Hey! Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to this question! I haven’t had the time to sit and form a proper response. I figured this was going to get long, and it did, because I have a lot to say on the topic! I hope it’s not overkill, lol.
This is something I commonly hear from other white writers. What’s off-limits? What am I not allowed to write about? The existence of this question says a lot about our privilege. Because we live in a world where whiteness is prized and the system benefits us in innumerable, often invisible ways, we’re not used to being told no. We’re not always intentionally malicious about it, but the question, “Well, what can I write about?” can often come across the way an entitled toddler asks, “Well, why can’t I have my Halloween candy for breakfast? It’s not fair!”
Being responsible writers as white people (and beyond that, being responsible with our whiteness), means shifting our paradigm. Not everything is for us. Not everything is about us. It sounds to me like you’re trying to make that shift, which is a good step. In this case, going with my analogy, the Halloween candy isn’t even yours, it’s your sister’s, and it’s just a bad idea to eat it for breakfast anyway (I’m still working on my first cup of coffee this morning, so if that makes no sense, I’m sorry)!
Contrary to what our ancestors and/or the history of our civilization says, other cultures don’t exist for us to dig what’s interesting out of them and leave the rest behind. As people outside those cultures, there are things that we’ll never truly be able to grasp or understand. Things that are sacred, symbolic, etc. There are even microaggressions that we’re simply unable to see because we’ve never lived in the shoes of a person from that other culture. Plucking interesting or aesthetic things from other cultures is generally a bad way to go, because culture doesn’t work like that–it’s an interlocking system of symbols and meanings which, when removed from their context, become crude imitations.
There’s no one answer to What’s off-limits? because it honestly depends on what culture you’d like to work with, why you’re choosing it, and how you’re using it. To find out what’s all right and what isn’t, you should read blogs by people of those cultures and see what they feel comfortable seeing written by other people (and read a variety–you can’t just go to one blog and call it done for the day, because one person doesn’t speak for their whole community).
Also keep in mind that your position as a white writer gives you an invisible advantage over writers of color, even if those writers are working from their own experiences. A great example of this, I think, is Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, which attempts to blend the 19th-century American West with a Middle Eastern/West Asian culture and mythology. On the surface, it’s a super intriguing idea, but because she was a white woman, she inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) perpetuated negative stereotypes or misinformation about Middle Eastern/West Asian societies and their mythology, like the jinn. I honestly think the result of such an experiment would have been extremely different if someone of Middle Eastern/West Asian descent had written it. And, if I’m being honest, it probably would have been better.
I’ll even speak from my own recent experience. I’m working on drafting the fourth book of the Iridia series, and I have a character who is currently South Asian coded. She’s one of my favorite characters: powerful, intelligent, witty, pansexual, and flirty. She ends up in a wlw relationship with one of my other characters. I was describing her to my friend @mahnoorjahan because Mahnoor is South Asian, and she expressed sincere skepticism of me, a white woman, writing a South Asian woman as aggressively flirty, because it plays into the stereotype of “sexually available, promiscuous brown woman.” Because I am white, writing such a character falls dangerously close to fetishization–regardless of my intention or execution. It would be different if I was South Asian and writing such a character, because in that case it would be a woman of that ethnicity writing her own liberation and empowerment. But it’s not for me to write that. Despite the efforts I’ve put in to learn and educate myself, I was still woefully dense in wrapping my head around this (bless you for your patience, Mahnoor). Mahnoor gave me alternatives that I’ll definitely be using when I work on the second draft of the book (I need to get the damn thing finished first lmao).
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for an easy answer or solution to this, you’re not going to find one. You have to approach every new project, every new inspiration, with the same care and consideration. You can’t tell yourself (as I almost did), “I’ve already done the work with a, b, and c, so I don’t need to worry about doing it with d.” It’s a part of learning the craft–and it’s not just white writers that have to do it! Whenever a writer is dealing with a culture that’s not their own, they have to examine their own internal biases and motivations and accept that there are some things that are simply not theirs to write.
I hope you found some of this helpful and not too discouraging! I won’t lie and say it’s an easy process, but I can promise that it’s absolutely worth it!