Ex­am­in­ing the Root of Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Quill & Quire, May 15, 2017. Whit­ney French is cu­rat­ing a collection called Black Writ­ing Mat­ters for Uni­ver­sity of Regina Press. She lives in Toronto.

Geist - - Findings - WHIT­NEY FRENCH

What cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is: telling some­one else’s sto­ries with­out con­sent

What cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion isn’t: cre­at­ing char­ac­ters that are dif­fer­ent than your cul­tural, eth­nic back­ground What cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is: ex­tract­ing a nar­ra­tive, story, his­tory out­side of its full con­text, of­ten for cap­i­tal­is­tic or po­lit­i­cal gain

What cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion isn’t: cen­sor­ship and/or the an­tithe­sis of free speech

What cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is: dis­man­tling any sense of authenticity a cul­tural nar­ra­tive pos­sesses

Our ob­ses­sion with defin­ing cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, avoid­ing it, de­fend­ing it, ob­ject­ing to it, cre­ates a nar­ra­tive around cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion that ebbs and flows with pop­u­lar­ity and con­text. It is cer­tainly not a new topic in Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture. There are com­pre­hen­sive ar­ti­cles (“Work­ing Through Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion” by Richard Fung) and books (Fron­tiers by M. Nourbese Philip, Bor­rowed Power: Es­says on Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion, as well as many oth­ers) that out­line the his­tory of how cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion has im­pacted our col­lec­tive psy­che. There were the scan­dals of the Canada Coun­cil and the mis­steps of the Women’s Press in the ’90s, and now we have for­mer Write edi­tor Hal Niedzviecki’s con­tri­bu­tion. Our me­dia out­lets are in­vested in th­ese racy sto­ries that of­ten em­pha­size “hurt feel­ings” as the Writ­ers’ Union of Canada apology ad­dresses, but shies away from his­tor­i­cal trauma and power im­bal­ances. Is this the root of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion?

What’s worse, we as lit­er­ary, well-read,

and “re­spectable” peo­ple liv­ing in the myth of post-racial mul­ti­cul­tural Canada con­stantly find our­selves shocked when racism rears its head. Yet the glar­ing re­al­ity proves that racism is an in­her­ent part of this coun­try. Ask many a black, Indige­nous per­son oth­er­wise.

So what is cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion’s op­po­site? To ex­pand on the rev­e­la­tion that Richard Fung of­fered, the in­verted twin of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is likely “cul­tural self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.” The abil­ity to tell one’s own story with­out fear that it will be stolen, mis­used, mis­rep­re­sented, dis­torted, or bas­tardized. To have the au­ton­omy to share as­pects of one’s cul­ture on one’s own terms, through artis­tic ex­pres­sion, cre­ative vi­sion­ing, and lit­er­ary aes­thetic. Niedzviecki’s charge that “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion dis­cour­ages writ­ers… which is at least one rea­son why Can­lit sub­ject mat­ter re­mains ex­haust­ingly white and mid­dle-class,” erases all non-white voices in an instant. Niedzviecki isn’t talk­ing to me when he says “writ­ers,” nor is he speak­ing to other racial­ized writ­ers like me who con­trib­ute to­ward Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture. We’re here in spite of the racist cli­mate not be­cause of it. Per­son­ally, I am en­tirely un­in­ter­ested in polic­ing what white peo­ple do. My in­vest­ment of en­ergy lies in the ways that artists of colour are cre­at­ing spa­ces for them­selves and com­mit­ting to the craft of sto­ry­telling.

The sense of en­ti­tle­ment cou­pled with cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion eclipses the sa­cred­ness of be­ing hum­ble and ask­ing. Aban­don­ing con­sent is a symp­tom of cap­i­tal­is­tic, pa­tri­ar­chal mind­sets, and begs the ques­tion: What’s the worst that can hap­pen

when ask­ing for per­mis­sion? Oh right, some­one may tell you no. For peo­ple in power who have priv­i­lege, this a dif­fi­cult re­al­ity. Hear­ing no. Within this frame­work, in­fring­ing on the lib­erty of racial­ized com­mu­nity be­comes in­te­gral in main­tain­ing the sta­bil­ity of a white per­son’s lib­erty. The free­dom to take as one pleases, with­out re­gard.

The ar­gu­ment that cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is mov­ing to­ward cen­sor­ship is a step in the wrong di­rec­tion. We must be re­minded that cen­sor­ship is a gov­ern­ment-im­posed limit to hide cer­tain truths, “a state func­tion” as Fung states, one in which power again is at play; those whose cul­ture are typ­i­cally ap­pro­pri­ated are of­ten dis­en­fran­chised to be­gin with. There is very lit­tle truth found in cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. Free speech that op­presses oth­ers is not free­ing in the least.

What is lack­ing in much of this in­ter­gen­er­a­tional con­ver­sa­tion around cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is dig­nity. The painful re­al­iza­tion that th­ese cul­tures that are bor­rowed, ap­pre­ci­ated, and ul­ti­mately ap­pro­pri­ated are cul­tures that have been his­tor­i­cally sev­ered, dis­torted, crim­i­nal­ized, ones in which peo­ple lit­er­ally lost their lives to pre­serve. Hurt feel­ings hardly scratch the sur­face. Calls to fund an “ap­pro­pri­a­tion prize” by me­dia fig­ures such as for­mer Maclean’s edi­tor Ken Whyte and colum­nists Christie Blatch­ford and An­drew Coyne, is a call-out to ac­tively strip the dig­nity of some­one’s per­son­hood and the worst part is, I still have to sit here and write an ar­ti­cle to ex­plain why that is un­ac­cept­able.

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