This isn’t about free speech

The unbearable whiteness of being (oblivious to privilege)

Disbelief and outrage over “Appropriation Prize” was entirely justifiable
Photo: Stpe1981

Canadian media and arts communities were embroiled in controversy this past week, following a spectacularly tone-deaf decision by the editor of Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, to pen an opinion piece titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to Indigenous writing.

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In the piece, Hal Niedzviecki stated that he doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation and encouraged writers to “imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities” as a solution to the undeniable fact that Canadian literature is overwhelmingly dominated by “people who are white and middle-class.” It’s akin to someone cooking and exclaiming, “This soup contains way too much salt! I’m now going to solve this problem by adding more salt.” A four-year-old could tell you that wouldn’t work.

The idea that lack of diversity can be solved by having white writers who benefit from a system of privilege simply appropriate the voices and stories of the marginalized, instead of making genuine room for the excluded, is, despite its laugh-out-loud ludicrousness, an unavoidable symptom of being part of an elite group for whom the term “white saviour” was coined. Niedzviecki triumphantly ended his editorial with “Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize.” His proposal, justifiably met with disbelief and outrage, prompted Cherokee-born writer Daniel Heath Justice to refer to it as “settler ventriloquism.”

Faced with considerable backlash, Niedzviecki resigned from his position, and the Writers’ Union apologized.

Downright embarrassing reaction

But it’s what came next that really took this controversy to another and much uglier level. Clearly upset that one of their own had been vilified and hankering to jump in and defend what they thought was truly at stake here — free speech — prominent members of mainstream media started pledging money for an Appropriation Prize.

The back-and-forth played out on Twitter for all to see. Imagine being a young Indigenous writer or journalist of colour and seeing people who could very likely be your future bosses or colleagues flippantly and glibly treating legitimate cultural appropriation concerns as “mobbing” or “whining” by the PC police.

The decision by high-profile journalists to basically mock people concerned about the glaring lack of diversity in Canadian media was so out of line that even Niedzviecki publicly disassociated from them, declaring on Facebook that “calls for an actual Appropriation Prize are unhelpful and do not represent me or what I stand for.”

One can wonder whether Niedzviecki needed to resign over his statements, but there’s no question that the reaction on Twitter by those Canadian editors and writers was downright embarrassing. It was also horribly revealing, because it reeked of disdain for valid concerns over appropriation and the serious dearth of diverse voices in Canada. Writer Scaachi Koul went on to do a phenomenal job of obliterating their arguments.

Media establishment shows true colours

Despite the ugliness, I’m pleased this happened, because it showed Canadian mainstream media’s true colours; in this case, multiple shades of beige. Ever since Desmond Cole’s resignation as a Toronto Star columnist, after being asked to tone down his activism (Why not ask him to be less Black while they’re at it?), I’m tired of having to constantly point out the obvious: that the people calling out systemic racism and systemic sexism are always portrayed as the rabid, unreasonable PC police, and the overwhelmingly white, male homogenous establishment as the objective and nuanced keepers of some sort of higher unbiased truth and intellectual rigour.

Mainstream columnists defending the status quo are not devoid of an agenda. It’s just that most people are unconcerned by it because it’s their agenda too. But the controversial Twitter exchange? This call to arms to defend some false notion of freedom of expression, as if consequences and criticism are somehow censorship? This right here was many people’s a-ha moment, dirty laundry displayed for all to see, white privilege at its finest, prejudice disguised as earnest debate. And now that the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to put it back in.

As many astutely pointed out, none of the writers and editors who supported the Appropriation Prize jumped in to defend Desmond Cole’s right to freedom of expression. Because, to them, he’s an activist and a social justice warrior, someone who’s lost all semblance of neutrality and fairness. It’s an attack often lobbed against feminists and visible minority columnists to discredit their legitimate concerns, and it’s an accusation that can act as both admonition and deterrent when the overwhelming majority of newsroom and broadcast editors are white men and have the power to greenlight a submission, a pitch, a work assignment, and even an entire career.

Smug annoyance disguised as intellectual rigour

“Normalized aggression isn't seen as political. Only criticism of normalized aggression is seen as political,” bell hooks once said. Think about that the next time someone uses “activist” or “social justice warrior” as a slur.

The establishment doesn’t recognize Hal Niedzviecki as part of the overwhelmingly white male status quo that feels justified suggesting that the way to facilitate diversity is to get more white people writing about lives and cultures they know nothing about, instead of simply passing the mic to others. He’s just seen as a well-intentioned guy who awkwardly chose the wrong words to express something and is now being vilified and demonized. It’s only the “mob” that’s seen as political.

Toronto Star management’s chastisement of Desmond Cole for writing too much about police carding isn’t seen as political. After all, an overwhelmingly white and homogeneous management has to wonder how much one can talk about racism before it starts to bore people, right? But Cole’s resignation is seen as political.

The people having the ivory-tower navel-gazing conversations about perceived threats to their freedom of speech and expression, the people bemoaning the possible ramifications to their freedom if they aren’t allowed to wear a feathered headdress to Coachella or consider “whether their next novel should be about a poor black kid in the ghetto, when they’ve never set foot in a fucking ghetto and have zero black friends,” as writer Ijeoma Oluo pointed out, are people privileged enough to have these freedoms. Their exasperated and smug annoyance isn’t intellectual rigour, a desire for dissenting opinions, or an interest in defending free speech. (No one is defending censorship, after all, and none has occurred.)

It’s merely the privilege of being in a position where you can ignore legitimate concerns and cries for more diversity and focus on inward-looking, self-serving debates about the right to say whatever the hell you want from the comfort of your mediocre and lazy “allyship”.

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