"Appropriation versus Diversity" Glossary

I’m teaching a workshop this weekend at Alternicon on Sunday entitled “Beating the Double Edged Sword: Appropriation versus Diversity.” I’ve previously taught it at both Wiscon and at Transcending Boundaries, so the context in which it has been offered has always been in a politically progressive space.
Workshop description: One of the adages fed to writing students everywhere is “write what you know.” But anyone who writes only about themselves is likely to be lacking in diversity and needing to represent under-represented voices/characters more. Write about anyone other than yourself, though, and you risk being accused of appropriation or cultural insensitivity of various kinds. How do you get around this double-edged sword? And how do you keep this struggle paralyzing you so you can’t write anything at all? Politically progressive, inclusive voices are too important to be silenced by fear! Come get empowered to tell the stories that need to be told.
I’m posting the glossary of terms I’m using in the workshop here so that people can find it in case I don’t bring enough handouts and also so commenters can criticize, tweak, or redefine anything I’ve got here that is off the mark. I know I can be blinded by my own privilege sometimes, so help me check it:
Glossary for Double Edged Sword: Cultural Appropriation and Diversity Workshop
presented by Cecilia Tan
Privilege: “the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.” (Merriam-Webster Online). In the political sense privilege refers not so much to wealth in terms of money, but in terms of social capital, and definitely refers to the power people have over other people. An example of privilege in action is say a group of people are debating something. When a woman makes a suggestion, it gets ignored by the group, but when a man makes the SAME suggestion, it’s suddenly listened to and considered more seriously by the group. Why? Male privilege.
Entitlement: The feeling that what you have (money, power, social capital, status, opportunity, advantage, etc) as a result of your privilege is your right. (It’s not: rights are not privileges.)
Cultural appropriation: “cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups–often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.” (https://racerelations.about.com/od/diversitymatters/fl/What-Is-Cultural-Appropriation-and-Why-Is-It-Wrong.htm) Make no mistake: cultural appropriation is harm.
(More after the cut…)

Note: Where cultural appropriation differs from cultural exchange is that it is a one-way transaction in which the more privileged party is taking from the less privileged group. If you’re accused of appropriation and your defense is that you’re just having an “exchange,” then you have failed to see your own privilege. Being blind to your own privilege and the inequality in the system is how people end up appropriating (and then trying to justify the appropriation).
“Check your privilege”: a phrase commonly used to try to give a clue. When someone says “check your privilege” they mean you’re stepping on the people below you in social capital and you may not realize it.
Other forms of harm stemming from unequal privilege: (besides appropriation)
sexism/misogyny, racism, ableism, classism
Diversity: a mixture of people/characters of different races, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, classes, etc. “The cast of Sleepy Hollow shows better racial diversity than most television shows.” “IBM was shown to lack diversity in management as over 95% of those occupying executive level positions were white males.”
“Representation matters”: The concept that seeing one’s own race, gender, or other non-dominant trait in role models, in movies, in book characters, etc. is healthy and helps to undo the inequalities of privilege, while failure to see one’s self represented in media/politics/spheres of power results in perpetuation of inequality.
“Bingo card”: When a person is accused of racism, appropriation, or any of the other harms listed above, their defenses (sometimes given in “apology”) tend to fall into such predictable categories and techniques that activists refer to them as a “bingo.” As in: “In her so-called apology for making racist statements, I think Ms. Jones got bingo, having tried all the following defenses: can’t you take a joke, you don’t understand my art, my art’s for a different audience not you, I’m a woman so I know what it’s like to be oppressed (and therefore I’m not oppressing you), I respect the culture I borrow from, and I have a black/Asian/whatever friend therefore I can’t be racist.”
Additions after the workshop and from suggestions of commenters here and on social media:
-I may add a list of the typical bingo card entries. On Tumblr I have seen various versions of actual bingo card graphics go by.
Cultural insensitivity: I’m adding this one to the list. For something to be appropriation, I truly believe the ones doing the appropriating have to be the group with more privilege. If the groups have equal privilege, though, that doesn’t mean that various forms of insulting, disrespectful, or hurtful cultural insensitivity can’t take place. And perhaps too often arguments over whether cultural appropriation is harmful are derailed into trying to define what cultural appropriation IS and whether it took place, rather than acknowledging that harm or insult took place.
“Lived experience”: this is a phrase that comes up often enough in conversations/arguments about privilege-based harm that I need to add it to this glossary. Here’s a primer on the term from Geek Feminism: https://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Lived_experience. “The term lived experience is used to describe the first-hand accounts and impressions of living as a member of a minority or oppressed group.”
I believe the key concept to grasp is that discussions of “lived experience” should acknowledge that what the more privileged my dismiss as “mere anecdotes” may in fact reveal systematic oppression when taken in total.
Misunderstanding this concept of lived experience leads to a logical fallacy on the part of the privileged, who argue their “lived experience” of an issue is as valid as any other. (Viz the typical ‘he said’/’she said’ situation where the less privileged says “this happens to me all the time” and the more privileged says “well I’ve never seen it/it never happens to me therefore doesn’t exist”.) The reason the more privileged point of view isn’t as valid IS BECAUSE their privilege has blinded them. (See the reactions to men to the #YesAllWomen hashtag as an example.) If you’re not a member of a less privileged group, your experience of oppression of that group is by definition not valid: men, of course you haven’t experienced misogyny the way women have; whites, of course you haven’t experienced anti-black racism, etc. So it’s important to realize the logical fallacy of trying to argue against the lived experience of others with your own.
Intersectionality: Someone asked me to add intersectionality to the list. Good call! The concept existed before, but in 1989 the term was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. Here’s the definition that came up when I typed “define intersectionality” into Google: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” From Geek Feminism: “Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.” (https://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Intersectionality)
Intersectionality acknowledges that, for example, the treatment of Marissa Alexander (a woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot when her husband was threatening to kill her, and whose conviction was overturned, but now Florida is seeking to put her away for 60 years instead of the original 20) by the legal system likely involves racism, sexism, and classism.
Intersectionality also acknowledges that if we’re going to fight one form of oppression (say, sexism), we need to take other forms of oppression into account (say, racism). So for example a piece of writing or art that isn’t sexist and portrays female characters well, but which is racist, isn’t considered a good thing by intersectional feminists. That would be a bit like a vegan praising a meal for not having animal products in it but ignoring that what’s on the plate is poisonous.
Anti-blackness: I’m adding this definition here, too. Anti-blackness is a form of racism that can be perpetuated against black people by people of any race or ethnicity, not just whites. It has its own specific term because many of the arguments about racism boil down to anti-blackness. Because too many people assume “racism” is the same thing as “whites oppressing blacks” another term had to be added to the analytical toolbox.
A person doesn’t have to be white to perpetuate anti-blackness. In fact, just like homophobia can be internalized and perpetuated by gay people, even black people can perpetuate and internalize anti-blackness. You will actually see people try to claim that they are not racist because, for example, they are not white, or they are supportive of non-black ethnicities. One shouldn’t have to point out the logical fallacy that 1) anyone can be racist, not just white people, and 2) that racism isn’t only about white versus non-white. The term anti-blackness is important because of how much conflation there is between the term “racism” and “whites versus blacks.”
Note on using the term “black” instead of “African American.” There are those who were taught it was more “politically correct” to never use the word black and to always use the term “African American.” The problem here is that “politically correct” is not the end goal, whereas real-world understanding is. Not everyone we are talking about is American. “African American” can only be used as a synonym for black or “of African descent” if the context is very specifically about people in the United States.
It may be frustrating to accept that language usage shifts and changes, and what is an acceptable term at one point ceases to be at a future point. However frustrating that may be, it’s a writer’s job to keep up with the times. If there is a term that is accepted by the privileged that is seen as harmful by the less privileged, STOP USING IT. Find out what term would be preferred. And if that term falls out of favor in 10 years because of the way usage has changed? Change again. Example: At one point “queer” was exclusively a slur. Queer activists such as myself fought to reclaim it in the early nineties. However, because the word is STILL used as a slur, it must sometimes be used with caution. When such a word is used by a person who is perceived to be a member of a more privileged group, it may be interpreted as a slur when no slur was meant. Check your privilege.
Also note that this is just the glossary for the workshop, not the workshop itself.
NOTE ON THE TERM “Colorblind”:
A Tumblr user asked me to add this note about how the term “colorblind” itself is an example of a term that is problematic. It’s problematic not only because of the concept usually being expressed by it (“I don’t even see race or skin color!” means You Have the Privilege to Ignore Race or Skin Color not that skin color doesn’t matter in the world), but because it’s ableist. (Comment from Tumblr user: “I just want to point out that saying one is “blind to” something is ableist (since it equates blindness with lack of insight or sensitivity.”) This leads to a note on ableist language overall:
Ableist Language
Ableism is a particularly pernicious form of privileged position, very difficult to see, especially in cultural contexts (most of them) where health/being able is equated with virtue. I am trying to root out ableist speech in my own expressions. Some examples: using the term “lame” to mean “lazy/a loser” (as in “My roommate was lame and didn’t pay the cable bill, so now our Internet’s out.”) For people who are actually lame–i.e. have impaired walking–this is equivalent to telling them over and over that they are no good or lazy, and may create the harmful impression that they ARE lazy. (Similar to teenage boys using the term “gay” to mean “bad.”) Many ableist usages go back a long time in English and many may have actually intended to include a negative value judgment in the meaning of the term: in modern language we should separate the negative value judgment from the usage and try to adopt less harmful usage. Ableism refers to both mental and physical conditions, so among the usages you’ll probably recognize immediately as harmful include not only “lame” but “retarded” (when used negatively as in “Your cousin’s so retarded. He just locked himself out of his car.”) There are many good lists out there of the current thinking on words to avoid or which usages to avoid. One good resource for this: the Is This Ableism blog on Tumblr. One resource there is a list of alternatives to use instead of words considered slurs (“crazy” “retarded” “lame” etc): https://isthisableism.tumblr.com/sluralternatives


  1. Useful, foundational material, and I understand why you posted it.
    I’m more interested in how to break that double-edged sword, because it’s something I often wrestle with.
    The way I’ve dealt with it so far is to mainly set my stories in places where race isn’t an issue, and don’t tell anyone what the character’s race is. They can imagine whatever race they want for the characters and the text won’t contradict them.

    1. It’s not just race, though, but also sexuality and gender representation. You’ve done a reasonable job with female characters from what I’ve seen, despite not being one yourself, Nobilis. It helps if you have people you can check with, friends or acquaintances who can beta-read and who will tell you if they feel like your privilege kept you from seeing harmful portrayals/weak writing.
      The main thing to keep in mind is that whenever a creator falls prey to appropriation/objectification/stereotyping/etc. that’s WEAK WRITING and so even with politics aside should be the goal of every writer to weed out of their own work.

  2. I really do think it’s a tough subject… I mean, in the end, there’s not even a real consensus on what cultural appropriation is. There are the obvious and clear-cut cases and then the myriad of ones where it isn’t.
    As a white non-American, for example, it often frustrates me when Americans call it appropriation when they go for the culture of a different country (rather than the culture of an American minority/group) because it implies power over the rest of us (including the entire world now lol) , because you can’t really be racist/appropriating without the power aspect.
    And then there is a difference between just really hating the way someone “appropriates” your culture and a real problem. For instance, as a German, I HATED The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I thought it was historically inaccurate to an insane degree and insulting to anybody who died in a concentration camp.
    But… as an Irishman, the author had no power over German history so he can take a stab at it as much as he likes and no matter how mad it makes me.
    Now, in my tv shows, I love diversity. In my writing it’s harder. As a bi-sexual with a history of mental illness and poverty, I am obviously way more comfortable introducing diversity in these aspects, but I will openly admit that the others scare me. I’m working on a diverse YA story, and yeah, the area of representation has sent me to doing more research than I ever have for anything! 🙂

    1. Very very tough subject, which is why it’s so important to have workshops about it.
      I should probably also add “cultural insensitivity” to the list. Sometimes maybe things aren’t appropriation but are still highly insulting or hurtful–however people will argue about whether or not appropriation took place instead of acknowledging harm.
      I didn’t used to believe in cultural appropriation myself. As a half-Asian/half-white, I especially was sensitive to how people could and would accuse me of appropriating Asian culture, and then would backpedal and fall all over themselves to apologize when they found out, oh, I had a quote-unquote “right” to do so (when really, did I? if so, which Asian cultures would I be entitled to, exactly?) I felt both positions were bullshit and exposed the bogus underpinnings of the idea. It was only later when I became more explicitly aware of my own privilege and began to accept the reality that real harm is done to people because of privilege-based insensitivities (cultural approp. being only one of them) that I began to see what was going on.
      Thanks for your comment. I’m adding “cultural insensitivity” as a blanket term above.

  3. I deal with these issues by completely ignoring them and writing about whatever I think is interesting and will interest my audience. When I first heard that people were worried about engaging in “cultural appropriation” I found it laughable. Now, after watching people get worried about it for a few years, I find it very laughable.

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