Scared? Representation vs. Cultural Appropriation
The last few days have been very frustrating for me.
Maybe it is the pull of the moon making me feel so off centered. Perhaps I am responding to the building national tensions in the U.S. Maybe I need to take a damn iron suppliment and do some selfcare.
Either way, there have been quite a few events in the last few days that have inspired me to take a long look at racial representation in fanfiction.
The spark that finally set off the brush pile building up within me, each stick representative of a casual racist comment – each as dry and tasteless as the last – was when I saw the following data from Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen on Twitter.
If this horrifying breakdown wasn’t enough for you, someone actually responded to this by saying:
“And if a white person were to write a book like that, you’d cryI will not be listing their name. This is about more than one person.
#CulturalAppropriation, right? Where then are the books meant to come from?”
This lovely person seems to be intentionally ignorant on the definition cultural appropriation and, perhaps even more alarmingly, seems to be living under the assumption that the statistics of authors who identify as races other than white cannot rise to take the place of the white authors who are currently dominating the field to obtain equal racial character representation (if we approach this with the understanding that this person is bringing to the table: that you can only write characters belonging to the same race as you. I’d personally be very interested to know what animal is writing 27% of our children’s’ books…).
Now boys, girls, and nonconforming pearls, we get to the point:
THE BOOKS ARE MEANT TO COME FROM ANYWHERE LINDA.
Ideally we would see a rise in racial representation among children’s book authors too, but as for the books themselves, they can be written by anyone who recognizes the importance of representation. Especially for the kiddos.
Most fanfiction is not something that a child would be interested in. No one wants to be read angsty Drarry before they go to sleep at night. Not even me.
However, the ideology behind the infamous comment is something that we, as fanfiction readers and writers, can address.
The difference between representation and cultural appropriation is incredibly important here. As a white author, I strive to ensure that my characters are diverse and not harmful to any groups. It is a complicated, scary road to walk, but I know that practice and collaboration will ensure that someday all stories will be naturally inclusive.
Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
It is hard to nail down what cultural appropriation is, exactly. Cultural exchanges are natural and have been happening since people dispersed enough to have distinct cultures. However, cultural appropriation can be very harmful, especially when the culture being appropriated is a minority group that has been oppressed or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
As fanfic writers and readers, we all understand the concept of plagiarism. Think of cultural appropriation like plagiarism: if you do not acknowledge the community that you are taking things from, you are gaining and giving nothing in return.
This is doubly important if you are privileged, and are able to use that to draw attention to a marginalized community in a positive way.
After taking the time to really learn and inform themselves, white authors of children’s books could use their power, influence, and privilege to share diverse stories and, by creating a place in their niche for these stories, plow the road for authors from within those communities to have a space to give voice to their own experiences.
I do not have a racial breakdown of fanfiction writers; it would be very helpful if I did. Certainly, a huge percentage of fanfiction features white characters and white main characters.
It is hard to say if this is because a majority of fanfiction writers identify as white and chose to feature white characters, or if it is the result of a mainstream society which, by and large, features white characters. Perhaps a combination of the two.
Roughly Three-Quarters of Film Actors Were White in 2014
SOURCE: USC ANNENBERG’S MDSC INITIATIVE
Want to read some more scary stuff? According to Maya Salam with the New York Times, researchers at USC found that of the top 100 films each year from 2007 to 2017 (that’s 1,100 films in total), representation of women, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. people and the disabled has remained overwhelmingly stagnant.
“Women have never accounted for more than 33 percent of speaking roles in a given year.”Maya Salam
In short, the representation we see in terms of freaking anything through Hollywood is abysmal. However, as I will state time and time again, fanfiction is about giving a voice to the voiceless and providing some really beautiful representation.
When mainstream media fails anyone, fanfiction is there to help.
It stands to reason then that fanfic writers need to do a better job at including/identifying marginalized people in their stories.
I am guilty of this too.
After just ripping into J.K. Rowling last week for having a gay character in seven books and never indicating that he was gay, I’ve been doing some uncool shit also.
Oh hypocrisy, thou art mine only friend.
My upcoming novel, A Sherlock Holmes Tale of Deep Dark Intrigue (Also Murder) features a black John Watson. He is not the only attempt at inclusive representation I have in the book, however I have released not one, but two fanfics so far that include these characters, and I have made no mention of John Watson’s race.
This is problematic because then the representation that I am seeking exists only in my head *cough* Rowling *cough*.
Due to the original books, and almost every adaptation after, my readers will be assuming that Watson is white.
So it is easy, you see, for even good intentions to fail miserably when it comes to representation.
I am going to take a few steps back and examine how I can do a better job at this. Perhaps read some articles on how to write diverse characters well (I will share any good ones I find over social media if you want to explore this with me).
Looking back at the original graphic, the one that shows that just 23% of children’s books are written about characters who identify as American Indian/First Nations, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, African/African American, I hope we can all identify the same troublesome statistics running throughout the fanfiction world.
This is a problem because fanfiction is the haven that people turn to when the larger society fails them. It is a place for everyone to feel welcome and, in order to achieve that, everyone needs to be represented.
I think it is to easy for writers to fall back on what’s always been done. What we know. There are no shortage of tales of white experiences out there. We got it. Yet so many stories seem to feature a mostly white cast almost on default.
To combat this, I spend a lot of time with my stories planning ways to make it inclusive and broadly representative.
I would be very interested to hear how you think we can increase representation in fanfiction. Please share in the comments below.
Call to Action:
We all need to be discussing this issue in order to create lasting change. There are so many individuals in the fanfiction universe, each with unique approaches and ideas. Only together can we be impactful.
Please share your thoughts below. We can tackle this problem.
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