Lately I've been working on a science fiction novel which I'm conceptually in love with, but the research is killing me. Why? Because every time I start reading about the atmospheric gases and the number of pascals in atmospheric pressure, my eyes start to close. The science research has been a bit harder for me to take than usual. Now I'm a big research fanatic. Usually the research part of diving into a new book is the most exciting part for me. But this time, I'm hitting some parts that are not so fun. Yet I can't give up. No matter how many times I fall asleep researching hydrothermal activity and the geochemical process, I'll still keep opening up those research books and try to learn what I can. Because if I don't, then my book will be inaccurate. It will be bullshit and I will be called on it, and rightly so.
Look, just because you write fiction, fantasy, science fiction, whatever, doesn't mean you can unilaterally make everything up. If your world is grounded in some reality, that reality had better be factually accurate or you are going to lose your readers. And this is even more the case when it comes to cultural appropriation. I believe that anyone could and should write what they want. As long as they do proper research! That much I must beg of all authors. Why? Because that's the right thing to do. Because that's the respectful thing to do. Because that means you cared about what you are writing about.
Even with all the research that we do as writers, we still are not going to get everything right. Someone is going to call you out on something. That's life. But if you've been thorough in your research, it will show. It will make people believe in the authenticity of your story. It will bring another level of knowledge and understanding to your readers. But when research is shoddy, or non-existent, or relying on stereotypes, you do one of two things 1. miseducate those readers who know nothing about that culture and take your word for truth, and 2. alienate those readers who do know.
As writers, we cannot be cavalier about research. Research must be the backbone of what we write. Imagine a European writer who writes a book on American culture, but the only research they did was relying on watching reruns of Jersey Shore and the Jerry Springer show. Would be no different than someone thinking they could write a book about Korea by just watching K-dramas or Japanese culture by just watching anime. That's not research, that's entertainment, and that's not respectful. We must always be respectful of the cultures we want to write about. To not do so is to marginalize an entire country, an entire race. Perhaps some of you might wonder what the real harm is. There is harm. Distorting language, traditions, culture to suit your story misrepresents, marginalizes, stereotypes that culture. It is saying, what do I care about your thousands of years of history, I can pick and choose and do whatever I want with it to make a good story. When you throw around and mash up different cultures under the same storyline, you are saying "Hey all you Asians look alike anyway, so I can intersperse your cultures however the hell I want!"
So yes, there is harm. I would think no author does any of this intentionally. All we want to do is write a good story. But when you are not of the culture you want to write about, please, I beg of you, please research carefully. Go to the library, contact the country's embassy, reach out to others of that culture, whatever you want to do to get authentic and thorough research beyond the internet and television. Do it and show your readers that not only can you tell a damn fine story, but you can do it with respect.