Over the past few weeks the topic of cultural appropriation has dominated the headlines. Last week Write Magazine editor, Hal Niedzviecki, wrote a controversial opinion piece stating he didn’t “believe in cultural appropriation”. That piece led to his resignation. Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of the CBC’s The National, was reassigned to another department because of his tweet in support of an appropriation prize.
Just this morning the Toronto Star posted an article about a First Nations man decrying the sale of dreamcatchers inspired by Canada’s 150th birthday at Dollarama and just a few weeks ago a band that will be on the road for Caribana, Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival, was criticized for their use of traditional First Nations headdresses.
These are legitimate concerns. Cultural appropriation is real and groups who have never been on the receiving end of it will never know how it feels. In Toronto there are many businesses selling “Black” products, like hair care products and even our cultural foods, that are owned by Chinese people. It doesn’t feel good to have other people profit off of your culture.
But for every legitimate case of cultural appropriation there’s a headline that makes an illegitimate claim and it’s starting to get a bit ridiculous.
Last year, a yoga class was cancelled at the University of Ottawa due to concerns about cultural appropriation. When asked why the class was cancelled, the instructor, Jen Scharf, responded, “I guess it was this cultural appropriation issue because yoga originally comes from India”. The classes were later reinstated with an Indian instructor.
Just yesterday Beyonce, who is African American, was accused of cultural appropriation for having an African themed baby shower.
This raises a few questions. First, in some cases, is cultural appropriation being confused with cultural appreciation? A few years ago I was walking through downtown Ottawa and saw a restaurant was offering Bajan style fish cakes. As a man of Barbadian descent I was excited that one of my cultural dishes was being offered, and appreciated, by a Canadian restaurant, but should I have been offended?
Another question is whether people should be allowed to be inspired by other cultures even if they’re not a part of that group?
Last week, in another headline, Toronto artist Amanda PL had her exhibit cancelled because her First Nations inspired pieces sparked complaints of cultural appropriation.
And again, yesterday a playground erected to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday raised concerns of cultural appropriation because it includes totem poles.
Is this appropriation or appreciation?
Now, legitimate instances of cultural appropriation are harmful, but illegitimate claims are harmful as well.
First, it draws attention away from true instances of cultural appropriation and can even call into question the credibility of people who really have a point to make on this topic.
Second, it empowers and emboldens the growing, and increasingly angry, anti-political correctness sentiment that fuels articles like the one written by Hal Niedzviecki and the resulting tweets from his counterparts.
Third, it limits the growth and acceptance of different cultures. For instance, in recent years Bollywood routines have become popular on shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. Some may consider this appropriation of a cultural dance, but this has helped to make East Indian culture, and as a result India itself, more widely accepted and appreciated in North America.
Now, specifically concerning the First Nations, what’s really a win here? Obviously, cultural appropriation isn’t a win, but I imagine having your culture remain on the fringes can’t be a win either.
In New Zealand it’s common to have the national rugby team, the All Blacks, made up of both white and Māori players, perform the Haka, the traditional Māori war dance prior to their games. The team even performed the dance when visiting a Māori king and he appreciated the gesture. To me this is beautiful. What it says to me as an outsider is that Māori culture is New Zealand culture. This wouldn’t be possible in a country like Canada in today’s climate.
At the same time in 2009 the Māori were granted intellectual property rights over the haka in response to the dance being used in a Hollywood film and a Fiat ad campaign.
Call me ignorant, but to me these are wins that clearly walk the fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Fight the corporations like Fiat and Dollarama who would try to exploit and profit from your culture, but at the same time allow your culture to be appreciated and become synonymous with national identity and culture. Perhaps this is something Canada and the United States can learn from.