So I'm trying to think of how one can avoid this. Because on the one hand, I don't think we want stories all about white people in white-land steeped in white-culture, but on the other hand, dipping into someone else's culture for shiny colours to dab on one's story is problematic.
These are some guidelines I've tentatively put together for my own use. I'm indebted to many people on my friendslist for helping to articulate this, for challenging my assumptions, and for pointing out things I've overlooked. I'd appreciate anyone's critique or suggestions.
1. How easy is it for me to pass as white? How easy is it for my characters to pass as white?
I identify as, and am nearly universally identified as a white person. As a white person, I need to expend extra effort to be aware of things to which my privilege has made me oblivious. If my characters are read as white, then their actions in my story will be read in that context. Their power relationship with characters who do not read as white will be asymmetric by default.
2. Do I know anything about the culture or history in question? How much do I know?
I think this may be a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing: knowing a little is almost worse than knowing nothing, because one's odds of making reference to some important part of someone else's history or culture without fully understanding it are much greater. I'm not sure how much research or familiarity is necessary when using someone else's culture or history, but I'm pretty sure more is always better.
2. a) Where do I know it from?
One mechanism of oppression is control of narrative: history is written by the victors. I need to be really careful both not to perpetrate this, and not to rely on these sources when doing my research. Relying on H. Rider Haggard for information about the Bantu would be really bad. This is sort of like assuming you know all about New York because you've seen a lot of Friends.
3. Does the culture/history belong to living people? Extra sensitivity is called for if those to whom the culture belongs might encounter one's work.
For example, dealing insensitively with HIV is probably more offensive than dealing insensitively with the Bubonic Plague, simply because the odds of someone reading my work who has had their lives personally affected HIV are non-zero, while the odds of someone reading my work who has had their lives affected by the Black Plague are-- well. I understand the bacteria still persists, but due to modern medicine need not be fatal, and does not generally achieve epidemic proportions.
4. Does the culture/history belong to a historically or presently marginalized group? If so, extra sensitivity is called for.
Doing badly with British culture isn't the atrocity that doing badly by First Nations cultures would be. British culture has been exported world-wide. First Nations cultures in Canada were actively suppressed, and attempts were made to destroy them entirely, by the ethnic group with which I identify and with which I am identified.
5. What function does the culture or history in question serve in my story? Is it a plot device, or a set-piece? Do the members of that culture come across as fully realized characters with histories and motivations apart from their interaction with the protagonist?
Obviously this is a bit subjective, but I guess I'm trying to get at the question of whether the story attempts to deal holistically and organically with the event/history/culture, or it attempts to invoke the event for its emotional connotations. The latter is to be avoided.
6. Is the tone, mood, or purpose of my story an appropriate tone or mood to adopt in dealing with the history or culture in question?
This is a bit trickier, because you know, I think The Producers adopts a pretty good tone for dealing with the third Reich! But perhaps this is because they don't deal with the Holocaust at all. In general, I'm pretty sure it's bad to invoke someone else's tragedy in a crack-fic.
6. b) Who is the intended audience for my work? Will the story read differently for those who are not the intended audience?
Unless you're distributing your story on stamped lead tablets, you can't really control who's reading it. My story could be read by people who I didn't expect to read it, maybe by members of the marginalized group in question, or maybe by people who are unfamiliar with me, and don't have any background knowledge of me that would influence their reading.
7. Am I prepared to deal with the possibility that I have, despite my efforts to the contrary, written an offensive work?
Because you know, I'm human, and I fuck up. Maybe I missed something in my research or just had a bad brain day. Can I deal with that like an adult and apologize?
On censorship: Censorship is when a controlling group or body deletes or withholds information from the public. I am not a controlling group or body, although if you feel the need for some sort of dictator in your life, please apply to me in writing.
On writing: Writing the Other has come to me highly recommended, although I have not been able to check it out myself. Those interested may wish to look it up.