Fear of Appropriation

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Happy Saturday, folks! Today I’m going to share a little about what I’ve been going through with my writing, and I would love some ideas, support, feedback, etc. Whatever you have, throw it at me. I am happy to learn!

So, here is what has been going on. About a year ago, after I released my first book, I started hearing the word cultural appropriation thrown around in terms of artists, etc. While it wasn’t about me or my work, I began to wonder if publishing my book, Vivir el Dream, was cultural appropriation. For those who aren’t aware of cultural appropriation, here is an interesting Wikipedia page about it. The first sentence of the article gives a pretty good explanation of its meaning: “Cultural appropriation is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.”

I am a member of the dominant culture writing about members of a minority culture in a country where there is an imbalance of power between dominant and minority cultures. And though I am married to someone from the culture I am writing about, have many friends and family from that culture, go to church almost exclusively with my brothers and sisters in Christ from that culture, work with people from that culture on a daily basis, am bilingual, and in my heart feel like that culture is part of me, I know that in the end, I am on the outside looking in. There are many things I can miss or won’t ever completely understand because I am not actually from that culture. Not to mention any unconscious bias that might be hiding inside me.

To complicate the matter, I was doing research for my current WIP by asking a friend about some cultural aspects of El Salvador that I was unfamiliar with: language and food questions, etc. During this conversation she wrote something along the lines of “Gringos, always trying to talk about things they don’t understand.” I got angry about it and then got worried about it and spoke with another friend who had been writing a lot about race and bias. Her reply, “Well, she’s not wrong.” This began a complete tailspin and an overwhelming fear of appropriation. I almost trashed my WIP and since have developed a giant case of writer’s block. It has shaken me to my core. Am I writing what God wants me to write? Should I be writing something completely different?

When I prayed about my WIP, God gave me more ideas to turn the book into a series. So I didn’t chuck it. Now even though I feel in my heart that God has led me to where I am with writing and I am writing what God wants me to write, fear is hindering me. I don’t want to appropriate culture. I don’t want to misrepresent. I just want to share God’s love and create understanding within our communities.

So, what’s a girl to do? Please comment below. Thoughts and advice appreciated!

Allison K. García

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22 thoughts on “Fear of Appropriation

  1. Allison, I think you’ve hit the flip side of the nail head. If we don’t include multiple cultures other than our own, our writing isn’t diverse enough. If we do include cultures other than our own, we’re writing about things of which we know little or nothing. On the other hand, we do this all of the time in other ways. My first short story (in my teens) was about a boy “becoming a man” on a ranch while protecting a newborn calf from a mountain lion by using his rifle. I’m not a boy. I’ve never lived on a ranch (or real farm). I’ve never seen a mountain lion except in the zoo or in the movies/on TV. I wouldn’t know how to fire a rifle. The story won an honorable mention. This is nothing compared to trying to write truly diverse characters. However, I see nothing wrong with doing what I do with other topics. For my medical thriller, I researched thoroughly. Then I had two consultations with a medical/forensics expert–once at the idea stage and once when the story was finished. It was worth every penny for my reassurance and for my story. I’m not saying we have to pay someone for this kind of read-through, but we have beta readers for everything else. Why not have someone of the particular culture read the close-to-final manuscript for a reality check? Just a thought.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t have any answers for you at all. In fact, I can absolutely identify with everything you said, but more so. I am not married to a person of a different ethnic background and live in his culture. I’m glad you worked through it. I can’t get past that block… my fear of failure.
    The next full-length book in my series was supposed to feature two of my favorite characters – both of whom are Black. And as much as I love them, I’m cutting it to a short story, and I’d probably skip it entirely if it didn’t contain plot elements necessary for the series. Chronologically, it fits between two books I’ve already published, so I’m locked into some details. Every time I sit down to write Roy and Mona’s story, I get blocked by that same helpless feeling – It doesn’t matter that I see them as interesting and fascinating characters, I’m bound to be guilty of “cultural appropriation” or say ignorant things or be offensive in some way. I’ve done a lot of research, I have that great “Writing with Color” blog bookmarked, and I know a list of tropes to avoid.
    But my heroine is a single mom – a product of a broken home, with male relatives in jail, raising her brother’s kids (one of whom was born in jail, with drugs in her system) because he and his wife are in jail for human trafficking. Mona’s an admirable woman, moving away from her old neighborhood, going to college to become a teacher so she can support the girls on her own. Because of her past, she’s got an obsession with being a perfect mother. She fails continually, like all mothers do, but she will eventually learn to relax and that she needs to depend on God – not herself.
    I like her a lot. But she’s FULL of stereotypes, and when I found myself trying to change her whole background, I realized I was changing HER, and I just got blocked. And yet, this is where I live, on campus at a residential treatment center for boys (of every ethnic heritage), who come from exactly that background. Exactly. But I’m a Minnesotan Swede – a retired homeschool mom and wannabe homesteader who has always lived in very rural areas. My life experience of living in a racially diverse society is limited to the homogeneous culture of the military and now in this environment. I don’t have the immersion that you (Kathi) have.
    So I’m giving up. I’ll write this as a short story and go to the last book in the series, which is mostly set in the Upper Peninsula. Then I’m moving on to a series set in remote Montana. It’s what I know.
    I sincerely hope authors – people with more skill, experience and confidence than myself – will continue to write books with characters of every color and background. I’ll gladly read them, review them, promote them. But I’m overwhelmed and blocked (for months now!) knowing that I’m going to blow it if I write about cultures other than my own. I don’t want to do that.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Allison, having read Vivir el Dream, I have the opinion that you’re doing God’s work. That book touched me deeply and opened my eyes to another side of life that I didn’t really focus on. The thing with appropriation, it’s usually used for self and not to make something better. For instance music, a dominant culture will still a style of music from minority culture and get rich. They don’t try and market to that culture but to the others in their own dominant culture.
    You are writing about a minority culture to enlighten everyone else. You aren’t doing it to get rich and to me that makes all the difference in the world. I will pray for you daily that God gives you the courage to walk by faith and ignore the fear and doubt.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I don’t think fear is from God. Ever. You shouldn’t let something that isn’t from Him stop you from doing what He’s asked of you. And I think the fact that you care so much about the culture you’re writing says a lot about the heart He’s put in you. Stick with Him as you write, and ask Him to expose and destroy any hidden prejudices you may have. He’ll honor that, no question.

    I think fiction that represents diverse view points is really important for our future as a society. If writers with the courage to show people with differences living and loving together, valuing those differences and working through the hurt that sometimes comes from the broken ways we view each other, that can have huge potential to impact our society, to increase the opportunity for true equality. That always mean writers who learn to understand people very unlike themselves, because no one out there truly knows what it’s like to be anyone.

    And it starts with us too. As we surrender our hearts and our work to God for His purpose, the healing starts with us. The redemption. I’ve written and am writing about different cultures, social statuses, ages, genders, abled/disabled, etc, and through my research and through getting to know different people, learning to see the beauty in the ways we’re different and understanding the very important ways in which we are all the same… I swear, every day I’m falling in love with all of God’s children in a fuller, deeper, and less selfish way.

    Grace reconciles, you know. And this world needs to see more grace, especially now.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is something I’ve been pondering over quite a bit lately. I crave diversity in my fiction reading and I’m excited that traditional publishers in the Christian industry are getting the message. In the last few weeks I read two new releases from Revell — Vanishing Point by Lisa Harris has an African American/Brazilian heroine and Beneath the Surface by Lynn H. Blackburn with a Chinese heroine. But until we have these same publishers accepting works from authors of different races (other than white) we’ll continue to be challenged by issues like this. I look forward to a day when a Christian publisher has as many people of color authors as white authors. I think it’s only then that we will feel completely comfortable writing stories from the heart without worrying about cultural appropriation. Then we’ll have an explosion of ethnically diverse characters clamoring for their stories to be told and I’ll gladly read them all.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I could repeat a chunk of what I said in last week’s Open Discussion, but it was a lot. 😀 So anyone reading this may want to revisit last week’s post.

    But besides that–what Toni said! Much of cultural appropriation is about attitude.

    It’s one thing for someone to take on or to exploit the favorable or sensational elements of a different culture while disregarding or having little to no realization, concern, or appreciation about the real-life, fuller experience of people from that culture, including the plight and pain that goes along with being born into it. It’s another thing for someone to get so caught up in a different culture or race that they lose the sense of their own identity, like white people who declare, “I no longer identify as white, because I ‘feel’ like a person of color.”

    You, Allison, aren’t exploiting Hispanic culture with no appreciation of the Hispanic experience, and not to sound funny, but you’re still very aware that you haven’t become a different race or something. You haven’t become colorblind or turned a blind eye to racial or cultural privilege. You’re not rejecting or trying to hide the fact that you’re not Hispanic. That’s actually a part of your story that it’s good for readers to know about, as people need to see that we don’t have to be totally ignorant or unable to empathize at all with people of different races or cultures from us.

    Yes, there are some things you’re unlikely to fully understand about a culture you weren’t born into, but there are other things you have and will come to understand better because *you seek to understand.* So many people don’t. When you proceed with respect and with eyes and ears that are genuinely open to learn more, you learn more. And there’s nothing wrong with sharing what you’ve learned from your vista when you’re being honest about your vista, about your position.

    And, just in general, to everyone who reads this blog: we’ve got to recognize that FEAR is *not* supposed to be our catalyst or motivator. It shouldn’t be what’s driving our decisions as readers and writers, whether we’re acting out of fear or choosing *not* to act because we’re afraid.

    People think that hate is the opposite of love, but I believe that isn’t true. The opposite of love is FEAR. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear because He isn’t fear. He’s LOVE. We have to get into a place where love is what drives what we read and write, because if we let fear make our decisions, then love, in us and through us, loses. No one is perfect, not even a writer, but we’ll regret choices we made or chances we didn’t take because of fear more than we may regret honest mistakes we made while doing our best.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t speak up when we’re scared. That’s part of what we need each other for. 🙂 But at the end of the day, we can’t let fear have the final say. There’s plenty of fear constantly spreading, and humankind doesn’t really need us enabling or contributing to it. Humankind needs God in us–the one Who is love. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You and Toni are both making me cry today. I needed to hear y’alls words. Thank you so much for your comments. I love that idea that fear is the opposite of love. It makes perfect sense, but I have never looked at it like that before. I’m going to take on that mantra as I’m writing. “Perfect love casts out fear.”

      Liked by 2 people

    2. This is good stuff, and a topic I’ve wondered about, too.
      Could you please give an example of what it means to, as you put it, “exploit the favorable or sensational elements of a different culture while disregarding or having little to no realization, concern, or appreciation about the real-life, fuller experience of people from that culture” versus a more tactful example? Whether it’s from a real book/show/etc or just a made-up scenario, it would still be helpful. Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh! Sure, Michael–thank you for asking. I’ll make up a scenario. 🙂

        Let’s say an American author wants to write a bestselling book, so she researches and finds out that novels about church fundraisers are a popular trend in Christian Fiction right now. So the author thinks, “Hey! I’ve heard that black churches in this country sell dinners to make money, and nobody fries chicken better than black people. I’ll write a book about that!”

        So the author plans on coming out with a novel about members of a predominantly black church selling fried chicken dinners as a fundraiser. It’ll be the first book in a series about church events.

        But the author is white. She’s never had much interest in predominantly black churches before, and she doesn’t have any friends or relatives who are black church members. She only has cursory knowledge of black history, little insight about what’s been going on in black communities, and only vague concern about current social justice issues affecting black people. When she does research about her plot and characters, she doesn’t reach out to anyone black to discuss her ideas, doesn’t have any black sensitivity readers or beta readers to give her feedback about her manuscript, but she watches a couple of comedy movies that have scenes depicting black church services, and she bases her writing on what she saw in the movies.

        When it’s time to promote her book at a fair, the author decides to wear her hair in a multitude of braids as she’s seen black women do, she wears a lavish church suit like the ladies in the movies she watched, and she brings complimentary fried chicken wings to give out to people who visit her booth. She starts stopping by some fairly local COGIC (Church of God in Christ) Sunday services in hopes of being seen and accepted in the black community and maybe to get ideas for her next book. While she makes sure to engage all of her usual (mostly white) fans on social media, telling them, “My new release is diverse–it’s about blacks!” she now also looks for some African American Christian Fiction book groups and clubs to join, thinking, “It’ll help my book sales if I start connecting with and marketing to those people, too.”

        Oh!–and whenever she’s actively promoting her new book online, she makes sure her profile picture is one with her wearing her hair in braids, topped with an enormous church hat.

        Yeah–I’m using some levity and exaggerating a little to clarify a point, here. 😀 But cultural appropriation can have some aspects like those in arts and entertainment: when an author or artist appropriates elements of a culture without true concern and appreciation for it.

        Granted, the author who wrote about the black church fundraiser may not hate black people, and she might mean well. But as a white woman in America, it’s actually exploitation for her to use elements from a marginalized culture when she has no authentic background or experience or counsel–no authentic ties to the culture she’s writing about to further her career as an author.

        For examples of white authors who’ve more tactfully (and empathically) written diverse books, well, I’ve found a good bunch of them in author interviews and book spotlights and reviews around this very blog. Their diverse writing comes from a more authentic place than mere appropriation. The writer of this post, Allison K. Garcia, is one of them. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Okay, this actually speaks directly to something I’m writing (not about fried chicken fund raisers, but a black character and me being a white dude). May I email you or Twitter-chat, whatever works, to see if what I’m doing is okay or not? Don’t want to hog this comment section.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Ok, question: in some movies or tv (thinking specifically of Spiderman Homecoming and The Flash) there are diverse characters, but race is never mentioned.
    If a book was the same, had diverse characters but race wasn’t an explicit topic of the book, is that something people would enjoy? Are there any issues with that?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Check out last Saturday’s post on tokens. I think it would depend. In an alternative universe, maybe race isn’t a whole big thing. I think if a white person is writing it and makes the person of color have everything the same except their skin is a different color and never ever mentions or talks about race, they are ignoring part of the person’s identity. Just my opinion though…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I also think it depends on the story, Jessica. 🙂

      Television and movies make it easier to include diverse characters, in a sense. They don’t have to mention anything about race; you can usually tell a character is of a different race just by seeing them onscreen.

      Books are a little different, of course, in that an author is going to have to mention at least a little something to make it clear when the characters aren’t all the same race.

      However, an author should make sure they’re giving each character a level of attention that fits their role in the story and aren’t singling out characters of color as “the different ones.” For instance, if an author doesn’t mention features like skin color or hair texture for any of the white characters, then the author shouldn’t suddenly go into extra details about skin and hair for the character(s) of color, as if white features are the default and thus need no explanation.

      But I think you’re asking if it’s okay to have diverse characters even if a book isn’t really about or focused on race, and I say– absolutely. One weakness I see in Christian Fiction is that too many publishers tend not to have books with important (or sometimes any) characters of color unless it’s a story about a racial issue or struggle. The American Civil War and slavery in the South. Early white settlers in conflict with Native Americans. Unrest around the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. A group of diverse characters working on a diversity project after a racially-charged shooting in their city.

      Now, I’m not at all saying there’s anything wrong with writing about scenarios like those, as there certainly is not. Christian Fiction needs those stories. And yet, characters of color shouldn’t be relegated to racial subjects only, as if “racial issues and struggles” are all people of color are about. We’re much more than that. ❤

      So including characters of color doesn't mean an author has to make a big to-do concerning race if that isn't what the story is about. Knowing exactly why each character is included and the roles they play in the story helps an author determine how to develop those characters.

      Liked by 1 person

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