Appropriation is taking someone’s story
When these stories are about indigenous peoples, it’s a problem
I am a white male and here is my response to the “appropriation” controversy.
Appropriation is taking someone else’s story and putting it through the filter of your life experience, knowledge and understanding. The word “taking” is key. Appropriation doesn’t imply collaboration. It means to take possession of. To take someone else’s story and make it your own.
An appropriated story is one degree of separation from the original. The writer may believe it has the ring of truth, or at least is a fair and accurate portrayal. But it’s always through the writer’s own filter, whether they realize it or not. That doesn’t make it invalid, but at this point in our country’s history, when these stories are about indigenous peoples, it’s a problem.
Last fall, we put out an episode of White Coat Black Art on CBC Radio that began with the sentence: “I’m Dr Brian Goldman and I’m a white settler.” In the program, Brian looked at the challenge to provide culturally safe care for indigenous people. It was important to start with that sentence because Brian understood that his words were filtered through his experience and position in the world.
Listening to the voices of the indigenous women in that show helped me to understand my place in the world as a white man. The hospital, an institution created by our European society, is not a frightening place to me. It is created by my culture. But for others, it bears the echoes of the institutional oppression of the residential school. How often do I think about that when I’m getting my PSA checked?
At the core of the “appropriation” uproar, there is a lack of acceptance of our privilege that we from European backgrounds enjoy, consciously or unconsciously. And right now that has to stop.
It’s 2017. Look at where we are in the history of this country. Two years after the final report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we still haven’t taken meaningful action. We are celebrating our 150th anniversary, and yes there is much to celebrate, but without redressing the injustices against our indigenous people, the fanfare rings hollow.
As artists, as journalists, it’s time to put the voice of the indigenous people of our country front and centre, away from the noise of those who feel it is their creative right to write on their behalf.
This is more than an intellectual discussion of creative freedom. This is about understanding our country’s history and on whose backs Canada has been built.
This needs to be a time of hard-work and healing, not of late-night tweets of so-called jokes with the tone akin to the privileged conversation heard in a wood-panelled men’s club. I bristle at the image of the urban intellectual elite throwing money on the table, belittling the reality of indigenous life in our country.
We should be moving past the bluster and indignation, to the long arduous process of digging down into ourselves, to understand our place in history. We need to ask, who we as white settlers really are, what our place is in this world, and how we got here.
Last week, while the appropriation scandal erupted, I spent the day at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford on Six Nations territory. I sat in an auditorium with a group of about a hundred people, listening to two survivors from the Mohawk Institute, a residential school, tell their stories.
The Woodland Cultural Centre is doing something phenomenal. They are restoring the former residential school to become a centre of learning for the Mohawk community. It’s called the “Save the Evidence” campaign and as part of it, they invite people to hear testimonies from former residents of the residential school.
Blanche Hill who went to the Mohawk Institute back in the 1940s says she wants a new generation to relearn “the things they took away from us. They took our language away from us. They took our way of living. They took our families away. They took all of that away. Maybe we can get it back ... I’m not going to be silent anymore.”
Beverly Bombery Albrecht was a student in the sixties. In remembering her time there, she says “here we didn’t have no voice. At least now I have a voice and that’s why I share my story.”
I say that now is the time to listen to that voice.
Dr. Brian Goldman,CBC radio medical expert, started a recent program with: “I’m Dr Brian Goldman and I’m a white settler.” It was an important thing to do, writes Jeff Goodes.