“Cultural Appropriation” in Fiction

Let me start by saying that I find the concept of “cultural appropriation” itself to be wrongheaded, foolish, and kind of absurd. It assigns some kind of collective ownership of the nebulous basket of language, tradition, customs, food, clothing, fashion, and all kinds of other ill-defined elements that supposedly belong to a given people.

Nevermind the fact that peoples and nations interbreed and change and that cultures develop and assimilate and adapt.

And who is supposed to arbitrate these transgressions? If one single Chinese person indicts me for enjoying their dim sum, am I guilty of creating a problematic situation?

Does it matter that another Chinese person rules that it’s ok for me to eat dim sum, but that I may not make it myself? Or that a third, more rational native doesn’t give a crap?

Does it change the calculus when the majority of a country or culture like having their culture appropriated (the real term is “appreciated”)? I can tell you from my time living in Japan and consuming Japanese media that the people over there are flattered and pleased when foreigners try on kimono, or dress up as a popular anime character, or take an interest in  Japanese language, lore, history, whatever.

It’s ridiculous to think cultures should be treated like private (group) property.

And so I was disappointed when I was listening to an otherwise quite interesting discussion of an old weird tale yesterday, and the speakers posed the question of whether a white man writing about a black protagonist was cultural appropriation.


Thankfully they were gracious enough to rule that this was not the case – after all, the white (racist) narrator was really who the story was about.

I’ve gotta say, I find it quite troubling and a bit confusing, how such big fans of speculative fiction could conceivably buy into the idea of cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the fiction they read.

Scifi and Fantasy are full of stories about aliens and other non-human beings. But they’re not real, so I guess this is in-bounds. Well, women write male characters and men write female characters. Should this gender appropriation be pooh-poohed?

Is Captain Blood cultural appropriation, because it sees an Irish protagonist written by an Italian author? Or is this okay because they’re both white ethnicities? Do “White People” all get lumped together into one culture?

Is Othello problematic because its noble Moorish (often portrayed as African) hero was written by a white Christian?

Should books written by White People only feature white characters? If you think so, it sounds like you’re ready to nix an awful lot of cool SFF and other great literature. And why? Because a few emotionally unstable people have nothing worse in life to worry about than some white dude writing a story about a black guy?


(Whoops – forget that last one – he’s one of those white hispanics!)

Are Japanese manga and anime highly problematic for featuring so many Caucasian characters?

And if you answer “yes” to all these questions, or even if your response is more nuanced or qualified, what’s the solution? Do we need a tribunal to determine which cases are acceptable and which are “problematic,” and then to rule on a remediation?

It’s such a silly piece of business. I’d be tempted to ignore it if I didn’t see the idea as such a threat to creativity and freedom of expression. Of course no one’s talking about outlawing cultural appropriation, but if it’s such a bad thing, I could imagine things moving in that direction in some quarters, someday. And really is there much practical difference between outlawing something and drubbing it out of polite society?



8 thoughts on ““Cultural Appropriation” in Fiction

  1. You have to understand that this is the logical conclusion of a worldview that sees every single wrong thing in the world as the result of white People, specifically white men. Everything whitey does is bad and wrong and evil. This spills over into most fiction as well. If the proponents of cultural appropriation theory or critical theory or what have you seem insane, it’s because they are. Something ain’t right.

    As always, WE are not the evil or crazy ones. THEY are. Enjoy and write what you want, full stop. Everyone else can get stuffed.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes. The thing is, not everyone who bows to this kind of nonsense actually believe that white people are evil and bad. Many of them are white people themselves, and I don’t think they’re all self-loathing. Some of them just think they’re being virtuous and “culturally sensitive” or whatever.

      Some of them are just naive and impressionable and often young. My cousin is chagrined that her kids throw around words like “white privilege,” but they’re intelligent enough to give ground when she points out how foolish they’re being and how hypocritical and one-sided these concepts are.

      These are the people that generally can and have to be reached. Sometimes it can be done through rational discussion, but sometimes it’s going to take hard lessons and life experience…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes you are right. Not everyone is a true believer. It’s the true believers who drive this sort of thing, though, and it’s important to understand where it comes from. Sadly, these true believers wield influence inversely proportionate to their numbers.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Your final paragraph gets at what I think the real problem is: no, it’s not a matter of making laws, but of elevating this arcane academic concept, really a tool of Marxist intellectuals, to a question of polite manners. It’s the mother-knows-best tilt of the head, the frown, the “now you don’t really believe that, do you?” that promotes this kind of thing, and to me that’s just as bad as having a law on the books, potentially more powerful.

    Liked by 3 people

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