Where Does Cultural Appropriation Begin and End?

If you pay attention to current discussions of literature, art, or even music, you have no doubt stumbled across accusations of “cultural appropriation.” When JK Rowling mentioned “skin walkers” on her Pottermore website, she was accused of appropriating the culture of Navajos. Justin Bieber was blasted for wearing dreadlocks, accused of appropriating a Black hair style. Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, took a tremendous amount of flak for writing about a Mexican immigrant when she’s never been one.

I remember years ago when a writer for a TV series about teenagers was discovered to be—gasp—over 30 years old! How dare she claim to be capable of writing about teenagers? Never mind that she had already written many episodes for the hit series. A prizewinning Australian artist creating Aboriginal dot paintings was revealed to be—omigod!—not an Aboriginal person, although clearly a master of the Aboriginal dot style. He’s been erased from the internet and is probably living in exile on some remote island now.

Even I, an infinitesimal speck in the universe of writers, have experienced this prejudice of “you can’t do it if you’re not it.” I was once verbally offered a contract for a prizewinning children’s book I wrote about a Kikuyu girl in Africa. Upon learning that I was not African-American, the editor immediately withdrew the offer.

Writers throughout history have written from the points of view of many others. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was neither a male scientist nor a monster. How did Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina when he was never a woman? How dare Gene Roddenberry write about a pointy-eared Vulcan named Spock? He clearly had no idea how many other planetary species he had insulted. I guess we’ll find out when they arrive to teach us how ignorant we actually are about their cultures.

Good writers are observers, researchers, and explorers. We are creative. We live in our imaginations as well as in the real world. We try to “step into another’s shoes.” We are often telling someone else’s story, and why shouldn’t we be allowed to do that? In my Neema mysteries, I tell the story from three points of view: a female scientist, a male police detective, and a gorilla. That’s at least two and half violations of “cultural appropriation,” because although I am female, I’ve never been a scientist. The protagonist of my Run for Your Life trilogy is a teenage girl of mixed race. I guess I get points for having been a teenager at one time, but I don’t have a Black father like my character. I also own a salwar kameez, the tunic-and-loose-pants-and-long-scarf ensemble worn by many Hindu and Muslim women—am I not allowed to wear that? Just shoot me now.

Can a Black or Hispanic author write from the point of view of a Caucasian character? I have no problem with that—do you? Can a Native American man wear a suit and tie, or does he need to don bark and buckskin so he won’t be accused of appropriating White culture?

Yeesh. I once read the beginning of a book that was written from the point of view of an elk. While I rolled my eyes and certainly thought that was over the top, it certainly never entered my brain to say the author couldn’t write that passage because she wasn’t an elk.

So, publishers, please publish more varied voices and authors of different backgrounds so we can read about their authentic experiences. Critics, discuss the stories and the characters all you want. We all have individual tastes and preferences; that’s what makes the world a richer place. But please, let’s share ideas and cultures. Let’s encourage imagination, not stifle good writers. Let’s not talk about “cultural appropriation.”

9 thoughts on “Where Does Cultural Appropriation Begin and End?

  1. Oh, I so agree. Cultural appropriation issues seem to be the fad of our times, but I’m not about to quit writing from a cat’s POV, just because I’m not a cat. Who knows, maybe I was one in a past life. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.


  2. Great post, Pam! As someone who writes characters of other cultures, I do my research and have people of that culture read my books for authenticity and accuracy. I love reading books by writers of other cultures and reading books about other cultures, why shouldn’t I be able to write about them if that is what interests me. Especially if I am bringing readers to see how their culture is special?


  3. Good post and an important one. The idea of cultural appropriation is infiltrating too many conversations about new fiction when readers and reviewers should be talking about the quality of the story and craft instead. I have lived in India, spoken two Indian languages, made several short trips there in the last twenty years, and maintained a number of friendships with people there over the years, and yet Indian Americans who have never visited their ancestral land and often speak not a work of an Indian language are resentful that I have appropriated their culture when they learn about my Anita Ray series. To them I say, Get writing. There is room for any writer with a story to tell that shows craftsmanship and understanding.


  4. Crazy–it sure would limit variety in books if we had to adhere to whether or not we were what the person we wrote about is. I write from many points of view that I have not experienced–however I’m a good researcher and observer.


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