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In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Cultural Appropriation, Race & the Diversity-Industrial Complex

Are we really having the conversation we need to have about race and Indigenous Canada?

Sarmishta Subramanian

For anyone who has lost track amid all the twists and turns, just about a week ago the scandal that began with an editorial calling for a cultural appropriation prize was not so much as a twitch in anyone’s eye. In seven days, we have seen fundraising for the imaginary prize by some of the country’s top journalists; shocked and hurt reactions to that terrible idea; apologies from many of the journalists; resignations (Hal Niedzviecki’s and Jonathan Kay’s, from Write and The Walrus); the reassignment of Steve Ladurantaye from CBC’s The National; and calls for more resignations or firings, directed at the National Post and Maclean’s.

It seems clear that something profoundly painful happened here. We are left with not merely the dregs of a media fracas—editor-less magazines, particularly virulent rounds of gunfire on Twitter—but with deeply wounded Indigenous writers and leaders; people on all sides who feel betrayed and incensed and ashamed; and a chasm between public and private conversations about cultural appropriation, free speech, diversity and race in Canada.

The Twitter media fracas is the (relatively) straightforward part of what unfolded. After all, this was editorial bungling, plain and simple. The journalists who supported the prize showed poor judgment, and were not serving their brands. Thus the rush to shuffle some of them offstage. But what serves media companies doesn’t answer best the interests of the world outside corporate headquarters. In fact, the opposite is true. And there are fundamental questions we should all be asking about what unfolded last weekend. If that Twitter exchange revealed the numbing, brutalizing myopia—and not just a handful of journalists’—that has helped to preserve an unforgiveable status quo for Indigenous peoples and communities, it is vital to continue the conversation, rather than to shut it down. And how can we have an honest and meaningful conversation if we will not allow the people who shared in that ill-fated exchange to participate in it, to make mistakes, apologize, change their minds? If only the people who arrive with fully formed, unassailable opinions, expressed in the right language, are to be admitted, what do we do with everyone else?

A disclosure as well as an explanation: I have worked as an editor at the Walrus, the National Post, and Maclean’s, so I reacted to the support from those quarters for a cultural appropriation prize with personal disappointment, on top of outrage. It was not just that my colleagues in the business had answered a satirical Swiftian proposal with recipes for child soufflé. I couldn’t help flashing back to certain story meetings, certain conversations where I had suddenly felt like the alien in the room. Moments—isolated ones, a handful over many years, but I remember them vividly—where I couldn’t seem to make my own experience or my perspectives seen or heard. That Twitter exchange seemed to lay bare just why.

Within a day, there were multiple and in some cases lengthy apologies for the short-lived idea of an appropriation prize. Colleagues and friends I had had for years rematerialized into their familiar shapes as the generally reasonable, thoughtful, compassionate people I have known them to be. That absurd Twitter exchange was not proof of some malevolent true identity, as some have suggested, but a glimpse of humanity. They had had a lapse in judgment and logic and sense, a blind spot. I have had those too. Mine have not, so far, happened in the cruel arena of Twitter—immediate, urgent, playful, intimate, ephemeral, a passing show whose every movement is set down for posterity and treated as the official record—but give me time.

But what lies at the heart of the matter is not a single error or a blind spot. It is a pattern of blind spots the size of half a continent, over a long period of time, and affecting far more than the handful of white journalists who were  foolish enough, or distracted enough, to throw their weight behind a silly prize. And because of the events of the past week we are at an unusual moment when a lot of people are actually beginning to see this.

It is worth taking a moment to parse the question of whether the individuals who kicked in a hundred dollars, or five hundred, to the cause—that cherry on top of the ignominious mess—support appropriating Indigenous or other cultures. Most of them have not defended the practice. Their publications, like most in this country, are a mixed bag on Indigenous issues. For all the excellent investigative stories exposing the shocking realities of Indigenous incarceration or racism against Indigenous people or women who almost became MMIW statistics, there are also pieces suggesting that people in the north might just consider moving.

The Twitter exchange was infuriating because they mistook for a free speech issue the Niedzviecki resignation and the ominous Equity Task Force response because it bore a vague resemblance to a free speech issue—of which there have been many in this country of late. They saw an editor who was nudged toward the door for putting forward a controversial viewpoint—ignoring, egregiously, that the editor resigned because he realized he had displayed terrible editorial judgment, and undermined and betrayed writers, readers and the magazine by framing in this way a special issue devoted to Indigenous writing. Niedzviecki, who is typically an insightful and conscientious writer, ended up providing a curious voiceover for voices that have been marginalized since—well, since this country’s existence. His unrequited defenders on Twitter ignored the voices and zeroed in on the voiceover. On everyone’s part, this was myopic, and hasty, and lazy, and insensitive. But was it unforgivable? Can we afford to make it so?

The response to fire, silence and redirect is an odd marriage of corporate and progressive activist interests. Removing from the public eye an executive who said something offensive, as some media commentators have lobbied for, is good PR for the company. Here, as a counterpoint, is the Indigenous scholar and lawyer Aaron Mills outlining his desire to the Globe and Mail: “To invite Jonathan Kay, Steve Ladurantaye, Anne Marie Owens, Andrew Coyne, Elizabeth Renzetti – and anybody else who argues in favour of opening cultural appropriation to debate – to sit with the elders at Turtle Lodge at some point this summer at a date that will work with most of us. … And if you come to our house, we will treat you with respect.” An apology was not enough, he told the Globe. What he seemed to be seeking, from my best reading of his comments, is deeper engagement, real understanding—not a quick sorry, or a shuffling off for damage control.

Based on some apologies I have read and conversations I’ve had, at least a few in that group of journalists are also interested in more than a swift “my bad.” For many writers of colour, the appropriation prize moment shone a spotlight on unacknowledged bias—the kind that has contributed to trivializing or erasing all sorts of “other” experiences. But it did the same for some prominent people whose bias was showing. This is a valuable development. I think some of them are asking themselves why they had seen a free speech issue and missed what was actually at stake. If I may invoke that old adage about carrying a hammer and seeing nails, imagine what journalists might have seen if we were instead attuned to inequity, or, well, appropriation—not now, but for decades. Some of us are asking these questions, revisiting those moments when someone else’s experience did not seem to register, couldn’t seem to make itself interesting enough, or fresh enough. Novelty as a goal is one of the great unblamed culprits here, as bad as cultural chauvinism, if not worse. If a travesty continues unchanged after ten or thirty or forty years, have we really done all we have to do about it? Does it need to freshen itself up? Or do we find a new way to present it, or simply, for god’s sake, just keep hammering at it until it does change?  How do we make it change?

My sense from speaking with writers and others is that this private soul-searching is happening in some places. But it is not entirely the conversation that is unfolding in public. There are moments of real hope: a new crowd-sourced prize for emerging Indigenous writers, started a few days ago by the lawyer Robin Park, that was aiming to raise $10,000, and currently has raised more than $68,000, donated by nearly a thousand supporters. Thoughtful pieces by Indigenous writers including Alicia Elliott and Robert Jago are being read and viewed and shared across communities. But what we are also getting is a lot more anger online, and a bureaucratized diversity response: a renewed corporate focus on diversity-focused hiring, traveling town halls exploring diversity issues, discussions about diversity grants, bursaries and fellowships for “ethnic” folks. If it is accompanied by honest and meaningful debate, some of this is to the good. In the absence of honest debate that actually reframes our thinking, it is little more than theatre.

This country already has a well-developed diversity infrastructure, for better or for worse. And it is difficult to argue with programs that support and connect emerging writers from disadvantaged communities who might otherwise be shut out of mainstream networks, and never publish. Our literature and art is undoubtedly enriched by their contributions. At the same time, there is something about diversity as an engine of the cultural industries and of corporate interests that makes me uncomfortable. In her piece “Diversity is a White Word,” which I discovered via Elliott, Tania Canas, an arts worker based in Melbourne, argues that the concept of diversity itself is problematic. “It seeks to make sense, through the white lens, of difference by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity,’” she writes, “but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness. Terms such as ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’, and ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ (CALD) only normalize whiteness as the example of what it means to be and exist in the world.” How apt then that diversity research has also been a robustly funded field in banking for some time now, though after the 2008 financial crisis, funding for some of those programs took a hit—it was always an adjunct to the main stream of thought, an add-on.

The kind of cultural diversity that emerges from this approach often seems stilted to me, weighed down by its own colourless virtue. Canadian drama and sitcoms are a paragon of diversity-checklist casting, often accompanied by diversity-checklist musical score. I would argue that the diversity checklist helped to burnish Jian Ghomeshi’s reputation within the CBC sufficiently that his sexual harassment in the workplace, reported to superiors, was not enough to threaten his standing. A non-white journalist once told me that at one point in her career she could not settle into the right job producing or editing at the network, but that people inexplicably kept trying to nudge her into on-air work even though she wasn’t interested. Eventually she understood: her name was a valuable commodity on air—more than her ideas off the air, though the latter would shape content just as much, if not more. That is checklist diversity in action.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum are figures like Raheel Raza (her website presents her as Raheel Raza Diversity Inc.) whose version of diversity has included decrying M-103, the anti-Islamophobia motion. Raza protested in an opinion editorial for the National Post that MP Iqra Khaled, who brought the motion, had introduced herself in the house as “a young, brown, Muslim Canadian woman.” Raza wrote: “I find it curious that she begins by identifying herself first as brown, then Muslim and lastly as a Canadian. To my understanding, a Canadian member of parliament should identify as Canadian first.” The rules of English grammar would discourage this sequence, of course, but no matter; Raza continued on, using an inaccurate history of the term Islamophobia tying its origins to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s, and landing, within about 25 words, on whether we want blasphemy laws coming to Canada.

The point is not whether I agree or disagree with Raza (though if you read carefully you may detect my bias); there is, and should be, room for a range of perspectives. It is that diversity (Inc.) can be a profitable idea for both left and right without necessarily leading to more civil or meaningful discourse. In fact, the cloak of diversity can actually restrict more meaningful discourse. I value small-d diversity; how could I not? I am a first-generation immigrant. I lived in India till I was partway through high school; I speak two Indian languages, and studied two others, and was trained in Indian classical music. Yet diversity is not a natural identity for me, as I expect it is not for many immigrants, but rather an acquired, or more accurately, assigned one. There is another equally salient fact: I am a middle-class person with a liberal-arts degree and a full-time journalism job who can afford to live in Toronto. Do I bring more diversity to a room than a traditionalist working-class white person from Fernie, B.C. who is the first person in their family to work in a newsroom or at a university rather than a lumber mill? I really don’t know.

The institutional response to the past week is likewise complicated for me—and, again, I speak only for myself. A prize recognizing excellent Indigenous writing is unassailable and something I want to support. A position in a newsroom designated for a minority person I am less sure about. It does take deliberate effort to shift the status quo. But I don’t think I want to be put in a box with other ethnics so a hiring team can decide who among us is the best. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we might not cut it in the other, bigger box. And then if a diversity of experience and thought is truly valued, would that not simply be reflected in hiring processes at large? Surely there is a way to be deliberate without being reductive. [Note: My original wording said “university program or newsroom,” but I amended this and two other references in this paragraph because I’d like to think more about these issues in a university context.]

My fear is that bureaucratized solutions on their own, wherever they occur, have the potential to yield the optics without the substance—a kind of Potemkin Village of diversity. It is the solution that I can see most readily emerging now, and it is littered with conundrums. There is the question of what we expect of “ethnic” writers or artists or journalists. Does a journalist who comes in on a diversity fellowship end up having her job circumscribed for her in a way that another journalist doesn’t? Is the expectation that she will write about “ethnic” issues? What if she wants to write about health care or opera or food? And what about everyone else in the school or newsroom—shouldn’t everyone be committed to exploring issues that affect communities beyond their own? Wasn’t this lack of interest responsible for the myopia that almost gave us a prize for cultural appropriation—and which has helped to preserve the heart-stopping inequities by which some communities in this country have tree-planting programs for beautifying neighbourhoods and others are still waiting for drinking water? The crux of the issue is not that Indigenous people are up in arms about this reality; it is that all of us aren’t.

How we got here is a conversation we could be having, not despite the events of the past week, but because of them. Instead, in the public realm, we are creeping into an ever more distressingly polarized divide. There is a narrowing on one side of what is an acceptable view of appropriation, of the fight itself, of the people who tweeted support for the prize. (I confess that I am terrified to put this piece out into the world.) On the other side is a broadening and a coarsening (the plus side of residential schools; what do these people want anyway?) that will surely nurture the kinds of political currents that elected Donald Trump south of the border.

It is difficult to move on from betrayal, difficult to ask of Indigenous people and communities to forgive yet another wrong. But I worry that the extreme censure of the white journalists involved could make well-intentioned people, inside and outside the trade, less likely to ask risky questions, more fearful of venturing to understand what they don’t know, mistrustful of their own instincts and perhaps more comfortable retreating into their own corners. More closed off than they were two weeks ago, in other words. It is true that we have heard an outpouring of strong Indigenous voices, and there is obvious and great value in this. My concern is not for the accompanying silencing of powerful voices. It is for the closing of bridges between communities, for the shutting down of the broader conversation in favour of safer, private ones. Firing everyone who tweeted support of the prize does not solve the problem; it just defers it. In an ever more heterogeneous country, that is inaction we cannot afford. We have to be able to talk about race, about Indigenous history, about difference, with generosity, and a tolerance for error and a belief in change.

One evening this week, in the midst of this raging fight, I was rushing to pick up my child from school. I discovered the kids sitting outside on big rocks in the playground, listening to a story. They were rapt, eyes wide and fixed on the book the daycare teacher was holding up. Not one, including mine, even looked my way as I sat down. After she was finished, they sat still, in a kind of hush, for another 10 seconds or so—an eternity for this age group—before dispersing. Some were still in a daze. I looked through the book later, Shin-chi’s Canoe, by Nicola I. Campbell—a story of two siblings going off to residential school. (Political indoctrination, some will cry immediately. Just think of it as a children’s story that actually happened.) The boy is going for the first time, and his sister tells him what to expect. They can’t speak their language, or use their real names, or comfort each other in the night. They will be lonely, and hungry.

I could see the disbelief in the kids’ eyes at the idea that someone had done this to children—kids like them. I don’t know how so many of us lost that disbelief, that naïve, electrifying recognition of something as profoundly unfair, happening to someone fundamentally like us. I suppose we never have had it in the first place; the teaching of this history in Canada was for so long perfunctory, scattershot. It seems to me that this week many of us are suddenly seeing this past more clearly. I would guess that more Indigenous writers have been read in the past week than the week before. It has been an uncomfortable period, a painful one for many. Whether it gets better or much, much worse, I guess, is up to each of us.

Sarmishta Subramanian was the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada from 2016 to 2018.