Why The Idea Of Cultural Appropriation Should Be Challenged

September 2017

Last May, discussions of “cultural appropriation” resulted in a number of resignations, demotions, and obsequious requests for forgiveness.

The upheaval began with an editorial by Hal Niedzviecki in Write magazine, asserting that everyone should try to imagine and portray other cultures; Niedzviecki jokingly suggested people should seek to win an “appropriation prize”. Editor Ken Whyte offered to fund such a prize. The general thrust was to mock the notion of “cultural appropriation”, implying that worries about appropriating from other cultures threatened artistic expression. Nowhere did anyone express hostility towards indigenous peoples. There certainly wasn’t any denial of their “value as human beings”, as some critics claimed.

Defense of Niedzviecki has been tepid. National Post columnist Jonathan Kay, for example, referred to Niedzviecki’s editorial as “reckless”. A later article by Kay, about how writers, journalists and academics are self-censoring to avoid being mobbed with accusations of “colonialism”, makes his reticence understandable.

It is time to state the obvious. Arguments against cultural appropriation are silly and should be mocked. It would be intellectually dishonest not to say so – a cowardly avoidance of the “offence” that indigenous privilege-seekers and their “allies” might choose to invent.

The original opposition to “cultural appropriation” was commendable for its criticism of images that denigrated the racial features of a particular group. This concerned posters celebrating “blackface” minstrels, or mascots for sports teams with demeaning caricatures. Today, however, denigrating images are not the target of opposition to “cultural appropriation”. Rather, any non-aboriginal person who, no matter how “respectfully” or “sensitively”, portrays something perceived to be indigenous will be criticised. Two recent cases of this concerned the fiction of Joseph Boyden and the paintings of Amanda PL (who was emulating the Woodlands Style introduced by the Anishinaabe painter Norval Morriseau).

While the heated rhetoric makes the reasons for opposing “cultural appropriation” difficult to summarize, there are generally two arguments that have been made, both of which are untenable. The first is what has been called “culturalism”, where culture is conflated with race. This argument maintains that only a person who is truly “indigenous” is entitled to engage with anything designated as belonging to this group. On the basis of this argument, Boyden is condemned for being unable to properly articulate the “indigenous voice”. Any expression, we are told, must come from one’s lived experience as an indigenous person, the absence of which inevitably results in inauthentic depictions.

Although what makes a person “indigenous” is also a matter of some controversy, the trump card in the determination is lineage. If Boyden had the requisite blood quantum, he would never have been subject to the severity of attacks that he endured. He would have had the required connection to “ancestral spirits” needed to legitimate his “voice”. This is also one of the reasons why the work of Amanda PL is criticized. PL has been accused of inappropriately using a style connected to indigenous teachings, whose “sacred” character cannot be channeled by a non-aboriginal person.

The second reason why the art of Boyden and PL is being criticized is rooted in neotribal rentierism – the process of incorporating economically marginalized indigenous groups into late capitalism through the provision of monetary payments. Preventing “cultural appropriation”, after all, is really about rent-seeking, as it puts up a barrier to entry to all non-indigenous artists. This is justified by the assumption that the reason to support the work of an indigenous artist is not the quality of the work or its ability to connect with an audience. It is, instead, that aboriginal people have been historically oppressed and ignored in artistic circles. “Social justice” demands an increase in the number of aboriginally created books and paintings, as well as the grants and prizes that are given to support their production.

This is the other reason why people turned on Joseph Boyden. Boyden was not only celebrated because people liked his books; he was also seen as a member of an oppressed group to whom reparations were owed. When it was discovered that Boyden had little or no indigenous ancestry, many of his patrons felt that they had been duped into promoting the work of someone who was guilty of “ethnic fraud”. They had made amends to a person whose ancestors had not been colonized and dispossessed by the Canadian state.

Both culturalism and neotribal rentierism are indefensible and will not enhance artistic expression or reconciliation. Culturalist arguments actually destroy the idea of art by replacing artistic excellence with racial essentialism. They also ignore that there has never been an “authentic” indigenous artistic tradition. Most obviously, literature did not exist before the arrival of Europeans, and therefore all indigenous writers must have been influenced by non-aboriginals. Similarly, acrylic paints, paintbrushes, and even beads, are all post contact. In fact, if we want to create a ledger showing which group has “culturally appropriated” the most, the less technologically developed character of hunting and gathering and horticultural societies would mean that it is aboriginal people who owe the greatest debt.

Not that anyone should be keeping score. The idea that “cultural appropriation” is wrong is only taken seriously because of the hold that neotribal rentierism has on how aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations are conceptualized. Lawyers and consultants working for aboriginal organizations have inveigled us into believing that it is only by upping the amount of compensation that past wrongs can be righted. Yet it is not increased rent, but productive participation and integration, which will lead to reconciliation.

All people should “culturally appropriate” as much as they can from one another. This is what brings down barriers and reinforces our common humanity. But actual “cultural appropriation” means valuing what is being appropriated, and this requires honesty in artistic engagement, not condescending forms of “inclusion” as atonement. The most deprived members of aboriginal communities are suffering because they remain isolated and marginalized. They have not absorbed enough of the global culture to participate effectively in a more developed economy and society. Ridiculous charges of “cultural appropriation” hide this reality.