Dear White People, Cultural Appropriation Exists Even If You Don’t Believe In It

Cultural appropriation has become one of those Trump-era terms that gets people literally all a-twitter. But there’s one thing you may notice when the topic hits your feeds and timelines — the people who are dismissing it as a joke are, well, white folks.

Like late at night on May 11, when a host of media bigwigs “hilariously” started Twitter-organizing an actual “Appropriation Prize” in reaction to the resignation of Write Magazine‘s Hal Niedzviecki after online uproar surrounding his editorial calling for one.

(More on that in a sec.)

hal niedzviecki
Hal Niedzviecki resting his head on a desk. (Photo: CP)

It began with former Rogers’ exec Ken Whyte. Soon, National Post editor-in-chief Ann Marie Owens, Maclean’s editor-in-chief Alison Uncles and CBC managing editor Steve Ladurantaye joined in, along with many columnists from various publications.

By this morning Steve Ladurantaye had tweeted an apology for his “dumb glib tweet about a dumb glib idea” and Owens joined in with “Apologies for any offence caused by what began as free speech protest thread — Twitter no place for glib.”

But their not-glib point was made clear if you noticed the pale skin tone of everyone piling on in that thread.

“In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”
— Hal Niedzviecki

Before you bombard my feed and timeline, I’m not in anyway saying these white people (or others) are racist because they have an opposing view to mine about this issue. I’m saying that there’s a reason why they don’t think cultural appropriation is a big deal, and that reason is because to them it’s not a big deal.

It’s the same reason why so many men don’t think catcalling is a concern — they’re not scared by it and, besides, it’s just a compliment, right?

What is cultural appropriation? Consider Elvis who, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D once pointed out in “Fight the Power,” was “a hero to most but never meant shit” to him. The reason why is because Elvis appropriated the black minority’s culture of music and made it palatable by repackaging it selling it to the white majority.

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Now did he honestly love the music by the black artists before? Was he legitimately inspired by it? Sure was. Daily Beast even reported an interview he gave in 1957 where he said:

“A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it; I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.”

Nevertheless, Elvis was already dubbed the “King of Rock’n’Roll” and embraced by the white media and white audiences. He wasn’t alone, either. As the Cambridge History of American Music points out, “It seems that many Americans wanted black music without the black people in it.” By the 1970s rock’n’roll was an almost entirely white genre.

elvis presley
Elvis Presley. (Photo: Flickr)

That’s the background for why the black community gets understandably upset when, say, a hip-hop Grammy goes to Macklemore instead of Kendrick Lamar and why you see headlines like “Iggy Azalea Doesn’t Win Grammy for Best Rap Album, Twitter Sighs With Relief.”

Now that last bit is funny because it’s true. You’re not hearing about cultural appropriation more nowadays because people weren’t upset before. It’s because social media has given the voiceless a voice and so minority complaints that once went unheard by the white majority are now being amplified online.

Just ask Niedzviecki. He is the now-former editor of Write Magazine after publishing “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” in which he encouraged white, middle-class writers to culturally appropriate even more! Oh, did I mention the issue was devoted to indigenous writing? Yes, really.

His editorial began with him proclaiming “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation” — as if a white person saying this could just make the whole issue go away already.

“In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” he added. “I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He does not actually understand why people are upset.

His point was that CanLit is “exhaustingly white and middle-class” and the problem is that these people too often write about being white and middle-class. The solution, in his mind, is not to open doors for more people of colour, but to have those exhaustingly white and middle-class folks write about people of colour instead or, as he phrased it, “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.”

Now Niedzviecki was the editor of a print magazine about writing — published by the Writers’ Union of Canada no less — so it would be hard-pressed to claim that his argument wasn’t intentional. I mean, the section was literally labelled “Writer’s Prompt.” But that didn’t stop him.

First social media blew up over the “clueless and thoughtless” editorial — thanks to posts by the likes of editorial board member Nikki Reimer, the issue’s indigenous contributors like Alicia Elliott, and indigenous scholars like Daniel Heath Justice‏.

Next, the Writers’ Union of Canada released an apology and Niedzviecki resigned.

But then he did an interview with the Globe and Mail in which he claimed “I had no intention of offending anyone with the article.”

Of course he didn’t. He does not actually understand why people are upset. FYI: It’s not the “charged” term that is upsetting for people, it’s the act of cultural appropriation.

It’s the act of hipsters wearing headdresses at music festivals. It’s the act of white girls dressing up as “Sexy Squaws” on Halloween and, as Niedzviecki of all people should be aware, it’s the act of Joseph Boyden claiming indigenous heritage to sell books, occupying a too-limited space in exhaustingly white and middle-class CanLit that could have gone to indigenous writers.

And, yes, it’s the act of gaslighting the real existence of cultural appropriation in a magazine issue allegedly devoted to amplifying the voices of the historically appropriated.

White people do identity politics, too – they just call it “politics.”

And, of course, while indigenous writers have taken to Twitter and Facebook to express their outrage, Globe columnist Elizabeth Renzetti is arguing “unpopular ideas shouldn’t be silenced” as if that’s all cultural appropriation is: “unpopular.” (Note: the headline was later softened to “Cultural appropriation: Why can’t we debate it?”)

Because, to her, it’s no big deal.

It’s also no big deal to Walrus magazine editor Jonathan Kay, who tweeted “The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot
Sad & shameful.”

(White people do identity politics, too — they just call it “politics.”)

It’s also no big deal to the National Post‘s Christie Blatchford whose column was headlined “Magazine editor the latest to be silenced for the sin of free speech.”

norval morrisseau
Norval Morrisseau at the Pollock Gallery. (Photo: Photo by Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Let’s look at how this could have played out instead.

This week was also supposed to be the opening of a gallery show by Toronto painter Amanda PL but it was cancelled after concerns that her art appropriates the indigenous Woodland-style of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau.


Except Visions Gallery co-owner Tony Magee has said this just isn’t true.

White people do need to “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.” But you don’t do that by stealing their stories.

“We didn’t make our decision out of political correctness. We didn’t do it as caving to pressure. We did it because we opened our eyes,” Magee told the Canadian Press. “It’s really offensive to have people accuse us of caving in and not being willing to stand up for what we believe in. Well, we are standing up for what we believe in.”

Now that’s the proper way to handle the concerns of marginalized people.

Niedzviecki was right about one thing, though — white people do need to “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.”

But you don’t do that by stealing their stories. You do it by reading them, by listening to them and by sharing them.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog described Ken Whyte as a current Rogers employee.

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