Sensitivity Writers. AKA: avoiding cultural appropriate in writing

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Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Admittedly, this isn't really something I'd worry so much about 20 years ago. I guess we always keep learning to be more self aware.

When writing (either stories or RPGs), often we write about things that are influenced by real world cultures. I'd say in the past half dozen years or so, there's been a real increase in identifying cultural appropriation. As a cis white guy from European descent, I understand if I start writing an RPG where one of the cultures is heavily influenced by African culture, it may raise some eyebrows. Doesn't matter how much research I've done, or how much I've tried to be objective.

That said, I don't think it's really feasible to say "Well, then you can only write about European cultures and that's it." I brought this up in a FB forum the other day, and it was mentioned to me how what I'm looking for is called a sensitivity writer. Kind of like an editor, but instead of grammar and format, they review for any potential red flags.

My question is, in the context of RPGs, where do you really find someone like that? Has anyone else used a resource like that, or what other ways have you tried to keep from engaging in cultural appropriation?
 

Xethreau

Explorer
A few years ago, EN5ider produced an article called "Dia de las Dinosaurios Muertos." (Or however you spell dinosaurs in Spanish.) There was some concern about how the author did a lot of research on the subject matter, but seemed to over-mystify certain elements, and I think they also used the names of real-world mythological figures. I would find the origional posting of that article and read the comments.

As far as my own concerns, one of my active concerns is the portrayal and encouragement of sexist and racist violence. When all orcs are ontologically evil, and their culture resembles that of indigenous people, and there otherwise no other indigenous peoples in your campaign world, a player is basically encouraged to do violence against the indigenous. The same thing goes for killing "evil" women, who are frequently scantily clad to demonstrate how evil they are...

All that to say, the prevalence of ontological evil, commonplace violence, medieval gender roles, and "race"-as-a-stand-in-for-race are structural problems of the fantasy genre altogether.

... Uh, but to answer your question, I do not know. I go to seminary and I think I might be able to investigate though. I'll check back in later.
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
It's something I think about.

If I only write according to my own background that leads to its own problems, but when crafting fantasy cultures how do I not appropriate?

The only thing I think I've figures out right now is "avoid tropes about real world cultures".
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
Is this for a published product? Or are you worried about offending your table? Or just worried about breaking some taboo? Just curious.
 

Ryujin

Adventurer
I sat in on a seminar by Ben Dobyns, of Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, on their newest series "Strowlers." It's an open world, modern fantasy series and they're working with people in Denmark, Mongolia, and Australia/New Zealand so far. Their pilot, shot in Seattle, involves LGBT community elements. Also being a cis white guy he stressed getting the stories from the people who know them. Co-operative story telling. Getting advisors from the groups you wish to represent, if not having them dictate the story, outright.

I'd say you don't need a specialist writer. You need to keep your ears and mind open, while talking to the people who are represented.
 
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Nagol

Unimportant
Admittedly, this isn't really something I'd worry so much about 20 years ago. I guess we always keep learning to be more self aware.

When writing (either stories or RPGs), often we write about things that are influenced by real world cultures. I'd say in the past half dozen years or so, there's been a real increase in identifying cultural appropriation. As a cis white guy from European descent, I understand if I start writing an RPG where one of the cultures is heavily influenced by African culture, it may raise some eyebrows. Doesn't matter how much research I've done, or how much I've tried to be objective.

That said, I don't think it's really feasible to say "Well, then you can only write about European cultures and that's it." I brought this up in a FB forum the other day, and it was mentioned to me how what I'm looking for is called a sensitivity writer. Kind of like an editor, but instead of grammar and format, they review for any potential red flags.

My question is, in the context of RPGs, where do you really find someone like that? Has anyone else used a resource like that, or what other ways have you tried to keep from engaging in cultural appropriation?
1) what you you mean write only European? You can't write about anything outside your home town! Everywhere has differences.! :->

You can't culturally appropriate a fictional culture. There's no one to take it from.; no one can say you are doing it wrong and that your insensitivity can bring harm That doesn't mean you should parody a real cultural aspect, but a fictional culture with only modest parallels is just fictional.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
I'll give you an example for context. I'm working on a 5e campaign setting (futurist world where PC races are synthetic, rather than organic creatures). However, each "race" has it's own identity, and some of them pull from real world cultures. Look at some of the images. You can see where one race/clan is medieval European, another steampunk, another alien, another Japanese, and another African.

My feeling is that no matter how much research I do, I may miss things and fall into incorrect stereotypes. Thus the need for a sensitivity writer for review.

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billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Personally, I think there's a lot of confusion on common use of cultural appropriation. If you can't write about a culture to which you do not belong, you can't really write about any historical cultures either. If you're Italian-American, you're no more likely to be an authority on 1st century Imperial Roman culture than 16th century Yoruba culture or 10th century Pandya culture. Yet people seem to assume that someone from or with an ancestral connection to the same region/culture no matter what the history in between has been has some kind of natural authority to use the culture.

So as far as I'm concerned, the main remedy isn't to limit your writing based on your culture. Limit it based on your research. Show your work. Refer to your sources. Include a sidebar explaining why you may have mysticized some point of the culture to fit in with a fantasy setting rather than a historical one. Show your work. Establish the fact that you've treated the material seriously and with a good faith effort. And if you still receive criticism, analyze that criticism - do they have a better interpretation? Acknowledge it and revise. If they're just nay-sayers, ignore them.
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
Personally, I think there's a lot of confusion on common use of cultural appropriation. If you can't write about a culture to which you do not belong, you can't really write about any historical cultures either. If you're Italian-American, you're no more likely to be an authority on 1st century Imperial Roman culture than 16th century Yoruba culture or 10th century Pandya culture. Yet people seem to assume that someone from or with an ancestral connection to the same region/culture no matter what the history in between has been has some kind of natural authority to use the culture.

So as far as I'm concerned, the main remedy isn't to limit your writing based on your culture. Limit it based on your research. Show your work. Refer to your sources. Include a sidebar explaining why you may have mysticized some point of the culture to fit in with a fantasy setting rather than a historical one. Show your work. Establish the fact that you've treated the material seriously and with a good faith effort. And if you still receive criticism, analyze that criticism - do they have a better interpretation? Acknowledge it and revise. If they're just nay-sayers, ignore them.
In a historical sense sure, but when you start crafting fantasy cultures based on real world cultures what you choose to include from history and what you choose to exclude comes under more scrutiny.

Also it's harder to show your work on said fantasy culture when you can't even say what percent came from research and what percent came from imagination.
 
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Nagol

Unimportant
I'll give you an example for context. I'm working on a 5e campaign setting (futurist world where PC races are synthetic, rather than organic creatures). However, each "race" has it's own identity, and some of them pull from real world cultures. Look at some of the images. You can see where one race/clan is medieval European, another steampunk, another alien, another Japanese, and another African.

My feeling is that no matter how much research I do, I may miss things and fall into incorrect stereotypes. Thus the need for a sensitivity writer for review.
I like Bild91's answer in general, but your case has another layer of indirection:

How will you differentiate you using a stereotype and the fictional group adopting that stereotype either purposefully or unwittingly inside the fiction?

Your writing about a fictional group that is adopting some traits from a group or groups that may have a real world origin. You're not writing about those real world groups.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
In a historical sense sure, but when you start crafting fantasy cultures based on real world cultures what you choose to include from history and what you choose to exclude comes under more scrutiny.

Also it's harder to show you work on said fantasy culture when you can't even say what percent came form research and what percent came from imagination.
That's where the sidebar or designer note comes in. Be explicit in your use of real world cultural information and how you are interpreting it. This is a place where designer notes that you see in a lot of historical war games have rocked over the years. I was just reading some for a game called Pavlov's House and the developer explained how he had decided to incorporate the broader environment of the Stalingrad battlefield within the micro-environment of the single apartment block. Paizo used to incorporate some awesome design sidebars in their modules - I wish it was a more widespread practice in RPG and adventure design.
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
You can’t eliminate the possibility of accusations of cultural appropriation or insensitivity. But you can take steps to minimize it. I would suggest:

1) Do your research
2) Avoid stereotypes
3) Be respectful
4) Get feedback from neutral/varied sources
4a) If you can’t get that, at least try to analyze your work by “stepping not the shoes” of those you are writing about
5) Be open to honest feedback & constructive criticism
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Okay, so step one is to listen to those affected about this topic. that means listening to marginalized folks, especially genre fans and creators, about the right course of action.

While I can only speak for LGBT folks, and even then only to the extent that I have direct experiences (I'm not a trans person, or a woman, so I can't speak to lesbian or trans folks' experiences or POV), I am friends with many people of various backgrounds on social media and IRL, and the consensus seems to be;

*If you are going to make money, you should pay marginalized people to help make the product. Never ever demand of someone that they work for free, especially when you're a white dude and they aren't.


*If you aren't going to make money, cast a wide net, make connections among marginalized creators and genre fans, and ask for volunteers to help you make the thing.

*No amount of research you can ever do will replace the POV of an actual person related to that culture or other identity. In the digital age, there is little excuse for not seeking out that expertise in some form.

*Yes, sensitivity readers are folks doing work for you, and thus folks that should be paid if you can reasonably afford to do so, just like artists and editors.

*An artist or editor may well be willing to add sensitivity reading to their work for you, so seek out marginalized artists and editors when you go looking for those services.

*Diversify your "follows". There are a wealth of marginalized creators, critics, etc, out there, and they tend to support eachother. Find a few you like, and be open to following the people they signal boost as well.

*Don't give up on diversifying the perspective of your work, and don't give up on creating stuff just because people expect more from us than they used to in this regard. It's worth it. It is a challenge that not only can you rise to, it is worth rising to. Not only as a goal in itself, but also because it will make you a better writer.
 

Derren

Adventurer
Just ignore it. If someone wants to be offended they will find something and no amount of research or "sensitivity writer aprovals" can protect you from that.

The entire cultural appropation discussion is aribtrary, starting with which cultures can be "appropiated" and which not and what stereotypes are good and which bad (and in which parts of the world).
And no person can speak for an entire culture, so the only thing a sensitivity writer does is to give you a stamp which you can point to and say you did your duty.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
I would say you need to decide what kind of game you are making and do the best you can to make that game. I don't personally know how useful the sensitivity reader thing is because you are relying on one person to stand in for a whole group of people, and I find it gets very difficult to find any kind of consensus once you start talking to people. Plus, there are a lot of debates surrounding cultural appropriation. I don't find them particularly persuasive. But I do think a much better approach than worrying about appropriation is to avoid being offensive to the culture you are using. Be respectful of that, and don't walk in thinking you know everything. That is a pretty reachable goal. Worrying about appropriation, can just make you freeze creatively. I think it can lead to a stifling of cultural exchange and exploration of new ideas off of old ones. Not offending people form the culture you are dealing with, that is very easy to understand. Also with the appropriation thing, I think there is a lot of places where you can go wrong if you don't know what kind of game you are trying to make. For example in appropriation discussions people often times equate research and accuracy as issues. But I think sometimes being less accurate is actually more interesting. And there are times when you are not necessarily trying to model the original culture. For example if you are basing a game on historical romances rather than on straight history, you are going to have elements that are anachronistic and possibly culturally inaccurate. European countries have historical romances, but so to other cultures.

But to answer your question you can find lots of sensitivity readers on twitter (specifically for roleplaying as well). If you are worried about appropriation, you can check out different podcasts and discussions on these topics. I do think you will find there is a wide range of viewpoints.
 

Janx

Adventurer
Sensitivity Readers are a good idea if you can afford one. Next best thing is join a diverse writing community and seek out feedback from people who aren't like yourself.

Read the Writing With Color blog for tips on describing and handling characters of color.

Join large enough writing groups on Facebook like Writers Helping Writers and just listen when people of color or LGBT+ talk about what they like or dislike in writing they find. Not every person of color agrees on certain things, heck, not all of them know that being described in terms of food is fetishizing. That's OK. The goal is to learn what to watch out for and avoid needless drama on some detail you could have said differently.

---
Now to switch from advice to opinions

I heard an interview with the guy who invents languages for shows and movies (ex. Dothraki from GoT). He was asked if he used real world languages to make new fictional ones. He said, no, because that would be cultural appropriation. I'm not sure where the line is for him on making a fictional culture based on a real world one, but the more it seems like you copied instead of saying this came from XYZ, you're over the line. For the OP, it's a future world, with our cultures projected forward, not the same risk, except of stereotyping or other issues found today.

A writer I know of, Milton Davis (creator of the SteamFunk genre), recently said "Diversity in speculative fiction should not only be diverse people. It should also include diverse cultures and diverse settings. Using diverse people in a Eurocentric world is still a Eurocentric story." Now he clarified that a modern story set in the USA is basically a Eurocentric story, that ship has sailed. But if you're making a new world, that's an opportunity. Case in point, my wife got a new video game, Greedfall. Fictional world, with all sorts of races mixed in. But it's largely a french-like culture, so those people of color, they're all french too. The game tackles the subject of colonization, so it tried. But a sensitivity reader or some such might have advised doing a bit more.

This has gotten rather long, definitely check out Writing With Color and get into some writing groups where they'll be in touch with the kind of issues you're trying to watch out for.

Also, remember this. Parents who bought child-rearing books tended to be better parents. But it wasn't because of the books, but because they were parents who were concerned about being better parents. You are thinking about how you treat cultures. That's going to help you do better.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Just ignore it. If someone wants to be offended they will find something and no amount of research or "sensitivity writer aprovals" can protect you from that.

The entire cultural appropation discussion is aribtrary, starting with which cultures can be "appropiated" and which not and what stereotypes are good and which bad (and in which parts of the world).
And no person can speak for an entire culture, so the only thing a sensitivity writer does is to give you a stamp which you can point to and say you did your duty.
That’s pretty...cynical.

I would retort that the discussion is NOT arbitrary, but rather evidence that people are starting to finally hear and understand long-standing complaints.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
That’s pretty...cynical.

I would retort that the discussion is NOT arbitrary, but rather evidence that people are starting to finally hear and understand long-standing complaints.
I think the conversation is actually a lot more complicated than either of these positions (not singling you out Danny just leaping off this post since it was the most recent). It is a very difficult topic, one where there is going to be disagreement. It is also one where it isn't easy to parse through all the different points of view and all the different lines of argument. At the end of the day, I come to the conclusion that cultural sensitivity is good but cultural appropriation (as a concept) stifles creativity and art. I don't want to see games coming out that are trying to ridicule a culture or engage in blatant negative stereotypes. At the same time I do think people should freely borrow, reshape and explore other cultures without having to apologize for it. That said, I am not blind to the strong arguments on the other side, and I don't think people who disagree with me are reaching anything but an honest conclusions themselves.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
At the end of the day, I come to the conclusion that cultural sensitivity is good but cultural appropriation (as a concept) stifles creativity and art.
This is true if and only if the creators & providers of intellectual property actually agree to restrain themselves in the light of criticism.

Living in the USA, you can find all kinds of creative endeavors that are offensive to someone. Some, deeply and profoundly so. But they still exist, because the people who made them soldiered on.

Likewise, we all probably engage in some kind of appropriation. What matters are the nature and respectfulness of appropriation. I have a gumbo-like ancestry, but even so, I can’t claim a common heritage with all of the ethnic jewelry I own. But so far, no one has said that what I wear is disrespectful.

But like any form of expression, freedom to express yourself does not free you from the consequences thereof. In this context, we’re talking about criticism, maybe protests and boycotts. Not death threats.
 
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Bedrockgames

Adventurer
This is true if and only if the creators & providers of intellectual property actually agree to restrain themselves in the light of criticism.
I am not 100% sure what you mean by restrain themselves, but I think it would depend on the criticism. Not all critiques have the same value or merit.
 
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