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If The Cultural Appropriation Prize Is A Joke, We Are The Punchline

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Noting the tendency of Canadians to retort, "At least we're not like Americans!", when faced with evidence of Canada's racist treatment of black and racialized people and the ongoing structural oppression of indigenous life, Junot Diaz recently noted that such a proclamation is akin to saying "At least I'm not like my murdering cousin!" --- meaning the United States. It might be very well and good that we are not like our murdering cousin down south, but how does that do anything to make us more accountable to our own shit?

Obviously, it doesn't, and that's precisely why this retort circulates so widely and so effectively: it obscures the very real problems we have here in Canada, making it near impossible to have a real conversation about our own complicities in the suffering of others.

indigenous black canada
Idle No More and Black Lives Matter protesters occupy the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to demand government action on Attawapiskat suicide crisis, April 17, 2016. (Photo: Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Canadians are eager to proclaim how much better we are at racial sensitivity, yet the events of the past week make crystal clear that not only do Canadians have an unreasonably lofty sense of their moral compass that is not supported by the facts or by history, many of our most important cultural leaders and shapers have no idea what an old concept originating from the 1980s like "cultural appropriation" even means. How f**king embarrassing.

Announcing their eagerness to brazenly support the creation of an "Appropriation Prize," some of the leading executives, editors-in-chiefs, and writers in Canadian media demonstrated not only their callous arrogance but their incredible stupidity. The fact that so many of the gatekeepers of Canada's media institutions have no clue what cultural appropriation actually means -- the most charitable reading of their late-night Twitter shenanigans -- is absolutely mind-boggling.

Of course, since these people are marinating in privilege, they felt no qualms about broadcasting such callous ignorance for the world to see.

In the ensuing dust-up, while debating Jesse Wente on CBC, Jonathan Kay noted that there is a very real conversation to be had about the limits to the imagination placed by "identity politics fundamentalists." Right. Except this is not what people who decry cultural appropriation are against, because that is not what cultural appropriation is.

As Scaachi Koul noted, "no one, in the history of writing books, has ever suggested that white people are not allowed to write thoughtful portrayals of Indigenous people or people of colour, namely in fiction." Cultural Appropriation is not the expansive, empathetic imagining of the other -- it is rather, the theft of other's stories as if they were your own. How, possibly, could this be so difficult to understand? It isn't, of course, but it sure helps to be this obtuse when it comes to holding on to one's privilege.


In an earlier op-ed for The National Post, Kay wrote:

What takes priority -- the right of artists to extend their imagination to the entire human experience, or the right of historically marginalized communities to protect themselves from possible misrepresentation. Personally, I land on the side of free speech: I'm fearful that, as at many points in history, small acts of well-intentioned censorship will expand into a full-fledged speech code that prohibits whole categories of art and discourse.

Following the tired, pathetically reductive, dog-eared logic of privileged people everywhere, Kay is far more concerned with centring this discussion on the theoretical fears of people like him in the future than he is with the ongoing, violent and unending dispossession (read: appropriation) of indigenous life, land and freedom. This is true for all of the gatekeepers who signed onto the appropriation prize: their fear of theoretical censorship in the future is just so much more hand-wringingly worrisome to them than anything else other people might actually be experiencing in this country right now.

My initial reaction to hearing about the appropriation prize was feeling like I was being slapped in the face. I now realize the Twitter revelations are actually incredibly affirming: they let me know that I am not just imagining things; that Canadian media really is incredibly hostile to the voices of indigenous, black and people of colour; that the gatekeepers of these institutions would rather pay out of their own pockets to have someone like them tell our stories than to pay us to tell our own.

For once, Canadian politeness wasn't able to mask the insidiously pervasive feelings of hostility so many indigenous, black and racialized people face in Canadian media. How many times have we been told that there is simply no money to tackle the stories of indigenous, black and people of colour? Particularly when it comes to paying racialized journalists and storytellers to tell these stories? Yet somehow, the same people in charge of these decisions have no qualms about forking over their own money to make sure Canadian media continues to look only like them.

Echoing Jesse Wente's conclusion in a tearful segment with Matt Galloway over the weekend: let's hope none of us has to live through another episode like this again.

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