Worldbuilding

Understanding Appropriative Worldbuilding

This post is 3 in the series: Social Justice Concepts for Storytellers
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?

Example

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.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

 

Comments

  1. LizardWithHat

    Interesting Series, very insightful.

    I take it that the basis for a culture should be the world one try’s to build and not a `template´ taken from real culture?

    One thing that bothers me. Going by your example of the people living in the north it would be fitting for them to wear fur in winter since fur-clothing is a good way to stay warm. So they would probably look like people in fur-cloth or parkas. I don’t have to rip of any culture to come to the conclusion that fur is good for warm cloth. Yet it would still make them look like a stereotype. Since *the author is dead* how to I make it clear that I’m not trying to rip of Inuit. Same goes for a culture which live a low-tech hunter gatherer lifestyle as soon as bones and feather are in the mix it will seem as if I try to mix-and-match some culture. If I would give a veil and wavy cloth to a desert-dweller it would seem like I ripping Bedouins.
    Do I overthinking this? Do I have to stay clear of certain cloth-location-combos even if they are sensible to wear? Is it wrong to look a culture and conclude that desert-dwelling people wear the cloth most suited for their environment? Do I have to make some magic up so I can give the people other clothing then what would be sensible?

    I’m really at a loss here…
    hopefully this questions aren’t to dump…

    • 3Comrades

      Also don’t forget that those things are not universal for every group. There are multiple cultures and groups that wore and dealt with environmental changes, so there is no reason to cling to one stereotype.

      The Inuit dealt with extreme cold but they are not the only ones. Siberia and Russia, parts of China, Norway, and various mountain ranges all had people that dealt with extreme cold. None of them have one look that fits them all.

      A low tech society is even more varied. Not only are there many Native American groups who were extremely different in dress and culture, but also all across the world. Anywhere in the world there are stories and evidence of low tech peoples with relatively little in common, even their dress so mix and match a bit.

  2. Cay Reet

    I think you are overthinking this a little. Clothing is worn, because it’s practical and necessary. That goes for dwellers in very cold climates wearing furs and leathers to keep war. That goes for desert dwellers wearing wide clothing and a veil or head-scarf to protect themselves from sun and wind and sand. Clothing alone isn’t stereotyping people, not if it’s logical. Now, if you heavily veil all women of an invented culture and don’t let them talk to anyone else and, perhaps, not even let them go out alone, then you are working with a stereotype. The fact alone that men and women in a desert environment will cover themselves to be protected, doesn’t make them stereotypes.

    As Chris wrote, you should ask you why your invented culture does something. There’s always the explanation of ‘tradition,’ but even tradition has to start somewhere. As long as there’s a logic to it (eating mostly meat, because the surrounding won’t offer much when it comes to roots, vegetables, and fruits), you can make use of it. But, if you’re inventing a world, anyway, perhaps have them hunt different types of animals.

    Mostly, you should avoid simply picking some culture you don’t know a lot about and using it in your story without a lot of research, relying on steretypes or your idea of how they are.

    • Cay Reet

      This was supposed to be an answer to LizardWithHat, sorry.

      • LizardWithHat

        Well thanks that was very helpful

        I thinking of a Culture now who lives around large hot springs so they have the warmth they need while still living in a tundra, sounds nice.
        Any thanks for setting me straight, it’s much appreciated

  3. Yog-Sothoth42

    Well, people will adapt to their environment and use what is available. People in a tropical rain forest are not going to be wearing heavy wool. So superficially some things may be similar, but I would say to make it different enough to not be a direct import and don’t make everyone a stereotype personally or culturally.

    For your northerner example the only people i see wearing furs would be a culture that only hunts and gathers, can’t farm for some reason, or new settlers on a frontier.

    Even the ancient celts, 400 b.c.e. or a little later for example, were sophisticated farmers with livestock, vast trade networks, and advanced plows and farming techniques. Animals are expensive and you want wool, eggs, milk, and work out of large animals. Pigs were food, cows were draft animals on the farm unless you were wealthy. So for clothing it is flax for linen, hemp, and heavy wool for cold weather, the plant fiber fabrics for the warmer seasons. Wealthy would have furs and good meats, but not likely many others.

    You could make them nomadic and either following wild herds, with horses, or herding their own animals such as sheep, goats, reindeer. These people generally lived in higher altitudes on steppes, or higher latitudes and lived this way because farming was impractical with very poor soil or the season too short. So they have a reason culturally to be this way.

    However, don’t go and read a wiki on a culture and just adapt broad sweeping generalizations of religion, culture, etc and rename it. I believe the article is saying use real life as inspiration and then alter it to be unique unless you know the subject thoroughly through study.

    Start from where they are, what is around them, their tech level, and figure out what would be important to them and go from there.

    • Yog-Sothoth42

      Sorry Cay Reet I must have drafted my response while you were doing yours.

      • Cay Reet

        No worries, you added some information I did not include.

    • LizardWithHat

      That exactly what I did but my culture looks much like Bedouins because the wear veils, head-scarfs and robes, yet I did just go by what would be necessary to brave the desert and hot climate.
      It seems that I’m on the wright trek… I think. Because I remember look up earth culture to see if what I had wrote made any sense…

      I like the idea of nomadic people visiting the tundra only in summer and spring… but I think I seen that somewhere.

      Anyway thanks for your help, its much appreciated

      • Leon

        There isn’t really much you can do to make one wardrobe full of robes and scarves look distinct from another. Bit you could distinguish them from real cultures by other means. You could arm them with distinct weapons maybe have a horned beast that provides ready made war clubs, or glass deposits that make excellent knives, or a thrones tree that is perfect for snering and unhorsing riders – this last one would actually cause certain changes in dress, warriors would take to wearing tight, light weight clothes so they would rip, you still need warm clothes so these would be designed to be thrown off easily, in a more liberal culture a lot of fun could be had with where the openings are. And different ideas of what is modest will inform your choices for curse words and insults.
        I think the key is to focus on having fun with it (Don’t feel like somebody is reading over your shoulder as you write). This is essential for creativity, which is the goal.

      • Leon

        Before anybody gets upset, LizardWithHat seems to have done the home work but seems to be struggling with coming up with a distinct aesthetic so that is why i am talking about aesthetic aspects.
        So, the word i was looking for was accessorize. You can start with materials or items or functions, but the trick is to take something familiar and go in a different direction. You can give them access to materials that they don’t have irl or take away resources that they have irl, come up need that affects somebody else irl or remove a limitation. But most importantly, have fun with it 😁

  4. Aya

    I’m curious to know what you think Avatar: The Last Airbender is doing right to avoid being called out for cultural appropriation. It is possible to see their worldbuilding as guilty of mixing and matching or generalizing.

    • N

      I think with A:TLA one of the things that worked out was that the spirituality/religion was built from scratch (mostly) and integrated based on environment. So of course the vaguely Japanese area is the Fire Nation: they have volcanoes!
      It certainly helped that not one character in the entire series was white or from a European culture. (Teo’s father is the closest we get to early-modern European costume, but that’s it iirc.)
      Having said that, I’m not Chinese or Japanese or Tibetan or Inuit. I’m Indian and when that Indian mystic shows up to teach Aang about chakras and non-attachment I was, uh, not impressed. Could have been because he’s literally the only Indian character, unlike the variety we get for most of the other ethnicities?

      • Leon

        I’m curious, how do you think you would have felt about a druid teaching Ang about the spirit world?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      As far as I can tell, the short version is that Avatar hasn’t avoided the problem. It’s much better than most attempts by white people to do Asian (and Inuit) inspired fantasy, largely because the storytellers paid a LOT of attention to detail, but there are certainly people who take issue with its portrayal of one culture or another.

  5. Petar

    Doesn’t this depend not the amount of focus a culture gets though?
    I mean, writing a new Around the World in Eighty Days wouldn’t be the same as writing a new Moana. Or is the standard for research the same in both cases?

  6. Sam Victors

    Thank you for this.

    I try to be careful when depicting cultures in my worldbuilding stories, borrowing from other cultures and mixing some. I first and foremost do my research on real-life cultures, and not rely on stereotypes.

    • Sam Victors

      For example, I created several fictional cultures based on real-life ones, and not all of them are non-western cultures.

      There’s the Barmaland country (Slavic, Germanic and Scandinavian), Keltine (mainly Celtic, mixed of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and Pict), The Summery Islands (Latin mostly; Greek, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish), The Palamede Lands (Persian, Arabic, Assyrian, Egyptian, North African, Jewish, and Indian), The Kaliban Peoples (mainly Indigenous; Native American, Polynesian, Caribbean, and Australian), and Tahan (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan).

      All my fictional countries are multicultural, including my main fantasy country. I also give them things that avoid stereotypes; for example, the Kaliban Peoples have a steel mine which they use to make machete weapons, study astronomy, and are Matriarchal. The Palamede Peoples allow women to be doctors or guards, and men can be belly-dancers.

      Their mythologies are also interconnected, as their Gods and mythical creatures know and befriend each other.

  7. Riley

    I come from a culture that’s been marginalized and exploited. My family fled our homeland because of genocide. I have descendants who scratched their names on cell walls before dying as political prisoners.Totems of our culture are popular for commercialization; references in all sorts of mediums are common.

    And yet… I’m sorry but I feel like this is a first-world white issue that’s been largely invented, or at least taken way further than it needs to be.

    We don’t need whites standing up for ourselves, often over things we honestly don’t care that much about. When images of my culture are used for profit making, by people who have no connection to said culture, sure, it doesn’t sit well with me. But I’m far more pissed about the general exploitation of these companies – because they’ll just find another way to screw us or exploit us for their own greed – than I’m worried about my culture being appropriated.

    Look, what gets lost in all this is that cultural appropriation is the natural flow of history. Cultures – both dominant and not – adopt aspects of others. There’s tasteless forms of it to be sure – just like there’s more tasteless forms of exploitation in general – but much of it is relatively harmless and for the most part those of us from these cultures have bigger things to deal with and often find it insulting that the “dominant culture” or whatever you want to call it has the arrogance to think they know what we’re outraged about.

    A great example is the NFL football team the Washington Redskins. I used them as a case study in my PhD thesis. Their usage of the name Redskins, and their imagery, is highly controversial. Many loud voices say its racist and a terrible form of cultural appropriation. And yet, in researching the issue I found the controversy is largely spearheaded by upper class whites. A Washington Post poll in 2017 found that 90+ percent of Native Americans didn’t find it offensive; even more said they couldn’t care less about the so called controversy. There’s much more to it, but I found it a great example of whites making an issue over something that’s largely a nonissue for the population and culture they are supposedly trying to protect.

    Fiction is no different. There’s tasteless ways that different cultures can be represented and… less tasteful ways. But the idea that whites or members of the dominant culture (which is a problematic way to view things, since almost every culture at some point in time has been dominant over another) need to be so worried about cultural appropriation… I don’t know, we’re living in this outrage culture where we make huge deals out of things that really don’t deserve it, and often for the so-called benefit of others, often who we identify as marginalized.

    I know you mean well, and maybe others are upset by this. Personally, I’m proud when aspects of my culture get adopted by others, even if it’s sometimes not done quite as tastefully as I’d wished. Cultural appropriation is a fact of life and history. Sometimes it’s done tastefully, and when that’s the case the fact is usually we don’t really care; when it’s done poorly, that’s when it becomes an issue.

    So as someone who’s from a cultural you’re supposedly standing up for, I’d say you’re really over thinking this.

    Best wishes,

    Riley

    • Passerby

      This reminds me about that video on YT where a Japanese guy took off to the streets of a Japanese city and asked folks about the casting of Scarlet Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”. And the interviewed people found it a non-issue, and some even praised the casting because she looks like the character.

      The thing is, if you keep forbidding people from writing about other cultures, what you end up with will be primarily Western European names and trappings in t
      fantasy. I’m a big fan of the genre, but it’s so prevalent that I can’t even conjure a book with names that would come from my native language instead of being English or Germanic, or sounding like they are. And you’re just upholding this status quo if you scare people away from using different kinds of names and folklore.

      I guess for me the line is when you sign something as X culture. Talking high fantasy here. There’s been a book called ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik that advertised itself as Polish. Spoilers, it was not. The naming was all over the place, and the gist of the story was based off a French fairy tale. However if not for the author and the publisher specifically pushing this book as ‘Polish’, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

      There’s been a gazillion of fantasy books with English-sounding names that don’t have that much English culture in them. Why can’t there be one with Polish-sounding names instead? Just don’t sign/market it as something that it’s not, and we’re good.

      • SunlessNick

        The thing is, if you keep forbidding

        Nobody’s forbidding anything.

        • A Perspiring Writer

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but literally the only thing I took away from this article is that if you’re a white author, you shouldn’t write about other cultures.

    • Sedivak

      //This is an edited version of a prior post removed by Oren Ashkenazi. I hope I managed to delete the part that was viewed as offensive.//

      I very much agree with Riley on this topic.

      Moreover, I strongly believe that condemnation of cultural appropriation in this article (and in many others) is actually detrimental to cultures both (relatively) dominant and marginal.

      Culture is only alive if it is used and only thrives when it spreads. Limiting outside authors by telling them which cultures they can depict and which not or imposing rules about what way you could depict them is robbing the relatively marginal cultures of representation. This strangles the marginal culture not only abroad in the big world but also at home because the relatively dominant culture is of course consumed also by the members of the marginal group. We in the Czech Republic, for example, of course watch a lot of foreign movies beside the Czech ones and because the foreign movies do not contain Czech cultural aspects, these aspects slowly vanish. Understandably, you cannot make Czech movies drastically more focused on the traditional local culture to compensate – that would get boring very quickly for the audience. So, to summarize, as far as survival of culture goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity and even tasteless or imprecise representation is far preferable to no representation at all (as that is what would happen if only absolutely precise or esthetically immaculate representation would be required).

      The second part of the problem is that living cultures evolve. People change their perceptions of the meanings of the aspects of their cultures, meanings shift, narratives change – usually very slightly but sometimes quite noticeably. The relatively dominant culture absorbs aspects from the smaller ones making them its own and vice versa. This cultural exchange is not only normal, it is absolutely necessary to prevent cultural isolation and eventual xenophoby. Cultures very often grow most richly when they can assimilate aspects of others and mix them with their own. For an example – would you really oppose the construction of the Pantheon in Rome seeing that it is in part strongly based on greek designs (e.g. the corinthian columns, the portico, the vestibule) but in its main aspect it differs greatly from any then-existing greek monuments making it something new and inovative for its time?

      My country – the Czech Republic or rather the three historical lands it comprises (Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) – were under political, cultural and often military oppression for a long time since roughly 1620 , from the Austrians (300 years, germanization, national language almost extinct), nazis (7 years, national identity to be exterminated, reeducation as a servant race) and soviets (20 years, “normalization”). We got over it as we always do, but any little shard of our culture that gets abroad is cherished as it means that our culture is still not dead, it can still influance people, it is not a relic of the past.

      Take the Solace-cake example: In th end the world at large is richer by one nice cake recipe (and people will eventually learn to make it good), the family can still make the traditional version and with the newly found popularity perhaps write a cookbook and talk on television, if they feel like it, and maybe even explain and set things right, but most importantly, the cake recipe will live on – maybe original, maybe slightly changed, but that is life.

      • Sedivak

        Sorry for another post on this, but really, would you oppose the creation of Hamlet (or practically any other Shakespeare’s plays) seeing that Shakespeare was clearly not from Denmark (or the other respective countries), would you advise against the creation of Quo Vadis for Seinkiewicz not being Italian, would you stand against Mika Waltari writing The Egyptian (again or many of his other works) for not being Egyptian (or Italian for some other novels)? The list really goes on and on including even Pratchett (e.g. Pyramids, Small Gods, Interesting Times, The Last Continent).

        It goes without saying that doing proper research is very important and some depictions of other cultures or their significant aspects are far from perfect, but if you could go back in time and speak to those authors – maybe show them this article – would you still advise them to not write the above-mentioned works?

        • Cay Reet

          It’s actually everywhere on the site: If you do your research well, you can write other cultures (minority groups, other specific topics), but simply using your idea of them or using parts without researching if they have a specific meaning for the culture (minority group etc.) is bad.

          Hence the cake example: for the family who makes this as a cake for funerals, the cake has an emotional meaning and is important. For everyone else just eating it on Halloween, it is simply a nice cake. That is the problem: not that there’s another cake recipe out there, as you put it in another comment, but that it turns something special and meaningful into something normal and mundane. You might not personally mind it, if that happens with your culture, but other people might. Using something another culture may see as sacret and making it just some object or a meaningless tradition isn’t a good thing to do.

          • Sedivak

            As to the first part of your comment: That is unfortunately not what this particular article says. In several places it emphasizes that writing about other cultures should be left to members of those other cultures even for reasons other than quality of the depictions. One example among many:

            „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.“

            As to the second part of your comment: I understand your point and I accept that some people feel like this – for things that truly are sacred to them it’s understandable – it’s just that for the reasons above I have to disagree. That is all.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Just for the record so everyone knows what the post says, it lists out several options in this area.

          “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.”

          The next section then explains why that last option doesn’t work well for most novelists.

  8. Max

    Cultural appropriation? How about the cultural arrogance in this article?

    I’ve been fortunate to live in a number of places, including the US, and the idea of America as the dominant culture is problematic… if not laughable.

    In Europe, we laugh at the idea of American being the dominant culture. You mean the country that is a melting pot of different cultures? You mean the nation that is an amalgamation of European cultures (and now others)? Are we talking about the same USA that has disparate cultures within it; the same country that is as divisively split between two, if not more, cultures than any where else? The same country that has the red culture, and the blue culture… and also the brown and black cultures?

    I’ve lived in China, and anybody who’s lived in Zhongguo (literally, the “Middle kingdom” or essentially the middle of the friggin universe) knows that the Chinese would scoff at this notion. The view from East Asia is that the US enjoyed dominance for, like 50 years, compared with China that was arguably the peak of civilization for the greater part of 2,000+ years and now (in their minds) is returning to that dominance.

    And I worked and lived in Africa. Again, they’d laugh at this idea of America being a dominant culture.

    I understand that America is in this sensitive spot right now, but this article is over the top, and the idea that we shouldn’t include different cultures in our works of fiction is laughable. Obviously there’s good ways to do it and poor ways, but to offer up the suggestion that it’s (no pun intended) a white or black issue is just silly out of touch.

    I’d love to read what fiction authors from these other cultures would say about this, rather than someone from the “dominant” culture.

    • Michael Campbell

      It’s actually an idea that’s spread out of Hollywood.
      In the days of silent cinema, any first world country could make a film (say about Napoleon’s adventures all over Europe). The Poles would want to see it, the French would want to see it, the Russians would want to see it.
      And all you had to do was cut out the title-card frames from the film, film those title-cards in the local language and re-splice the new frames onto the film. Pretty cheap.
      Then along came “talkies” and suddenly to dub a new language required quite a lot of money. Basically a paid actor for each different speaking part.
      So other countries went out of the regular film business. Britain was badly hurt by American Talkies and for decades they could only make lesbian vampire horror movies where the ladies get their boobs out (typical Hammer House Of Horror fare) because the American censors won’t allow that sort of thing. Or you had the French and Italian reliance on language yielding films involving a man and a woman having a complex conversation in a cafe` (A.K.A. cheap enough to be able to be financially supported by a small group of native speakers).

      So basically Hollywood convinced itself that only Hollywood makes “real” movies and therefore the US must be the dominant culture in the world.
      I suppose ignoring the existence of Bollywood also helps this belief.

      English is the lingua franca currently (although it was French when the term was coined not so long ago) so perhaps English is the “dominant language”.

      • Passerby

        Don’t forget the entire Chinese movie industry… And probably a couple more

        • Michael Campbell

          Good catch.

          There’s also a thing called Nollywood. As far as I can tell it’s an industry that couldn’t exist without domestic VCRs.
          So as technology advances, “the facts” involving “industry” are always in motion.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      “In Europe, we laugh at the idea of American being the dominant culture.”

      Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Here in the country of Europe, which is pretty much the same everywhere since it’s a single country, we Europeans all laugh at the idea that the US somehow dominates our culture.

      Seriously: Here in Sweden, we have way more US than Swedish movies in mainstream movie theaters, all the most popular TV shows are from the US, people read and discuss tons of American novels etc… Saying that the US is a dominant culture is just… pretty accurate? Certainly nothing that would give rise to laughter.

      I agree that the idea of cultural appropriation is often messy and occasionally problematic, and that Americans discussing the concept might forget that, say, Chinese or Japanese people aren’t some oppressed minority globally speaking. But still, that comment about how we Europeans regard US culture was just too funny.

      • Cay Reet

        Here in Germany, it’s similar – although in our case, recent-ish history might come into play, since we had quite some Americans here post-WWII.

        Especially in media, the US culture is pretty dominant.

  9. N

    I appreciate the work you’ve put into this, but I’m afraid I still have a few questions. Most obviously, why are “Native American” and Polynesian and Caribbean and Australian groups all lumped together? That’s 3+ continents’ worth of indigenous people. There are massive cultural differences even if you restrict it to just the Americas: Great Lakes groups vs the Plains vs the desert groups etc. What would a mix of these 3+ continents even look like? A 19th century Comanche politician wouldn’t necessarily adapt well to, like, the internal politics of Tenochtitlan.
    Similarly, China and Japan and Korea have had a complicated history and diaspora from these countries don’t like being lumped together.
    I think Palamede could be done well because you wouldn’t even need to invent a mashup of these cultures, because historically they did intermingle a lot (especially during the Mughal and Deccan Sultan periods). (But why belly dancers though?)

    • N

      This was meant to be a reply to Sam Victors, sorry

      • Sam Victors

        Thank you for your answer.

        I should be been more specific than ‘Native American’, I made it seem so monolithic. That’s my fault, so sorry. What I had was an intermingle of Indigenous Cultures; the tattoos of the Maori, the Muumuus and feather cloaks of Hawaiians, living either in wigwams or stone/wooden huts, sandals, beaded tiaras, sashes, topknot hairstyles, bannock food, jewelry made from shells and corals, war hatchets.

        I guess I drew inspiration more from Polynesian and Oceanic cultures rather than Indigenous Americans, somewhat.

        • N

          Thank you for clarifying. Just a suggestion, take it or leave it, but I think some of the features you mentioned have heavy religious significance, so perhaps you might consider (if you haven’t already) getting sensitivity readers from the respective groups to go over it? (I haven’t read your work, and for all I know you’ve handled it perfectly, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure.)
          Alternatively, I’ve found “writing with color” (linked in the article) to be an excellent searchable database for this kind of thing as well.

      • Sam Victors

        My fictional Kaliban People also have some cultural similarities with North American Nations, such as moccasin shoes, war hatchets, match coats, and revere a goddess known Grandmother Spider (based on the North American figure of Spider Grandmother).

        They may live in an island but they also have deer and cape/water buffaloes (the latter are talking animals have a partnership with the Kaliban People).

  10. Skull Bearer

    Should We Use Other Cultures for Our Worlds?
    Probably not

    Aaaand that’s where you lost me. Telling people not to write at all is utter shit. It’s hard enough to do already.

    • Cay Reet

      Where does it say ‘not to write at all?’

      It says ‘if you’re not doing a lot of research to get the culture right, don’t use cultures you’re not familiar with, because you might offend or hurt people of that culture.’ Different thing entirely.

  11. Xandar The Zenon

    I find Moana to be an interesting case study. Disney often does generic kingdoms in their princess movies, like generic Nordic country, generic French place, or generic German kingdom. But while they look at all those places seperately, they see all of Polynesia as a similar thing, when in reality it’s like lumping all those different kinds of European places together. So while their heart was in the right place, they overshot a bit because of their bias.

  12. Sedivak

    The main ideas of this article seem to be:

    “Dear author, here’s your bracket, it would be inconsiderate to write about anything else.”

    Also more generally (and this one gets repeated in many articles):

    “Diversity is only acceptable if no-one can be offended by it.”

  13. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve removed a comment for insulting marginalized people who speak out against cultural appropriation. Disagree with us all you like, but keep your arguments topic focused.

    • Sedivak

      As the author of the removed post, I can probably determine the part that was viewed as offensive. I see that I got carried away by emotions and ended being unpleasant. For that I apologize.

      Nevertheless, deleting a page-long post because of one sentence seems very unfair considering that in the past you have displayed the ability and willingness to simply edit out unsavory parts of other people’s posts and leave the rest.

      I understand that we have different opinions on the topic but I would like to believe that even so my comments contribute to the discussion.

  14. Bubbles

    I mean, I think pretty much all of the points made in this article are very good. I would add that even apart from the social justice angle, avoiding making fantasy (or science fiction) cultures that are copies of real cultures is good for realism and creativity as well. The simple fact is that it is incredibly unlikely that a culture from a different world will be the same or even really like a real-life culture. Of course, especially if they are a human culture, they will likely have some similarities to real-life cultures, depending on environment and such, but the details such as names, general aesthetics, and so on are almost certainly going to be different. So I would like to inform the people complaining about being “censored” that just making carbon copies of real-life cultures is unrealistic and lazy, and anyway, no one here can forbid you from doing something, even if it is a bad idea.

    Now, what if you want to write about an actual Earth culture that is not your own, and you have very good reasons to do so? Things such as alternate history, historical fiction, world-spanning plots, and similar often require this, and I believe they are entirely legitimate genres. What I can say is what others have said: DO YOUR RESEARCH. Especially don’t fall for stereotypes, and make sure to get input from people of that culture. However, if someone meets those requirements, even if they are “privileged,” they shouldn’t be barred from writing about other cultures. And note, again, that doing your research is good for realism as well as social justice.

  15. Joe

    I feel perhaps the best comment on this is from Marama Fox, a Polynesian politician, who critiqued the portrayal of Maui in Moana- but then said of course she would go see it, because how could she deny her children the chance to see people like them in a Disney movie?

    And looking up Moana, that does seem to be a thing- some Polynesian people hate it, some love it wholeheartedly and see the changes as acceptable Disneyficiations (or indeed don’t care- not everyone is hugely invested in their culture), some people don’t like the cultural changes but overall like that Polynesian culture is finally put on the big screen in the same way Germanic and Nordic cultures are.

    Realistically, if white people don’t use other cultures, the result will be a market dominated by white European culture. The big media producers are still mostly white Anglo-Saxons, and while that’s changing it’s still going to be like that for a while- movies like black panther stand out because they’re so rare. So there is a genuine question, for now, as to whether a faulty representation is better then no representation- would it have been better if instead of Moana Disney “played it safe” and just put out another white princess? (it would have been better if they took a Polynesian director but, lets be honest, they weren’t ever realistically going to. Should we aim for the best scenario no matter how implausible?)

    I’m not sure. It’s not my call to make. But still. There are good arguments- good arguments put forth by people of color and oppressed group- that once you get past outright blackface-style caricatures, distorted representation might be better then no representation. Not that it is (there are equally good arguments that waiting until we’re in a place where regular mainstream primarily minority productions are a realistic prospect is better then settling for white people’s interpretations), but the issue is more nuanced, especially when dealing with massive media like Disney movies that can dominate entire segments of pop consciousness- if Disney doesn’t make a kids movie about your culture, that’s not too far off just there never being a kid’s movie about your culture.

    (to use perhaps a metaphor more in my wheelhouse- i have psychotic symptoms. The game senua’s sacrifice had a psychotic main character. My friend who also these issues hates the game, seeing it as an inaccurate representation of the condition. Which it is, and i don’t resent them their opinion. But i like it because it is literally the first depiction in gaming i’ve seen of a psychotic person who isn’t an evil murderer or helpless victim. It’s the first person like me who is an actual hero, even if her symptoms aren’t necessarily accurate. It’s not clear who’s right, or even if one of us is “right”, and it’s not a perfect analogy. But still, there is an issue there. Are fumbling steps better then nothing? I don’t know, but it’s less clear then a lot of discourse makes it seem)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just for the record, the issue of Moana’s (and other story’s) faulty representation of a marginalized culture is separate from the issue of overall character diversity.

      A story can have, for example, a Tongan main character without attempting to portray sensitive aspects of Tongan culture. Similarly, choosing not to make Moana a fusion of various Polynesian cultures would not have necessitated another white princess.

      • Sedivak

        I understand Joe’s comment as to mean that beside character diversity cultural diversity is important too.

        If you have a Tongan character but portray them in a western setting with western cultural aspects disregarding Tongan culture entirely it feels like tokenism and Tongans would perhaps rightfuly feel abused. I’m surprised you even made that argument.

        I share Joe’s opinion that outside downright caricatures for many cutlutres a faulty representation is better than none – because frankly, many cultures get no representation at all.

  16. Widefield

    I wonder about using mythological creatures from other cultures. Is it okay for a white writer, for example, to have a kitsune character? Or it’s better not to call it a kitsune, choose another name instead (like, what about just “fox spirit”)? Or it’s better to avoid that kind of character at all?

    • Cay Reet

      Personally, I’d call it a “fox spirit” and run with it.

      I think if you know a lot about the mythological being in question, if you have in-depth knowledge and know you will use it as it is shown in mythology, you can also use the original word. But if you just want to use something like a kitsune, it might be better to call it a “fox spirit” or something similar instead. You don’t have to avoid the character, though.

      • Sam Victors

        One of my characters in my story is a Fox Spirit, or traditionally a Fox Maiden, of Chinese origins.

        She is one of the companions of my Heroine (like Dorothy, she has three companions, but they’re all female rather than male. The other two are a Cobold, an elfin dwarf who helps out working class people with chores and tasks. And a Korred, a rocky humanoid fairy).

    • [REDACTED]

      What’s the point of using the word “kitsune”? I mean, it literally means either “fox” (most times the word “kitsune” means a literal fox) or “fox spirit” (your case). What’s the point of using the Japanese word (unless you are writing your work in Japanese language)? There are fox spirits in mythologies other than Japanese one, so just having a fox spirit character is less of a risk, while referring to it as “kitsune” would implicitly connect them to Japanese mythology. Which could just not make sense either if they differ from mythological kitsunes, or if the worldbuilding doesn’t rely on Japanese mythology and just uses a fancy word.

  17. Kenneth Mackay

    Re-reading this article, one possibility hasn’t been mentioned; basing your fictional culture on a real-world one that no longer exists. For example, if the writer uses Aztec culture as a basis, there are no real-life Aztecs to be offended.

    • Cay Reet

      Which is probably why fantasy writers like basing Elven cultures on Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece. Both are also cultures which no longer exist. Same goes for the Ancient Egyptians or even the European Middle Ages (also a fantasy staple).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It should be noted that while the Aztec Empire no longer exists today as a distinct group, the Aztec’s decedents and aspects of their culture live on in modern Mexico, where over a million people still speak Nahuatl, the empire’s language. A lot of these people still identify with their Aztec/Mexica heritage and may be reasonably sensitive to how that heritage is portrayed.

  18. Yora

    It’s impossible to win this.

    Include other cultures and someone will accuse you of cultural appropriation and call you racist.
    Do not include other cultures and someone will accuse you of not having diversity and call you racist.

    Pick your poison. Probably best based on what fits your story. Try to reflect on what you’re doing with your worldbuilding and what it implies about cultures. Then do what feels right and let someone call you racist.
    I’d rather get accused of cultural appropriation than engaging in cultural segregation.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.