A Writer’s Reflections: Cultural Appropriation

Author’s Notes: For those wondering why this is coming out of the woodwork, let me take a few lines to explain. Generally I find that commenting on the latest social issue isn’t quite what I’m interested in.

Storytelling. That’s what I care about.

But I think it’s time to break my silence on a few topics, since I find they are starting to impact our ability to tell stories and our ability to provide intelligent critique about them.

This was a topic that I chatted about at the recent Continuum festival here in lovely ‘ol Melbourne city on a cool Friday night. I never cease to find nights in the city any less mesmerizing even after several years.

I’ve taken my scant notes from the panel and expounded them.

Remember, the only way we move forward as a society and seek to do better is to listen to all voices. Not just the loudest ones.

And here we go!

There’s a great article by Rukksana Khan in which she describes that, “many ethnic authors felt that an author foreign to their cultural tradition did not have the familiarity and respect to do their culture justice. Some also felt that mainstream authors were ‘honing in on their territory’ as if one’s culture amounted to a piece of turf that had to be protected from invasion.” She goes on to say “I’ve come to the conclusion that voice appropriation and writing about other cultures is inevitable. In fact it’s done all the time. Every time a writer writes anything that is outside their immediate field of experience, when a male writer uses a female protagonist or vice versa and especially when a writer writes historical fiction – they are writing about another ‘culture’.”

She goes on to say that when writing about cultures you should do your research and respect the culture you’re writing about.

Great article and you know the thing I love about it? Not once in that article is the word ‘racism’ used, even when she brings up examples of writers that have made mistakes in their research or have assumed certain aspects of a culture that is not correct.

And sometimes when we are ‘co-opting’ real world cultural elements into a fictional setting (sci-fi, fantasy) the pond gets even murkier.

While the cultural iceberg has some issues, I find it a good way to illustrate how authors seek to take and mould aspects of culture, especially within speculative genres. The image below is one rendition of this iceberg.


Surface culture, is that which can be seen and identified easily and deep culture is the more obscured or hidden part of the iceberg. The surface is usually made up by very easily identifiable things. Things like food, holidays, entertainment, art, literature, language etc. Whereas deep culture is often more nuanced and harder to recognize. How do people interact? What are their mannerisms, their conceptions of beauty, of justice, right and wrong. Is it a sin culture? A shame culture? How do they treat their elders and their young people. What roles do men and women play in society?

Often as writers within these speculative genres we pick and choose elements from cultures we may ‘like the look of’ as it suits a certain kind of narrative. More often than not, we pick and choose elements from the surface culture and at times deep culture (this can also depend on how much we focus on internal vs external struggles. Another topic entirely!).

I find that writers that are accused of cultural appropriation usually steal from the surface bucket with little from the deep dish. People have ‘Indian’ sounding names for no other reason than it being different. Foreign people eat spicy food (and that’s meant to be exotic). The dark skinned character wears a Dastaar, a turban worn by Sikhs, (for no other significant than being a cool hat, ignoring the real world culture which it is part of).

And this is considered wrong? I wrote a story where I simply plucked a monster out Scottish folklore (the Wulver) but I’m sure I won’t get too many claims of racism because I’m ripping off something that is part of ‘white’ culture. So it’s fine. I get off scot(no pun intended)-free.

But maybe that’s fine. Art is about play. Fantasy certainly is. A lot of fantasy is about mashing things together and creating something that is at once familiar by using touchstones of our reality but remixing it to create something new entirely.

But now, our play is regulated, considered whether it is culturally appropriate. We are setting invisible rules for writers today and that’s something I find concerning.

Art that doesn’t provoke or engage any emotion is uninteresting. Do we really want neutered stories where our primary concern is that we do not offend anybody? And then, as we are often wont to do today, judge the author of being ‘racist’ or ‘insensitive’?

When the religious right policed what we could produce, what we could talk about, write about or think about all the good liberals stood up and said that such an egregious invasion of freedom of speech and expression was wrong.

But now we’re being asked to censor ourselves once again by the very people shouting for freedom of speech and expression! But it’s fine, because they have the definitive views on what’s right and wrong.

And we have to go along with it, right?

On a side note…

It’s worth mentioning that any kind of conversation regarding social issues will always be a deeply emotive one. And discussing issues within the deep tissue of the arts industry will be doubly so.

I think however it is just as important to look at facts. To sober our emotions and analyse decisions not by the heady haze of personal bias, but try and remove that as much as possible and consider things rationally.

We make a very large fuss about casting choices in film today. Let’s look at what comes out of Hollywood these days. They cast predominately Caucasian actors and actresses with a few roles going to African Amercians and Hispanics while other ethnicities get the shorter end of the stick. These three cultural groups often end up even playing roles in which you would not expect to see them.

Now I would love to get into the concept of an actor or actress translating a story to the audience and not necessarily having to be a 1:1 mirror of who he or she is trying to portray, but that’s a huge topic that goes into the very heart of acting and performance. I’m hardly qualified to dig into the intricacies of that.

What I can do is give you some facts that are born from what commercial film projects are most interested in.


Trying to create something everyone on earth is going to enjoy is a task that is probably the biggest of all the labours of Hercules. Knowing your audience and appealing to them is key.

The MPAA’s Theatrical Market Statistics (2015) has some interesting stats. Let’s look at the split in regards to the ethnicity of moviegoers for that year.

60% were Caucasian, 19% were Hispanic, 12% were African American and 9% makes up for every other ethnicity.

Remember what I said about the ethnicities most often seen on screen for Hollywood productions? Can you see why?


I’m a classical liberal, I think discussion and having a marketplace of ideas is better than an echo chamber which removes dissenting voices for the ‘greater good’, this moral code that we, in our infinite wisdom, think we should enforce.

Most of us have been subjected to some form of discrimination and racial discrimination is something I have experienced personally.

I think for a lot of people, it is because of these experiences they find bones to pick in the media they watch or read, frightened out of their wits that perhaps ‘racial stereotypes’ can be enforced by a piece of fantasy. Short of book burning, we’re happy to simply slander the author and bandy words like ‘racist’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ so lightly these days. In our ‘feeling culture’ those words are lovely sound bites that will often convince people more than a thousand salient points that are presented in any rational manner.

In case you were unaware, I’m of Indian heritage. It’s hard to tell with all these black and white photos on the site, but what can I say, I’m a fan of that colour palette!

Why do I have to point this out?

Because it almost seems a necessity in today’s society. We are obsessed with an arbitrary, and often times, imaginary privilege scale that ironically prevents people from contributing to discussions based on race.

But you should rest easy.

I’m not white! I suppose you can take me seriously now!



  1. Hi Joel, A good summary of your thoughts, with sub-text about the reactions at the Continuum panel. I look forward to discussing the topic further at our next coffee. In a couple of weeks? Cheers, Earl

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