19

In my book series, the various planets of the galaxy are inhabited by different cultures, most of which are based on or inspired by, at least to some extent, by real-world cultures. For example:

  • Kangaroo Islander culture is derived mostly from Indigenous Australian, post-colonial Australian, Incan, and Norse cultures
  • the Aurean Kingdom is mostly Byzantine-inspired with some Ottoman, Ancient Greek, Phoenician, and al-Andalus flair
  • Rahasy is an amalgamation of various cultures from the Indian Subcontinent

How do I write cultures like this (particularly Kangaroo Island and Rahasy) while remaining sensitive to the people whose cultures I am borrowing elements from?

  • 9
    I think doing research should suffice. Cultural appropriation is usually brought up when you use a flanderized version of a culture. In terms of borrowing, try to see if an element could have arisen in a similar process to convergent evolution. – Mephistopheles Aug 24 at 16:16
  • 23
    Change the names in a realistic and consistent way. Kangaroo Islander is probably going to be a problem. – NomadMaker Aug 25 at 3:56
  • 4
    Start by choosing a name that isn't the name of real place a unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise (either that's the actual place you're talking about, or the place you're talking about is named after that place). There are actually five separate islands in Australia called 'Kangaroo Island' in real life (one in South Australia, one in Queensland, two in Tasmania, and one in Western Australia). – Austin Hemmelgarn Aug 25 at 11:57
  • 9
    Why do you care? People still talk about Tolkien's cultures and where they might have came from. – NomadMaker Aug 26 at 9:24
  • 12
    You can't, and you shouldn't worry about it. What people are calling "cultural appropriation" today is what we simply called "culture" for centuries. Every idea is built upon something borrowed from somewhere else. The culture you're supposedly "appropriating" ideas from almost certainly got them from somewhere else themselves, then added their own unique spin on it, exactly like you're doing. The best way to deal with the "problem" of cultural appropriation is to reject the concept entirely. – Mason Wheeler Aug 26 at 17:32

11 Answers 11

56

The phrase "cultural appropriation" can make it seem that the sole issue is just who is using the culture. From my point of view, the deeper question how good a job they're doing at representing it. Have you captured anything authentic, or is your depiction just --as is so often the case --a shallow pastiche of preexisting images? Are you doing the work, putting in the research, and listening to authentic voices, or are you just echoing mainstream impressions?

A great example is the recent Disney/Pixar hit, Coco. The original version of the movie was called "Day of the Dead" (a phrase that Disney tried to trademark, despite it being the name of a major holiday in a different country). By the filmmaker's own admission, the original script for the movie badly misrepresented the nature of the holiday and had no connections to genuine Mexican culture. Accordingly, Pixar recalibrated, scrapped the first version of the movie, and hired some respected Mexican cultural critics to help re-envision it. The result was a critically acclaimed global hit that was widely described as very respectful and authentic to Mexican culture. Working harder on authenticity resulted in a work that was both better and more profitable.

In the case of your story, the descriptor "Kangaroo Islander" is an immediate red flag to me. Why? Because I have never been anywhere near Australia, barely even know how to spell it, and yet, one of the few things I know is that kangaroos are native to there. That suggests to me that this is a portrait of Australia created by someone who knows as little about it as I do.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Do you think this still holds if the cultures represented are not the cultures themselves, but merely inspired by them? I know Terry Pratchett sometimes created cultures inspired by real world cultures in the Discworld books, and sometimes these were based on lazy stereotypes, at least partly as satire on the lazy stereotypes. – James_pic Aug 25 at 9:02
  • 8
    @James_pic It especially holds, I'd say. Continuing in the vein of Fictional Australiae, Pratchett's own 'Fourecks' avoids parody of indigenous Australian culture altogether and instead focuses on modern 'Aussie' in-jokes. I suspect he did so because he lacked the in-depth cultural knowledge to make the same jokes in indigenous culture, while he clearly had plenty of the same knowledge about 'Aussie' culture – Pingcode Aug 25 at 14:20
  • 11
    @James_pic - It's a fine line between making fun of a stereotype, and making fun of the actual culture --and not everyone is as skilled as Pratchett was! – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 25 at 14:23
  • 13
    @user2647513 There's one big caveat to using 'Kangaroo Islander' though that has nothing to do with cultural appropriation, namely that it's a real island. – Austin Hemmelgarn Aug 25 at 21:42
  • 9
    @user91988 1. It's not just my opinion, it's the opinion of the filmmakers themselves, that's why I added a cite. 2. It's puzzling to me that you think putting more effort and research in makes a story less good, not more. 3. The revised film grossed $800M, which suggests that yes, people do care, and yes, they do respond to a more authentic story. 4. Where's your evidence that my viewpoint is the politically extremist outlier, not yours? 5. You're welcome to downvote, which I imagine you've already done. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 26 at 21:05
18

Well first, let me say nothing you can do can stop people from accusing you of cultural appropriation because anyone can accuse you of anything if they want. However I can give you some tips on decreasing the chances.

  1. Mix things up: Don't just copy and paste one culture from our world into yours, but instead borrow elements from multiple cultures and combine them together. Then add some original elements that you made up yourself. That way your culture will look as if it's inspired by but not copied from our world.

  2. Borrow from dead cultures. No one is going to accuse you of cultural appropriation if you are borrowing from the ancient Babylonians or the ancient Romans.

  3. Cultural appropriate from Europe. No one cares if you are cultural appropriating as long as it's from a European culture.

| improve this answer | |
  • 22
    I was a micro-publisher for 10 years. "Anyone can accuse you of anything" is more accurately rendered "Someone will always accuse you of something." Like the proverb says, you can please some of the people some of the time.... – JBH Aug 24 at 17:44
9

Understand the difference between cultural appropriation and Cultural Mis-Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is ok^ (as long as you are generally respectful)

Cultural Mis-Appropriation is when you take something and use it without the care or honor that it deserves. That is not ok.

As with almost everything that involves humans, this is a spectrum and doesn't fit into neat little boxes. Also the will always be someone who is offend. And someone who is offended that they can't get away with something, even if it is horrible mis-representation.

Some examples:

A western person wearing a kimono, is ok. Because historicaly it was just everyday clothes. (Think how offensive it is to see a Japanese person wearing trousers or a suit jacket. It is not!) It is just normal cultural exchange of ideas. In fact it is seen as a good thing, because it is keeping a part of Japanese culture alive.

Like wise using flax (grass) skirts as part of a fashion line, is ok because they were just everyday clothing.

However if someone was to have a fashion line (outside of NZ^^) with a Korowai (see link below) that would be Mis-Appropriation. This is because a Korowai is Taonga, a cultural treasure. Something which is given to respected elders. It would be seen a cheap and tacky, to have as a fashion item anyone could just buy off the rack.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, wears Korowai to meet Queen Elizabeth

Understanding if is something is, Taonga / Sacred / Precious, is important to understand where you place that idea is going to be ok. Take something precious and put it somewhere tacky. Yeah not cool.

Cultural Mis-Representation may be a bigger issue

I think something you need to be careful of is Cultural mis-representation. If you have one group who are portrayed as been 'dirty dumb savages' and portray them as lightly disguised 'Kangroo Islanders', that is not cool.

One or the other, may be ok; but by joining them together you are inadvertently saying present day Kangroo Islanders (or those like them) are dirty and dumb. Which is not cool.

Although that may be Ok, if you have a story arc where the protagonist thinks they are dumb, but then learns they are different with different values, and are culturally rich and highly intelligent in their way. i.e., make it about personal growth and understanding of the protagonist who was 'dumb' to underestimate the 'savages'.

^ As a side note if you were to say any Cultural Appropriation is bad, well you are walking very close to Cultural Segregation. Which is also a bad thing.

^^Inside NZ they should know the importance of a Korowai and when it is ok to wear one

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Your definition of "cultural misappropriation" tends to be how the term "cultural appropriation" is actually used in practice. Of course, these terms certainly get used to mean different things by different people. Per Wikipedia: "Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures." – V2Blast Aug 25 at 7:51
  • 1
    @V2Blast Yes the term cultural appropriation is often miss used/used too broadly. A dominant culture misusing it's position of another culture could be seen as not using appropriate care or honor. I'll see if I can add a footnote to that effect. Thanks for your feedback. – DarcyThomas Aug 25 at 8:13
  • 1
    If you want to criticise or ridicule an aspect of a culture to which you don't belong, realistically it's often going to come off as disrespectful. And, there's definitely a lot of desire by minority groups for the power to control how the "other" represents their culture. But this doesn't mean that yielding to these expectations is morally obligatory. Indeed, assuming yielding basically means interfering with people's freedom to represent the phenomena they see in the world exactly as they see them, arguably its obligatory to stand firm an NOT yield on this issue. – goblin GONE Aug 26 at 11:22
  • @goblin Can you rephrase that. I don't understand what you are trying to say. – DarcyThomas Aug 26 at 23:20
8

Admit nothing

Not to be disrespectful, but it's unlikely you're writing the next Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, or even the next Honor Harrington. I say that because unless you're staggeringly more successful than one has a right to expect, nobody is going to be interviewing you about the hows and why-fores of why culture X does Y. With that being so, and your setting being the Far Galactic Future, just keep it mysterious. If you're keeping it all human, don't say where your "Kangaroo Island" culture got ALL it's cultural baggage. Invent a future society and reference THAT culture.

For example, say I have a planet called New Ireland. It's full of faux-Irish and I reference a lot of Irish traditions. But I don't attribute ALL those traditions to modern-day/historical Irish. Instead, I say that my culture is a mix of, say, Irish colonists and Vandalian (not a real place) colonists. Or Irish and refugees from the moon colonies. Then if you do make a cultural faux-pas and someone tries to call you out on it, just say that's brought by the made-up culture, not the real one.

Or even better, have a planet called Klendathu, have it be full of things like "the grynx, a traditional Klendathu instrument that sounds like a skinned cat to anyone not from Klendathu." (no offense intended, I do love me the bagpipes) and say NOTHING of the original colonists ethnic origins at all.

Now I'm not saying "You can be super racist if you have a made-up name to hide behind." You can't. You still need to do a hellacious amount of research to make your cultural melds believable and as close to unoffensive as you can get. My point is that once you've done THAT the last bit of work is to add in a make-believe culture so that when you decide New Ireland will declare War against every nation that doesn't mandate one-child-maximum families because your plot demands it, your Irish reader can go "t'was the damned Selenites who usurped me bonnie fair world!" rather than call you a racist for "taking a Modest Proposal Seriously."

Personally though unless it's near-future I would never expressly say where any given civilization comes from historically. This is how the subtler sci-fi authors operate. You might occasionally be able to point to names or a specific piece of art/architecture and go "a-ha! That's a reference to X!" but never enough of any one culture to get specific enough for anyone to be offended that the random Human From Planet X does some horrible thing. From a cultural level anyway. As has been said, you can't please everyone all the time.

| improve this answer | |
7

Hire a sensitivity reader as a consultant.

An increasingly popular option that certain businesses in creative industries have taken is hiring consultants from the culture they're depicting as sensitivity readers, who can inform them if they're indulging in harmful stereotypes. This might be quite expensive, depending on the scale of the project you're working on and how much budget you have, but it is well within the capability of many large corporations, and it should be within the capability of a project that is large enough to have hired multiple people such as editors, writers, and artists.

| improve this answer | |
  • 7
    An important aspect of this process is also to, well, listen to those sensitivity readers' recommendations: it's not enough to just treat them like a rubber-stamp at the very end of the writing process and then ignore their feedback. (Which seems like it'd go without saying, but... you know.) It's good to get that kind of feedback early, and adjust accordingly. (Relevant articles here and here.) – V2Blast Aug 25 at 7:59
  • 4
    Please don't do this. It contributes to the moral asthma problem, in which benign stimuli pertaining to race and gender increasingly tend to cause a strong autoimmune reaction from progressive thinkers, leading to a lot of innocent people being hurt for doing essentially nothing wrong. The answer, I think, is to expose people to purportedly "insensitive" material from a young age. This will allow their moral cognition to develop a sense for the difference between permissible vs ethically problematic. Imo hiring a sensitivity reader just makes the problem worse. – goblin GONE Aug 26 at 11:12
  • 1
    Definitely don't do this. What terrible advice. Write the story you want, and don't worry about this. – user91988 Aug 26 at 15:18
4

You probably cannot, but since the idea of "Cultural Appropriation" is absurd and a complete misunderstanding of how knowledge and culture flows across humanity then just ignore anyone who accuses you of it.

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    For anyone voting to delete this answer, please give your reasons in the comments. Thankyou. – DrMcCleod Aug 25 at 13:29
  • 1
    Excellent answer. However, I don't think outright ignoring this stuff is the best approach. You need somewhere you can direct critics that explains (a) why you disagree with them, and (b) why you think they're hurting people. Some blog posts, an essay... something like that. Otherwise, they'll just keep doing it. – goblin GONE Aug 26 at 10:49
  • 1
    @goblin Thank-you, my answer contains a hyperlink to an article making a case for why Cultural Appropriation is a foolish notion. – DrMcCleod Aug 26 at 13:23
  • 2
    OP may very well agree with this perspective: OP asked how to avoid accusations of cultural misappropriation, not how to avoid cultural misappropriation. However, this still doesn't answer the question: OP can still make writing decisions which A) Reduce the likelihood of being accused of it and B) reduce the bite of such accusations. – Brian Aug 26 at 13:44
3

I really liked what a user called Antiteilchen said in this tvtropes discussion:

Don't mystify or vilify them and make the people diverse and not all the same. Don't define them solely by what makes them different from the main culture but define them on their own. That advice applies to every culture or group actually.

I would add "which main culture?".

Being anti-stereotypical like that is probably at the core of being anti-racist: Stereotypes are necessary for racism. Without stereotypes racism simply implodes: There's nothing left to be against.

That's also true for the lesser sin of "appropriation": Putting people in the center, not cultures, already goes a long way in preventing stereotyping. Once we acknowledge that it is always about the interaction of specific persons with the specific parts and implementations of the culture they are embedded in (which is never monolithic or "pure"!) we have a perspective and approach which will hopefully be the opposite of "appropriation". It will also require more research and original thinking, and perhaps outside expertise.

| improve this answer | |
2

Well, people have been borrowing ideas from other cultures since time immemorial. And I, for one, disagree with using people's contemporary anxieties about race to disregard a totally benign and healthy process. So, in my opinion, there's really no such thing as cultural appropriation.

Assuming you partly or wholly agree, the question then arises: how best to spend your time? Should you invest your resources accommodating the anxieties of a particular way of thinking (in my opinion, at least)? Or should you write the novel you want to write?

I can't tell you how to live your own life. But personally, I'd write the book I want, and perhaps start up a blog for your audiences, exploring the disadvantages of sticking to the traditional way of looking at the topic.

Then when someone says: "You're book is evil!" you can point them to your blog, where you argue against something that they deem offensive about your written work.

To be sure, it's a messy fight. If you do something like this, some people will judge you and condemn you when they see what you have written as offensive and disgusting. People get nasty about such things, quite hypocritically, I think. But I think this makes it more important, not less, to stand up in the face of pressure on these kinds of issues. Bonus points if you can de-radicalize the critics and bring them toward the center, but above all, please don't let them control your writing. I think that's fundamental.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    There's a legitimate answer in this post, even if it's not one I agree with. But much of the post also prescribes a course of political activism largely unrelated to the original query. I haven't downvoted yet, but I would advise you to edit out the extraneous material --I think you'll find the core of your answer will be much better received, and you'll have more chance of actually changing anyone's mind. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 26 at 11:56
  • 2
    @ChrisSunamisupportsMonica, well, I'm more than happy to make changes that will be more likely to change someones mind. However, I think its essential to have somewhere to direct critics, that explains (a) why you think they're wrong, and (b) why you think their notions are hurting people. If recommending to curate a place, such as blog, where you explain that such things is considered "prescribing a course of political activism", so be it, since after all, this is a necessary if you want to write without having to cater to progressive expectations. I'm not quite sure what you think I should – goblin GONE Aug 26 at 12:01
  • 3
    It's an answer to a question but it's NOT an answer to the question the original poster asked, which makes it off topic. Nothing in the original post suggests that the poster is looking for advice on how to pursue conservative activism. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 26 at 12:03
  • 2
    @ChrisSunamisupportsMonica, well, for starters, anti-left activism is not conservatism. The latter is about choosing a side, a side which has variety of conceptual and evidentiary problems, and which is also hurting innocent people, just like progressive politics is. Indeed, anti-left activism is more about rejecting a side than choosing one. Also, I'm answering the question as I understand it. The OP has created some cool worlds and some cool cultures, and probably someone has taken offense to them, or else the OP has recently started noticing that people are taking offense to racial things.. – goblin GONE Aug 26 at 12:13
  • 3
    ... far more readily than really makes sense. So they come here asking: how do I avoid being pushed around like this? My answer is the only ethical answer I can think of. My answer is simple: don't be pushed around. And, have somewhere you can send people to explain why you refuse to budge. You have to explain to these people: yes, I understand you have a point of view. But a large part of this point of view, maybe the majority of it, really doesn't make a lot of sense. And here's a long list of innocent people who have been hurt by the values your criticism is based on to prove it. – goblin GONE Aug 26 at 12:16
2

You are a writer, no one has to know you are just a regular, plain white guy. Just write under a pseudonym and choose a very cultural ambiguous name. This way your readers can't be sure you are not a member yourself of one the appropriated cultures.

| improve this answer | |
  • This seems to be very bad advice, akin to wearing blackface. – nick012000 Sep 16 at 2:08
1

An Example

Robert Jordan's best-selling Wheel of Time series is full of different cultures. The best explored of these are the Aiel who mostly have blue, grey or green eyes and usually have red hair. They have very distinctive cultural beliefs and practices.

Physically, Aiel can be recognized through their unusual height, characteristic pale eyes and light-colored hair, as well as their distinctive clothing. https://wot.fandom.com/wiki/Aiel

There are also numerous descriptions of other cultures' different styles of dress and way of talking. In addition we hear about differences in complexion, for example the sea-folk have dark skins.

The Sea Folk, ... are a seafaring people who live on ships and the islands ... They typically have a dark complexion, and are seen as "exotic" by mainlanders. https://wot.fandom.com/wiki/Atha%27an_Miere

In particular the main male protagonist turns out to be different in many physical characteristics from his fellow villagers who are described as being of the same blood as one another. These factors turn out to be vital to the plot.

As far as I am aware there have been no complaints about the 'racial' distinctions within the novels from any source. Jordan himself says in an interview that many of his cultural references and systems of belief have grounding in historical reality.

However, now that the series is being dramatised for television, something different has happened. Casting appears to be deliberately 'colour-blind' in the sense that people from the same heritage in the novels are not matched in terms of the actors' background. I personally have no objection to this but, as usual when watching the movie of the book, one's mental images have to be readjusted. In this case considerably because of lack of racial distinctions.

The casting news comes after Rafe Judkins revealed his ideas of how the show was going to handle casting. Judkins posted a script grab that read:

“As much as possible, our cast should look like America will in a few hundred years — a beautiful mix of white, brown, black and everything in between.” https://boundingintocomics.com/2019/08/18/amazons-wheel-of-time-series-race-swaps-egwene-perrin-and-nynaeve/

| improve this answer | |
  • I think that deliberately blackwashing or whitewashing characters during the casting of a movie or television show is a different phenomenon than cultural appropriation in written works. – nick012000 Sep 16 at 2:13
1

I think the better question is "what is culture?". The norms, songs, literature, food, clothing, forms of government, and philosophy of a people stem from their common history, their environment, and their struggles. At the inception of any given collection of people, there is no culture, unless they, as a nation, are derived from a previous, ancestral, nation.

Further, learning from others how to navigate through the trying times or adapt to new environments, is not appropriation, it's intelligence. If it were appropriation and that were somehow not fashionable, or in some way prohibited, none but the original people would have the wheel.

The real point is don't mock people. Don't attempt to reduce their culture to a caricature. If the fictional peoples in your story have similar traits and cultures to actual nations, alluding to how they arrived at their cultural norms should suffice.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.