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Whitney French: Examining the root of cultural appropriation

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Whitney French

What cultural appropriation is: telling someone elseʼs stories without consent
What cultural appropriation isnʼt: creating characters that are different than your cultural, ethnic background
What cultural appropriation is: extracting a narrative, story, history outside of its full context, often for capitalistic or political gain
What cultural appropriation isnʼt: censorship and/or the antithesis of free speech
What cultural appropriation is: dismantling any sense of authenticity a cultural narrative possesses

Our obsession with defining cultural appropriation, avoiding it, defending it, objecting to it, creates a narrative around cultural appropriation that ebbs and flows with popularity and context. It is certainly not a new topic in Canadian literature. There are comprehensive articles (“Working Through Cultural Appropriation” by Richard Fung) and books (Frontiers by M. NourbeSe Philip, Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, as well as many others) that outline the history of how cultural appropriation has impacted our collective psyche. There were the scandals of the Canada Council and the missteps of the Womenʼs Press in the ’90s, and now we have former Write editor Hal Niedzvieckiʼs contribution. Our media outlets are invested in these racy stories that often emphasize “hurt feelings” as the Writers’ Union of Canada apology addresses, but shies away from historical trauma and power imbalances. Is this the root of cultural appropriation?

Whatʼs worse, we as literary, well-read, and “respectable” people living in the myth of post-racial multicultural Canada constantly find ourselves shocked when racism rears its head. Yet the glaring reality proves that racism is an inherent part of this country. Ask many a black, Indigenous person otherwise.

So what is cultural appropriationʼs opposite? To expand on the revelation that Richard Fung offered, the inverted twin of cultural appropriation is likely “cultural self-determination.” The ability to tell oneʼs own story without fear that it will be stolen, misused, misrepresented, distorted, or bastardized. To have the autonomy to share aspects of oneʼs culture on oneʼs own terms, through artistic expression, creative visioning, and literary aesthetic. Niedzvieckiʼs charge that “cultural appropriation discourages writers … which is at least one reason why Canlit subject matter remains exhaustingly white and middle-class,” erases all non-white voices in an instant. Niedzviecki isnʼt talking to me when he says “writers,” nor is he speaking to other racialized writers like me who contribute toward Canadian literature. Weʼre here in spite of the racist climate not because of it. Personally, I am entirely uninterested in policing what white people do. My investment of energy lies in the ways that artists of colour are creating spaces for themselves and committing to the craft of storytelling.

The sense of entitlement coupled with cultural appropriation eclipses the sacredness of being humble and asking. Abandoning consent is a symptom of capitalistic, patriarchal mindsets, and begs the question: Whatʼs the worst that can happen when asking for permission? Oh right, someone may tell you no. For people in power who have privilege, this a difficult reality. Hearing no. Within this framework, infringing on the liberty of racialized community becomes integral in maintaining the stability of a white personʼs liberty. The freedom to take as one pleases, without regard.

The argument that cultural appropriation is moving toward censorship is a step in the wrong direction. We must be reminded that censorship is a government-imposed limit to hide certain truths, “a state function” as Fung states, one in which power again is at play; those whose culture are typically appropriated are often disenfranchised to begin with. There is very little truth found in cultural appropriation. Free speech that oppresses others is not freeing in the least.

What is lacking in much of this intergenerational conversation around cultural appropriation is dignity. The painful realization that these cultures that are borrowed, appreciated, and ultimately appropriated are cultures that have been historically severed, distorted, criminalized, ones in which people literally lost their lives to preserve. Hurt feelings hardly scratch the surface. Calls to fund an “appropriation prize” by media figures such as former Maclean’s editor Ken Whyte and columnists Christie Blatchford and Andrew Coyne, is a call-out to actively strip the dignity of someoneʼs personhood and the worst part is, I still have to sit here and write an article to explain why that is unacceptable.

Whitney French is curating a collection called Black Writing Matters for University of Regina Press and is anthologized in The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry