeping up on news in the literary world, novelist Lionel Shriver was raked over the coals last week for defending cultural appropriation in her address to a Australian writers conference.
I can’t judge what she said. I wasn’t there and her speech hasn’t been posted by the conference. I only know what I read in the New York Times. I do think cultural appropriation should be taken seriously. Throughout history, minorities have been mostly powerless to stop the dominate culture from using their images and culture for art and entertainment. We have become more sensitive about the practice, but we still have a long way to go. While very few white people would show up at a party in black face, we still have a football team called the Redskins that fans fiercely defend in the name of “tradition.”
But those are relatively simple examples. When we look at how white writers use minority characters and cultures in their books, it becomes much more complicated.
I remember reading the first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, to my daughter. I was curious to also read the original 1930 edition. The caretaker in that version is a drunken, comical African American. Readers back then were so familiar with the stereotype they probably didn’t think twice about it. The 1959 version changes the caretaker to a white man. There’s no more ethnic stereotype, but on the other hand, there’s no longer a minority character in the novel.
Some cultural appropriation activists believe writers from the dominate culture should never portray people of color in their books. Their argument is that we can’t understand their experience and the nuances of their culture. We end up creating a dishonest or superficial portrait of them. There’s truth in this. We as writers need to thoroughly understand our characters’ worlds. Those worlds become more authentic when we “write what we know.” But it also means we turn our novels into a bland, safe paste that literally lacks color.
Even writing positive minority characters can be disrespectful. When I was a screenwriter, I don’t know how many scripts I read featuring a “Magical Negro” as Spike Lee dubbed the character — a wise black man or woman, sometimes with supernatural powers, who advises the main white character and helps him overcome his emotional obstacles. Morgan Freeman has practically made a career out of playing these characters!
There are other issues to consider. Even someone from a minority culture doesn’t understand all aspects of it. Should there never be another Holocaust novel because how can any writer who hasn’t lived through that experience write about it authentically? Should an African American writer who grew up in an affluent community write about the inner city experience? It becomes very complicated!
So what do we as writers do? First of all, I think we need to look long and hard at all our characters and why they’re in our novel. Did we make a character black or Latino or Asian just to add diversity? That’s not enough. Characters need to be fully realized in the context of the story and their culture, whether they’re white, black, brown, or any color in-between.
I think it’s also important if you’re portraying aspects of a culture you’re not part of, whether it’s a Native American ritual or an inner city barrio, to talk to people who know it well. Have them read and react to your book. Listen to them.
We as writers need to push boundaries in our lives and writing. We need to write unafraid that we might provoke negative reactions. But we need to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to consider the impact of what we write, and how it affects readers of all backgrounds.