Walking into work yesterday felt wrong, and it wasn’t just because it was Monday.
Since Friday, I have watched my Twitter feed in disbelief as Canada’s media elite—the people I looked up to, and who have blue verified checkmarks by their names—publicly encouraged the practice of cultural appropriation and went so far as to pledge money toward an “Appropriation Prize.”
By now you know, this absolute disappointment began with an op-ed by Hal Niedzviecki called “Winning the Appropriation Prize.” Things did not get better from there. In the one-page piece for Write, the Writer’s Union of Canada publication, Niedzviecki stated, “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that 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.”
He continued: “The idea of cultural appropriation discourages writers from taking up the challenge, which is at least one reason why CanLit subject matter remains exhaustingly white and middle-class.”
The icing on the (very white) cake was that this op-ed ran in an issue dedicated to the work of Indigenous writers. (Note: The amazing writers that were featured in that issue that actually deserve our attention are: Joshua Whitehead, Richard Van Camp, Shannon Webb-Campbell, Louise Bernice Halfe, Gord Grisenthwaite, Helen Knott, Elaine Wagner, Gloria Mehlmann and Alicia Elliot, who called out the offensive op-ed on Twitter)
Write quickly issued an apology and Niedzviecki resigned as editor for the mag, but unfortunately, things only got much worse.
Niedzviecki’s resignation prompted Ken Whyte, former editor-in-chief of National Post and Maclean’s, to venture onto Twitter in the darkest hours of Thursday night and offer to donate $500 to the creation of an “Appropriation Prize”—and asked his followers to pitch in, too. And with that, the donations began to roll in from leading journalists at Rogers Publishing, Maclean’s, National Post, The Walrus and CBC. Every single one of them was white.
— Ken Whyte (@KenWhyte3) May 12, 2017
My heart sank as I read through tweets from people whose opinions and careers I respect and admire, publicly advocating to celebrate appropriating the cultures of others—complete with a fully-funded bar tab. In the span of a single evening, Canada’s media heavy hitters pledged $3,500—money that could, and should have gone to funding helping people from those cultures to tell their own stories.
Just so we’re clear, there already is an Appropriation Prize….it’s called Canada.
— Jesse Wente (@jessewente) May 12, 2017
Niedzviecki got one thing right in his Write op-ed, CanLit is too white and middle-class. But what he, and the editors that agreed with him, got abundantly wrong is the idea that the only solution is for white, middle-class writers to take on other people’s cultures as if they were accessories at Coachella.
Many of the editors involved have since publicly apologized on Twitter, and Walrus editor Jonathan Kay has resigned. Some of the people who tweeted support for the prize have since said their comments were just a distasteful joke, or them being glib, but these words were not a slip of the tongue. They were intentional, so much so that people were willing to put money behind them. And the effects of that are now being felt throughout the Canadian journalism landscape, and within my own office.
I want to be clear. The views that were expressed in Whyte’s call-out, and by those who supported it, do not reflect my views or the views of those at FLARE in any way. While I am definitely in the minority as a woman of colour on staff here, I have never felt anything but support from my colleagues and the drive to do better.
I do not consider myself a person from a marginalized community. I grew up in suburban Ottawa, the only child in a middle-class family and I had every opportunity afforded to me. The only thing that makes me different is the fact that both my parents can trace their heritage back to India. But that subtle tint to my skin was enough to make this news feel like a gut punch, so I cannot even imagine what it felt like for writers who have faced true barriers to get their voices heard.
As I walked into FLARE’s office at Rogers yesterday, the building felt less welcoming than before. I checked a “visible minority” box when I joined the company, and I am proud to write about issues that matter to me and the communities that I am a part of—but I am now aware that some people in the building felt like they could, and should, write those experiences for me under the guise of freedom of speech.
I also walked into the building feeling a responsibility to stand up for the people who are not in the room. I am not confrontational by nature, but on Monday, the colour of my skin required me to be. The day was filled with back-to-back-to-back meetings, first with my immediate team and then with all of FLARE. The day ended with a 1.5 hour sit down between the entire entertainment pillar at Rogers and Steve Maich, head of digital content and publishing for Rogers Media, one of the people who had tweeted that he’d contribute to an Appropriation Prize. Maich apologized for his actions and listened as staff members outlined how we are not diverse yet (especially in key leadership roles), but we need to be. By the time my workday was done, I had engaged in more thoughtful and open workplace conversations about race, diversity and media coverage than I have had in my entire career.
A huge shoutout goes to the newsroom staff at far-reaching organizations who voiced their concerns as early as Friday to the people in charge and explained why this was not freedom of speech or a glib joke gone bad. I won’t go into all the ways in which what happened was wrong and completely offensive to non-white writers. BuzzFeed’s Scaachi Koul, HuffPost’s Joshua Ostroff, Maclean’s Murad Hemmadi, Vice’s Sarah Hagi, Toronto Star‘s Shree Paradkar, CBC’s Jesse Wente and many other writers have already courageously said what needs to be said.
All we need to do now is listen, learn and be better.
— Christi Belcourt (@christibelcourt) May 12, 2017
— darkwing duck fan (@vmochama) May 13, 2017
— Robin Parker (@robinparker_plg) May 15, 2017
FLARE is actively discussing how we can include more diverse writers and stories on our site, but in the meantime, if you have pitches or story ideas, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.