Diversity, Representation, Appropriation… Again

So, on the heels of the discussion regarding cultural appropriation, I want to dive into tricky waters again. Not to offer any answers, but to raise questions and expose some dangers, hopefully with the result of provoking some talk and maybe hearing ideas and directions from others. This time around, I aim to explore the issues that face a “white” writer (like me) potentially writing non-white characters. For the sake of argument and discourse, I’ll focus on the possibility of constructing a character of Australian aboriginal background.

First thing, though, I’d like to look at this idea of “white”. That’s a pretty interesting concept in itself, don’t you think? I can accept it — barely — as a race marker in the physiological sense, but it’s frequently used as a cultural marker, which is just plain wrong. Unless, of course, you accept that the cultural identity of a white-skinned Finn of Sami background is the same as a white-skinned Spanish-speaking Argentine. (And if you can comfortably say yeah, they’re both just white don’t bother with the rest of this post. You won’t get anything out of it.)

The term ‘race’, taken as a word from the dictionary, has meanings which relate to physical characteristics of different groups of people. Yet it gets applied (like ‘white’, or ‘black’) in ways which invoke cultural identity. Here in Tasmania, there are quite a number of people who appear physically indistinguishable from the white/Euro majority, yet who are avowedly and determinedly of Tasmanian aboriginal race; acknowledged as such by the government, among others. For these people (and others) physical characteristics do not define cultural identity, and must not be allowed to do so. For them, the term ‘aboriginal’ is all but completely divided from the idea of ‘black’ — whereas some of the mainland aborigines have just about the darkest skins of any human on the planet. This is not to say that mainland aborigines necessarily identify as ‘black’ either, but the idea certainly factors into the discourse to a far greater degree than it does down here in Tasmania.

Clearly, even approaching these ideas is a tangled, complicated matter. So what does it mean to write an Australian aboriginal character into your book or story if you’re ‘white’?

Well, the first question raised would be: why? Is it necessary? Do white writers recreating Australia in fiction really need to construct aboriginal characters?

The short answer is yes. Australia’s a diverse country. A short story without an aboriginal character is quite understandable, because the Australian aborigines make up quite a small percentage of the population; but in a novel — particularly a novel set in certain parts of Australia — completely leaving out aboriginal characters is kind of strange. It’s a failure of art.

The longer answer is also ‘yes’. There is an acknowledged need for greater representation of different racial, cultural, and ethnic groups in our popular fiction. This need has been expressed by many Aborigines in a range of forums across the media, and it is recognised that a lack of representation and depiction of non-mainstream peoples in the media serves to further disempower and marginalise these people. Put it plainly: as a white kid, I had plenty of characters to pretend-play with my friends when we were recreating Star Trek adventures from the TV… but there weren’t exactly a lot of roles for the dark-skinned kids, were there?

With these arguments, I believe I’ve effectively disposed of the option of simply ignoring Australian Aborigines in fiction that depicts Australia. That being the case, what are the possibilities which remain for the ‘white’ writer? If depicting aboriginal characters is desirable, how should it be done?

Effectively there are two approaches. One can either stay on the “outside” when writing Aborigines — depicting them as nearly as possible as they are seen and perceived through the ‘white’ eye — or one can attempt to enter their point of view, to construct characters with agency, depth and complexity. This, however, clearly requires a depiction not just of the character but of the motivations and the decision-making of that character, which necessarily demands  some depiction (however small) of the state of aboriginality in Australia. The decision to deliver aboriginal characters with the same degree of depth and dimensionality as ‘white’ characters cannot be taken without making a clear choice to delineate elements of what it means — in the writer’s opinion and experience — to be an Aborigine in Australia.

Keep that in mind, please. This post is getting out of hand for length, so I’ll end it here for now. Next time I take up this thread, I’ll be talking about those last two options: writing Australian aborigines from an external ‘white-viewed’ process, or writing them from an ‘inhabited’ process. Both choices are difficult, and fraught.

The last thing I want to leave you with is an anecdote from years ago, when I was in regular contact with a particular African-American man, a racial activist of some standing and respect. He was a thoughtful, intelligent individual with whom I had some extremely interesting discussions, and at one point he asked me to convey his greetings, solidarity and support to his “black brothers and sisters” in Australia.

I never told him about the Tasmanian aborigines. I never even tried to explain that the situation of the Australian aborigines is much more closely related to the situation of the Native Americans than it is to that of African-Americans. There was no way for me to close the cultural gap without offending him, because for him, being ‘black’ was what counted.

It would have been racist as all hell if it came from a ‘white’ person…




  1. Chris Large · · Reply

    Hi Dirk, this is a really interesting topic. I’ve recently included a young Aboriginal character in a middle grade story and have thought about some of the same issues. I worked with individuals from Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory over a period of 8 years in the 1990s. I’ve always wanted to include an “Aboriginal perspective” in a story since some of the conversations I had with those guys were really interesting but it’s very difficult to know whether the ideas we discussed were just personal opinions, or views held by a wider community. Added to this is the fact that there isn’t a unified aboriginal culture with a shared view, but literally hundreds of nations and languages and world views. I thought of having an Aboriginal friend proof my story but she wasn’t of the people I was writing about and so in the end I didn’t. I settled for writing the character from an outsider’s view, exactly as I perceived those I was working with. Not ideal but probably the most appropriate approach I thought.

  2. Chris — Thomas Kenneally of “Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith” fame has stated that if he wrote the book now, he wouldn’t try to use the POV that he did back in the day. He thinks that instead he’d depict the character from outside. And it’s kind of hard to argue with someone like Keneally.

    But there are still dangers, are there not? It’s a very interesting discussion to have, and probably timely.

  3. In my view, Dirk, you should simply write characters with as much sincerity as you can muster and not self-censor based on some notion of “appropriation”. Literature abounds with examples of writers depicting others from cultures and races removed from their own experience. Mark Twain is the classic example for me.

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