When I met author Colson Whitehead at a 2011 event, I was starstruck. Meeting incredibly talented writers does that to me, because they represent what I want to be when I grow up. Since I’m 50-something, most would assume I’ve missed out on that, but most also don’t know how many decades I’ve invested in my dream—or how much of that time I’ve spent coming to terms with cultural appropriation in fiction, a topic Whitehead recently addressed as keynote speaker at the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference.
I first became aware of this issue at the Southern Festival of Books, which I attended in the early 1990s. I had just started writing my first novel, which explores issues faced by people of multiracial heritage, when I attended a session featuring a young white male writer whose stories featured black characters. When a person of color in the audience challenged the author’s right to write such stories, the author responded with great care. The gist of his argument, as I remember it, was this: Writers seek out and write stories that are compelling. I don’t find the white suburban culture I grew up in very compelling, but I’m fascinated by how people of color deal with the challenges they face, so I write stories about characters of color who face such challenges. I’m sorry if that bothers you.
The audience member who’d raised the issue was indeed bothered by this, making me realize that I had a lot to learn about the fact that people of color had not only suffered through centuries of abuse at the hands of white people but had also seen their cultures and stories and histories misrepresented and often mocked through the lens of white cultures. Eventually I would learn that people of color are sick of the fact that many white people continue to put their own spins on the stories of people who are not white.
So should authors write only about people whom they resemble? I doubted that back then, and I’m glad I didn’t let this question stop me from writing my first novel. Now, though, with the issue of cultural appropriation in fiction a hot topic, I fear that some writers might let the negative pushback that they may experience if they write outside their lives stop them from writing. Instead, I hope that they read the many articles now available on the topic and apply the lessons they learn to their writing.
In 2016, author and essayist Brandon Taylor wrote “There Is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You,” my favorite among these articles, for LitHub. Also in 2016, the Guardian ran an impressive collection of pieces titled “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Novelists Have Their Say on Cultural Appropriation.” Bottom line from both? Be humble. Be empathetic. Do your research. Don’t be flip about issues of identity; be a serious student of them, write about them, and bring the insights you learn to your characters.
If you’re a writer and you’re not willing to follow such advice, maybe you should stick to writing about people who resemble you. Just as you have the right to write, people who claim a culture have the right to call you out when you create stereotypical characters who supposedly share that culture. If you’re not sure whether you’ve written something stereotypical despite all your best efforts, ask people of the heritage in question to read your stories and hope they’ll also provide feedback.
I don’t believe that people of color should feel obligated to help white people understand issues related to discrimination, but I know that most of the people of color whom I’ve asked about cultural differences have been willing to share their insights. Keep in mind, though, that peppering someone with such questions just to make your writing seem more authentic probably won’t go well. Your true intentions matter.
Also, keep in mind what Whitehead said at the end of his AWP keynote, which likened good cooking to good writing. You’re guilty of cultural appropriation, for example, when you aren’t Korean and cook up what turns out to be a terrible batch of Korean food. By doing something so atrocious, you’ve offended that culture and everyone within it. But, Whitehead adds, “if you pull it off, it’s good eatin’.” Just be sure that it not only tastes good to you but would taste good to those who gave you the recipe. To accomplish that, you might need to invite someone who’s different from you over for dinner.
Karen DeGroot Carter is an editor and author of the novel One Sister’s Song, and she has recently completed an as-yet-untitled second novel.