Previously, I’ve dived into important considerations when creating characters to represent marginalized people and writing plots about their experiences. Now it’s time to discuss using other cultures in worldbuilding and the big bogey therein: cultural appropriation.
What Is Cultural Appropriation?
Your family has a recipe for what you call a solace cake; it’s been passed along through seven generations. It takes several hours for you to make, and you use the same original ingredients and traditional methods as your great-great-great-grandmother. It’s not something you make every day; it’s a very special cake that you reserve for when your family has to say goodbye to a beloved family member. When your father dies, you make it for his funeral to comfort everyone who is grieving.
The funeral home notices your cake and is curious. You answer a few questions about it. Then the next Halloween, everyone is eating something they are calling solace cakes. It has an obvious resemblance to the real thing, but it’s full of cheap ingredients and coated in black icing. It turns out someone from the funeral home is selling their own version and telling everyone it’s for spooky ghost parties. After that, whenever you make solace cake for your family during a tough time, some friend at the funeral asks you why you’re serving a Halloween dish.
For many Western white storytellers, taking someone’s culture for our own use seems harmless, because when someone does it with our culture, it’s actually harmless. Because our culture is dominant, we determine how it’s portrayed, and we have no short supply of accurate cultural representations. That’s why when someone gets the basics of our culture wrong, it’s funny.
It takes listening and critical thinking to realize that’s not how it feels for people who are constantly battling to keep their culture from being erased or misrepresented. Many marginalized people have a history that includes attempts to eradicate their culture, and today it’s still common for them to be punished for wearing a traditional hairstyle to work or otherwise embracing their heritage. In that context, it’s incredibly hurtful to see other people be rewarded for their crude imitations.
Similar to exploitative plots, appropriation by privileged people can easily push marginalized groups out of the market. If a person of color wants to financially benefit from their heritage, they’ll need to compete against white people who are happy to misrepresent that heritage to suit the needs of other white people.
How Appropriation Applies to Worldbuilding
When it’s boiled down, cultural appropriation in worldbuilding happens in much the same way characters are stereotyped or misrepresented. If the depiction of the culture is caricatured, demonized, trivialized, or simply inaccurate, it will come off as appropriation. Any effort by the storyteller to make the culture cool, entertaining, exotic, or mysterious will not be received well.
Particularly common offenses when depicting other cultures include:
- Mixing and matching: Instead of depicting a specific culture authentically, worldbuilders often put multiple cultures in a blender. Sometimes they change the race of a culture, erasing the people the culture belongs to.
- Generalizing: Worldbuilders often lump other cultures together. They might try to depict a culture representing all of east Asia or the continent of Africa.
- Stereotyping: A worldbuilder might depict a Native American culture because they want a nature-loving people in their story or include a Roma stand-in because they want a bunch of fortune tellers.
Calling a culture by another name does not get rid of these problems. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, any depiction of a fictional culture that comes off as a stand-in for the real one could be appropriation.
Given that, when you are creating a culture, you have these options:
- Make your culture unique enough that it doesn’t feel like a stand-in for a real culture.
- Base your culture on powerful Western imperial cultures.
- Depict your own culture or a fictional stand-in for it.
- Choose a very specific culture and fully dedicate yourself to studying that culture in depth. Hire consultants of that culture and prioritize representing it authentically over anything else in the story. Do not include any parts of the culture that its people don’t want depicted.
Should We Use Other Cultures for Our Worlds?
Probably not. The issue is that it’s much harder to depict a whole culture authentically than it is to positively depict a person from that culture. Cultures are incredibly complicated and nuanced. It may be easy to get a list of holidays, but getting all the intricacies of personal behavior correct is another thing entirely. Using another culture for a setting means making judgement calls balancing the story against what’s plausible for that culture. Without having an internal sense of what’s culturally consistent, it’s too easy to misrepresent the culture for the sake of other story concerns.
Let’s look at three case studies from recent movies.
- Moana: Disney brought on Polynesian cultural consultants, hired Polynesian voice actors for their main characters, and included a Polynesian musical group. But the people heading the project weren’t Polynesian, and they messed it up. The culture shown in Moana is a mishmash of multiple Polynesian cultures that many Polynesians find off-putting.
- Black Panther: Marvel’s first superhero movie with a black lead was written and directed by black people. Black stylists and costume designers prioritized natural hair and depicted five distinct African cultures that lived in the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The movie was a huge hit; people were donating money so black kids from low income families could go see it.
- Coco: This Pixar movie about the Mexican Day of the Dead was helmed by a white man. Already concerned about appropriation, he took a number of trips to Mexico and consulted with Mexican employees of Pixar. Even so, the movie was probably headed for disaster. In 2013, Pixar applied to trademark “Día de los Muertos,” which would have claimed the name of the Mexican holiday for exclusive use by the company – talk about cultural theft! After the fallout from this, Pixar broke its own policies to bring in a huge number of outside consultants in a wide variety of fields. The resulting movie was a resounding success in Mexico.
So look, it’s not impossible for a storyteller to depict a culture they are not part of authentically. But most storytellers have neither the budget of a Hollywood studio nor the dedication necessary to get it right. Plus, writing a novel is less likely to give jobs to lots of people of a depicted culture and more likely to compete against stories written by them. Unique settings are a big selling point, and under-represented groups deserve to be the ones who benefit from their own settings.
Many of us want greater diversity in our speculative fiction settings, but to do that, we should support greater diversity in storytellers. We should not be telling privileged storytellers to tell stories in non-Western settings, because that’s a surefire way to get a bunch of half-assed, appropriative worlds.
How We Can Use Other Cultures to Worldbuild
Worldbuilding is a very research-intense and theoretical pursuit. Without making use of all the known cultures we have on Earth, it’s difficult to theorize what a fictional culture will be like. However, it’s completely possible to use other cultures in your research without appropriating them.
When you’re doing worldbuilding research, focus on the why of the culture, not the specifics. The Inuit get most of their calories from animals. Why? Because there isn’t much in the way of plant life in the icy places where they live. Now think through where your northern culture lives and what flora and fauna live there, and come up with ideas for what they eat, instead of giving them the same food dishes as the Inuit.
Looking at how a cross section of cultures deal with the same issue can be incredibly helpful in getting ideas and making decisions. By examining how multiple cultures dispose of their dead, you’ll see that disposing of the dead depends on whether the culture has enough land with soil they can dig in, enough wood they can burn, or a large and convenient body of water nearby.
Many specific behaviors are repeated in multiple cultures, and they’re fair game as long as you package them appropriately. For instance, multiple cultures have a sacred ritual that involves taking a mind-altering substance and receiving insight, but if you call it a Spirit Quest, you’re tying the practice to Native Americans. If you already have a fictional culture inspired by a real one, do your best to remove any names or labels belonging to that group.
This is probably tough news for a lot of people to hear. Speculative fiction is chock-full of wagon-riding fortune tellers and nature-loving tribes that were portrayed without a thought for their real-world counterparts. This is because the people telling those stories have been overwhelmingly white, and the people who object have been pushed to the margins. Just because a practice is common doesn’t mean it’s worth continuing.
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