5 Tips for Avoiding Cultural Appropriation in Fiction
5th November 2020
5 Tips for Avoiding Cultural Appropriation in Fiction
In a previous post, we set out the basics of what cultural appropriation involves and why it can be problematic. We also offered a few tips for avoiding cultural appropriation, including the following:
Ask yourself whether you’re the best person to tell the story.
Be aware of stereotypes and othering in your writing.
Research the culture you’re writing about in as much detail as possible.
Ask people who know the culture you’re writing about to read your work.
Make sure to credit your influences and the people who’ve inspired you.
Here, though, we’re going to expand on these tips in more detail. So, for advice on how to avoid cultural appropriation in your writing, read on below.
1. Ask Yourself Whether You Should Tell the Story
If you’re writing about a culture other than your own, you should consider whether you’re the best person to tell that story. Ask yourself:
Have people from that culture written similar stories before? If so, what would your story do that theirs don’t? And can you do this sensitively?
Are you truly able to write about the culture authentically? Why are you well placed to take on another person’s voice and tell their story?
Each writer will have their own answers to these questions. But if you’re going to write about another culture, you should at least ask them.
2. Be Aware of Stereotypes
To avoid cultural appropriation, you’ll need fully-rounded characters. And to do this effectively, you’ll want to take care to avoid reducing characters to cultural stereotypes, even when they seem harmless.
For instance, when writing a Native American character, some authors fall into stereotypes of an indigenous people detached from the modern world and at one with nature. But even when well meaning, this simply perpetuates a stereotype of what is, in reality, a hugely diverse culture.
To avoid cultural appropriation, then, you need to be aware of the stereotypes associated with the culture you’re writing about and avoid using them carelessly. And remember that every character should be an individual, not just a symbol of an identity or cultural group.
3. Do Your Research
If you’re going to write about another culture, you need to understand it. And if you’re going to understand a culture or social background other than your own, you’ll need to do at least a bit of research. This should involve:
Reading books and articles about the culture, focusing on authors who are from the culture you’re writing about and taking in a range of perspectives. If you use secondary sources, make sure to read critically (they’re not always accurate and may contain their own biases).
Speaking to people from the culture or background you’re writing about.
Looking for people with relevant lived experiences (e.g. if one of your characters is homeless, you should speak to someone who has experienced homelessness rather than assuming you know how it feels).
Learning about the significance of cultural artifacts and sacred objects.
As well as making sure your writing feels authentic, this will help you write sensitively, thereby minimizing the risk of cultural appropriation.
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4. Sensitivity Readers
No matter how much research you do, you’ll likely make mistakes on your first draft. This could be an inaccuracy, like using an unfamiliar word incorrectly. It could be that you’ve accidentally slipped into stereotyping at some point. Or it might even be that you’ve gone so far to avoid seeming insensitive that your characters are no longer believable.
Thus, once you have a first draft, it’s time to seek feedback. And, ideally, this will include sensitivity readers who can offer advice on issues related to cultural appropriation. Be prepared for their criticism and listen carefully. Someone from the culture you’re writing about will usually be more aware of bias and stereotypes, so they can help you eliminate these. And they may offer advice on how to make your writing feel authentic.
Once you’ve gathered feedback, you can redraft accordingly.
5. Acknowledge Your Influences
Finally, if you’re writing about another culture, make sure to acknowledge your influences and credit those who have helped you by:
Mentioning authors you’ve read or people you’ve spoken to about cultural issues in an acknowledgements section of your book.
Using your profile and professional connections to promote authors and other creators from the culture you’ve written about.
Compensating people who help you with research or the sensitivity read (if you’re hoping to make money from your writing, the least you can do is recognize the work others have done to make this possible).
This is key because, historically, appropriation has often involved not recognizing the innovations or artistry of people from other cultures. And unless you acknowledge those from whom you draw inspiration and whose work you’ve relied on in your writing, you risk falling into this trap.
Expert Fiction Proofreading
Proofreading can also help you avoid cultural appropriation in your writing. After all, a good editor will be able to point out potential problems, giving you a chance to revise them before publishing your work.