Diversity, Micro-Aggression and Cultural Appropriation

One of the main themes of the recent SCBWI conference I attended was diversity in children’s literature (or rather its lack thereof!). Even though all the sessions I attended were directed towards children and YA authors, the key issues and concerns are  applicable across genres and age groups – namely how to incorporate diversity in the books we write, and how to do so in an appropriate way (that is, in ways that avoid cultural appropriation as well as what the editors termed ‘micro-aggressions’ in the books we write).

I hadn’t heard the term ‘micro-agression’ before when it came to books but the term is really about the cliches, characterizations or expressions writers can fall into (often without thinking) that perpetuate cultural stereotypes. In one of the first-page sessions the editors pointed out some of these ‘micro-aggressions’ in phrases such as sitting ‘Indian style’ and ‘Indian giver’. I’m sure in both these instances the author used these unwittingly rather than maliciously but the editors were quick to point out that, in an industry increasingly concerned about the lack of diversity in the books they publish, authors need to be especially mindful of how they incorporate diversity in their books and avoid using terms, phrases or characters that perpetuate stereotypes or inflict ‘micro aggression’ against particular cultures.

In another session I attended there was a great discussion about the issues writers face when writing about cultures or characters different to their own. The key take home message? If you write cross-culturally you MUST do your research! This includes having beta-readers from that culture to ensure that the kinds of ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations that the editors identified, did not occur.  I wholeheartedly support an increase in diversity, particularly in children’s literature, and acknowledge that writers, when tackling cross-cultural issues, must do their research to ensure that they approach the issue in an appropriate and sensitive way. I must confess, however, that after this session, given the sensitivity and complexity of the discussion, I felt more rather than less reluctant when it came to writing cross-culturally. That isn’t to say I don’t feel strongly that I should have the freedom to write whatever I chose to write about without any gender, racial or cultural constraints but, after the discussion, I did feel like the issue was more fraught than I had realized (or rather, I clearly hadn’t thought through the issues enough).

So TKZers what do you think? How do you approach the issue of diversity? Do you endeavor to write cross-culturally and if so, how do you navigate the issues raised when doing so? Do you see  ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations in the books you read?

29 thoughts on “Diversity, Micro-Aggression and Cultural Appropriation

  1. Marla, my hairdresser sleuth, has a dark-skinned stylist working with her in her salon. Other than using the word “girlfriend” in this person’s dialogue, I don’t treat her any differently. She’s a confidante of Marla’s, has boyfriend problems, and works at her job like anyone else. I’d rather focus on our similarities than differences and hope this keeps me from getting into trouble. Otherwise, I rely on my critique group to point out any cliches I’m using for ethnic groups.

  2. I write historical so in one sense there is by nature more cultural conflicts (ie. a soldier charged with protecting western settlers isn’t going to spend time being politically correct and say they’re there to get rid of Native Americans.)

    However, even with historicals, the gist of this suggestion is still applicable. In a novel I’m brainstorming right now, it requires a half a dozen characters on a team. One, for example, is Irish, but I don’t want to settle for the typical Irish cliches limited to dialect and potatoes. I want a genuine 3D Irish guy who, while familiar, will surprise the reader too because he’s fresh.

    • As a writer of historicals I too have to deal with a lot of conflicts that in today’s terms would be very politically incorrect (I had the father of my main protagonist believe in Eugenics for example) but I do think the research can guide you and as long as you are true to the time period you have to write what was the situation then. As far as characters go though I agree you need to avoid the cliches and make every character as 3D as possible.

  3. I try to include a bit of diversity in my books, but most of what happens on the page is “work-related” and it’s more about doing their jobs than having them do their jobs differently because of whatever ethnic group they belong to. Were I to feature one of these characters in a more family-oriented or social setting, where their customs and cultural differences would show, I would want to run those scenes by someone with a little more ‘first-hand’ experience.

    I’m also wondering how far our society has gone in trying to be PC. My daughter is an FSU grad, and when there was talk of changing their football team away from the Seminoles, the Seminole Nation intervened and said, “Hey, it’s OK with us.” I went back to my 50th high school reunion and found out that our team, the Warriors, was now the Panthers.

  4. This term “micro-aggression” has been popping up a lot lately. The college putting out the term is trying to say that PC (politically correct) is NOT and that it too is a micro-aggression. I think that many terms being labeled as “micro-aggression” are terms no one would naturally think of as PC or M-A really because they been inherent in our language and culture for so long that they just are. Like like sitting “Indian style” (so is sitting “yoga style” a micro-aggression now too?) is vividly descriptive, not slanderous. The pendulum is swinging from one end to the other. Things are sort of nuts in some areas right now, like gender-neutrality (this has been going on for a few years now): going from he, to h/she, right back to “you-all” . Oh, sorry, that’s now a micro-aggression against southern people which is probably also micro-aggression against people of a more southerly positioned, living in the USA, perhaps below Ohio, and meaning more easterly and southerly, rather than southwesterly, or mid-lower, nationy. We are going to “PC”- aggression our ourselves into a straight-jacket with duct-tape over our mouths of epic (& probably ironic – eventually) proportions. (Heaven help me if I go back to Portugal and have to try to handle it as gender neutral. Masculine and feminine, as a description, is tied to 3/4 of the language and it’s not just referring to people.)

    If you look, you’ll find that “micro-aggression” (as well as what is or is not PC) varies, by culture, country, and from person to person. To an Indian (Yes many of America’s First Peoples prefer to be called Indians rather than “Native Americans” – take that PC! Or they would rather still be referred to by their nation – Ute, Cheyenne, Apache, or some would rather just be referred to Americans or people.) the term “Indian Giver” might still be very relevant – often what we gave, as a country, we took away from them. The term has changed/lost meaning over time so is it a “micro-aggression”? If so who is it for or against and is calling it a micro-aggression the only thing really causing aggression?

    Yes, we need to do our research. Yes, we need to be appropriately sensitive, when needed, and consider how best to present our case. However… story is part art, part life, and part magic – if we do something really right. Stories set in certain time periods or places are going to have to properly reflect the language and leanings of that place and time. Stories are going to and should reflect the nature of what is being told. By its very nature, a story will show the environment and time that an author wrote in, as well as some of the author’s leanings – this is to be expected. Stories are art – they show us the good, the bad, and the potentially awesome that we have in us. Can you imagine Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huck Finn (which people have been trying to censure for the last few years), Last of the Mohicans, or To Kill a Mockingbird – PC’d or especially micro-de-gressioned out? There would be no story, no understanding, no magic, no cultural or life-changing shifts, etc. We would be whitewashing (oops, I did it again) everything down to just dull, dirty, throw-away-able water. Lost would be not only a glimpse of the culture, people, and time of those books, but valuable lessons, from things that couldn’t or wouldn’t have been otherwise discussed. Subjects and attitudes were broached and brought out into the light. Good stories don’t just take people away like a Calgon bath, they give people the opportunity to walk in another’s place – to see, hear, feel, and know another person and their tale.

    The only reason PC & micro-aggression really exist is because we’ve become a culture that delights in being offended. We love to be offended, so we have to give ourselves something to be offended about. We have to take great pains to point out how different we are from each other, get offended when someone points it out, and then scream about how awesome it is to be different, so we can go on being offended some more. It’s a very vicious circle. I think good story shows us how we are more alike than we might sometimes even want to know or believe. Story shows us how we’re all human and part of the human story.

    We have to be brave. We have to be willing to write the stories in our hearts and minds, we have to continue to speak the unspoken or even the ill-considered for those who need a voice. We need to reflect back to society as a mirror, that they may look to see both the beauty and bad. Even if we get it “wrong” sometimes, that can be just as valuable for discussion, or reflection. A straightjacket with duct tape isn’t freedom, it is imprisonment and a place I don’t want to live. I want to be part of the human experience with the mud, the moon, the stars, the rain, and the adventure!

    I guess micro-aggression isn’t so micro after all. It made me macro-aggressive! 😀 I feel better now, really. I think I’ll go grab some Monday morning caffeine and go chat with the rest of the regular Joe’s at the water cooler. Don’t stop writing!

  5. Times have certainly changed, and as writers we need to reflect a fresh perspective on diversity and respect within our core narrative. Within characterization, however, I believe it is still appropriate to shade and impart nuance to our characters, within the context of who they are, that do in fact reflect their own micro-aggression and prejudices. Or if not that, then simply their ignorance.

    It’s like swearing. Certain characters swear. But we pick and choose our spots. Narrators need to be more careful, both on that count, and the language of diversity. Well done, Clare, thank you.

    • Agreed and I don’t think the concern over diversity means that we avoid capturing the prejudices of our characters or their own ignorance. I think they key is doing it with purpose rather than without thinking.

  6. Hi Clare,

    I don’t approach the subject of diversity in my writing. I go where the story takes me and I’ll never let someone else determine what is ‘sensitive and appropriate’ for a piece. Nor do I endeavor to write cross-culturally. My first novel was nothing but white folk; the second, a mixed bag of white, Nez Perce Indian, Kenyan, and Hispanic. The only difference was the nature of the story.

    There is no end of the line for the diversity bus. Once you grant that type of control over your work, the gatekeepers, whomever they might be, will always move the goalposts.

    Quoting War Games – Joshua: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”

    • I too let the story dictate where I go and never begin a project with any particular ‘diversity’ in mind – although that might change as I approach more YA or middle grade fiction now I’ve attended this session – who knows maybe it will just seep into my consciousness and the story will evolve that way anyway (?)

  7. Sounds like political correctness taken to an extreme. Acting as if something doesn’t exist or not using it in your writing serves no purpose. The human condition isn’t all roses and is pretty much a mess

  8. Years ago, when I was writing YA (as a contract writer for the Nancy Drew series), I proposed an idea that got shot down for violating cultural sensitivities. I wanted to do a story involving aspects of voo doo/Santeria, and was told it would be offensive because it would denigrate someone’s religious beliefs. That one was a bit of a head scratcher, I’ll admit.

    On the other hand, minority cultures (not to mention women) have historically had to deal with no small amount of abuse at the hands of a powerful “establishment” culture. We’re going through an awkward period of adjustment, right now, which is actually a reaction to the relative leveling of power among social groups that were previously marginalized. We’ll eventually move beyond being awkward about things like “micro aggressions”, and debates over who can say what words. Call me an optimist, but I think we’ll eventually get used to the idea of relating to members of other social and ethnic groups as “normal” human beings.

  9. “Ugh, Chief. Savum wampum?

    I grew up with that phrase. Every Saturday down at the Fox Theater on Washington Street, Big Chief Savum Wampum strolled out onto the stage to converse with the local master of ceremonies/promoter of the live stage show before the cartoons, the serial, and the feature, be it horse opera, invasion from outer space, or comedy of the 1930s or ’40s.

    Big Chief Savum Wampum’s responsibility was to get all us good American kids to save at the bank that co-sponsored the show. There he was, in all his glory–blanket, headdress, moccasins, and fake accent. There was another thing. He was funny. We laughed and cheered and applauded the message that we should all open up savings accounts at the bank–and, oh, by the way, we should always bring our parents so THEY, too could see the wonders of HIS bank. The First National Bank, I’m certain, gained millions upon millions of pennies, thousands and thousands of dimes, nickels, and quarters in children’s business. For our initial deposit, we’d get our own bank pass book, a bank (piggy), and a comic book (not funny); the book was about the banking industry that helped American grow and prosper.

    I, like every other kid there, laughed at the Chief’s antics. Alas, as we grew older, the chief’s comedy was less comic. By then, we older boys were waiting for the dancing girls from a local dance school, who entertained us while we waited for the Martians to invade Los Angeles. And in those times in the 1950s, the girls were often clad in our favorite costumes–the pink Arabian-style dresses with three-quarter slevees and the pink veils. (No one knew what a burqa was, or that the veil was called a hajib.)

    Because no one cared.

    Least of all, me. I didn’t know I was supposed to be offended by Big Chief Savum Wampum. I mean, heck, my Dad was a teacher, librarian, and coach at the local federal Indian boarding school. (He eventually became one of the first American Indians to earn a master’s degree from our then-state teacher’s college, now a major university.) My Mom was a nurse in the school’s hospital, which also saw patients from the urban and nearby reservation communities. One of my concessions to being an American Indian was I was a New York Yankees fan because Allie Reynolds, my Dad, and I, were the same tribe. My Dad went to a national Indian conference and brought me home a baseball with Mr. Reynold’s signature. I was in baseball heaven.

    I grew up rooting for John Wayne, the American Cavalry–just not the 7th Cavalry, because the now-dead G.A. Custer got his at the Little Big Horn. That’s never quite been enough for me–he’ll NEVER be dead enough. He and his damned horse soldiers attacked my great-great-great-grandmother and Chief Black Kettle’s camp at the Washita River on the early morning of November 27, 1868. Chief Black Kettle had been promised that if he flew an American flag in his camp, he and his band would be safe from such attacks. He flew the flag; he and his wife were killed, shot down as they tried to flee the horse soldiers. (And, an aside: my great-great-great-grandmother also survived the historically earlier Sand Creek Massacre, perpetuated by the federalized Colorado Volunteers, on November 29, 1864.) To paraphrase Dustin Hoffman as Little Big Man/Jack Crabb, “I ain’t had no use for Coloradans or the 7th Cavalrymen ever since.”)

    Now. I said all of that to say this:

    Politically-correct American people of various ethnic groups, nationalities, and Damn-Liberal organizations and individuals continue to insult me. They all feel they must liberate me from my opinion that I am a Native American, rather than an American Indian. “Oh,” they say, “American Indian is not politically correct. You HAVE to go by the designation Native American.”

    Oh, yeah?

    Well, I’d like to lecture all you saviors for a minute or two. My ancestors of one tribe, died on the trail of one of the Andrew Jackson Death Marches. (If there was a Bataan Death March, then there were various Andrew Jackson Death Marches.) They suffered (some wearing leg irons and shackles provided courtesy of the United States federal government) with the designations that they were “American Indians.”

    On the other side of my family, the United States cavalry (yes, the very same) shot and/or hung members of my family–whether I am related to them by blood or by adoption. They died with the designations that they were “American Indians.”

    Please do not expect that I am willing to shuck the designation “American Indian” so lightly. To do so would, for me, be an insult to my family, to those who suffered so that my families and I might have life and liberty in the United States of America.

    See, the designation “Native American” is a concocted, phony designation. It began in about the 1970s with the then-experimental designation “Pan-Indian.” The concept was borrowed from the idea of Pan-American. We were all Indians, and we were all together. It was a way of experimenting with the concept of political power. They might say no to individuals and tribes, but if we gather together in a Pan-Indian way, we can have more political force.

    So, some say, then enters the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. They say that he encouraged the Indian people to promote the concept of Pan Indian. Or better yet, let’s-call-you-Native Americans. That way, All Native people can come together, sing Cumbaya, and exercise much more influence and power if we just have the right name, the right concept. “Oh, yea, and by the way, Native could also include Native Hawaiians–much, much more money can come to our people on the Islands if we all work together.” Now, Native Hawaiians seem to scramble for funds obvious designated for American Indian tribes.

    So then, the big push to Native-ize American Indian people began in earnest.

    Now. I need to say this before I go on. I am a signed-sealed-and-delivered Republican. My parents were Republicans. In the next American civil war, I will fight on the side of the Republicans, and I will punch as many liberal Republicans in the nose as I can find. Understand? (I’d say “Get it? Got it? Good!”, except I wouldn’t be able to stand myself for the rest of the day.)

    The concept of Indian and Tribes is Constitutional. Indian tribes are spelled out and recognized in our Grand Document. The Congress and the American government are Constitutionally authorized to deal with Indian Tribes. Those authorizations are in fact nailed down by the numerous treaties between American Indian Tribes and the United States of America. The concepts of American Indian laws regarding tribal and individual rights, and treaties have been and are spelled out in the Laws of Congress, as well as domestic treaty-making, policy, polity, guidelines, and other instruments of the United States of America v. Indians and Indian tribes. The treaties spell out how the federal government will relate to us. So Indian people do not get special free stuff. The health, educational, and domestic services provided Indian people by the government have been paid for in full. Downtown Dallas, Phoenix, Albuquerque. Seattle, and so many places in U.S. geography exist because the Indian tribes exchanged land rights for goods and services.
    (And by the way, we should come back after Niagara Falls.)

    So, here’s the payoff. If Indian people continue to hold on to the concept of Native American, then one day, Congress and the federal government could, “Hey. There aren’t any more American Indians. So we can now abrogate the Indian treaties. There IS no Native American Health Service in the U.S. Department of Health, so we can eliminate the Indian Health Service.” Similarly, as much as many or most Indian people hate and despise the activities and bad things done by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we are stuck with it. World history is replete with examples of sovereign national governments dumping Indian rights and services. The Aborigines of Australia are examples of this. The Australian highest court has ruled that Aborigines have no rights to lands. I can see this happening in America under a Republican administration, though one of the best times in American Indian affairs was during the time of the Nixon Administration.

    So. I fight every day in my own little way to protest the concept of Native American.

    American Indian was good enough for my parents. It’s good enough for me. Live with it. Or we could end up dying without it.

    Ole Chief Savum Wampum. What a card, eh?

  10. The first way to do it is to pull the quotes off of “micro-aggression.” It’s a word and a legitimate thing. Micro-aggressions have always been around.

    “Drives like a woman.”
    “Throws like a girl.”
    “Call a spade a spade.”
    “I jewed him down.”
    “Welsh on a bet.”
    “White man’s burden.”

    The best way to look at it is to get rid of cliches in writing. It’s not about being offended, it’s about being well-rounded. Guess what? Some people have always cringed when you said “Mexican stand-off” and “Chinese fire drill.” They just didn’t feel safe enough to tell you to shut up. Luckily, those phrases are dying with that generation.

    My father was a passive racist. He didn’t wear a white sheet, but it was always there. He had a way of saying, “Oh, they’re not negro any more, they be kkkkkollard” or give a long explanation about how he has to “trick” the black guy in the maintenance garage into working, because they are just “like that.”

    Getting rid of these cliches in writing both cuts down on the aggression, but also eliminates cliches and just generally freshens it up.

    The wacky gay sidekick.
    The sassy black girlfriend.
    The kemo sabe ugh look’em Indian sidekick.
    The sly Asian.
    The lazy Mexican.
    The stupid hillbilly.

    There is a story from the Bush I White House at a state dinner for a contingent from Latin America. Barbara took a pass through the kitchen to check the preparations. A cook had made a cake decorated with the classic sitting Frito Bandito style character with sombrero over his head leaning on a cactus. She was rightfully appalled, grabbed a knife, scraped it off, and took the cook to fix the frosting.

    Scrape that shit off your stories.

    That doesn’t mean not to write honestly about the realities of history or not to be period correct. Jes don’ hab misteh Toby shuckin’ and jivin’ whil’ he smile fer da masteh. Be honest.

    Even in historicals, women don’t just have wiles, they have brains. Foreigners and Native populations don’t just have superstitions and customs, they have brains and rich cultures. Enemies aren’t just hordes, they have causes every bit as just as your heroes. Gay characters don’t just lust, they love.

    And then don’t introduce new cliches. I laugh when I read stuff like this.

    “Hello Paco, do you want to go to dinner?”
    “Yes, Hakim, dinner sounds great. Should we call Aishya?”
    “Sure! I’ll call Gustav and tell him to meet us at the Ethopian restaurant.”
    “And call Giselle and Shylanna! They just got engaged.”
    “Excellent idea Paco. I’ll grab my husband Jamal and meet you there.”

    That is just as cliched and painful. Like a scorecard.

    I almost slipped. My main character had an assistant that almost became the wacky gay sidekick. Dammit. I pulled it back at the last moment. The new book has a gay secondary character. He is a quiet bear of a bartender living with an engineer. He gets how torn my character is in her heart and provides a touch of irony that a gay guy bartender in Mississippi has a more squared-away love life than a beautiful woman lawyer.

    An outline I’m working on has a gay character. But, it’s not about him, it’s about how my MC discovers she isn’t as cool, hip, and accepting as she always fancied herself.

    In my book, I have this passage. I used it because I know that inside the group, people laugh and joke about the cliches. In law school, a group of women I ran with called ourselves “chick law” to the consternation of the pearl-clutchers. We laugh at the dominant culture and the politically correct:


    Oso Grande Towing was in the industrial section of Austin. When we pulled up, a heavily fortified gate slid open and we glided under a large sign into the compound.

    “Really, Joaquin, don’t you think a bear in a sombrero is a bit much?”

    He laughed. “Dad ordered it when he was drunk. But we’ve come to like it. The more people think we’re just a bunch of mellow fun-loving beaners, the better.”

    The paved lot was as neat and ordered as a military base, with motorcycles in a mechanically straight row on one side and empty spaces on the other.


    I love The Walking Dead. You know why? Because for once, a middle-aged female character is a damn bad ass instead of a victim or someone who has to be protected. She doesn’t have enormous boobs, doesn’t wear spandex and stilettos, and isn’t a macho cartoon soldier. She is average and will gut you like a fish if you get in her way.

    I finally have a hero that looks like me.

    Yet there are some real criticisms about how black men are portrayed in the show. It isn’t “offense,” it is genuine analysis and review. And, even if I don’t understand it, I get it. That desire to have a character to identity with that isn’t a throwaway cliche.

    Stop bitching about “offense” and get to the heart of the matter.

    Give your readers realistic and carefully drawn characters that look like them.
    Don’t fake characters into the story for the sake of a checklist.
    Then, as always, research, research, research.
    Finally, don’t be boring about it.


      • And that’s the key word, authenticity.

        Another horrifying character is the “inspirational disabled person,” who, darn it, in the face of insurmountable odds, not only overcomes that pesky disability, but does it with a song and a smile.

        Nothing gets boring faster.

        Now, introduce a character with a disability and show some of the real life struggles and you have some depth.

        One of the best blind characters in movies was a man blind from birth. A plague causes the entire population to go blind in a matter of weeks. Civilization crumbles into anarchy and desperation. He laughs his head off because he is the one who knows how to function in this new world. He doesn’t become “inspirational,” he exploits it to his advantage. Now there is a complex character.


  11. This is something I worry about. My novel is based on my 7 years working in Africa and has as many African characters as white. I thought my experience would be my sensor, but then someone read my draft and said that noting an African’s white teeth is racist. So I now comment only on clothes, height, and build. I agree that an African Beta reader is a must–where to find such a person in a small town?

    • I wouldn’t call that racist, but I would call it stereotypical and cliched.

      Unless your beta reader is an expert in the culture, you can take it with a grain of salt. You have experience in Africa. Do Africans compliment each other or describe each other based on the whiteness of their smile? I doubt it, but don’t second-guess yourself too hard.

      And the wonderful world of online should easily find you a cultural-appropriate beta reader.


  12. Well… this topic has set off a firestorm! I had never heard the term “microaggression” until reading The Atlantic’s September cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ For those who are interested in learning more about microaggressions I highly recommend reading this article. It’s informative, and alarming, and I’ll keep my opinions to myself. Another Atlantic article dealing with the topic, also from September, is called “The Rise of Victimhood Culture”. Again, interesting.

    • I’ll have to look up the articles and I confess I hadn’t heard the term micro-aggression until I attended the conference but it’s definitely a topic that’s provoked some heated responses:)

    • But is it victimhood when I suddenly decide that not only am I tired of books with cliched racial and gender stereotypes, but that I finally feel empowered enough to speak up about it?

      Or should I just sit here like a good girl who can take a joke.

      I was in the trenches of women breaking into the male-dominated field of civil engineering. Some days it was the death of a thousand cuts. Why should I have to tolerate it in media culture as well. I’m not offended by it. I’m bored by it. And boredom means I drop your books, I ignore your movies, I find a different TV show. You ignore and mock that boredom at your own risk.


      • I’ve read that article before and find it irrelevant to this question.

        It’s about fragile snowflakes feeling they should be protected from the rough ideas on literature, not on how to expand diversity and inclusiveness in media culture.

  13. I found the Atlantic Article Catfriend99 linked above interesting. Quite long but provided information that expanded my understanding. I feel it relates to this post and beyond. It was worth reading.
    Thanks for sharing, CF99

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