One of the most contentious topics in the intersection of publishing and diversity is writing about other cultures. An author is just one person, but a book has multiple characters, so it stands to reason that some of the characters are going to have different backgrounds than the author. The world would be a boring place if everyone were the same!
With the push for diversity in recent years, many authors want to be inclusive in their writing. Many people celebrate this newfound interest in promoting inclusivity and diversity. Many people in minority groups can distinctly recall the first time they saw themselves represented in the media, and for some, this moment profoundly impacted them. Just last year, the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe was trending on Twitter, giving a platform for voices, primarily people of color and transgender people, to talk about this exact experience.
However, there is a faction of people that believes writing characters outside your culture is appropriation. This belief is understandable, especially in cases of white authors writing characters of color, if your understanding of cultural appropriation is the strict definition:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements from a minority culture by the dominant culture.
By this definition, white authors with characters of color, straight authors with LGBTQ characters, and Christian authors with characters from other religions could be considered appropriating.
However, we encourage you to look at a more nuanced definition. This one comes from Amandala Stenberg’s YouTube video:
Cultural appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion cool or funny when the privileged take it from themselves.
By this definition, cultural appropriation comes down to context and research.
By this new definition, there’s nothing wrong with having characters from other cultures in your work. However, they cannot become stereotypes. Your characters should not be able to be reduced to simply an “angry black woman,” a “welfare queen,” a “thug,” a “diminutive Asian woman,” an “exotic beauty,” an “Asian genius,” a “fiery Latina,” a “Mexican drug dealer,” or a “sassy gay guy.”
These are stereotypes, and they can be harmful—plus, it’s lazy writing. That’s not to say that a drug dealer character can’t be Mexican or a black woman character can’t get angry. That just can’t be all they are. You can subvert stereotypes by deepening the character beyond it. Make the drug dealer also a loving father or a Rhodes scholar or actually a cop undercover. Give the black woman a passion, things that make her happy, a life outside. Make her a whole person.
Granted, making characters whole people is a lot easier if they’re central characters. There’s no time, even in a novel, to go into who the essence of someone is if they’re only there in one scene to do or say something that prods your protagonist along their journey. That’s okay! It’s best in this case just to avoid stereotypes. However, unless some of your fully developed characters are minorities, you’re not doing the whole diversity thing right.
One of the best ways to make your characters whole is to research. Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, said on the Write-Minded podcast that he thinks about it like an actor. Actors, when embodying a new character, do tons of research, getting to know as much as they can. They find context clues in the script, they read source material, they find people like their character and learn as much as they can.
This is not a perfect comparison, as actors are (usually. hopefully. ideally. at least currently?) the same race as their character. However, the technique rings true. If you’re writing a novel where one of the characters escaped gang life, talk to someone who escaped gang life. Interview them. Find out what it was really like, what they miss, how their perception of the world changed. Ask them about their friends—the ones that escaped, the ones that are still in it, the ones who died, the ones they made when they were starting over.
Obviously, the character isn’t going to be the person you interviewed if you’re writing fiction. But understanding the context, mindset, and speech patterns of someone who is like the person you want to write will be invaluable as you create this new person.
What do you think? Any other tips for avoiding cultural appropriation while encouraging diversity? Share them below!