What is cultural appropriation? Well, it’s a complex and contentious subject, to the extent that we were supplied with a reading list in advance. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation may be perceived as controversial or harmful, notably when the cultural property of a minority group is used by members of the dominant culture without the consent of the members of the originating culture.
You’ll be able to see immediately that this touches on a whole range of hot-button topics, including racism, diversity and authorial freedom – all of which were covered in detail during the session. Documenting it presents me with a challenge, because the session was conducted within what Candy Gourlay calls “the cone of silence,” more commonly known as the Chatham House Rule:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
As such, I’ve avoided giving any sensitive or personally identifiable information in this article, except in cases where permission was explicitly given. Terminology is also vitally important to any discussion about publishing and race – to avoid confusion or misrepresentation, I’ve used the following terms throughout:
- BAME - someone of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic heritage, including someone of mixed race
- Disabled - someone with a physical or mental condition that limits their movements, senses, or activities
- White - someone of Caucasian heritage
OK, after that long preamble, let’s get back to the event! Everyone had been furiously discussing the themes of the evening even as people were still arriving. But then, the hubbub in the room died down and the evening’s hosts Mo O’Hara and Candy Gourlay introduced the panel.
From left to right:
- Alexandra Strick – co-founder of Inclusive Minds
- Patrice Lawrence – author of Costa-nominated Orangeboy
- Leila Rasheed – author and creator of the Megaphone scheme for mentoring BAME authors
- Tanya Landman – Carnegie-medal-winning author of Buffalo Soldier
Being that this was a SCBWI Pulse event, the panel was not the whole story, as everyone was encouraged to contribute. The audience was packed with interested and engaged parties, including authors such as Guardian children’s fiction prize-winner Alex Wheatle, Carnegie-nominated Catherine Johnson and Emma Shevah. In a bid to soothe any conflicts before they began, the current speaker was indicated by passing around a stuffed toy dubbed “The Panda of Peace”. Because who could be angry when they’re holding a cuddly panda?
The Panda of Peace. Photo Credit: Candy Gourlay
The event began with introductions from the panel, and Alexandra Strick took the opportunity to introduce Inclusive Minds, a group campaigning for inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children's literature. Rather than being a defined industry body, Inclusive Minds is a collective of like-minded people that anyone can join. They hold regular events and have also created an inclusivity charter that publishers can sign up to.
Silence in the room as panel members speak. Photo Credit: Candy Gourlay
To start the conversation off, event organisers Candy Gourlay and Mo O’Hara read an extract from a speech made by author Lionel Shriver in Australia in 2016. The speech was prompted, in part, by a Latina student’s essay which detailed her offence at non-Latinos at a college party who were wearing sombreros.
”I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin. When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didn’t hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grown up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous.”
The speech caused a storm of publicity, with white and BAME writers weighing in on both sides of the debate, often with strongly polarised opinions. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a BAME member of Lionel’s audience, walked out of the speech and then wrote an article for The Guardian about the experience.
Members of the panel at the cultural appropriation event felt that the impact of the speech was overwhelmingly negative. Rather than prompting a discussion about racism and privilege, the speech had caused other white writers to become extremely defensive, leading to a closing of doors that had started to open for BAME writers. A panel member challenged Shriver’s implication that being anxious when writing about other cultures was a negative thing, saying: “If you are a good writer, you want to be anxious, you want to be nervous.”
The audience agreed, with Anna McQuinn actively annoyed by Shriver’s self-adopted role as a figurehead for white writers:
”I read that speech and I thought, oh f**k it, that’s what other people will think we think!”
An audience member objected to the impression that Shriver gave of bringing in black people just to “add some colour” (pun intended) to her books. Another cited the contrasting example of Eminem, whose upbringing was so rooted in black culture that he couldn’t be accused of cultural tourism. “When you immerse yourself in a culture, you’re not appropriating it.”
The concept of the “cultural sensitivity reader” was introduced into the discussion. Authors and publishers are making increasing use of these freelance readers from various minority groups, who are able to read a work-in-progress and comment on any unconscious biases, misconceptions or mistakes that the writer has introduced. You can read a lot more about sensitivity readers in this Slate article. That article also introduces the idea of “own voices,” a concept used to describe literature that is both about and produced by members of BAME groups. As a type of affirmative action, some US publishers are now prioritising own voices when acquiring stories about diverse cultures.
The second question for the panel tackled the subject of white privilege. A quote from the White Privilege Conference in Kansas was read out:
Examples of white privilege - being able to:
- assume that most of the people you or your children study in history classes and textbooks will be of the same race, gender, or sexual orientation as you are
- assume that your failures will not be attributed to your race, or your gender
- not have to think about your race, or your gender, or your sexual orientation, or disabilities, on a daily basis
The mission statement from the Reading While White blog was also read out.
Attendees were pointed towards the article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," which examines the unquestioned assumptions that white people carry around with them every day.
The panel discussed the difficulties of getting to grips with the unconscious nature of white privilege and how it had affected the kind of stories they wanted to tell. In one case, the very presence of white bias in existing narratives had been a spur for trying to tell the story from the honest perspective of BAME characters.
One of the panel members drew an analogy with a hotel stay they had experienced, where the room seemed to be laid out in a bizarre way. They eventually realised that it was a special accessible room, and this gave them an unexpected insight into how disabled people must feel constantly living in an able-bodied world.
Alex Wheatle, winner of the Guardian Prize with the Panda of Peace. Photo Credit: Candy Gourlay
The discussion moved on to publishers and retailers, and their part in the diversity debate. As there were representatives from both publishing and retailing in the audience, this was the point that the discussion became more heated. An audience member bemoaned the fact that publishers seemed to have a finite number of issue-led “slots” for diverse books, and that these were sometimes being filled by white authors, drowning out own voices. A publisher, in turn, blamed this quota system on retailers, who refuse to take more than a certain number of books on a particular subject. Then a retailer piped up, describing the number of diverse children’s books published in the UK as “pitiful,” resulting in their shop needing to import a great many titles from the US.
An audience member added that, for the larger retail chains, the commercial relationship is tipped in the retailer’s favour. A publisher will often be dealing with single buyer for the whole chain, and that buyer is generally a white person.
A further discussion ensued about book cover images. Mo O’Hara (who has a BAME character in her Zombie Goldfish series) talked about an American child who had sent her an informal survey of book covers at his school book fair. He had found that a tiny proportion of those books pictured a BAME character on the cover.
An audience member brought up an economic argument they had heard publishers make, that books are harder to sell in certain countries if they feature non-white characters on the cover. Patrice Lawrence took a different track – although her novel Orangeboy has plot elements about gang culture, she didn’t want the cover to be a stereotyped black teenager in a gang pose. So she pushed for a much more universal design.
Orangeboy cover (designed by Michelle Rochford)
The lack of visible representation of BAME people – both on the front cover and within the pages of children’s books – was seen by audience members as a tangible barrier to increasing diversity within the publishing world. It was felt that every child needs to be able to find themselves in a book, in order to build the next generation of diverse readers, writers and publishers.
The debate had been so vigorous that there was barely time to sum up before we ran out of time. The organisers read a quote by African American teen author Lamar Giles:
Dude, seriously, that’s not me telling another writer to appropriate someone’s culture, especially mine. That’s the same advice I’d give someone writing about engineering, or cooking with truffles, or Minecraft. What I’m saying is if you’re going to do it, don’t be lazy. That’s a far cry from, “Here, take my life.”
Candy Gourlay followed by asking the room to consider what could we do next. Said one author: “Don’t write about what you know, write about what you don’t understand.” Another person added: “You’re allowed to write anything you want to, but so is everyone else. Don’t confuse criticism with censorship.” A BAME attendee confirmed that BAME writers feel as much pressure to get their story right as white authors do.
Candy Gourlay summed the event up later on Facebook as follows:
“We live in a world in the grip of a dominant culture and there is a burning need to allow other voices to be heard. The activism around Cultural Appropriation emerges from the smothering of these voices. But fiction by definition is cultural appropriation, as authors, our responsibility is to do our job with empathy and research. We also have to accept that for now, such narratives might not have access to some world markets because ... well, the world sucks. All we can do is create the best books we can, because surely that will help the world suck less.”
As everyone mingled after the event, I was struck by the wide ethnic mix of the attendees, and the encouraging fact that this Pulse event was a microcosm of the publishing diversity we strive for. But as I looked around the room, I noticed only two people (including myself) from the demographic group most often accused of institutional privilege: white men. For sure, we need to talk about cultural appropriation, diversity and inclusivity in children’s literature. But how do we make sure the right people are listening?
Nick is Blog Network Editor for Words & Pictures and also blogs for Notes from the Slushpile. His most recent post finds him Living in the Past.
A M Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, she manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to report back on an event.