Cultural appropriation suppresses minority voices: Opinion by Navneet Alang
May 17, 2017
in Canada, a white mainstream not only takes precedence, but too often actively dismisses the concerns of racial minorities and First Nations peoples.
Source: Toronto Star
It was enough to give a person whiplash. Last week Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of the small Writer’s Union magazine Write, resigned after the contributors of an issue dedicated to indigenous writers objected to Niedzviecki’s opening editorial, in which he inelegantly praised the idea of a prize for cultural appropriation.
Shortly after in response to the resignation, a group of prominent Canadian journalists, including columnist Andrew Coyne, the head of Rogers Digital Content Publishing Steve Maich, Walrus editor Jon Kay and more, offered donations to ringleader Ken Whyte to a form a faux Appropriation Prize in defence of free expression.
Then, after a storm of further outrage, by the start of this week, Maich had deleted his Twitter account, Kay had resigned, many of those same journalists had profusely apologized for the faux prize discussion.
Such is the tension around the issue of cultural appropriation. Though people can rarely agree on a clear definition, it is often mistakenly thought to mean when someone from one culture uses or adopts elements of another.
But it more accurately refers to when aspects of one culture are inappropriately or inartfully co-opted and harmfully reused by another. Even in the space between those two competing meanings, it’s clear why the concept generates such heated debate. It gets at a fundamental question of who has the right to say what.
The question of cultural appropriation has thus been framed as an issue of free speech, literary licence, or worse, political correctness gone mad. But the actual problem with cultural appropriation is the same as that infuriating faux prize: They are each symbolic reminders that in Canada, a white mainstream not only takes precedence, but too often actively dismisses the concerns of racial minorities and First Nations peoples.
That’s not to say there is no room for debate about cultural appropriation. I believe speaking about culture in strictly binary terms of who owns it and is allowed to write about it conceives of culture as a static, monolithic thing, when all cultures have porous borders, shifting terrain, and their own internal battles.
Cultural appropriation is not some simplistic set of rules regarding who owns what, but instead is a question of context, nuance, art. It is, more simply, about likelihood.
It is less likely, but not impossible, that someone might, without direct experience, be able to write well about, say, a Native Canadian’s particular ideas of spirituality or property, a Muslim Canadian woman’s thoughts on the hijab, or an immigrant’s feelings about identity. Each instance must be judged in its own context, and on its own merits.
But at the very least, each time a controversy over the issue erupts, it stands as a reminder for creators and writers to ask themselves when they put something out into the world, what are their responsibilities to their subject?
Individual acts of cultural appropriation are often minor things; in the aggregate they stand for something much more insidious — that is, the centring of a white Canadian perspective as the norm to the exclusion of the specific cultural experience of others.
It isn’t whether one writer has the right to craft a single story; it’s that there have been decades, if not centuries, of a pattern by which a white mainstream has gotten to not only speak, but speak for others, too. The tension over cultural appropriation is thus a struggle over representation, and whether a variety of people can see nuanced, complex depictions of their views and cultures.
It is also for that reason the faux “Appropriation Prize” rightly drew so much ire. While many involved apologized both Whyte and Coyne were careful to repeat simple, obvious ideas about free expression and the necessity of contentious debate. Neither engaged the offence caused by their celebration of an idea that implicitly mocked the concerns of First Nations and minority writers — and this despite well-publicized discussions of those reactions on BuzzFeed, the Globe and Mail, and a moving interview with Jesse Wente on the CBC.
It is a fitting metaphor that shows why there is still a reluctant preference for members of a culture to tell their own stories. It is not because anyone wants to suppress speech or put up walls around culture; but because even in the face of the most heartfelt and thoughtful expressions on a topic, some will choose to ignore you anyway, and claim that they alone possess the one, true way of seeing the world.