Writing Outside the Color Lines

Cultural appropriation is a solvable problem.


Three days after President Trump fired FBI director Jim Comey, George Will’s op-ed in the Washington Post was about…cultural appropriation. It’s not surprising that Will, long the foremost pedant for the intellectual wing of the hard right, chose to ignore the catastrophic moral failure of his party to confront accusations of Russian meddling in our elections, instead focusing his ire on the white right’s newest bogeyman, cultural appropriation.

I do feel Will’s pain (I’m a liberal and that’s what we do, much to the derision of people like Will). It must be terrifying to watch the slow but sure decline of a power that was your birthright, and to realize that one day you may actually be equal to everyone else under the law.

Naturally, Will invoked Lionel Shriver, who sparked a furor with a combative speech she delivered at the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival, in which she claimed that criticism of the inauthenticity of some of her minority characters was an attempt to curtail her freedom to write what she wanted.

Will and Shriver insinuate that their constitutional rights are at stake because there have been protests against cafeteria food by university students, controversy over an art exhibit, and criticism of celebrities for making props of cultural traditions that are not their own.

It’s not only Will and Shriver clanging the alarm bells; this perceived threat is a favorite preoccupation of the right, whose feverish logic leads them to envision a world where white people will be denied the right to eat taco salads, do yoga, or play mah-jongg.

Such is the hysteria that some writers are hesitant to write characters outside of their own race for fear of being accused of exploitation. It just so happens that the last three novels I read offer valuable insights in how to write characters of different ethnicities. The formula is fairly simple: do the research; treat characters with respect and compassion; and portray flesh and blood people, not stereotypes and plot props.

Bea, the protagonist of Sadeqa Johnson’s And Then There Was Me, has a white Dominican mother and an African-American father. Her parents are not married, and Bea is raised by her mother, Irma, who speaks Spanish, cooks locrio de salami, and bugs her daughter to wear sunscreen so she doesn’t become cocolo like her father. Despite being the mistress of a married man, she is a devout Catholic who attends Mass and sends her daughter to parochial school. The author portrays her as neither a saint nor a sinner, but as a woman who retains the principles and prejudices of her Dominican upbringing while doing her best as a single mother to her black American daughter. In order to ensure the cultural details and Spanish dialogue were accurate, Johnson hired a Hispanic editor to review her work.

Suzanne Feldman’s thought-provoking and poignant Absalom’s Daughters tells the story of Cassie, the daughter of a black woman and a white man during a time when there was no such thing as being biracial. She embarks upon a picaresque journey through the Jim Crow South with her white half-sister, Judith. Theirs is no Huck-Jim relationship, but a partnership between equals. In fact, Cassie is by far the more thoughtful and intelligent of the two, and can read while Judith is illiterate. To maintain the accuracy of her Southern dialects, Feldman consulted the works of Zora Neale Hurston, who was an anthropologist as well as one of the most significant novelists of her time.

TreeVolution, an inventive and fast-paced eco-thriller by (fellow Independent columnist) Tara Campbell, features Charlie, a member of the fictional Palalla tribe, loosely based on the Yakama Nation of Washington state. While Charlie fits a stereotype because he has a drinking problem, he is also your typical lost young man who, after a series of mistakes, finds himself at a crossroads. The extensive list of resources in the back of the book attests to the author’s meticulous research into Yakama history, resulting in a respectful and honest depiction of what it is to be Native American today. 

These are but a few of many examples of authors who successfully write characters outside the color lines. Other of my favorites are Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

It is only recently that a critical mass of minorities has rebelled against the white gaze. Some whites are still trying to come to grips with losing the Civil War. The gaining, or the waning, of a voice can result in obnoxious overzealousness. Such is the messy reality of democratic discourse.

Instead of attacking the outcry against cultural appropriation, Will, Shriver, and their cohorts should take a good, long look at our nation’s history. Then maybe they will realize that their manufactured outrage is a hollow distraction from the efforts to disenfranchise minorities that are ongoing even today. But then again, as the timing of Will’s op-ed indicates, distraction is probably their intent.

Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Independent.

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