Those who scream loud, offended screams at anything that might possibly hint of things like “cultural appropriation” do actually have a point. It’s just that they’ve grasped the pineapple by the wrong end, and buried it under an avalanche of fetid excrement. In short, they’ve got it so bass-ackwards it doesn’t even deserve to be called wrong. It’s more in the line of saying 1 + 1 = pineapple.
The actual point is that every culture has its own immutable truths and unchallengeable assumptions. In the English speaking world of today, the truths and assumptions are mostly compatible. Cultures where other languages are the first language – as Sarah will no doubt agree – may still be compatible but the structure of the language can cause issues. English is a language that’s primarily evolved itself as a trade language (or as the inelegant saying goes, the way Norman soldiers convinced the Saxon barmaids to spend the night with them) and as such gleefully vacuums up new vocabulary while hanging onto the old and repurposing it as needed (If you doubt, find an old dictionary and look up ‘terrific’). Other languages work differently: I’ve heard speakers of Irish Gaelic comment that the language approaches things in circles. The Francophone nations actually have regular meetings to decide what words they’re going to allow to be official.
And of course, someone who goes to write about a culture not their own is not necessarily going to understand that culture. Certainly they won’t understand it at first. This is where the sorority of the perpetually offended get it messed up. They think that because other cultures have different ways of thinking, we poor iggerant westerners (never mind that there are a gazillion western cultures or subcultures) can’t possibly understand something so deep and, well, effnik so we’ve got to be stealing it from the poor downtrodden effniks.
Yeah, right. All things being equal, they’re going to take whatever works for them and use it their way, just as much as we’ll take what works for us and use it our way. Willing exchange and being prepared to learn what’s really going on does a heck of a lot more to encourage different cultures to work together than demanding everyone silo themselves so that only lesbian amputees from Outer Krapistan can write about lesbian amputees from Outer Krapistan (this comment was brought to you by the fine art of stringing random micro-offense bingo keywords together into something resembling a sentence).
The simple truth is that people are people no matter what their culture is. If you can work out through research and observation what the main truths and assumptions of a culture or subculture happen to be, you can write characters from that culture or subculture who are realistic enough to work (Of course it helps if you can have a friend or acquaintance who’s more familiar with said culture to vet for accuracy). No matter what the culture is, there will be misfits. There will be heroes, villains, ordinary folks just trying to get by, the whole spectrum.
The key thing to remember is that the way they express the human universals like ambition, love, and so on is going to be governed by their culture. And you, the author, are translating said culture to us Western folks (this goes at least double if the culture is one you created rather than ripping off the immense wealth of historical and modern cultures and filing off the serial numbers). It’s actually why the best person to write about being a lesbian amputee from Outer Krapistan may not necessary be the lesbian amputee from Outer Krapistan. The Outer Krapistani culture may be just too alien to us Westerners. Of course, she might be the best person to write that story – but that’s not a valid reason to say nobody else can write it. Just give the culture the respect of getting the facts right instead of going for the media/movie/popular fiction caricature of it, and it will work (Let’s face it, how many Americans here cringe at the way Brits depict us? And how many Brits cringe at the way Americans depict them? It’s because too often it’s not an honest depiction it’s a caricature based on the latest Grauniad or New York Treason drivel).
So yeah. Be respectful enough to use the facts. Get them right. Treat your characters as actual people making decisions according to the beliefs and assumptions of their cultures. And if anyone screams about cultural appropriation, smile, and tell them the only cultures that don’t appropriate and get appropriated are already dead.