Can we now agree the appropriation prize was absurd?

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!

Tourism Toronto captures beauty and creativity in city

The perception of Toronto by outsiders and those actually living within the city are very different. As someone who moved year a little over a year ago, I can confidently say that Toronto is not the mean, green, and cold place many across Canada think it to be.

Toronto is hot, it is fresh, and it has an edge to it that offers people many creative outlets to express themselves. The new video “The Views are Different Here,” released by Tourism Toronto, truly manages to capture Toronto’s essence and shows a variety of different perspectives to living in the Big Smoke. The video is getting massive hits on social media because it shows the quintessential Toronto narrative of a multicultural city, where everyone is welcome. Tourism Toronto manages to capture the annual pride parade, the AGO, Caribana and a Drake concert in the video and it creates a narrative of what it is like to be a part of the multicultural fabric of this city.

When I moved to Toronto from Western Canada, I had certain assumptions of the city. I thought it would be big, mean, and greasy. It has the reputation of being the main hub of Canada where people go to work long hours and spend most of their time underground on the subway. I was completely surprised when I learned that Toronto isn’t just a chaotic and busy city, but actually exudes a vibe that is creative and beautiful; yet, authentic. Toronto is replete with people full of large ideas concerning art, the environment, music, and everything in between. Most of these folks manage to own their ideas, but are not pretentious or self-serving about it. In other words, they are real and genuine creators looking to collaborate and work with other like-minded people.

Though Toronto typically has a reputation of being one of the more ‘unfriendly’ Canadian cities, its actually just the opposite. The majority of city dwellers are non-judgmental and very kind to each other. I have met so many lovely people since moving here and am struck nearly every day by how kind the average person really is. There is a level of openness and progressive discussion in this city (perhaps due to deep ties leaning to the left politically) that opens doors for a variety of topics. Any daily conversation could range from an 80 year old man about attending a drag show to discussing the future of classical music with a 20 year old woman with green hair.

I will even admit that the man bun has grown on me. It isn’t just a sign of the dreaded hipster, but has become a fashion symbol for the Toronto urban style ([note the clip in the tourism video of the older gentleman with the man bun, doesn’t he look suave?). It is important to notice that the video also includes a special focus on graffiti art in the city. To see the beautiful street art that exists in the city showcased as a tourist grab is phenomenal. It is a form of art that deserves celebration and there is a turn happening in Toronto where art is become an important avenue of expression for the city. Lastly, the video also manages to put a creative spin on the TTC with ballet dancers on the subway. This gives a more positive outlook for the subway system, and dare I say it almost makes commuting on public transit look enjoyable.

It really is incredible to see Tourism Toronto for giving other outsiders such as myself a more realistic glimpse of what this beautiful city has to offer. I am proud to live in this dirty, artsy, and fascinatingly multicultural city. It is busy, it is loud, and it is in your face. I would ask for nothing else in the years of my youth and I am astounded nearly every day by something new and fresh in this city that I just hadn’t noticed before.

What did you think of “The Views are Different here”? Let Women’s Post know in the comments below.

Into the trash can with your culture

By George Patrick

In the little town in northern Scotland where I went to school fifty years ago there lived a man who had been a tea planter in India. He supplemented his income by boarding Indian boys who were the products of “mixed marriages” i.e. of British fathers and Indian women. The life of such people in Indian society, as you may know, was not an easy one. Rejected by Indians and looked down on by the snotty whites, these “Eurasians” lived in a twilight world of betwixt and between. Their schooldays in our town provided at least a few years of temporary relief from their (literally) outcaste world. It wasn’t perfect, for most Scots were racists then, as many are today. Scots, like all defeated and colonized peoples, have a huge chip on their collective shoulder, which they sometimes express in straight-from-the-shoulder racial epithets, starting with the English and working their way out around the globe. (On my last trip home, I was bemused by my family’s comments about “White Settlers.” It eventually dawned on me they were referring to English people who bought retirement homes in Scotland. As is often the case, behind the semi-jocular tone lurked something darker.)

Fifty years ago our town was lily white. The nearest to a non-white was my swarthy pal Lammy, who was part-Maori. To compound the error of his existence, Lammy was a (very bad) Catholic in a Calvinist community. As a result, he was something of an outsider, and I was the new boy in town who spoke with a funny accent, and was desperately shy. And so we gravitated towards each other, even though I knew that non-white people were inferior, with all kinds of deplorable moral defects that varied according to their precise ethnic origins. I knew this in the same way that I knew that “poofters” or “queers” were vile, that there was something wrong with Jews (although I had never actually met one and knew nothing about them), that divorced women were bad (but sexually “easy”), that a woman’s place was in the home, and that the male was inherently superior to the female. I held these truths to be self-evident. So although I liked Lammy a lot, I never quite forgot that he was not exactly, y’know, one of us.

The Anglo-Indian boys were very nice youngsters who seemed to mix well at school (much better than I) and appeared to be happy. Then Mr. MacTaggart, the retired tea planter, was persuaded by a Christian mission to take in two more boys. They were sea Dyaks from Sarawak who had been raised and educated by Christian missionaries. Now, I happen to believe that the human race would be much better off without all the god stuff and its multitude of absurd religions, but I must confess that if even a small fraction of Christians were as fine exemplars of their faith as those two young men I would be forced to re-examine my beliefs. I’ve never met any other people who gave off such an aura of sweetness, purity and goodness. I truly felt humbled in their presence. Strange to think that their own grandfathers had taken part in raids on other villages, killing the men, decapitating them and returning home to begin the long business of shrinking the heads to hang about their huts.

I’ve always considered Mr. (Pierre) Trudeau’s multicultural policy a classic example of murky Liberal thinking. It has that lovely warm fuzzy feeling that allows Liberals to think they really are, well, liberal! They get to hug themselves for being so gosh darn tolerant. And — most important — they get to mop up the ethnic vote during elections! The trouble is, the policy is hopelessly wrongheaded. Yes, in the great Canadian goulash of languages and cultures and religions, we should all be tolerant of each other. Few would argue with that. We’ve all learned from history that intolerance has killed more people than tuberculosis, malaria or bubonic plague. Live and let live makes very good sense.

However, encouraging tolerance towards other people and their way of life is one thing, propping up cultures with federal tax dollars is quite another thing. For the stark truth is, most, perhaps all of the cultures that have come down to us from the past are simply not worth preserving or sponsoring. Most of our cultures are rooted in, and many still reek of values that are abhorrent to us — racism, sexism, genocide, imperialism, and so on.

Which, for example, of the cultures from my youth do you think we should celebrate with federal tax dollars? Perhaps the Indian and British cultures that treated their own young as pariahs because they came of mixed races? What about the Dyak headhunting culture? Or maybe the culture that produced me — a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, vaguely anti-semitic young man? I suggest we should shrink from all of them in horror.

The Canadian society in which my children were raised remains, like all human endeavours, imperfect, but in its values it is superior to almost anything else one can find in the broad sweep of history. I am sometimes surprised, and encouraged, by the utter absence in most young Canadians of all the nasty little bigotries that made up the daily fabric of my early life. We are a fortunate people.      I believe the past should be studied for insights into the human condition. I don’t believe the past should be venerated. Most of our cultures are steeped in bloodshed, cruelty and injustice, and imbued with ideas repugnant to all except stupid and ugly minds. They serve only to remind us of what a bunch of schmucks we humans can be. We should cherish the values of our (generally) tolerant, just and decent society — and say good riddance to all that ugly, silly, musty baggage from the past.