Cultural Appropriation or Misappropriation?

Can a white woman convincingly write from a black woman’s perspective? And if so, should she?

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I ponder an idea I have for a book in my Dancing through Life Series. The series is about women trying to find balance in their life, finding ways to not just survive but to thrive; to not just get back up after being knocked down, but to get up and dance.

The first book of the series, Dancing on a High Wire, has three main female characters, each of whom has been knocked off balance by life circumstances. When I first envisioned this book, I had wanted to make one of the characters black, but decided against this because I didn’t have enough experience to write this character at the time. So I ended up with three white women.

As the series progressed, I didn’t want it to remain lily white. That’s simply not reality. Our American culture is becoming and more diverse and I wanted the characters in my books to reflect that diversity.

I took a minor character, made her black and started to increase her role in the novels. In my most recent novel, I sent her off to New York to dance with Alvin Ailey II, a racially diverse dance troupe, though primarily black. My plan is to eventually bring her back to Michigan and give her her own book.

I like this character and think she has a story to tell. I know it will take a good deal of research on my part to tell this story and I will need help from black men and women to get it right. My problem is that, I find myself asking – Is this my story to tell? It’s a story worth telling, but am I the right one to tell it?

I recently attended an evening workshop sponsored by the Capitol City Writers’ Association (CCWA) on the use of empathy in order to write effectively outside your own experience. The subject of cultural appropriation came up. Do we restrict ourselves to our own race when writing, which would result in a limited viewpoint, or do we write characters from different racial, ethnic, religious backgrounds and risk offending those groups? Is it right for a white person to write a book with a black main character or is it better to encourage black writers and leave that to them?

I’m not sure what the answer is.

One woman from a mixed racial background said to focus on the human development of the story, writing all characters as humans first, race and background second. The presenter suggested that you ask what audience you are addressing. In her book there are a number of black characters, as well as white characters. However she was writing for a white audience, to help them recognize the insidiousness of racism and how easy it is to not recognize it when you are white.

Another consideration was whether you were the person to write this. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written about blacks by a white woman. The same book, written by a black author back then, probably would not have been published.

These are all things to consider. I’m far from being ready to write this book. I haven’t reached the point of actively researching the book. I expect that as I get closer to being ready to begin researching, it will become clearer what I need to do. Perhaps there are creative alternatives?

What are your thoughts? Is it all right for a white woman to write a book where the main character is black? Or is that better left to the many talented black women authors out there?

For an interesting article on cultural appropriation click here.

This post was first published at

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