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Cultural appropriation and the aristocracy of stupidity…

May 21, 2017

Many of the white folk who have positions of power at various Canadian media and literary outlets, who made the deeply insensitive comments last week about their indifference to the concept of cultural appropriation – coming in the midst of a national debate about Canada’s 150th birthday, and how the nation was built on the genocide and oppression of Indigenous peoples who already lived here – was clueless on so many levels I am almost too overwhelmed to respond.

What strikes me, is that these white men (yes, there was at least one white woman involved as well – but as with all positions of power in Canada, this is first, and foremost, a tale of white men) are completely clueless to their own positions of privilege, to the history of who has voice in Canada, as well as a seemingly total ignorance of the price indigenous people have paid for the military occupation of their land, and the almost total eradication of their culture.

What baffles me is that these are white men who are, more or less, in my age range. These are men in their mid 40’s through to their mid 60’s, men in their peak career earning years, men with corner offices, men who are seen at all the top literary and journalism events. Men of the Arts and Culture Scene in Canada.

Many of these men were in journalism school around the same time I was. They all have the past 30-40 years of participating in the cultural zeitgeist we call Canada. Sure, that dominant zeitgeist is white – Tim Horton’s, Shopper’s Drug Mart, Margaret Atwood, Hockey Night in Canada white – and yes, at the heart of Hal Niedzviecki’s infamous editorial was a call for white writers in Canada to step out of themselves and stop being, well, so white! Still, have they not listened to the news of their own outlets, read the discussions about cultural appropriation in their own magazines, empathized with the national tragedy that is Canada’s indigenous community.

This is where Niedzviecki’s editorial completely falls off the rails – being blinded by his own ignorance and privilege and general lack of intelligence and common sense (or, just plain stupid), he assumed that the problem of too much whiteness in our literary circles could be solved by white writers assuming the perspective and viewpoint of the Other – “not white” people.

Rather than calling for the opening of Canada’s tightly-clenched white sphincter of privilege to people who are “other”, to allow them space and voice, he calls for white writers to be more indigenous, or Black, or Asian, or Chinese.

What better example do we have for understanding ongoing white-centric cultural neocolonialism?

Of course as writers and thinkers we should all try to embrace the other that we encounter and relate to, but Niedzviecki speaks as if all people on the spectrum are on equal ground, with equal access to voice.

Which is so obviously not true. Can you name even three Indigenous Canadian writers? Poets? Movie directors? Television personalities? Radio show hosts? Newscasters? Friends?

Of course, all last week the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and CBC (TV and radio) have rolled out indigenous personalities to voice their disappointment and anger at Niedzviecki’s editorial and the subsequent pro-appropriation response it provoked from within certain Canadian literary circles. But where are these voices the rest of the time?

Shut the fuck up with your feigned liberal outrage and intolerant righteousness when next week these same voices of tokenism are relegated back to the Rez.

It’s hard being reminded, that 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement started, 35 years after Canada got a new constitution, and 10 years since we started talking about truth and reconciliation that we are, at heart, still so white – so dramatically white, that we are still so blinded by our privilege and our access to voice that in a magazine that was supposed to be celebrating indigenous writers in Canada, the editor-in-chief asked that white writers appropriate indigenous culture. And, that there should be a prize for the one who could do it best. And!, that other white men (and white women) would tweet their support for this appropriation initiative and even pony up some of their own money for the prize.

But it’s more than that as well. It’s as if we are actively not listening to what other people are saying; that we willingly wear blinders to keep the periphery out of sight, out of mind. That the marginalia will be happy with their yearly film festivals, their pride parades, their weekly slot on CBC Radio, or with one issue of the Writer’s Union Magazine being dedicated to indigenous writers (a magazine which, until this week, most of us had never heard of).

Some of my liberal white friends – forever optimists – say that, at least, things are slowly getting better. That this would not have been an issue of national debate 50 years ago. That at Canada’s 100th birthday party no one ever considered the implications of that celebration on our indigenous communities.

They point out that Niedzviecki was forced to resign for his stupidity. That other supporters lost their jobs as well.

They point out that we have had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are now having a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, that many of us have at least heard of Motorcycles and Sweetgrass.

A round of applause I say.

Let’s pat ourselves on the back. Let’s thump the parliamentary podiums with a “here here!”

The ruling aristocracy loves to vindicate itself by throwing breadcrumbs to the pigeons.

Of course incremental change has happened. But how little things have actually changed, by 2017, is embarrassing.

After 400 years of colonial occupation this is the best we can do? Pat ourselves on the back for at least talking about cultural appropriation?

Maybe in another 400 years Canada’s indigenous communities will finally get safe drinking water. Basic housing. The same standard of education that white children get. Maybe we will stop taking their children from them. Maybe.

A lot can happen in 400 years.

Or not.

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