Appropriation: Our Bodies Are Not Yours

The recent weeks of the ‘appropriation prize’ bullsh!t has and probably will stick with me for a long time to come. It’s saddening and hugely disappointing when you learn that people at the top of their field(s) who are widely respected don’t deserve to have anyone looking up to them. For people who are so influential (all of them white) to so casually out themselves as entitled, insensitive, racist pricks on social media, makes the world and this country feel like there have been few societal gains made by Aboriginal people, people of colour and other marginalized people, toward justice or equality.

I’ve lived my whole life knowing that people are treated different because of what they look like, where they come from and what they don’t have. But to bear witness to the unfolding of this event and its aftermath – an aftermath which may just be the beginning for some – has been painful. I wrote two posts about this issue, mainly the facts, without truly injecting myself into them and I feel like that wasn’t enough – or right. It wasn’t enough because I didn’t make it clear that the Aboriginal writers featured in the spring edition of the writers’ magazine were not alone in their hurt; and it wasn’t right because in cyberspace we can choose to be anonymous without revealing which side of an issue we choose to land on.

I am not Aboriginal, but as a person of colour, whose ancestors also had their lands, their bodies and minds colonized, I identified with the pain and anger Aboriginal writers and their communities felt. As someone who writes – although because of illness I do it now primarily for myself – the idea that anyone would find it acceptable, even in jest, to tell others to write about who or what they couldn’t possibly know beyond gross generalizations and dehumanizing stereotypes is maddening. For members of that elite, gate-keeping clique to become indignant and lash out at the ones hurt is irrational and sickening. It pains further that they tried to hide their racism behind supposed efforts to protect free speech – which I pointed out before, on this occasion of overt racism, became the beneficiary of protections when it was least threatened – from Aboriginal writers and their communities speaking out against the harm being perpetuated by the denial of the existence of appropriation.

As one who has been wounded, I know that to be always alert and ready to respond to an incident like this as an individual and/or a representative for your race/ethnicity/community is demanding. To have to restrain one’s self in the face of conflict to avoid perpetually being labelled angry or ignorant of the bigger picture is exhausting. To be repeatedly harmed and then told by the perpetrator no harm was done to you is abusive. To have the things that concern your life flippantly mocked and dismissed as ‘identity politics’ is a form of erasure conveniently applied when those with racial privilege and power have no interest in examining their wrongs, or seeing all of what makes you human.

Moreover, when people throw around the term ‘identity politics’ they seem to forget that in each person’s life it’s not realistic to separate politics from who you are because the personal is political, which simply relates to consciousness-raising, awareness of where you come from, and what makes you who you are in any moment. So instead of attempting to stir controversy with such a ridiculously inflammatory positioning of these words, they might actually think about doing something beneficial with the privilege, influence, and power they continue to stockpile. Perhaps, these privileged few could learn the true unpolished history of this country, which will show how impossible it is for any of them, or other white individuals, to write what they don’t know. It might also clarify, how inherently difficult it is for the Aboriginal writers they belittle, and other writers of colour, to produce beautiful work about what they know when our worlds are overrun by systemic violence, oppression, physical and emotional trauma, lost lives, wounded families, and sometimes fragile love(s).

I’ll give them a place to start. After spending a few days in reflection, I turned to writing this post to purge the bullsh!t from recent weeks and only started feeling mildly better when poetry appeared. In all likelihood, were I to send any of this writing to any of the involved publishers, editors, or journalists, they would probably reject it without consideration because of the subject. Ironically, that knowing might be what prompted the editor to write that offending editorial; why in his words, the face of literature in this country is so white and middle-class…

 

What Matters about the Appropriation Prize

I’ve been engrossed by a shameful display of white (mostly male) privilege exhibited on social media and in widely circulated articles, by a group of powerful Canadian publishers, editors, and journalists in recent days. The words they have used (written and verbal) have caused pain to which they are oblivious. Even as some of them apologized, it was clear they did not understand why so many people are angered and hurt. Some of them, while holding firm or further digging in, continue to defend what they see as an attack on free speech.

This morning, in an interview on CBC Radio, Indigenous critic Jesse Wente, eloquently re-positioned the spotlight where it belongs. He brought back to the fore, the issue of the Aboriginal writers, including Alicia Elliott, who were personally harmed and whose works were overshadowed by the flippant editorial that stated cultural appropriation does not exist and encouraged other writers to write about people and lives they do not know. His emotional and frank statements raise the question of why, in 2017, these discussions are still so necessary.

 

Jesse Wente – CBC Metro Morning

You can also watch the interview and read the written transcript here on the CBC website.

 

As often happens in controversial cases involving race, Mr. Wente was also called upon on Saturday, by CBC News, to engage in debate about Aboriginal cultural appropriation with the editor/journalist whose offensive tweet was the catalyst for the call to donate to an appropriation prize. In that interview, it was remarkable to watch as Mr. Wente’s words fell on the ears of a person who is so disconnected from the barriers racism and other social justice issues can sometimes impose. From his position of power, which is propped up through multiple societal constructs, said editor/journalist was both condescending and immovable.

 

Appropriation vs. artistic freedom – CBC News Interview

 

That editor/journalist has since resigned from his role as editor-in-chief at a Canadian literary magazine. As part of his reason for resigning he noted, “The Walrus Foundation is moving in a direction that is different from what I was hoping. My dream was always to create a Canadian version of Atlantic magazine, which offers intelligent well-researched viewpoints and articles on all sorts of issues, including controversial topics,” he said. “The cultural appropriation issue would be only one small example of that.”

 

 

For further insight into this issue more articles are listed below.


 

The cultural appropriation debate isn’t about free speech — it’s about context – Alicia Elliott – CBC Arts   –

The unbearable whiteness of being (oblivious to privilege) – Ricochet

A Note from the Publisher and Executive Director – The Walrus

‘I invoked cultural appropriation in the context of literature and writing only’: Hal Niedzviecki – CBC The Current

Jonathan Kay resigns as editor of The Walrus amid cultural appropriation controversy – The Globe and Mail

Walrus editor Jonathan Kay quits amid free speech uproar: ‘I have been censoring myself more and more’ – National Post

It may be harmless appropriation to you. But it’s our preservation – The Globe and Mail

Cultural appropriation and the privilege of creative assumption – The Globe and Mail

Cultural appropriation: Why can’t we debate it? – The Globe and Mail

Debate over cultural appropriation a centuries-old battle for Indigenous groups – The Globe and Mail

 

The Appropriation Prize Through a Pain Clouded Lens

It’s hard being me right now. That’s not me feeling sorry for myself. I’m referring to living with a chronic illness that causes me constant pain. It makes it difficult for me to keep up with the social justice issues I once passionately followed and supported in my daily life; and it is harder still because I constantly doubt myself because pain affects my concentration, as do the pain medications I take to manage it.

It’s especially tough when I engage with people who may hold a privileged place in society because of their race, gender, sex, class and/or profession. If they say or do something that resonates negatively to my core, I question whether I heard or understood the words or actions correctly because my mind is sometimes so clouded by all the medications I take to manage my pain; and I question how or if I should respond.

I’m not American. However, since the arrival of the Trump Era and the relaxing of the niceties of political correctness – which served for so long as the thinnest shield between people of colour, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, the differently abled, and women, and the bombardment of overt racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia; I’ve witnessed a shift. Even in my personal relationships. People now say what they think and feel without fearing repercussions.

Yesterday, I didn’t have to doubt, not even for a second, that members of the upper echelons within Canadian media have discarded all pretense that it matters if people know what they truly feel about marginalized and racialized people. In fact, a career journalist for the Toronto Star, went as far as pointing out in her Friday column that she loathes identity politics and racialized is “(an invented word)”, while applying her 20th century views to the state of modern-day journalism in reference to a black freelance writer’s activism.

My head wasn’t clouded at all yesterday. I had no doubt, when first I read an article in The Globe and Mail about the poorly received editorial in which the now former-editor of a writers’ magazine stated he did not believe in cultural appropriation and that there should be an ‘appropriation prize’. I had no doubt when I read the full editorial in the opening pages of the Spring edition of the writers’ magazine dedicated to Aboriginal writers, where the former-editor’s beliefs overshadowed content from the very writers whose stories are so often silenced.

 

Write Magazine Spring 2017 – Hal Niedzviecki’s – Winning the Appropriation Prize

 

I still had no doubt when I later saw a list of white publishers, editors, and journalists facetiously jump forward to raise money to start a fictional ‘appropriation prize’ for the writer (assumedly a white one) who could best and most believably write about people, cultures, and races they know nothing about. That late night fundraising effort on Twitter was allegedly in response to protecting free speech – the beneficiary of protections in cases of overt racism always tend to be the thing that is least threatened. In the wake of fallout from the editorial written in the writers’ magazine, the editor resigned. This group of media power brokers voiced their outrage that a member of their clique was punished for something they too view as non-existent. They mocked the suggestion that the editorial harmed anyone. Harm which because of their privileged perches they could never see.

 

On Glibness And Diversity In Canadian Media – Buzzfeed – May 12 2017

 

Appropriation Fund – Contributors – Credit to Jake Mooney on Twitter – May 12 2017

 

I’ve chosen not to write the names of the people involved in this outrageous game of “this is who I really am” because I once held some of them in high esteem. I did, however, include the original offending editorial (above) and links throughout the post to informative articles I read yesterday, as well as additional links to more articles below.

As a Canadian, I’ve been hoping for the better part of a year that what is happening south of the border wouldn’t take hold here. The thing I forgot is that even when you think you have no weeds in a garden, it’s impossible to see what’s rooted below the surface of the dirt.

 


Editor quits amid outrage after call for ‘Appropriation Prize’ in writers’ magazine – The Star

Cultural appropriation prize fund was the unkindest cut of all: Paradkar – The Star

High-profile Canadian journalists pledge to raise money for ‘appropriation prize’ – The Star

Indigenous literature’s fearless aunties respond on cultural appropriation – Ricochet

André Alexis: The complex issues within cultural appropriation and art – The Globe and Mail

Christie Blatchford: Magazine editor the latest to be silenced for the sin of free speech – National Post

Editor Resigns Over an Article Defending ‘Cultural Appropriation’ – New York Times

In the end, cultural appropriation is about the cash: Walkom – The Star