Pointing the cultural appropriation finger
It should be a debate and there should be no losing of jobs over it
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. firstname.lastname@example.org 905-526-3495 @AndrewDreschel