Former Writers' Union of Canada Editor, Hal Niedzviecki | Image sources: Twitter, YouTube screencap

A Bunch of White Canadian Editors Really Love Cultural Appropriation

This week’s media controversy is a great reminder that the most powerful people in Canadian media are very white.

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May 12 2017, 7:08pm

Former Writers' Union of Canada Editor, Hal Niedzviecki | Image sources: Twitter, YouTube screencap

Cultural appropriation should be easy to point out. Someone from your old high school dressing up as a "Mexican" for Halloween, a white girl wearing a bindi at Coachella, the white dude with dreads teaching some sort of bootleg yoga, Iggy Azalea. But for senior people in Canadian media, this is still a confusing topic and that's why a whole bunch of the powerful editors in the country got together this week to argue: "you know what, cultural appropriation is pretty tight."

Earlier this week, The Writers' Union of Canada — an organization that according to their website "promotes the rights, freedoms, and economic well-being of all writers" found itself in the position of apologizing for an editor's defence of cultural appropriation. Making matters dumber, the controversial piece appeared in the organization's quarterly publication, Write Magazine, whose latest issue was all about Indigenous writing.

In an opinion piece called, "Winning the Appropriation Prize" Write Magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki took the bold stance of not believing in cultural appropriation. If that sounds like an editorialized version of what he said, I assure you it's literally how he opened the essay, writing, "I don't believe in cultural appropriation."

Niedzviecki then went on to say, "Anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities." But he doesn't stop there, "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." Oh yes, he went there. Essentially, the argument was that Canadian literature isn't as diverse as it should be because white authors aren't stepping outside of their own experiences.

Niedzviecki was obviously called out by members of the union and Indigenous authors featured in the magazine's issue (one of the first writers to call the magazine out had also been published in the same issue with a piece about cultural appropriation). Following the controversy, The Writers' Union of Canada issued a statement on their website, apologizing "unequivocally" for the mistake and announcing Niedzviecki's resignation.

Speaking to The Globe and Mail Niedzviecki expressed how he, "had no intention of offending anyone with the article," while also telling the paper he stepped down from his position voluntarily. He admitted he understood why people were upset and said he failed "to recognize how charged the term cultural appropriation is and how deeply painful acts of cultural appropriation have been to Indigenous people."

Like all media controversies, this could have ended pretty quickly. While TWUC released the only type of statement they could have after messing up that badly, Niedzviecki could've offered a lengthy and selfless public apology alongside his resignation. But it didn't take long for white Canadian writers to jump to Niedzviecki's defense. The Globe and Mail's Elizabeth Renzetti offered the lukewarm argument of the piece being insightful—in that it created a debate. The National Post's Christie Blatchford went full Blatch and argued that Niedzviecki was being "silenced" and that he joined the ranks of white people who've been bullied into apologizing (something he actually never did publicly).

But just as it almost fizzled out thanks to the vicious half-life of the news cycle, a bunch of high-ranking members of Canadian media—all white—decided to go lose their shit on Twitter.

Ken Whyte, former Senior Vice-President of Public Policy at Rogers came up with the novel idea to start the actual award proposed in Niedzviecki's piece. He was soon joined by Maclean's editor-in-chief Alison Uncles, and the National Post's editor-in-chief Anne Marie Owens as well as a growing list of other members of Canadian media. What do they all have in common? They're white and they're as powerful as Canadian media gets. As more people dragged these tweets, a few of those who were a part of creating the "Appropriation Prize" admitted they were being stupid or "glib."

When it comes to the world of literature and media, "controversies" like this one are expected by any person of colour. In my experience, being a writer in Canadian media means being reminded of exactly who the gatekeepers are and exactly what they think of anyone who isn't white and powerful. It happens often, most recently with the Joseph Boyden controversy, Walrus editor Jonathan Kay took it upon himself to defend the author against Indigenous people with valid concerns over the author's identity. Again, Kay is the editor-in-chief of a publication that positions itself as Canada's New Yorker.

The obvious solution would be to encourage the minorities they so deeply want to see in stories to, you know, write their own stories—but clearly that's not their priority.

The thing is, Canadian media seems to be getting more diverse. I see it myself with my colleagues and peers, increasingly I'm seeing that emerging writers who aren't white get recognition. I see fellow women of colour get more bylines than I did three years ago when I began writing professionally. While it's great to see at the lower rungs, I question the significance of these slow changes in who is telling what stories when those at the top are still extremely white and male. When our editors are tweeting about funding and creating prizes for white people to pretend to be us, it only shows us we matter in terms of optics.

In Niedzviecki's piece he argues that in order to see non-white stories better represented in Canadian media, white Canadian authors need to go beyond "what they know" and write from the voices of those who aren't like their white middle-class selves. What does it show us when the only solution these high-ranking journalists, executives and editors have is to create an award for white people who want to write stories that aren't their own? The obvious solution would be to encourage the minorities they so deeply want to see in stories to, you know, write their own stories—but clearly that's not their priority. Their response seemingly shows their real fear—people of colour speaking for themselves and white voices being relegated to the sidelines.

While maintaining they are the silenced who fear for free speech, these same senior editors remained mostly silent about the Toronto Star's decision to tell columnist and black activist Desmond Cole he could no longer participate in public activism if he wanted to continue writing for The Star.

I'm a young, black woman in Canadian media and I so often hear empty words about what we "need" in our newsrooms. More diversity! Hire women! Commission people of colour to write about race issues! I'm always noticing how those at the top think simply stating that we need "diversity" is enough without ever acknowledging or questioning their own positions as gatekeepers. Despite what TWAC has written in their own apology, this should have never happened and could have easily been avoided from the very beginning if those in power were not in power. We shouldn't have to wait for our (potential) white bosses to wake up and suddenly understand how oppression works when, like clockwork, they show us they don't care to ever learn.

Follow Sarah Hagi on Twitter.

Editor's note: This post has been updated to reflect that former Walrus editor Jonathan Kay was not one of the Canadian editors that offered money to "cultural appropriation prize." Kay only objected to Niedzviecki's resignation saying on Twitter: "The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot."

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