Understanding appropriation

In one of my English classes, we’ve been discussing the concept of appropriation. It’s a difficult idea for us to wrap our heads around. I’ve been talking about this topic with some of my roommates as well, because I think it’s important to understand. Here is my current understanding of appropriation:

Appropriation is when people take on voices that are not their own, for the purpose of sensationalism or to “see what it’s like.” As writers, we are always taking on the voices of other characters and writing (fictional) experiences that are not our own. How do we avoid appropriation? How do were distinguish appropriation from a desire to explore other viewpoints and represent diverse voices in our writing?

As far as I can tell, appropriation is a problem when you a) try to pass off another person’s experiences as your own, b) don’t distinguish properly between fiction and reality, or c) try to take on the voice of someone from a minority group of which you are not a part.

Appropriation seems to be the most problematic when someone from tries to co-opt anther person’s voice for a purpose that may not be compatible with that person’s values. Also, if you are writing from the perspective of someone in a minority group because you think this voice is “exotic,” you need to check your motivation. Don’t write about people because they are exotic, write about them because they are people.

Does this mean that writers can never write from the perspective of an underrepresented¬† group if they are not a part of this group? Not necessarily, but if you want to include this perspective in your writing, you need to be careful. You don’t want your character to be a cliche or a stereotype. Do your research.

Do you know people that are a part of this group? Ask them about their experiences; maybe even see if they would be willing to act as beta readers for you. If you feel as though real people might read your work and feel as though you’re misrepresenting their experience, perhaps this is a sign that you need to do more research.

I’m no expert on the subject of appropriation; these are just some thoughts I have on the subject. I’m writing from the perspective of a straight, white, woman: I can’t speak from any other. I hope to continue to improve my understanding of this topic, so if you have any knowledge or personal experience, please share it in the comments if you feel comfortable doing so.


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