Experience Appropriation: A Writer’s Responsibilities

Experience appropriation. This might be a new term to you as it’s not something that has been labeled for very long. However, like cultural appropriation it has been around for a very long time, just never acknowledged or given a name. Like cultural appropriation, it’s definition has been contested, typically by those accused of it. What is experience appropriation and why do we as writers need to be worried about it?

There are some experiences, that no matter how imaginative or sympathetic the writer, which cannot be related except by those who experience them. We can conjecture and empathize and try to image what certain experiences might be like. We can place ourselves as aliens, as robots, as people in dramatic situations that we have never faced, because the base emotions are the same.  We might even be able to sympathize, having faced a similar event.

However, there lies a pitfall in this; we are still limited by our own personal history, education, upbringing, outlook and emotional range. Certain occurrences are too nuanced to completely understand without personally living them and even then everyone’s experience will be different. This is where we have to be careful we are not appropriating someone else’s experience.

When we appropriate someone’s experience, we distance ourselves and our readers from the subtleties of that experience. We create a narrative where we, the majority, gain all the benefits yet suffer none of the consequences. We can end up implying that we somehow occupy the moral high ground; that we know the situation better or that we understand the person’s plight more than they themselves do.

When we write coming out stories, about growing up black or Latinx, or being physically disabled and we personally haven’t experienced such things, we are appropriating that experience. We cannot ever, no matter how much we research, understand the inherent emotional impact such things have on a person. Just like childbirth, it is something that can only be fully understood by going through it and each person’s experience will be different and some of us simply will never be able to understand it.

There also lies the stumbling block of using the narrative to make a point about the situation or character in question. It might not even be a consciously made point, but something that might be reflected in our upbringing and the culture we personally live in that makes us subconsciously include this aspect. If we are not careful we can perpetuate stereotypes and ideas that harm.

This doesn’t mean that a writer cannot or should not attempt to write what they don’t know. We should because this helps us grow and become even more open minded. However, there is a fine line between writing someone different from ourselves and appropriating an experience (this also applies to appropriating religious and cultural aspects). But how do we know when we’ve gone from being diverse and representative to appropriating someone’s experience?

The key word is experience.

Some experiences are universal. Pain, laughter, excitement. But some experiences, like physical disability, mental illness, being of another gender, sexual orientation, race or any discriminated minority are things that must be experienced to be fully comprehended. That doesn’t mean you cannot write about someone of another gender, sexual orientation or race. It does mean that there are certain things you need to do.

Research is a must.

Research is essential for writers. Perhaps you can imagine what being a child of a migrant farming family in the United States during the late Forties and early Fifties might have been like. You can do your research on the era, the lives of migrant farmers, how they lived, what challenges they faced. You can even talk to the children of migrant workers who grew up in the time period to gain a better, fuller understanding.

However, all the research in the world won’t help you understand the emotional impact certain things have; such as growing up transgender. This is when you have to step back and decide if the story is yours to write. To test whether research is enough you have to ask yourself a few questions.

  • Does my story focus on an aspect of this character’s life that I cannot fully understand through research?
  • Will research give me the insight I need to understand the basic emotions this character might feel in this situation, the unique challenges they face, or the overall complexity of the situation?
  • What is my true motivation for wanting to write this particular story?
  • Have I allowed assumptions to dictate the type of research I do so I can prove a point or make a statement?
  • Has my research showed me that this particular minority is vocal against the type of story I plan to write or that they wish to write this aspect of their lives themselves?

If we are honest with ourselves and answer these questions truthfully, even if they are painful, then we will know ourselves and our writing better. We will grow as writers and find our own stories to tell. We each have many fantastic stories to relate that don’t need to overshadow another writer’s voice. We can be inclusive and diverse without appropriation through honesty and research.

You must set aside assumptions.

We all bring our own ideas, morals and assumptions to our writing. It’s inevitable. This doesn’t mean our writing is bad, it simply means we need to know what assumptions we might make. When writing a migrant family it could be easy to assume their lives are lackluster and pitiful. We might fall into the trap of seeing them as dirty, starving and one step above begging. These assumptions are dangerous because they can send the message that all migrant farmers are dirty, pathetic beggars.

Or you might understand what it feels like to live out of a car you share with your parents and four other kids. Maybe you know what it feels like to have nothing to your name and not know where your next meal is coming from. This can give you some insight into their lives in a particular aspect, but some experiences are highly nuanced. Without having actually lived certain things you cannot wholly comprehend the lifelong effects such a life has on a person. Writing their experience while lacking this understanding simply exploits a minority’s suffering for our own benefit.

Even if we are part of the minority we are writing, we must remember that our experiences are not everyone’s experiences. A gay person growing up in San Francisco is going to have very different experiences than a gay person growing up in rural Missouri. Our personal experiences are just that, ours. We cannot assume that everyone who shares our orientation, gender or race shares our outlook or experiences. Location, upbringing and many other factors shape a person’s life. We must remember this when we write our characters. Don’t give into the idea of writing what you know. What you personally know might help, but it can also lead you to assume more than you should.

You will get things wrong.

As writers, we have the responsibility to do our research and present the truth of being human. Whether this is by shining a light on injustices through science fiction and fantasy or offering hope and emotional uplift in romance. But we are still limited by our own experiences and we are not infallible. We can fact check and have beta and sensitivity readers and we will still offend someone. That’s okay. It is inevitable and nothing to be worried over. Your job is to write the best book you can. Write it honestly, openly and respectfully. Even the smuttiest BDSM writer will benefit from being respectful to their characters.

Some writers might feel that this is limiting. That they should be allowed to write however and whatever they want. This is true to an extent, but let’s look at an example of how this can go wrong.

The commercially successful 50 Shades of Grey started out as the Twilight fan fiction Master of the Universe. Erika Leonard wrote about a ‘consensual’ BDSM relationship between a young woman and a billionaire. In it are moderately explicit depictions of sex and sexual practices that James claimed were BDSM. Unfortunately, they were thinly veiled abuse that leads many readers to believe that actually participating in BDSM is a mental illness. Other readers might have tried to emulate what they read; dangerous activities that could lead to injury and even death. It was Erika’s responsibility to her readers to have done her research on the BDSM community and portray the relationship respectfully. By not doing so she potentially harmed a great number of people and misled many more.

Most of us will never see even a modicum of the popularity of 50 Shades. This does not absolve us of our responsibility. If we want to call ourselves writers, then we must accept that we have an ethical responsibility to our readers. We must be honest, accurate and respectful. This is not difficult or even challenging. It just requires us to be self-aware and do our research.

If Erika had been a practicing member of the BDSM community she would never have made the assumptions she did. Even just doing her research and listening to her editors would have alleviated the majority of the errors. This is where humility as a writer comes into play.

We have to be humble enough to recognize that some stories just are not for us to tell no matter how much they speak to us. If we are white, straight, cisgender, neurotypical and able bodied we are in the majority and have the responsibility and ethical duty to show humility in what we choose to write and how we write it. We can add tremendous diversity to our writing without resorting to the appropriation of other’s experiences. We have to listen, show respect and be perceptive. Above all, we must strive to be accurate, honest and respectful in our writing no matter what we write.

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