The cultural appropriation issue is the controversy of the day and here’s my solution: freedom of expression should take precedent over cultural property rights so long as there is proper citation.
Recently, Hal Niedzviecki, former editor of Write, the magazine for the Writers Union of Canada, wrote that he, “didn’t believe in cultural appropriation.”
He then blamed the monumental boringness of Canadian literature on a culture where writers live in fear of being labeled cultural appropriators, especially with regards to the culture of our First Nations.
He even went so far as to suggest that there should be an “Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”
So what is cultural appropriation? Put simply, it’s where a dominant group uses the cultural artifacts of a marginalized group for its own benefit.
Rock and roll is the result of the appropriation of Mississippi Delta blues by white folks. If you are a white person with dreadlocks or cornrows, you might be guilty of appropriating from another culture.
An English pop band called Get Inuit was recently accused of cultural appropriation by Inuit artist Tanya Tagaq who called out the English pop artists in Tweets laced with obscenities. The pop band retorted that its band name was simply a phonetic way of saying “get into it.”
Jonathan Kay, former editor of the Walrus, waded into the controversy before resigning.
“What takes priority,” Kay wrote for the National Post, “the right of artists to extend their imagination to the entire human experience, or the right of historically marginalized communities to protect themselves from possible misrepresentation? Personally, I land on the free speech side.”
Two journalists resigned and an Inuit artist swore on Twitter but the controversy is nothing new.
Back in 2016, Stephen Puskas, an Inuk Montrealer and artist stated that Ungava gin, which is distilled in southern Quebec, was exploiting Inuit culture for commercial gain.
But really, on a deeper level, I suspect what we’ve labeled cultural appropriation is just culture and that appropriating is an important way for cultures to move forward.
Culture is an ever-evolving nebulous thing that is the product of thousands of years of appropriations and modifications. I’m sure there must have been a few original ideas along the way, but not many.
As a reporter the solution to satisfying both sides is clear: citation.
We should absolutely let women write as men, whites as First Nations, humans as martians. That’s what the creative endeavour is all about.
But maybe we shouldn’t be doing it without acknowledging the hurt and scars of the groups we’re appropriating from and our own group’s historical or ongoing role in creating that hurt.
So maybe Niedzviecki’s idea of an Appropriation Prize isn’t such a bad idea.