A Canadian Writer Defended Cultural Appropriation and All Hell Broke Loose
"...a space that is not safe for indigenous and racialized writers."
Cultural appropriation is apparently just as much of a hot button issue in Canada as it is the United States and Great Britain: a Canadian editor recently quit his job after his essay calling for a "cultural appropriation prize" outraged some readers and indigenous activists.
No, this isn't really a story about censorship. It's a story about critics of cultural appropriation just being plain-old wrong.
The essay, written by Hal Niedzviecki, appeared in Write, a publication of the Writer's Union of Canada (TWUC). It was called "Winning the Cultural Appropriation Prize" and argued that authors should be rewarded for vigorously borrowing the voices, experiences, and customs of other cultures. Niedzviecki took the view that appropriation is actually a good thing, since cultural intermixing is beneficial, and leads to increased representation of minority experiences. (His view is shared by many libertarians, including Reason's Cathy Young and author Lionel Shriver.)
"I don't believe in cultural appropriation," wrote. Niedzviecki. "In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities."
Given the reaction, you might have assumed that Niedzviecki had called for the systematic extermination of indigenous writers.
"We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on," said Jesse Wente, an indigenous critic for CBC News. "And not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of all things Indigenous: our lives, our lands. This is what this nation was founded on. It was the policy of the government to do this. To ignore, to pretend now, that we somehow have moved on beyond this and that somehow we're all on equal footing and thus we can all share equitably is to fail in your responsibility as a storyteller."
Nikki Reimer, an editorial board member of Write, accused Niedzviecki of making indigenous writers feel unsafe:
I am struggling somewhat to find the words to respectfully articulate my reaction upon seeing the column: at the most generous interpretation it is clueless and thoughtless; at worst, it is offensive and insulting to the many writers featured within the page; it undermines any attempts at space-making or celebration of the writers featured within the pages, and it marks Write magazine as a space that is not safe for indigenous and racialized writers.
But Niedzviecki did not threaten indigenous writers. He did not call for them to write less. He did not express the opinion that he wanted to see fewer of their stories in print. He did not say anything that was remotely anti-indigenous authors, or anti-indigenous stories. All he said was that everyone should feel encouraged to write stories about anyone, and indeed, the project of storytelling requires writers to use their imaginations—to explain phenomena they've never witnessed, craft characters they've never met, and borrow details from walks of life they've never experienced. Writers who do this well should be celebrated.
Ken Whyte, founding editor National Post, did not agree with the criticism. He jokingly offered to donate $500 to the fictitious cultural appropriation prize. Also at the Post, Jonathan Kay—editor-in-chief of The Walrus—criticized the left's "shaming" of people with whom they disagree. Kay resigned his own position soon thereafter; it's not entirely clear whether this was connected to his defense of Niezviecki.
None of this constitutes hard censorship. No publisher is required to employ someone who expresses an unpopular opinion. Writers aren't entitled to platforms, and if audiences don't like what they're reading, they have every right to complain. If Write doesn't want to publish content that defends cultural appropriation, fine.
So, this isn't censorship. It's just idiocy. It's idiocy, because everyone, actually, is in favor of cultural appropriation. No one thinks Italian cooking should be restricted to the Italians. That's all appropriation is: license to participate in other cultures.
When critics decry cultural appropriation, they invariably end up conflating it with something else. They will say that dressing up as a stereotypical member of a certain race is offensive; they're right, it is offensive, but not because it's cultural appropriation. It's cultural mockery. If you mock other people's cultures, you're an asshole. But not all appropriation is mockery.
These are obvious differences. A white person making himself look like a caricature of a black person? Mockery. A white person writing a well-researched book with black characters—a book that treats them as complicated individuals, and does not reduce them to stereotypes? Appropriation. The former is bad, the latter is the foundation of cosmopolitanism. And it's the latter thing that Niedzviecki thought we ought to award a prize for.