Cultural Appropriation vs. #WeNeedDiverseBooks

In case you haven’t been paying attention, I am a white woman. For things that aren’t (as) obvious from the Instagram picture on my sidebar, I’m also hearing, sighted, able-bodied, and free from mental and learning disabilities.

I do understand that I have privilege due to those things.

I wrote a book from the perspective of a blinded teenager, where the entire plot is about people who were intentionally disabled by the government in order to exploit their artistic talents. The main cast is three blind characters, one D/deaf character, and two paraplegic characters.

During university, my on-campus job was with Disability Services. I transcribed lectures in real time for a deaf student who didn’t know ASL. I scanned books into a computer, performed text recognition on them, and printed them in Braille. And through that job, though I didn’t end up doing much official work for her, I met a deaf woman who became my friend and later my roommate. I know hundreds of signs, but haven’t learned ASL grammar, so my ability to communicate is slim, but we got along.

Still, does this make me qualified to have written my book? Am I exploiting my experience by writing a book about disabled characters? Where is the line between #WeNeedDiverseBooks and We need diverse books written by authors with diverse experiences? Does my whiteness and my able-bodiedness automatically disqualify me from these things?

It’s funny–this isn’t a question I would ask myself if I wrote about engineers, who are my main editing clients now. It’s not a question I would ask myself about a daycare provider or a child in a daycare, even though that is also a situation I grew up in, and helped my mom at for years.

But when you cross lines of privilege, I do think the boundary is more blurred. After I finished my book, I did seek out a visually impaired/blind woman who studies the portrayal of disability in novels (here) and had her Beta my story. I asked her specific questions about my portrayal of blindness and disability and got her approval on the story.

There are still times it doesn’t sit right with me. For instance, this evening I broke my social media fast (BTW, those of you who follow me on social media and/or participate in forums with me, I decided to take a fast from consuming social media. At least a week, maybe two. Maybe a month. We’ll see.) to watch the following video:

I’d been wondering how to sign that song, so when I clicked through my subscriptions looking for the ones I am allowing myself to watch during my fast, I decided to watch it.

I enjoyed her interpretation, learned a bit about grammar, and then broke a huge Internet rule: I read the comments in a popular place.

That video has a ton of dislikes. Many of them seem to be because Paul’s (ex?) career has been leaked, and it’s less than savory. While I dislike his career choice, as well as their decision (later revoked) to try to raise $20k to start a subscription-based ASL learning website, I did not dislike the video.

A few of the comments claimed they were participating in cultural appropriation by signing English songs in ASL when they are not D/deaf themselves. I have a few problems with this:

  • typing “song in ASL” into the search bar gives me some 280,000 results.
  • Interpreting a song was one of the assignments in ASL 101 at my college.
  • Watching French versions of Disney songs is a guilty pleasure of mine.
  • The woman in the video is a professional interpreter.

I don’t believe that a professional interpreter signing to music is cultural appropriation at all. In fact, the interpreters present at concerts and worship services were often my favorite part. While I know many deaf people can hear some music, especially the beat, I think it is the talent of a hearing interpreter to make ASL look like music.

My visceral response to the negative comments got me thinking: who am I to judge? I haven’t taken a formal ASL course. I’m not D/deaf. My only experiences in the Deaf culture are through my friend from university.

And if I can’t be the one to judge whether something is cultural appropriation for the Deaf community, who am I to write a book about disability?


    • I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it plagues a lot of authors. In fact, I hope it does. Because I do think we need diverse books, and that I shouldn’t use my whiteness as an excuse to whitewash my novels.

      I have some stuff going on that’s making staying away from Facebook surprisingly difficult. Which is probably a sign that I need to stay away even longer. And it’s nice to realize there’s a distinction between creating social media (e.g., tweeting my posts), and consuming it (e.g., just sitting there in front of Twitter for hours reading micronews).

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