They pretend to be us while pretending we don’t exist*: on cultural appropriation, representation, and authorship

(This is a long version of an article that was printed in Edition 6, 2016, Lot’s Wife.)

(*The title of my piece is indebted to Jenny Zhang’s brilliant essay. Go read it.)

‘white people create the dominant images of the world and don’t quite see that they thus construct the world in their own image’

Richard Dyer, ‘The Matter of Whiteness’


the teacher reads snow white

the teacher reads snow white

the teacher reads snow white

in our fairy tales

my daughter will scar herself

with household bleach tonight

crying mirror mirror on the wall

erase this face as black as night

Maxine Beneba Clarke,

Melbourne Writers Festival, Opening Night Address, 26th August, 2016

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad …

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.

It can be dangerous these days to go the diversity route. Especially since there seems to be a consensus on the notion that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.”

What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.

Lionel Shriver,

Brisbane Writers Festival, Opening Night Address, 11th September, 2016

I’m tired by this. I’m exhausted. I have nothing new to say that many others haven’t already said before me.

By the time this article reaches you, this controversy will most likely be yesterday’s news, yet the debate at the centre of it remains as pertinent as ever.

Don’t know what I am talking about?

This year, Lionel Shriver was invited to give the opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Shriver, always the one to bait controversy, went against the Festival’s rosy-bland theme of ‘Community and Belonging’ to deliver an incendiary keynote address on ‘identity politics’ and ‘cultural appropriation’. Many people walked out during her speech, including Yassmin Abdel-Magrid, who—in a blog post that went viral and was subsequently published on the Guardian—described it as ‘a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.’ Countless think pieces have sprouted up in response.

In writing this, I’m in danger of adding noise to an already deafening room.

However, the spectacle surrounding Lionel Shriver’s inflammatory speech has tapped into an issue that is raging at the heart of our collective consciousness.

For Shriver, the primary injustice of our literary culture isn’t the erasure, the silencing, and the marginalization of ‘minority or disadvantaged identities’ (her words, not mine), but the militant climate of ‘political correctness’ that a privileged, widely-published and internationally-celebrated white writer like her faces. She uses her platform to bemoan the push toward inclusive representation, stating how the presence of transgender and queer characters in TV shows such as Transparent and Orange as the New Black is just another ‘fashionable exercise’ in tokenism. She complains that: ‘we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.’ She takes shots at the criticism levelled against her depiction of  black and mexican characters in her new novel: ‘If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply.’ But most of all, she ridicules the ‘hoo-ha’ surrounding issues of ‘cultural appropriation’ in art and fiction, namely, when a white writer speaks for, and writes in the perspective of, a person of colour.

Underneath all her misplaced racial ignorance and self-importance, there lies a genuine question—are there limits to an artist’s imagination? How do writers create and relate to stories outside their own experience and identities, particularly when they are positioned in a place of power and privilege? How do we represent other lives? These are all pertinent questions to ask. However, Lionel erases all nuance to the discussion when she immediately attacks from the defensive, and mocks the legitimate critiques that people have raised.

Let’s take a recent example from Monash University. Earlier this year, The Monash University Student Theatre put on a show that involved, among other things, a white student dressing up and performing as his Chinese alter-ego. Many in the Monash W*omen of Colour Collective felt this to be a prime example of yellowface, another incident in the long history of white people performing as Asian stereotypes (See: Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). When we contacted MUST, MUST responding accordingly:

We apologize that this performance caused you distress. 

This Chinese persona was not intended as a caricature of Chinese people.

In the context of rampant racism, discrimination and atrocities committed against coloured people internationally and in Australia, maybe a white person portraying an Asian person is simply inappropriate and too painful? But, I worry that this blanket stance may also lose us stories. (Emphasis my own)

Not the dichotomy: ‘loss of stories’ is deemed more important than the ongoing structural disenfranchisement that people of colour face.

To give the benefit of doubt, let’s say that this performance was intended as a sincere homage to Chinese people and Chinese culture, etcetera etcetera. However, the idea that you can put on an ethnic or racial identity as a costume is inherently offensive, and to do so has echoes of the racist tradition of minstrel shows. While this may not have been the artist’s intention, cultural products are not created in a vacuum.

The structure of our contemporary world order is built upon the foundation of Western imperialism and Western hegemony. This fact should resonate all the more in Australia as, in this country, sovereignty has never been ceded, and the structural damage indigenous communities face from settler colonialism is ongoing.

Cultural appropriation or cultural ‘ventriloquism ‘ is a form of cultural imperialism, the means by which a dominant culture affirms its supremacy and strength, and goes in tandem with economic, military, and political relations of power. It is not a neutral act, but deeply embedded in longstanding imperial legacies and practices. When people in positions of privilege take and use elements of a culture over which they dominate, they fall into the trap of misrepresenting these cultures, reproducing reductive stereotypes and caricatures, and contributing to a culture which fetishizes, commodifies, and exploits ‘exoticness’.

A common argument against ‘cultural appropriation’ is what I call the ‘reverse racism’ defence, one which Shriver readily employs. In a follow up interview, Shriver says: ‘I don’t see why this cultural appropriation thing is only one way. Can’t we say, Oh, you can’t use English because that’s not your first language – English belongs to us, so you can’t have it?’  Well, no, Lionel, you can’t say that, because assimilation is not appropriation. In many places around the globe, English is the language of imperialism. English is the language of the invaders. English is the language of power. There is a reason why this continent, once home to over 250 distinct indigenous languages, now only has approximately 60 remaining indigenous languages in use today.

In our postcolonial age, characterized by globalization, increased movement, migration, and the redrawing of borders, diasporatic communities—who often have made a new life in the West from formerly colonized lands—must necessarily assimilate and adopt the culture of their new home to survive. We migrants, too, are often implicated in the legal and colonial fictions on which national identity is founded; in Australia, we also carry the burden of lateral violence toward First Nation peoples.

Indeed, the  indigenous writer Karen Wyld reflects:

‘This single incident at a writers’ festival was given a lot of media coverage. The (very valid) feelings of a diverse range of people who feel marginalized was given more media coverage, and the incident incited more public outrage, than the death of an Aboriginal boy [Elijah Doughty]. Feelings of writers are obviously of more public interest than the tragic loss of life.’

Lionel Shriver champions the idea that ‘fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s right to offend others.’ She utilizes the common trope of ‘political correctness’ as a form of totalitarian censorship, eroding her inalienable right to freedom of expression and speech. As Junot Diaz remarked: ‘note the contradiction: Shriver’s right to appropriate should not be questioned, by our right to question that appropriation should be condemned.’ Shriver sees herself as an outlier, an ‘iconoclast’, defending an unpopular opinion in the face of righteous moral indignation; but in essence, Shriver hasn’t said anything that we haven’t heard countless times before. A cursory glance at the comments section will show than many, if not most, share her views. Lionel Shriver isn’t in danger of being silenced – her speech has garnered a blizzard of attention, and is circulating with immense traction. Lionel isn’t speaking from the margins; she’s pontificating from the seat of power.

Coverage of Shriver’s Speech has eclipsed that of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s powerful Opening Night Address at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s speech was an ode to ‘the unsung narratives, the stories ignored, the stories beneath our feet, the worlds often absent from our national literature.’

Maxine Beneba Clarke affirmed how integral narratives and stories are to one’s world view and self-perception: ‘Story is how we say: ‘We were here.’ ‘We existed.’ ‘This is how it was. … When you receive someone’s words, a part of their story—a part of them—lodges itself inside of you.’

She asks: ‘What do we seek story for, if not to encounter worlds different from our own, as well as interrogate the one we exist in?’

She draws attention to the fact that non-white children grow up in a culture where, in the stories and narratives they receive, they don’t see themselves reflected: ‘some Australian children learn very quickly that literature is a landscape they do not belong in, that books render them invisible,  that their stories are not important … We short change an entire generation of children when our offerings are narrow, not just in their reading choices, but in their ability to appreciate and engage with lives beyond their own, in their understanding of the world, of themselves, of this country. When we could so easily show every child the world as well as the mirror, it is a sabotage of their entire being not to.

Like Richard Flanagan’s keynote speech at MWF, ‘Does Writing Matter?’, Maxine Beneba Clarke affirms that ‘there are some indignities we need a record of.’ She declares that at heart, she is an idealist: ‘I write to make sense of the world. I write because of legacy and responsibility, as well as striving for beauty. I write for change and interrogation.’ She believes that storytelling can bring light to ‘the darkness out teetering on the edge of what we can bear.’

Two festivals, two incommensurable opening night addresses.

(if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves – Junot Diaz)

As a first generation migrant, I can attest to this experience. Although as a child I was an avid reader and consumer of literature, in the fictional universes I encountered, I discovered that, bar one or two exceptions, I didn’t exist. On television, in films, in music, in all the media I was surrounded in; I didn’t exist.

Unknowingly, one internalizes this erasure, this absence, this reduction. Its influence is invisible and insidious.

It wasn’t until University that I discovered a term for this exists: symbolic annihilation.

Symbolic annihilation encompasses two things: firstly, it’s not seeing yourself represented in culture; secondly, it’s only seeing yourself being denigrated, reduced, eroded, infantilized; in essence, only seeing yourself through someone else’s terms.

In my five years studying Literature at this tertiary institution, I can count the number of texts I have studied, written by a person-of-colour, on my fingers.

The ‘Academy’ is overwhelmingly white. The culture industry is overwhelmingly white. Stories are uniformly depicted from a white perspective. Racialized images are uniformly created from a white perspective.

(If the producers of racial imagery do not interrogate their perspective, then they may simply recreate the imperial gaze—the look that seeks to dominate, subjugate, and colonize.’  bell hooks)

Yes, I believe that writers can and should step outside their own experience and inhabit other people’s skin. Fiction can be a place of radical identification and radical empathy.


Co-opting someone else’s voice is an act of violence. Putting on someone else’s skin is an act of violence.

As an artist, you can choose to engage in that violence. But don’t suggest that this act is without cost.

Own it. Own that violence.

Understand that you are implicating yourself in a colonial and imperial tradition.

Know that narratives, that words, that language itself — they are not neutral, not innocent.

Know that culture cannot be divorced from the material conditions of the world we live in. Know that stories come with histories.

More than anything, be conscious and critical of the culture you consume.

Follow Up Essays:

What are White Writers For?

View story at


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