Updated 1/7/2017: I’m leaving this post up because I never want to forget how much words matter and how ignorance (my ignorance) needs to be addressed and discussed. This post (below) was a failure on my part, but I’m so glad I made this post. Failure provides the best lessons and opportunities to learn and grow. I don’t know what I don’t know. My type of ignorance tends to be blissful rather than willful, but it is still ignorance. Nevertheless, it was insensitive and thoughtless, and for that I am sincerely sorry.
I’m so thankful for those of you who took the time to point out my error and were patient enough with me to use this as a teaching moment. Thank you.
That stated, I’ve decided to write the stories I want to write and stop “asking permission” to write them. I will do my best– to be responsible, to listen, to learn– and that is all I can do.
Here is the original blog post:
Specifically I’m talking to Reiders of Color . . . lol! That sounded weird. Let me try again:
Specifically, I am talking to people of color.
Dear all people of color who read my books,
Let me be clear. First and foremost, I’m not afraid of backlash. I’m afraid of doing harm.
Since I wrote Sienna’s story, I have been at a cross-roads. I’ve been messaged by several Mexican-Americans (and other people of color) expressing concern that I have written about a Mexican-American woman when I am not, in fact, a Mexican-American woman. Additionally, I discussed her plight of being passed over for a major film role because she was a Latina. As such, they have used the term: “Cultural Appropriation”
I understand what this is and I have concern about cultural appropriation. Specifically, I have concern that I am culturally appropriating. I am telling the stories of another culture as a white person, for my own benefit and for the benefit of my stories.
See this most recent article on the subject:
I have a story planned for a woman of color (African American) based on emails received from readers, about how– in African American culture– value is placed on being an entertainer or an athlete, but to excel in science and engineering is met with apathy or even sometimes outright dismay (by people within the African American culture). This was a common theme is so many messages, and these women had never spoken to each other.
According to the emails, it’s seen as selling out. Plus there is a lot of prejudice that exists in STEM fields, that African Americans can’t be good at math and science. I received this comment SO MANY TIMES from readers, that I decided to write this story. Because it struck a chord with me. I wanted to write a story FOR young African American women (and all women), letting them know that they are allowed to excel in STEM fields and it doesn’t make them weird or different or less valuable. That they should be true to themselves, and if that means becoming an Astrophysicist, then awesome.
HOWEVER, I am now doubting whether I should. This is a compelling story (I think) but I don’t know whether I should be the one to write it. I haven’t lived it and wouldn’t it be some form of cultural appropriation?
At this point, I’m wondering if (in order to avoid cultural appropriation) I should just stick to white characters and their stories.
But my opinion doesn’t matter. And, honestly, other white people– your opinion doesn’t matter either. We don’t have the right to these stories.
So, my question to you my readers who are people of color, should I:
1. Email these women and ask for their permission. Then write the story. Additionally, in my email requesting permission, I would also encourage them to tell their story (write it) and offer to give them a platform for promotion if they do.
2. Not write the story (because even with their permission, it’s still cultural appropriation) and email these women back, encourage to tell their story (write it) and offer to give them a platform for promotion if they do.
If #2, then should I stop writing main characters of color? How do I know when it’s okay/not cultural appropriation?
Thank you for your consideration.
EDITED TO ADD: After reading an author’s distress re: the above two paragraphs, I want to clarify something because (upon re-reading) I can definitely see how the above two paragraphs are horrible (or may be read as horrible)– it was not my intention to state that African American Culture does not value STEM. But that’s definitely how it reads above. What I should have said: These emails I received mentioned how– in these women’s experiences– that the culture they grew up in placed more value and importance on entertainment and athleticism than the culture placed on STEM careers. These women have been told that they “sold out”
In the paragraph above I also mention “a lot of prejudice” I should have expanded on that statement to say “a lot of prejudice and racism against African Americans” Racism exists. I know this.
I also understand that these readers who responded are not representative of every member of African American culture. Rather, their collective stories in the emails they sent fascinated me and struck a chord. My previous job was in a STEM field and women in general (at least when I was going through the programs) encounter a lot of barriers to success/discrimination because they are women. Will this be every woman’s perspective? No. Got it.
Also, this article is not a “cookie grab”. I promise. You can believe me or not. I can’t do anything about your decision to think the worst of me. I like to discuss things.
In the meantime, for the foreseeable future, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not appropriate for me to write outside of my cultural experience. The potential for doing harm is too high (well-meaning harm is the worst). I will contact the readers who have shared their stories (African-American women in STEM careers) and encourage them to write their own stories / offer to provide a platform to spread the word.
Diversity in all genres is important, obviously. Diversity of characters is critical, but remains secondary to the importance for diversity of creative professionals telling their own stories. Whether white people should write POC characters is unclear. The hypothesis is that I can write a faithfully legitimate, realistic African American woman and her experience. However, the risks posed by the null hypothesis are too great. I have to default to risk/benefit analysis. In this case, the maximum degree of good is eclipsed by the smallest potential for harm.
Plus, the simple fact remains, it’s not my story to tell. It’s not my cultural experience. Culture is not like a job. I do not appropriate from an architect when I write an architect character because architects aren’t marginalized by society by people like me.
For the record, none of my readers were upset with me about Sienna as a character. The comments I received stated that I did a good job with the character, but that I never should have told the story in the first place. Her story and experience were not my story to tell.