Inclusiveness or cultural appropriation?


I got myself into a bit of a pickle already this week, because I have opinions that don’t necessarily align with being politically correct or woke.

So, here’s the scenario. An editor at a major publishing house posted her advice for inclusiveness in literature, specifically American literature aimed at children and teens. To quote from her post: “When young readers don’t see characters who look like them, come from similar backgrounds, or share their experiences, it sends a message that their stories don’t matter. It denies them the opportunity to feel seen, heard, and understood. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes and reinforces systemic biases.” (Emphasis mine.)

Strangely enough, I agreed with most of her post, including the part that their stories matter, but not that one point.

I believe stories transcend the demographics of their characters. Let me explain.

When I was young (many decades ago), I read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. One of my favorites was about the elephant’s child whose dangerous curiosity and fascination with the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” led him into peril. I’m not an elephant. (I’m overweight, but not to elephantine proportions.) The elephant child’s story did not persuade me to curb my curiosity. The story transcends the demographic of its protagonist through the lesson to exercise caution and listen to one’s elders.

Here’s another example. Also as a youngster, I read Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. I’m not a boy like the protagonist of the books. I didn’t have a horse, but desperately wanted one. Not being like Alec Ramsey did not persuade me to abandon dreams of horse ownership. (“I can’t have a horse because I’m a girl.”) I currently have two horses. I’ve had horses for over 40 years. Although I’ve never been and will never be a jockey, the story transcends its “white male privilege” by taking readers on adventures with a fabulous horse.

Let’s take this further. Should I be outraged that Bollywood and Chinese media don’t offer strong representation of middle-aged white women of European ancestry? Of course not. That’s absurd.

One person who participated in the thread of discussion disagreed with me and stated that she often wondered why, as a youngster, the hero (or heroine) of the story couldn’t be a Black girl like herself. The simple answer is because the author wrote it that way. Why didn’t Walter Farley write Alec Ramsey as a Black boy? Or an Indian boy? Or a Japanese boy? Or a girl? One can speculate ad nauseum, but in all likelihood, it simply didn’t occur to him to do so.

Literature often resembles the dominant culture. That dominant culture may be the culture at large (as in national or societal environment) or the author’s personally experienced culture. Regardless, its influence dominates the author’s work. That said, personal, lived experience isn’t required to write about something. Humans can learn and extrapolate. We can imagine different scenarios and different circumstances and how we would (or would want to) react to them. When writing, an author puts himself (or herself) into the characters, their emotions, their motivations. It builds empathy.

Now comes the conundrum of backlash. If I write ethnic characters into my work, perhaps using such a diverse persona as the protagonist, I open myself up to accusations of cultural appropriation because I could not possibly understand what someone from that culture experiences. Such an accusation denies me the ability to imagine oppression and persecution. It denies me the capability to learn about it and extrapolate from what I learn. It forces me to write from the exclusiveness of my own cultural perspective of being a white, middle class woman who ostensibly enjoys the advantages of white privilege in all things. It assumes I have greater control of my ancestry and skin color and sex than someone else of a different demographic and that I choose to be a white, middle-aged woman of European ancestry. That’s absurd, too.

What about authors who write about intelligent life on far away planets? Or in mythical realms? How about Tailchaser’s Song? The protagonist is a cat. The protagonist of my next book isn’t human; he’s fae. Stories like these certainly contain main characters that don’t resemble their readers. Are we going to accuse those authors of cultural appropriation? (“You can’t know what an alien/leprechaun/cat truly experiences!”) The absurdity continues.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Let me state this again: stories transcend the demographics of their characters. Or they should. Not everything boils down to race and gender.

I support diversity in literature. Diversity enriches literature by offering different perspectives and traditions. If you want more diversity in literature, then write it, but don’t expect others to apologize for feel guilty if they don’t meet someone else’s standards for inclusion.

#storytelling #diversity #inclusion #fictionwriting

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