Point­ing the cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion fin­ger

It should be a de­bate and there should be no los­ing of jobs over it

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - AN­DREW DRESCHEL

Should a white het­ero­sex­ual male write a novel from the per­spec­tive of a black les­bian?

In the name of free­dom of ex­pres­sion, ab­so­lutely.

But clearly these days the au­thor and his pub­lisher — if he’s lucky enough to get one — would be tarred and feath­ered with ac­cu­sa­tions of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

What does “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion” ac­tu­ally mean? There is any num­ber of ser­vice­able definitions but the one that res­onates with me is from Ox­ford Ref­er­ence.

Ox­ford de­fines it as “the tak­ing over of cre­ative or artis­tic forms, themes, or prac­tices by one cul­tural group from an­other.”

The next sen­tence, how­ever, is the key one, al­lud­ing as it does to a hard truth driv­ing this in­creas­ingly heated de­bate:

“It is in gen­eral used to de­scribe West­ern ap­pro­pri­a­tions of non-West­ern or non­white forms, and car­ries con­no­ta­tions of ex­ploita­tion and dom­i­nance.”

In other words, the trig­ger­ing el­e­ment is the of­fender is white, ergo — if you sub­scribe to a cer­tain left-wing ide­ol­ogy — a priv­i­leged mem­ber of a dom­i­nant and op­pres­sive so­cial group.

Let me stop there for a mo­ment. When I give pocket change to the poor and com­pro­mised white guys who fre­quently beg out­side liquor stores and on street cor­ners, I of­ten won­der if they’re aware of their al­legedly priv­i­leged sta­tus

At the risk of sound­ing like an old school Marx­ist, for me class and wealth will al­ways be the prime build­ing blocks of priv­i­lege in Cana­dian so­ci­ety, not skin colour, gen­der or eth­nic ori­gins.

I un­der­stand of course that in­dige­nous peo­ples and other mi­nori­ties have his­tor­i­cally been dis­crim­i­nated against. But I be­lieve in ad­dress­ing to­day’s wrongs, not grov­el­ling over things that hap­pened hun­dreds of years ago when none of us were here. No­body’s hands are clean when it comes to his­tory. But when it comes to cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, it seems only white peo­ple’s hands are dirty. Why is that?

There is of course no mono­lithic body that speaks with one doc­tri­naire voice to judge these things. But it’s a safe bet my fic­tional white guy writer would be widely seen as a pro­to­typ­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a dom­i­nant so­cial group who’s now in­sen­si­tively ex­ploit­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of a marginal­ized or less pow­er­ful so­cial group. In other words, he’s cut­ting their grass even though he’s got plenty of his own to mow.

But doesn’t the value of any work of art de­pend on the maker’s cre­atively, style, em­pa­thy and re­search, not skin colour or gen­der? Not nec­es­sar­ily in to­day’s cli­mate.

Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of the Writ­ers Union of Canada mag­a­zine “Write” re­cently re­signed in the face of a fierce back­lash to his ar­ti­cle glibly sug­gest­ing that an “ap­pro­pri­a­tion prize” should be given to an au­thor who writes the best book about peo­ple whose lives and cul­tures are dif­fer­ent from their own.

Steve Ladu­ran­taye, man­ag­ing editor of CBC’s “The Na­tional” was then de­moted and ba­si­cally sent for re-ed­u­ca­tion af­ter he and a bunch of other influential me­dia types jok­ingly tweeted their sup­port for the prize.

Both men apol­o­gized, as did some others in­volved in the Twit­ter ex­change. No ques­tion it would have been wiser for Niedzviecki to pub­lish his views in an is­sue of “Write” that wasn’t de­voted to in­dige­nous writ­ers. And a news leader like Ladu­ran­taye should have stayed well above the fray.

But their mis­steps pale next to the hyp­o­crit­i­cal apol­ogy is­sued by the Writ­ers’ Union. Af­ter ex­press­ing re­gret for the pain and of­fence caused by Niedzviecki’s opin­ion piece, they dropped this dou­ble­think howler: “The in­ten­tion be­hind the mag­a­zine is to of­fer space for an hon­est and chal­leng­ing dis­cus­sion and to be sin­cerely en­cour­ag­ing to all voices.”

That’s sim­ply not true. If it was, they would have de­fended Niedzviecki’s right to ex­press his opin­ion that writ­ers should be en­cour­aged to write from a va­ri­ety of per­spec­tives re­gard­less of their iden­ti­ties or cul­tural back­grounds. Of course, others are equally free to crit­i­cize and point the cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion fin­ger at them. But some­thing is des­per­ately out of bal­ance when peo­ple start los­ing their jobs over the de­bate.

An­drew Dreschel’s com­men­tary ap­pears Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day. adreschel@thes­pec.com 905-526-3495 @An­drewDreschel

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