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How some people are missing the point on cultural appropriation

It seems increasingly clear cultural appropriation’s champions aren’t interested in nuance or even free speech—they’re interested in hegemony
A worker installs Canadian Aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau’s painting "Androgyny" in the ballroom at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sept. 18, 2008. The work of Toronto painter Amanda PL is infused with bright colours and bold outlines often associated with an indigenous art style. But for those steeped in the Woodland School of Art, as the genre is also known, it smacks of cultural appropriation by a young artist with no claim to the tradition. Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs. Amanda PL has said her work was inspired by the Woodland school of art and acknowledged a similarity to the work of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
A worker installs Canadian Aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau's painting "Androgyny" in the ballroom at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sept. 18, 2008. The work of Toronto painter Amanda PL is infused with bright colours and bold outlines often associated with an indigenous art style. But for those steeped in the Woodland School of Art, as the genre is also known, it smacks of cultural appropriation by a young artist with no claim to the tradition. Outrage over Amanda PL's work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs. Amanda PL has said her work was inspired by the Woodland school of art and acknowledged a similarity to the work of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
A worker installs Canadian Aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau’s painting “Androgyny” in the ballroom at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sept. 18, 2008. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

There is nothing more confounding in the artistic and journalism worlds than the antagonism generated by that phrase “cultural appropriation.” Which is itself peculiar, because for people whose livelihoods often depend on the comprehension of words, and the ability to utilize them, it’s as if the Almighty himself descended on Babel to confuse the language of writers and artists when we get to talking about this topic.

Given the number of thinkpieces generated lately in favour of “free speech” and creative license in defence of cultural appropriation—if not dismissing the concept altogether as leftist hysterics—I wonder if some aren’t missing the point. Because as much as some artists would like to frame it through the lens of speech and expression, what they’re really arguing for is the right to be lazy in their craft, and to continue speaking over those whose voices have historically been silenced. They’re not looking for a debate; they’re looking for a return to a time when their voices were elevated, and ours were silenced altogether. In a way, supporters of appropriation are trying to Make Art Great Again.

A day after Hal Niedzviecki resigned his editorial position at Write Magazine—an incident that prompted top editors and journalists to advocate for an “appropriation prize”—columnist Elizabeth Renzetti wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Ideas that incite violence or hatred deserve condemnation. But what about ideas that are uncomfortable or provocative or even (to some readers) ignorant? We have lost the appetite for confronting those ideas, for sharpening different, resonant arguments to counter them.”It inspired Jonathan Kay to take to the National Post: “It’s part of what may be described as the medicalization of the marketplace of ideas: It is no longer enough to say that you merely disagree with something.” Perhaps most surprisingly, Giller Prize-winning author André Alexis chimed in for the Globe and Mail, and while he chastised Niedzviecki for a “bewilderingly silly” idea, he added later that “I can’t help feeling, though, that as we celebrate Canada 150, we have devised an idea—‘cultural appropriation’—that runs the risk of hiding Indigenous Canadian culture, not preserving it.”

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As I mentioned in a previous article on the subject, cultural appropriation amounts to theft. It is the lifting of cultural aspects from underrepresented groups of people, and not only offering nothing in return, but expecting their gratitude for the promotion.

Before Niedzviecki’s ill-considered editorial, one of the latest incidents precipitating this conversation was the cancellation of an art exhibit. Amanda PL (who, it bears mentioning, is a white woman) was scheduled to open at the Visions Gallery in Toronto, but heavy criticism from the local Indigenous community put a stop to that.

To say Amanda PL borrows from Indigenous artists, particularly Norval Morrisseau, would be an understatement. Even overlooking the cross-section visual style with thick black lines and bright colours, one look at Morrisseau’s The Gift or Shaman with Sacred Corn, would be enough to make clear that Amanda PL’s work would be considered plagiarism in almost any other medium. Yet, the conversation around Amanda PL’s exhibition centred on “appropriation,” rather than “theft,” and for the umpteenth time, a conversation on who gets to participate in (and profit from) Indigenous culture became an argument over who Indigenous people even are to draw the boundaries.

The entitlement with which artsy grifters steal, repurpose, and profit from Indigenous culture would be laughable if not for this country’s cruel and consistent attempts to exorcise it from the people it belonged to. We are barely a couple of decades from the closure of the last residential school in Canada, and only a few decades removed from the repeal of laws that called for the arrest of Indigenous people who took part in traditional dances.

Indigenous writers like Robert Jago, Alicia Elliott, Ryan McMahon, and Chelsea Vowel have, in blistering detail, explained why white entitlement to Indigenous culture is less a matter of expression, and more an appendix in Canada’s shameful history of colonial plunder. A meme I saw online put it bluntly: “While you were busy playing Indians, we were punished for being Indians.”

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This is an infuriating and exhausting conversation to keep coming back to. It upsets me when Black girls are punished at school or disciplined at work for wearing their hair in the very styles that white girls are celebrated for trying on like costumes. It angers me when artists like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry fetishize Black culture, and then retreat into the safe spaces of whiteness once their act has worn thin. But I can’t imagine what reaction I’d have if my family’s sacred garments were ripped off and resold by European fashion labels. Or, for that matter, if a Canadian designer released lines that not only stole their look from Indigenous clothing patterns, but twisted the knife by incorporating the slurs “Squaw” and “Eskimo” into their names.

To be clear, “cultural appropriation” is not creating art which deviates out of the racialized swim lane one was born into. It is superimposing one’s own understandings of another culture over that actual culture, slapping a package on it, modelling it, and often selling it. Cultural appropriation is galling to those of us who come from the cultures being appropriated, especially when we face social and financial repercussions for not shedding our own cultures and assimilating into the dominant one. Sarah Thomson, former Toronto mayoral candidate, wore her hair in dreadlocks while campaigning; Akua Agyemfra, a Black server at Jack Astor’s, was sent home for wearing her natural hair in a bun. The reggae band Magic! rakes in album and concert sales; musicians of Caribbean background toil in obscurity. Amanda PL and Joseph Boyden profit from their forgery of Indigenous art and culture; actual Indigenous writers and artists struggle for recognition and remuneration.

At some gut level, all white Canadians understand this concept, and in fact unknowingly respect the idea that some cultural and social symbols are both sacred and worthy of protection. If I wish, for example, to make sparkling wine and call it Champagne, or make whisky in Canada and call it Scotch, I would find myself in legal jeopardy. I would very likely lose in court, because we accept that the cultural authenticity of alcohol in certain regions merits legal protection. Or if I were to put on a “FDNY” T-shirt, go to a bar in New York, and accept free drinks, I would rightly be thrown out on my backside when the jig was finally up. We understand these social rules to the extent that I would be a complete fool to question why a group of bar patrons punched me in the face over what I considered a meaningless T-shirt.

Of course, “culture” goes beyond symbols and products; it creeps into nearly every aspect of life for racialized groups, including the comfort foods we cook (e.g. “fried chicken and cheese grits”), and the vernacular language we use among like company (e.g. “Mama put her foot in these grits”). And yet, there persists a belief that culture is hardly more than a community swap meet, or the take-a-penny leave-a-penny dish at the corner store.

Andre Alexis in his home. (Photograph by Jaime Hogge)
Andre Alexis in his home. (Photograph by Jaime Hogge)

A constant refrain in this conversation is that all cultures borrow from other cultures, and without “appropriation,” we might not have, say, jazz or rock n’ roll (as if the genres didn’t exist before white artists showed up to profit from them). Another is that nonwhite groups borrow from European culture all the time.

In his own way, André Alexis made this argument in his Globe and Mail piece. “Norval Morrisseau was himself criticized for using sacred symbols in his work,” he wrote. “He was accused of debasing them. There is a consistency, here, but how strange that some of the condemnation of PL would necessarily be a condemnation of Morrisseau, too.” I was surprised someone as culturally adept as Alexis would make an assertion like this, because he is eliding a very important contextual fact: Norval Morrisseau was taken from his home as a child and placed in a residential school, where he was not only indoctrinated with Christianity, but was sexually and emotionally abused. To weigh one type of sacredness equally against another is to say that Morrisseau and Amanda PL took the same paths to their altars.

But this is a completely off-base comparison; Christianity is not borrowed from in the same way, in the sense that heathens typically don’t freely seek out the faith and absorb its most fascinating aspects into their dominant culture. Christianity has, since the Dark Ages, been introduced via missionary work, or forcefully imposed on other cultures through blood and fire. Likewise, Eurocentric culture and values were, for centuries, imposed on the rest of the world by force. Can taking from European culture be considered “appropriation” when assimilation was, by and large, the only real option?

Being forced into Christian doctrine by residential schooling, and later converting to Christianity himself, those symbols were not “appropriated” by Morrisseau more than any other artist baptized into the faith—unless, that is, one believes his Indigeneity places him farther from God’s light than a white artist.

Amanda PL, on the other hand, sought out and pilfered from cultures that exist in spite of the exhaustive efforts this country has made to wipe them out. To say a condemnation of Amanda PL is a condemnation of Norval Morriseau is strikingly tone-deaf from an author who ought to know better. And to say that nonwhite groups borrow from European culture is equally as tone-deaf; it isn’t “borrowing” when we were forced by law and social mores to adhere to Eurocentric social, religious, and beauty standards for centuries.

There’s a worthy and nuanced debate to be had about cultural appropriation. But the current champions of cultural appropriation aren’t interested in nuance—they’re interested in hegemony. When Lionel Shriver, for example, wears a sombrero to a writer’s conference and delivers a speech extolling the virtues of “wearing other people’s hats,” she isn’t being an honest broker. Not after writing The Mandibles, featuring a bumbling Mexican-American U.S. President who debases the currency, opens the borders to a flood of ravening immigrants, and ushers in America’s collapse. When Quentin Tarantino argues the Netflix series Luke Cage (based on a Marvel comic of the same name) should have kept its 70s setting and Blaxploitation roots, he’s not just yearning for nostalgia. He is dismissing the widespread demand from Black audiences to watch relatable and humanized characters, in favour of his own desire to see the near-segregated cinematic world he grew up with reflected to him in perpetuity.

But this isn’t to say that culture is, as Alexis writes, a “straitjacket” where appropriation is concerned. Cultures can be explored without, as Jonathan Kay put it, identity politics fundamentalists running riot. After all, if Kay were correct, how is it that Yann Martel, a white Canadian, managed to avoid such controversy when Life of Pi, a story steeped in Indian culture, topped best-seller lists and won the Man Booker prize? How is it that Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (director and writer of Slumdog Millionaire, respectively), were not likewise called out for appropriating Indian culture? Why is The Wire, a show with a majority Black cast, considered one of the best shows ever aired on television when its showrunner, David Simon, is a white man?

The answer isn’t complicated. The above-mentioned creators had enough respect for their work to immerse themselves in the culture, drop their preconceptions, and represent both the culture and their characters in an authentic manner.

What’s been missing from this conversation is a writer or artist on the free speech side of the issue, who can take an honest and respectful view of the cultures he or she wishes to explore. Though it was over 15 years ago, Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay did offer a fairly nuanced take, and offer a good example to follow. In an 2001 issue of the fantasy and science fiction journal Challenging Destiny. Kay was asked why his books are set within historical periods in Europe, and I was struck by his answer: “Pure personal fascination.”

“I have a vivid memory of one novelist who wrote a book about Dynastic Egypt and was giving a reading from it at a convention once and explaining how her heroine felt gravely imperilled because they were expecting her to marry her brother. And of course that scandalized her. And somebody in the audience said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because it’s incest.’ ‘But she’s a Dynastic Egyptian princess. What’s her problem?’ And the author said, ‘Well, it’s my problem.’ ‘Well, then you shouldn’t be writing about that period.’ That has stayed with me—it was about 15 years ago. To some degree, you can’t help but be a product of your own time and place. But when you’re writing about history you have to make an effort to be aware of your own prejudices, your own presuppositions, and filter for them as best you can.”

If that were true across the board in Canadian literature and journalism, we wouldn’t be here.

It isn’t that anyone against cultural appropriation has a problem with freedom of speech. The problem, which has been explained exhaustively by writers across the colour spectrum, is laziness and entitlement. It is tiresome to watch our white colleagues drape themselves in constitutional rights, and demand a platform not only to pass off lazy, sloppy, and insulting work as genuine, but to profit from it at our expense. And that is at the root of why this “appropriation prize” fiasco was so hurtful to many. It’s why both apologies and resignations have arisen from this mess, and why the need for systemic reform within the media sphere is more urgent than ever.

At this point, I don’t believe anyone still taking the other side of this issue is all that interested in free speech. They’re just pining for a time when the rest of us were under pressure to shut up. Those days are never coming back.