In early July protests shut down the production of SLĀV, a show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal directed by Robert Lepage and consisting mainly of songs composed by African-American slaves. “This entire show is based on a flawed premise: that white people are altogether, ahem, entitled to put on a musical theatre revue about black slavery,” wrote Montreal Gazette journalist T’Cha Dunlevy. Two of six back-up singers were black, and Dunlevy noted that whenever a white one stepped up, the outcome was “unconvincing. This is not a comment on their talent but their skin colour, which pretty much disqualifies them from credibly portraying black slaves.”
SLĀV was condemned as an instance of “cultural appropriation,” a term familiar from previous controversies. A month before the SLĀV protests, Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax made headlines for assigning a white academic to teach a class on the history of residential schools. A few weeks earlier, Twitter blew up over the white American teen who wore a traditional Chinese dress to her prom. Occasionally someone will question this way of thinking about culture. “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” Hal Niedzviecki wrote in a 2017 issue of Write magazine devoted to Indigenous writing. We all know how that panned out.
Debates over cultural appropriation follow a familiar script. The concept is deployed by left-wing proponents of racial justice, while the most outspoken critics to date have been on the right. But central casting has made a mistake. There is nothing especially progressive about the idea that in assessing a work of culture, whether a theatre script or a history lecture, concern with the identity of the creator should outweigh concern with the quality of the work itself. Proponents of appropriation talk have, inadvertently and ironically, embraced a reactionary concept.
The SLĀV case was complicated by eyebrow-raising statements made by lead singer Betty Bonifassi, such as “I don’t see colour…all cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.” Bonifassi came off like a proponent of the “all lives matter” school. And some critics took issue with the show’s content rather than the very idea of white artists singing songs written by black slaves. But many criticisms were directed at the artists. As Sophia Sahrane of SLĀV Resistance Collective told CTV News, “We’re tired of white folk who have been the source of colonization, of imperialism, of oppression, telling us our history. We are able to tell our own history. We need to take control of our narratives and they are not letting us.” This view would explain why protesters outside the theatre did not see the show before objecting to it. If cultural appropriation is the issue, it doesn’t matter what form the work took, only that it was made by the wrong people.
This argument against SLĀV is worth considering in a different context. A recent breakout work on Indigenous history was Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, by James Daschuk. It documents how John A. Macdonald subjected Indigenous people to systematic starvation and other atrocities. Daschuk is white, but that did not prevent other historians from responding to his book with acclaim. The notion that white scholars should not research or teach Indigenous history seems a fringe view more commonly expressed on social media than in actual history departments. The resolution of the Mount St. Vincent case, which ultimately saw the white professor who developed the residential schools course allowed to teach the class, would seem to confirm as much.
Extended to academic history, appropriation talk would leave little room for recognizing that white historians such as Daschuk can be powerful chroniclers of Indigenous, and by extension, black history. It is hard to see how such histories would be served by cultivating a climate in which works such as Clearing the Plains are less likely to be written.
The case for being on guard against appropriation is that such a stance will benefit traditionally oppressed cultures. But is this true? Appropriation talk suggests a vision of the future in which black and Indigenous stories can only be told when a black or Indigenous storyteller is available. It is hard not to see this resulting in a position of ongoing cultural privilege for narratives about Europeans and their descendants. Yes, we need more black, Indigenous, and other creators telling their stories. But we should hope to see black, Indigenous, and other creators also become sources of inspiration in cultures beyond their own. Consider Shakespeare, who is now the subject of an academic industry documenting his influence in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Kenya, and China. Although his material is overwhelmingly European, his reach is universal. Like other great artists, Shakespeare travelled well thanks to colonialism, but he has also achieved his status in part because it is acceptable for his stories to be told and retold by people across cultures. Surely we do not want to live in a world in which this possibility is only open to white authors.
From this point of view, the ultimate problem with appropriation talk is not that it is a radical idea, but that it is not radical enough. Great works of art are a bit like public property: they belong to everyone. Appropriation talk sees culture as more akin to private property, something to be kept from falling into the hands of those to whom it doesn’t belong. The possibility of works by members of traditionally oppressed groups becoming the cultural equivalent of public property is something it unwittingly guards against. Perhaps this is why appropriation talk is most common in countries with the most capitalistic economies. Regardless, accusations of cultural appropriation put a progressive veneer on a doctrine that, when taken to its logical conclusion, would limit the potential reach of works by people of colour.
This may explain why there are so many writers of colour who reject the thinking behind appropriation talk. Years ago I attended a reading by Tomson Highway, then as now one of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous writers. During the Q&A I asked Highway what he thought of the idea that non-Indigenous writers should avoid writing about Indigenous people. His answer consisted of six words: “I don’t have time for it.” Similarly, after fiction writer Bharati Mukherjee moved from India to Canada to the United States, she coined the term “the exuberance of immigration” to counter the view that immigrant writers are defined by their countries of origin. “Instead of seeing my Indianness as a fragile identity to be preserved against obliteration…I see it now as a set of fluid identities to be celebrated.” The dynamic view of identity Mukherjee embraces is hard to reconcile with the stay-in-your-lane approach to culture that underlies fear of appropriation. The notion that the meaning of a work of literature is fixed by the cultural origin of its creator is openly satirized by francophone Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière. As he writes in his novel I am a Japanese Writer, “When I became a writer and people asked me, ‘Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?’ I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.”
Highway attended a residential school. Mukherjee’s non-fiction documented the racism she experienced in 1970s Toronto. Laferrière worked in menial jobs after arriving in Montreal as a refugee. All three writers were familiar with different forms of oppression, experiences that inform their work. They nonetheless offer the valuable reminder that it is possible to combine a commitment to honouring the experience of communities of colour with an equal commitment to free inquiry and openness to new cultural possibilities. Belief in cultural appropriation requires us to give up the dream of achieving both. In asking us to settle only for one value it asks us to dream small. In this and other ways the hustle of appropriation talk is ultimately a conservative hustle. The more we allow it to set the terms of debate, the poorer everyone’s culture will be.