It’s been a few weeks since the proposal of an appropriation prize destroyed a number of journalists’ careers. I’ve held my tongue this long because I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. I also didn’t know if, as the editor of Women’s Post, this was an issue I should address. I am a white woman in an editor position after all.
As I followed the story and watched as writers and editors that I trust wrote on social media in support of an appropriation prize, my first thought was ‘how could they be so stupid’. I know they were frustrated and worried for their colleague, who had just been forced to resign his position, but I couldn’t believe they would go so far as to actually support the creation of an appropriation prize. I was disgusted at the thought, utterly confused as to their motives, and honestly embarrassed for my profession.
I asked one of our writers at Women’s Post — a woman of colour —if this was an issue she wanted to tackle. Her response surprised me. Feeling like a broken record after having written on appropriation and other PoC issues countless times before, she thought that it might make more sense for me to write it this time. “It would be one white person telling another white person what they’re doing is wrong in a relatable way, rather than a person of colour trying to reason – once again- that we’re not being over dramatic.”
It all started when Hal Niedzviecki, former editor of Write, said that people should be encouraged to imagine other people’s culture and identities. “I’d go so far as to say 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.” Niedzviecki later said he didn’t think such a prize should actually exist. Maybe it really was an unfortunate and insensitive turn of phrase, but it was enough to get the rest of the media riled up.
Afterwards editors, journalists, and managers from big Canadian news publications pledged moral and financial support towards the creation of the appropriation prize on social media. Many of them have since been forced to resign or were reassigned to other positions.
The first question I had after reading this story is this: why any journalist, editor, or member of the press, would support such an idea in the first place?
Cultural appropriation is when someone adopts or uses elements of someone else’s culture to the detriment of that culture. This, of course, is an overly simplistic definition, but somehow even the root of cultural appropriation was lost as these editors jumped on the appropriation prize bandwagon, pledging money to make it a reality.
To be clear: No one is arguing that a white reporter, editor, or artist can’t learn about other cultures. No one is saying they can’t cover an issue that matters to a person of colour or take part in cultural activities with the intent of listening with earnest and broadening their horizons. But, the idea that these same people should be able to pretend to understand the trials and tribulations other cultures face on a daily basis is, frankly, absurd.
As a journalist, I pride myself on my ability to listen and learn. It’s actually what I love about my profession. Every day I get to learn something that I didn’t know before. But, there is a line between ‘learning’ and ‘understanding’.
Let’s take an example from last weekend, from when I attended a dream catcher workshop — quite the sensitive topic in the news right now. Is this cultural appropriation? Frankly, yes; however, I was taught by an Indigenous Ojibwe person. He explained what each element of the dream catcher meant, showed us some sacred objects, and taught us about his struggles as a young man from an Indigenous culture. It was fascinating and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
And yet, I would never claim to be able to write about those same experiences myself, pretending that after one afternoon I can interpret his struggles. I wouldn’t take the stories this Indigenous man told us and use them (or something similar) in my own work. And to the extreme, I wouldn’t buy a headdress at a festival because it looks ‘cool’ or dress up like Pocahontas on Halloween.
In the end, it’s about respecting what you know — and what you cannot begin to understand, despite the research you may have done. In a multicultural society like Canada, the voices of Indigenous people, people of colour, and other minorities are incredibly valuable, not just to the media, but to everyone who lives in this country — how can anyone support a “prize” that essentially eliminates it?
It’s time for a little honesty and a lot of reflection. The one positive consequence from this whole scenario is it opened up a necessary dialogue about the lack of diversity in newsrooms and forced people within the media to recognize their own faults. This is a good thing.
But, if so many high-profile people within the Canadian media think an appropriation prize is okay, there is a lot more educating to do. There are still people who think this is an issue of freedom of speech or that it’s some sort of racist endeavour against white people (which is complete bullshit).
The media, including Women’s Post, still has a lot to learn about cultural appropriation and why this kind of conversation is not okay. I urge all editors to reach out to other cultures for THEIR perspectives on stories that affect them. Allow people of different races, ethnicities, and religions to write freely in your publication so their voices and opinions can be heard. Let’s not pretend that we know everything. This is about accepting there are issues we do not, and cannot, understand. As journalists, this should be second nature.
Appropriation is complex and I recognize that, for artists and journalists alike, it can become even more complicated. But, can we all agree the idea of a prize celebrating people for appropriating someone else’s culture is absurd, disrespectful, and just plain wrong?
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!