Is this Cultural Appropriation?

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter who are much more activist than I am (this is a low bar; I’m not really an activist at all) and I have to admit that sometimes a controversy or issue flares up, and I am totally confused about what the problem is. So most of the time, I don’t feel like I know anything about racism or cultural appropriation or the many related issues that gets Twitter a-tweeting.

But then I see someone saying something truly boneheaded about these things, and I realize that maybe I know a little bit of something. Like, possibly enough to not make a complete ass of myself, although granted, I have such a limited platform that any ass-making I do is not likely to be noticed.

So I’m going to say some things here, and maybe make an ass of myself doing it, because frankly, it happens. These days, I think we all have to get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and it’s okay to have people publicly point that out.

The problem I see is that people are looking for simple rules. Tell me what to do and say, and I will follow that to a tee, because I am a Good Person(tm) and then I will carry on with my life and never have to think about any of this again.

I still remember when people could declare themselves a Good Person(tm) because they used certain words instead of others. Don’t say cripple, say physically challenged. Don’t say chink, say Asian. (Don’t say short, say vertically challenged, as the joke went.) So people did a quick substitution of words, patted themselves on the back, carried on.

And now people are confused, because there’s this “Cultural Appropriation” notion out there, and they want simple rules again. “So am I never allowed to make curry? Do I quit yoga?” Or they relate it to their own cultures. “How is drinking beer on St. Patrick’s Day cultural appropriation? Everyone likes to drink beer!” Or they wonder what will become of anything creative. “What about fusion cooking? What about that bhartnatyam-hiphop dance video, is that wrong now? Can’t we all get along?”

The crux of the matter is, it’s not simple. The point is that it never was simple. There’s no singular set of rules you can mindlessly follow to ensure that you are a Good Person(tm).

You need to be mindful. You need to think about your intentions. You need to think about the effect of your choices. You need to think about the power structures underlying all this.

You need to think about who does not get a voice because you are talking over them.

You need to realize that you can love a culture and have nothing but the best intentions, and still appropriate it. Your desire to make art doesn’t give you special exemptions.

You need to consider these questions with respect to each different culture. Wearing a bindi isn’t the exactly the same as wearing a feathered headdress.

Does this sound like a powerful amount of overthinking that will paralyze you and prevent you from writing? Yes, possibly. I know a lot of writers who have been so paralyzed.

So what do you do about that?

Start with writing. Then start thinking. Then revise. Get feedback if you can find people willing and capable of reading for cultural sensitivity. Think and revise some more.

And then if you put it out there, be prepared for the possibility that you may make an ass of yourself. Get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to be wrong, and it’s okay for people to publicly point that out. Should that happen, do you best to listen and learn, even if what you hear makes you uncomfortable.

There are no easy mindless rules.


The most unhelpful thought I ever had in writing was this one: If I get everything really perfect the first time, I won’t have to revise.

It seemed like a very efficient way to write. One and done. I would only have to work up the nerve once to actually write the thing, and then tinker a little and BOOM!

And it was a hard thought to let go of, because I am lazy, and find it hard to sit down to actually write, and so if I only had to do it once, well… Plus, and not blowing smoke up my own ass or anything, my first drafts were usually pretty good. Probably because I wasn’t prepared to try anything too messy lest I have to revise, but it was always close enough to reasonably okay that it seemed like getting something near perfect the first time was an achievable goal.

Except it wasn’t.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time, and so every time I had to revise, I’d make teeny-tiny changes. A word here and there. Stuff so small that I wouldn’t even remember what I’d changed from draft to draft, but somehow I thought it would have a dramatic effect. It never did.

I’m more comfortable with revision now–I’ve written enough things that I’ve had to rip apart before I could find the bleeding heart of the story–but I must confess that every time I realize that I need another revision, there’s a small sense of “Ugh.” It’s the work of it all. The going back to the well and hoping it’s not dry. The not knowing if this is the revision that takes a reasonably okay story and turns it into a pile of crap.

It feels like I should wrap up this blog post with some sort of an uplifting “Yay, revision!” except I am in the middle of my latest novel revision, and what can I say except that it’s exhausting to keep trying to find the thing that will make the next chapter, the next scene, the next sentence work. It just is. I got excited by some of the ideas I had to make this revision happen, but the moment I had to actually revise…. well, it’s just a lot of thinking and figuring and wondering if I’m really, really sure that the novel wasn’t just fine.

On the other hand, there is no possible way that I could have come up with all of this on the first draft. Or the second. Or the third. And so on. Had I let the reviseophobia get the better of me, well, I’d be sitting with my very first draft of this thing, the one that I sat down and read and marked up with notes calling whole sections “Cheeseballs.”

The most helpful writing advice I ever had was “Learn to love revision.” I’m not quite there yet, but I’m trying.