Friday, May 29, 2015

The Rihanna Solution: Navigating Cultural Appropriation & Avoiding Tokenization in Writing

A few weeks ago was the Met Gala, an annual dinner/celebration/whatever-is-the-fancy-word-for-party hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

This year's theme was revealed in this prompt: "China: Through the Looking Glass will primarily examine how Eastward-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture in an exchange that [curator Andrew] Bolton likens to a complicated game of telephone."

And to the Gala, Rihanna wore this:

Source: Charles Sykes/AP and here.

Putting my love for Rihanna aside for a moment (ARGH, IT'S SO HARD!), this was the boldest statement from the Met Gala, and her message is something that we writers can use when we Write Inclusively. Let me explain.

The "We Need Diverse Books" campaign has been large, encompassing, and necessary. Agents and publishers are actively searching for diversity in their books. But as writers, that may be hard for us. I am of Indian decent: how can I have a main character that is East Asian, African American, a woman, because I don't *really* know how to portray them truthfully? (The funny thing is, we writers of color frequently write white main characters and don't realize the hypocrisy. White people are seen as individuals, while people of color are seen as representatives of their races - they must speak for the entire race, while white characters don't have to do that, making us scared to write characters of color even from our own race.)

But that doesn't mean we should automatically make our characters white, straight, able-bodied, cis-male, etc. That also doesn't mean that we have the same exact character we would have written, but we simply change their skin color. I wish it was that easy, but the Asian, African American, Native, Hispanic, etc. experience is different than the white experience, just as life is different for men, women, transmen, transwomen, and genderqueer people. This is why a simple 'Find and Replace' on skin color won't work.

If we want to Write Inclusively, if we are serious about "We Need Diverse Books," we cannot simply 'Find and Replace' because that erases the unique experiences of underrepresented peoples. The purpose of these campaigns is to represent unheard experiences and reveal them to a larger audience. That can't happen with 'Find and Replace'.

So how do we do this? Well, that's where The Rihanna Solution comes into play.

I'm going to copy-and-paste a whole section from this incredible article because it says everything I need to say. Please please read the full article!

(What's in brackets is what I've added.)

"How to honor a culture that's not yours: The first fundamental of correctly borrowing from another culture [Writing about a different experience than yours -SC] involves admitting your inspiration comes from somewhere else (something missing in the many cornrows incidents). But beyond that, the key is to either take minimal inspiration [...] rather than don a head-to-toe costume. [This happens when writers make their secondary characters people of color, queer people, people w/ disabilities, etc. and not their main characters. It borders on tokenization, but isn't the same. - SC]

Or, better yet, go straight to the source. [Emphasis, mine - SC]

"I found it online," Rihanna told Vanity Fair on Monday's red carpet. "I was researching Chinese couture on the Internet and I found it." 

Explaining the dress' provenance to the reporters, she added, "It's Chinese couture and it's made by Guo Pei. It's handmade by one Chinese woman and it took her two years to make." Pei, in fact, has two dresses displayed in the Costume Institute exhibit. Based in Beijing, Pei has been designing for over a quarter-century, dressing Chinese stars like Li Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi, according to Vanity Fair online.

In other words, Rihanna honored China by actually wearing a dress by a Chinese designer based in Beijing. 

As Native American fashion researcher and blogger Jessica R. Metcalfe previously discussed with Mic, the best way to honor a culture [or write about a different experience - SC] is working with designers of that culture [reading and researching articles, books, art, opinions, systems of oppression, etc. faced by those people and written by those people - for example, if you are writing about African Americans, do NOT rely on a book about Martin Luther King Jr. written by a non-black person - SC] . Buy from them, or if you're inclined to make your own look, collaborate with them.

And when in doubt, do as Rihanna did and go straight to the source: Google it."

The reason Rihanna's dress was such a big deal was because she was one of the only stars to wear a dress created by a Chinese designer to a Chinese-themed party. Some of the other clothing missed the mark completely: Sarah Jessica Parker, Justin Bieber, Chloe Sevigny. Most of the other celebrities chose to not wear anything Chinese or something minimally Chinese due to the same fears we writers have: we do not want to fall into cultural appropriation. We don't want to misrepresent a culture, and we are scared of the backlash we'd get of our honest intentions. (Read this article as well - it's great.)

So what do we do? We make our secondary characters people of color instead of the main character. With secondary characters, we can get away with not diving into their psyche. It's a form of tokenization of people of color, but we're scared to misrepresent them.

This fear shouldn't stop us. If we are serious about "We Need Diverse Books" and Write Inclusively, we have to deal with this fear and find a solution. We can't ignore the fear - misrepresenting a culture is arguably worse (but not by much) than ignoring the culture completely. The thing is: both are horrific.

Rihanna has given us the solution. Just as she donned a Chinese dress to a Chinese-themed party, if we are writing about, for example, queer people, we must 'don' ourselves in the literature, academia, arts, history, and present-day opinions of queer people. As the others stars learned: We cannot invite ourselves to a party for celebrating Chinese clothing, and then not wear Chinese clothing.

We must go straight to the source. Read books written by the people you are writing about. Read books about the topic you are writing about. Maybe the biggest thing: find crit partners that are of the same identity as the characters you are writing about (but make sure to be polite when asking, and don't expect them to be willing to read - these writers aren't there to beta read everyone's diverse manuscripts, hehe!). Be willing to drastically change your book if they tell you that you have fallen into cultural misrepresentation. You must defer to their experiences. Yes, defer! It is their stories you are telling, and they own their stories.

Writing Inclusively is serious work! But it's important work. It is seriously, seriously important work.

Rihanna is the best. I love her forever. Thank you Rihanna for showing us how it's done!

What are your fears about Writing Inclusively? How have you navigated these fears? We need to talk about these fears or else we won't be able to move forward. 

This post is part of the #WriteInclusively campaign. If you'd like to subscribe to a monthly newsletter which will help writers navigate these issues and write more inclusively, please subscribe! I don't spam :D



  1. I've been waiting for someone to handle this topic so well! Resources are a fingertip away. I once had a promising YA/Action novel full request rejected simply because I created a caricature of an Egyptian terrorist. I decided to write him "humorous." The agent enjoyed the MS, but rejected on my attempt to create a terrorist villain who didn't FIT the world's idea of a terrorist. I will re-write and re-submit one day, but I LOVED your take on this diverse novel concept. A TON of truth in it. Thanks!

  2. Sometimes, even when the character is created with his culture in mind, having only one white character can seem like a token character. This isn't always the case. It depends on the story and the character's role in it. An African-American friend of mine talks about this quite often. He wants to see more POC, but when the character is a part of a group and is the only POC character, he feels as though the writer threw the non-white audience a bone.

    I started writing a contemp YA loosely based on an experience from my adolescence. There were five of us; only one was black. The rest of us were white. (Also, three had severe physical disabilities and two had minor disabilities.) Since the book is inspired by real experiences and real people, I wasn't concerned about the authenticity. However, I was still concerned that having one POC character out of a group of five would feel like a token character (especially since all the characters are disabled), so I contacted my friend. (BTW, he's not just a reader, he's also a writer and a comic book publisher, so he knows a few things about what we as writers do.) He said with group dynamics, it doesn't matter if the POC is authentic because many will view him as a token character, so he suggested making one of the others non-white.