Yesterday’s liberal is today’s racist

Not too long ago, the essay that cost Hal Niedzviecki his job would have been considered remarkably progressive.

The editor of Write magazine, published by the Writers Union of Canada, committed the mortal sin of telling white authors to make their books a little less white.  But it’s not the “alt-right” that got upset about it:

The Writers’ Union of Canada has issued an apology and the editor of its magazine has resigned after publishing an opinion piece titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to Indigenous writing.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” began the editorial by Hal Niedzviecki in the spring issue of Write magazine. “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 wrote that CanLit was “exhaustingly white and middle-class” because its producers are generally so and people tend to write what they know. “I say: Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you … Win the Appropriation Prize.”

Some people were enraged, and the fallout was swift: TWUC issued an apology, a board member resigned, TWUC’s Equity Task Force issued a list of demands – and Mr. Niedzviecki left his position.

“I had no intention of offending anyone with the article,” Mr. Niedzviecki told The Globe and Mail Wednesday, after resigning that morning – his choice, he says.

“I absolutely understand why people are upset. I think that I was a little tone deaf, and I was failing to recognize how charged the term cultural appropriation is and how deeply painful acts of cultural appropriation have been to Indigenous people.”

But a quick fix is not the answer, says the contributor whose tweetstorm Tuesday brought attention to the issue – pointing to deeper problems at the organization and in CanLit.

“I would like for [TWUC] to look at the practices by which they run their organization and look at the way it enforces systemic oppression and try and figure out ways to counteract that,” Alicia Elliott told The Globe from Brantford, Ont.

The TWUC Equity Task Force issued a statement, saying it was “angry and appalled” by the column, and shocked that it was published – saying it was an indication of structural racism, “brazen malice, or extreme negligence.” It issued a list of demands, including that the next three issues be turned over to Indigenous and other racialized editors and writers, affirmative action hiring for the next editor and future office staff and a future issue dedicated to bringing historical context to the issue.

Like Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberley Peirce, confronted by mob of shrieking yahoos for the mortal sin of casting a female actress as a trans man in 1999, Niedzviecki learned the hard way that his cultural liberalism won’t protect him anymore.

Adopting practices from a culture other than your own used to be height of openness and tolerance.  Now it is “cultural appropriation” and akin to genocide itself.  Only a native person can tell a story involving native peoples, and if you suggest otherwise you deserve to be hounded out of your job.

If they could take a moment to stop punching each other to talk about their beliefs, I think the social-justice warriors and the neo-fascists would find they have surprisingly much in common, especially when it comes to keeping their respective cultures walled off from infection by people with different colored skin.

Of course, as a straight white man, it’s probably easy for me to say all of this.  Were I a native person, struggling with the legacy of residential schools and persistent, horrific inequalities and injustices, perhaps I would feel differently.  Historically, white people have given the First Nations little reason to believe their intentions are benign.  People should try to understand what native Canadians have experienced and how they feel.

If any attempt to do so is denounced as “cultural appropriation,” however, it’s not going to happen.

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