The Protectionism of Cultural Appropriation

When my mother died in 2009, I decided to honour her memory by sponsoring a child through an organization called Plan International. Letters and photos are exchanged, and it’s like the film About Schmidt. In the final scene the character played by Jack Nicholson bursts into tears upon receiving a letter from the little boy he sponsors in Africa. I sometimes feel like that.

Over the years different children have been sponsored, but I just got a package from the current beneficiary – a 7-year-old girl in Ethiopia. It includes information about her and her family, as well as a postcard ‘Hello From Canada’ which I am to sign and send back.

The postcard has four photos: a park in Vancouver depicting spring, a summer shot of canoes on a lake in Algonquin Park, a fall scene with brilliant colours from a small Nova Scotia town, and a winter shot of mountains in the Yukon.

The problem is I live in Toronto, and while my home is on a ravine not far from the lake, there are 5.5 million people in the Greater Toronto Area, so the scenes in this postcard do not reflect where I’m coming from. In fact, the scenes in this postcard could be construed as a form of ‘cultural appropriation.’

The present controversy stems from an article by a writer who said he doesn’t believe in ‘cultural appropriation.’ What exactly is that? In the current lexicon, it seems to refer to having the right to write about your own, and insofar as it concerns Indigenous people, they should be the ones writing about Indigenous people.

Indigenous people – First Nations, Aboriginals, Indians – have been treated horrendously by (mostly) white people all over the globe and Canada is no exception. This is not the place to get into the historical abuse of Indigenous people, which has been well documented and continues to be. In fact, I have documented it myself.

My newest novel Medicine Man involves painstaking research about an old Iroquois village that once existed near the mouth of the Rouge River. The Government of Ontario and Government of Canada have never recognized that a Native village existed there. Well, these governments have been wrong before. The manuscript is making the rounds in search of a publisher.

At least one author told me I shouldn’t be writing about this. You see, I’m not Aboriginal and haven’t a drop of Aboriginal blood in my veins. By the same token, I don’t have a drop of English or French blood in my veins either, yet I still call myself Canadian.

If ‘cultural appropriation’ were the letter of the law, I’d be confined to writing about a white, Jewish-born man from Toronto, who is married to a Macedonian Orthodox woman from a village in northern Greece whose family came to Canada when she was three. While that might be interesting, it is rather limited.

In my humble view, a writer who takes no risks and is afraid of exploring anything beyond his or her comfort zone may suffer from myopia, even if they have something to contribute.

For what it’s worth, many writers have strong views on this subject. James A. Michener, who penned a few historical novels thank you, said: “I’m not sure you are ever a good storyteller unless you are a good listener.” While W. Somerset Maugham said: “Impropriety is the soul of wit.” Then there is comedy writer Larry David who said: “I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone which is about a half an inch wide.”

And then we have John Howard Griffin, a white American who wrote the book Black Like Me about his experiences travelling through the Deep South after darkening his skin so he would pass as a black man. Should he not have done that?

As for that little 7-year-old girl in Ethiopia, I’m going to send her the postcard with the photos of Canada’s four seasons. But I’m also including a shot of me with the CN Tower in the background.

No way do I want to misappropriate 5.5 million people.

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