Cynthia Dettman:  Author

A thorny question: White Writers and Cultural Appropriation

I continue to struggle with the national conversation about white writers and appropriation.  The argument goes  like this:  whites either have no business writing about people of color (we’ll tell our own stories, thank you!); or whites write in condescending and stereotypical ways about people of color.  These arguments seem particularly cogent when Western whites write stories about black, latinx, asian, or native characters when they have no real or strong connection to those cultures or communities.  And people are offended in the context of Western inequality and cruelty:   genocide, slavery, mass incarceration,  immigration.  The list goes on.

But then… don’t most good writers write about characters who are different from them?  Men writing about women?  People of color writing about other communities of color?  Isn’t literary freedom a key to good writing and good books?

The arguments rage in literary circles.  Here’s a good summary.  Writer Susan Abulhawa puts the question in a political light. As a Palestinian, Abulhawa’s view is that she’s “been robbed of home and heritage and history and food and culture.” She says Palestinians “don’t share one mind” but are united by “this wound we all share.” “When somebody whose life has not been so profoundly affected by this wound then comes and narrates from that wound, they’re colonizing a space that they have no business being in. And that becomes renewed oppression,” she argues.

British writer Zadie Smith is trying to “wake up white writers” about the assumptions of race in their writing!  This is all really subtle and important.  So much of the white experience is to assume whiteness as normal and assume non-whiteness as something exotic or non-normal.

In the end, I like Justine Larbalestier’s view:  we can write about anything, but when we write cross-culturally, we need to do lots of research, know people in that culture, and write with absolute care, respect and authenticity.  Our books should be read and critiqued by folks from that culture before publication!

Do I have the credibility (one question) and the skill (another question) to write an authentic, believable and “real”  novel about modern South India?    I hope you will weigh in as I occasionally post excerpts from my novel-in-progress.


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Yes, Mimi, it is an important debate, especially here in the US where writers of color are beginning to stand up to the assumptions and stereotypes that white writers have projected in their stories about people of color. I don’t know whether Indian writers will feel the same way about my story, but hopefully I have the connections and understanding and humility to write this cross cultural story with skill and authenticity. Cynthia

Same with other arts which can have a biased view. When my family lived in Haiti, my father took portraits of the local people, which initially I greatly admired until a Haitian man later pointed out that everyone was always smiling, even though they were poor, perpetuating the stereotype of the happy islanders.

Yes! Just being a white person taking pictures is weird. Unless someone gives permission, and why should they? You’re going to post their picture, a stranger with no name, on your wall? Are they to be a representative of their country? Are you going to make money off the picture? Lots of good questions as everyone keeps clicking. Cynthia

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