The complex issue of cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation, the term given (usually censoriously) to anyone who attempts to portray a culture other than their own, has led to a great amount of heated debate. I have been struggling to make sense of this complex question. On the one hand, it can plausibly be argued that however much research one does about a different culture, however much one can intellectually understand the point of view of someone whose life experience is very different from one’s own, one can never feel how that person feels about anything, and hence any attempt to speak through the other person’s voice will be inauthentic.

On the other hand, writers have always taken material from the lives and experiences of others, such as their family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and those whom they’ve just read about. How far away from their own life can they roam before the cultural appropriation charge becomes tenable? If we say that a person should not attempt to speak or write using the voice of someone who is of a different race and ethnicity (which are the differences that have caused much of the controversy), should that prohibition extend to people of a different gender? Religion? Sexuality? Caste? Nationality? Disability? Upbringing? Occupation? How many different categorizations can we extend it to? Would this lead to too tight a constraint on writers, performers, and other artists so that we risk ending up with purely autobiographical artistic works?

This topic often results in heated arguments but the NPR program Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam had one of the most thoughtful discussions on this topic that I have heard and I can strongly recommend it. It lasts 51 minutes. You can read the transcript here.

It frames the issue using as its focus the story of two women Gail Shepherd and Camilla (last name deliberately omitted to preserve her privacy) who met while in graduate school and formed a deep friendship and later became partners and lived together for seven years before breaking up. During their time together, Camilla shared with Shepherd her story of being the child of a white Korean war veteran and a Filipino mother and her experiences of growing up as a person of color in the deep south and not being sure which world she belonged to or wanted to belong to, as well as the conflicts between her parents that also had racial overtones

Twenty years later, now in her mid-fifties, Shepherd decided to write her first novel and the resulting young adult book The True History of Lyndie B Hawkins told the story of the 12-year-old daughter of a white Vietnam war veteran and a Vietnamese woman and what it was like growing up in the deep South and dealing with southern racism and family strife. She drew heavily upon the stories that Camilla had told her about her own life, but changed the setting from the Korean war period to Vietnam because she was more familiar with it.

She shopped it around, and an agent at a prominent publishing house quickly snapped it up. A publication date was set.

But this happened to be a moment of soul searching for the publishing world. Critics were charging that for too long, white people had had a stranglehold over the industry. The writers were white. The editors were white. So were the publishers. It wasn’t just the industry that was a problem, but the narratives themselves, the way they were framed.

As Shepherd edited her manuscript for publication, she began to feel uneasy. Had she, a white woman, stepped over a line by making her central character an Asian-American girl? Could she tell an authentic story about someone who didn’t share her skin color?

What often happens in such stories is that the story is published, becomes a best seller, and then a torrent of criticism is unleashed by those who accuse the author of cultural appropriation, and even lawsuits by the people whose story was taken as the basis for the book. But that is not what happened here.

In 2014, the two friends reunited and Shepherd shared her as-yet unpublished manuscript with her friend to get her opinion. Camilla said that she had felt honored to have her story told. But despite getting Camilla’s blessing, Shepherd still felt conflicted and worried about the charge of cultural appropriation that she, a first time author, would undoubtedly face. So she made the momentous decision to rewrite the book, this time from the point of view of a white girl in the deep south (her own background) and changed the friend the narrator had from being a Native American to a white person, and so on. For a first time author late in life to ditch a book that has been accepted by a major publisher, and spend a few more years rewriting it cannot have been an easy decision. (When reviewers of my books request significant changes, I grumble like hell.) But she went ahead, and fortunately for her, the book that was finally published in 2019 was well received. Sadly, Shepherd died suddenly in February 2020 of a brain tumor at the age of 62, just a few weeks after being interviewed for this radio program.

Camilla, sad about the loss of her friend, also feels a sense of loss that her story has not been told, though a few incidents were retained in the revised book although in a modified form.

What I came away with from this program is that the problem is not with cultural appropriation per se, but that the process is currently a one-way street with white people appropriating the culture of others but not the other way around. This is because the publishing world of writers, editors, agents, and publishers is overwhelmingly white. New white authors writing about the white experience face a challenge breaking through because it is a well-mined vein. So some try to be distinctive by writing about the experiences of other groups. Sometimes they do this openly, at other times they pretend that they actually are members of the minority groups, as we have seen from scandals where their real identities have been exposed. But the members of the other groups naturally feel resentful about this practice because they have few opportunities to tell their own stories but now white people are horning in and telling them, diminishing their potential even more.

Thus the problem of cultural appropriation is better seen as one of unequal opportunity, that members of non-white groups have so few opportunities to participate that the sight of white people taking up some of the limited space that people of color have is like a slap in the face, even leaving aside the issue of dubious authenticity. This is why there is a backlash when famous white actors either play people of color or have the script re-written to change it to a white person so that they can play it.

One of the most grotesque instances of this was when Mickey Rooney played a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, adopting every possible negative stereotype. This extends even to differences between different groups of color and very recently we saw Zoe Soldana (who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent) apologize for taking the role of Nina Simone, who is African-American, and having her skin darkened for the role. Famous actors have so many roles to choose from that they do not need to encroach into the limited space that characters of color occupy and deny them the few opportunities they have to shine. A black classical actor has few black Shakespearean roles to play so the sight of someone adopting blackface to play Othello would be an affront, though Laurence Olivier did it and Placido Domingo also did it in Verdi’s opera version. It would never occur to producers and directors and casting agents in those days to have asked (say) Paul Robeson to play Hamlet in whiteface.

This issue extends beyond color of course, to portrayals to members of LGBT and disability groups. Casting straight or non-disabled people in those roles takes away some of the few opportunities they have.

If we ever arrive at a time when the artistic worlds are truly diverse and everyone has an equal voice, then perhaps we will be able to have people of any group have the freedom to speak through the voice of any other group, white writers writing about the Asian experience, Asian writers writing about the black experience, black writers writing about the white experience, and so on.

I think (hope) we are slowly getting there but we have a long way to go.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Famous actors have so many roles to choose from that they do not need to encroach into the limited space that characters of color occupy and deny them the few opportunities they have opportunity to shine.

    Yeah, we still have a long way to go before it could be argued that opportunities for visible minorities are on a par with those for whites. On the other hand, in particular instances, the perfect actor for a part need not be of the ethnicity portrayed. An example that comes to mind is Linda Hunt in The Year Of Living Dangerously. A white American woman portraying a Chinese-Australian man. That probably wouldn’t fly today, but it was one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen.

    A black classical actor has few black Shakespearean roles to play

    I’ve seen RSC productions, or excerpts from them, with black actors (one that comes to mind is Horatio in a production of Hamlet). There’s no reason why any part couldn’t be played by a black actor. A 2015 production of Othello had black actors playing Othello and Iago. The lead actor had some interesting things to say about the role.

  2. Allison says

    Speaking from the perspective of a trans person, my experience is that even the most empathic and careful cis writer can’t really write about the trans experience the way a trans person can. What I notice is that the things they focus on, the way they write about experiences, etc., they seem to be what a cis person in that situation would notice or feel. Cis authors simply can’t see things with transgender eyes. I don’t know how much is due to our society having so effectively excluded the trans point(s) of view and how much is intrinsic to the trans experience — a gap that would be there even if trans perspectives were mainstream. That’s one of the concerns I have about cis actors playing trans roles — they don’t really know what it’s like, they can only base their character on what they think it’s like to be trans. And since everything they “know” about trans people is distorted or just plain lies, the character they build is going to be fake.

    And that’s assuming the best intentions and best efforts. Most authors, directors, etc., don’t bother. As a result, I simply refuse to watch movies or videos made by cis people (e.g., The Danish Girl, Transparent), no matter how highly recommended.

    I’ve also seen the situation where cis people get advice from trans people about what they are writing — and then simply ignore it and do what they were going to do anyway. As if their “imagination” is more accurate that other people’s lived experience.

    I’m guessing that African-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc., are in a similar situation.

  3. mnb0 says

    “white people appropriating the culture of others but not the other way around”
    Remember the objections to the female Ghostbusters?
    Also -- how big is the chance that the successor of Daniel Craig will be an Afro-English woman playing the role of Jamie Bond?

  4. brucegee1962 says

    For a while in the late nineties and early aughts, I was starting to successfully get stories published and make my way as an author. After getting about a dozen stories published in magazines and anthologies, though, I quit, and this controversy was one of the reasons why.
    As a white cis hetero man, if all my characters were also white cis hetero men, I would be accused of erasing over half of all the people in existence. (That’s not the sort of story I’d want to write, anyway.) If I put characters from other backgrounds in supporting roles, then it’s “Oh, it’s just another black/queer/Asian ‘best friend’ story.” And if I mainstreamed a character from a different background, then I’d be guilty of cultural appropriation.
    Fighting with self-doubt about our ability to write is bad enough for writers, without adding this other layer of self doubt on top. Forgetaboutit, I said — I’ll just find other outlets for my creativity. And that’s what I did.

  5. consciousness razor says

    I don’t know of a better single word to cover all sorts of cases, but some of what you’re talking about here (authors writing a story about someone else, actors playing a character unlike them) seems different from the way it’s usually described:

    Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation,[1][2][3] is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture by members of another culture[citation needed]. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.[4][1][2]

    According to critics of the practice, cultural appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or equal cultural exchange in that this appropriation is a form of colonialism. When cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture

    I mean, it’s a pretty broad and somewhat confusing term, so maybe those examples could fit somehow. I don’t know. But Mickey Rooney’s character (for example) was simply racist, as far as I’m concerned. It wasn’t about taking some cultural element from another group that interests you and claiming it for yourself — it was just about deriding them and perpetuating lies about them.

    That’s a problem, of course, but it’s different from other (also problematic) examples that people tend to have in mind. If they had hired a Japanese actor to play the character as Rooney did, it still would have been wrong. Sure, there would be a Japanese actor with one more role to list on their resume, which is something I guess. But having that kind of representation in the movie wouldn’t have been worth much of anything, if the result were still a load of racist garbage.

  6. Holms says

    As Shepherd edited her manuscript for publication, she began to feel uneasy. Had she, a white woman, stepped over a line by making her central character an Asian-American girl?


    Could she tell an authentic story about someone who didn’t share her skin color?

    Yes. At least, potentially she could, depending on her level of insight into that circumstance that she did not live through, her skill as a writer, and probably also her empathy. And look at the result of her self-doubt: against the blessing of her friend, she changed the major characters to white people, narrowed the scope of the story to the white person’s viewpoint, and the story of being asian-american in the south went untold.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    More about my comments above in @4 — it wasn’t that my stories were getting criticized along cultural/racial/gender lines from others. Most of my criticism was internal. That was enough to make me give up writing.
    And maybe that’s ok. Maybe it’s time that we white cis het men ought to shut up for a while and let other people tell their stories, and we ought to just listen. I can live with that.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    “Maybe it’s time that we white cis het men ought to shut up for a while and let other people tell their stories, and we ought to just listen. I can live with that.”

    Less art -- a banner the modern left can proudly get behind. Winning!

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