The White Umbrella: Imitators in the Long Shadows of Cultural Appropriation

Man Changing into Thunderbird by Norval Morrisseau, 1977

The backstory: Toronto artist, Amanda PL, has been called out for cultural appropriation and plagiarism. Widespread outrage within First Nations and artistic communities resulted in the cancellation of her upcoming exhibition. To make matters worse, a video was released where she and her boyfriend used racial slurs and mocked Asians. This has sparked a heated national conversation about cultural sensitivity, cultural appropriation, and white privilege.

by Amanda PL

So… after studying the articles, interviews, videos, extensive commentaries, and thinking long and hard on this, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say some controversial things that to date nobody has pointed out. They are details that I feel are important to the broader conversation – mainly around the “white privilege” backlash that Amanda PL is experiencing.

I find it curious that she repeatedly emphasizes her status as a Toronto-born Canadian, but carefully omits information about her cultural heritage. You see, I strongly suspect that Amanda PL is a “hyphenated” Canadian, which raises the question of whether the accusations of white privilege even apply in her case. Although she is Canadian by birth, her parents likely immigrated here, but from where, she is not saying.

In Toronto, 75.8% of the population consists of people who are foreign-born or who have at least one parent born outside Canada (2011 Census). This girl has a slight, but detectable accent, she mentions spending time on the Mediterranean (on her website), and she calls her boyfriend, Bibi, a common nickname in the Middle East. And at the risk of falling into the realm of murky stereotypes, her hair and facial features suggest the look of a classic Middle Eastern beauty. Why is this important?

Toronto artist, Amanda PL

Many people are angry (and I’m paraphrasing here) that this “white girl” is appropriating a marginalized culture, the historic subjugation of which contributed to her elevation as a white, privileged Canadian. While she does appear to come from privilege of some sort, I seriously doubt that she is representative of white European colonialism that lead to the cultural genocide of First Nations People. Her story – the story – is more complex than that.

I am not in any way defending her, but it might be worth examining how families navigate the complexities of long-standing cultural issues, warts and all, of their newly adopted countries? Even second-generation Canadians often don’t seem to quite get the hang of it and can view the world through a lens tinted by the baggage of their immigrant parents.

In the case of Amanda PL, when confronted by her astonishing display of willful naiveté, it seems that she is trying very very hard (through misguided methods) to claim and build her Canadian identity while simultaneously shedding or negating her own ancestral roots, whatever they may be.

To be viewed as “other” within a bigoted dominant culture is no easy life, as indigenous people know all too well. For a hyphenated Canadian to be working so hard to erase the hyphen in their identity, only to turn around and crash the wounded boundaries of an marginalized cultural group… well, that’s just sad.

Yes, I’m making a huge assumption, but if my assessment is accurate, and I suspect that it is, how profoundly unfortunate. Canada’s immigration policies, on principle, have always been based on respect, diversity, and inclusivity. Is it all just an illusion for some? Sadly, the answer is probably yes.

Imagine how great Amanda PL’s art could be if she were brave enough to create a hybrid of her family’s cultural origins influenced by the Woodland Style. Now THAT would be original. Unfortunately, as an uneducated, self-taught artist struggling with identity issues and a lack of imagination, she has stubbornly latched on to the justification and delusion that her plagiarism is adding something valuable to the Canadian cultural landscape. Clearly, her Native Studies courses have taught her nothing. As one person commented, either she had a really bad teacher, or she was a really bad student.

Amanda PL is likely struggling with issues that I know little or nothing about. But I do know this:  children of immigrants who grow up in Canadian schools have to reconcile the Western values they learn there with often conflicting cultural values in the home. They can’t help being a little confused and a product of both. Trying to deny or hide it is deeply problematic on so many levels, including psychologically. Many hyphenated Canadians have and are struggling with identity issues, and are being vocal about it. I’m sure they would have some very valuable insight to add to this conversation.

In conclusion, and regardless of any underlying factors, Amanda PL seems unwilling or unable to understand that she has crossed a line. I would also add that the owners of the Visions Gallery (new to the art world) were remiss in their duty to ensure the integrity of every artist and exhibition they host. How did the situation get this far? Has this young woman (who studied at York and Lakehead universities) been encouraged for the past five years by a long list of enablers who themselves were lacking in cultural sensitivity and knowledge of artistic protocol? Everybody knows that while it’s okay to copy “the Masters” when you’re a student, you DO NOT ever try to exhibit or sell it as original work, right?

That nobody has called her out before now underscores the systemic shortcomings in Canada that allow very troubling problems like this to manifest. It is every mentor and educator’s responsibility to ensure that every student gets it. We obviously still have a long way to go. Sigh…


The Question of Humour

Several years ago an incident occurred which left me feeling deeply wounded and upset. It was at that moment that I began to examine what people consider funny, or more precisely, what legitimately qualifies as humour. My analysis yielded answers that were not entirely surprising, and now the recent violence in Paris has me thinking again.

The incident in question happened when I answered the phone one day and was greeted by a sing song, “I’m seeing your son, and you’re not, hahahaha!” It was delivered by a family friend in the familiar school yard tune we all know as, na na na na naaaa. We see this brand of juvenile, so-called humour all the time in the movies, on television, and Youtube, et cetera. People aren’t even aware that they’re doing it because it’s been so thoroughly normalized in our culture, but to me… it felt like a knife in the heart. You see, my son had moved away as a child to another city to be with his father, and I was not able to follow him. Any parent would understand the agony of such a separation, and to this day we are still not able to live closer to one another. Poking fingers into wounds just isn’t funny. Period.

So, what is it about humour? I think we can all agree that there are essentially two types. Let’s call them, positive and negative. First, there is the harmless hilarity of laughing at ourselves… you know, those quirky human traits we all share that, when skillfully described by a comic, have us rolling on the floor in leaky hysterics. We love to laugh at ourselves, and comedians have capitalized on this for decades. The other brand of humour is dark, however, and is not so innocuous. It comes at the expense of others and is about “making fun” of someone else, for example mocking, ridiculing, belittling, humiliating, criticizing, and so on. At its core it is nothing more than a put-down disguised as a joke, and in my view this very closely resembles bullying. There is certainly an element of provocation and thinly veiled cruelty to it.

Sadly, modifying our perceptions and behaviour is a slow and painful process. For millennia we’ve indulged the baser instinct of laughing at each other. We laugh when others get hurt. Popular culture persistently upholds and promotes this type of negative and antagonistic aggression… so really, it isn’t a surprise that bullying is at an all time high in schools and in the work place. And further… it isn’t shocking that newspapers deliberately publish provocative material masquerading as humour while knowing full well that it will upset somebody somewhere.

So… as long as “making fun” of others in the name of humour is vociferously defended as free speech, then there will continue to be conflicts and horror in this world. Fingers don’t just poke existing wounds, sometimes continued poking actually creates the wounds. And then what? We can turn the other cheek like Ghandi did, but most of us would probably snap like the wild animals we all have the potential to be. Isn’t it time that we finally exercised some degree of sensitivity, compassion, and common sense? Isn’t it time we realized that some things just aren’t funny.


The War on Women and Girls

Today my heart aches. I saw in my Twitter feed that on the weekend two women had been brutally assaulted, raped, and left for dead. One victim is a sixteen-year-old girl in Winnipeg, the other is a thirty-year-old woman in Calgary. The attack on the latter was described by police as extremely violent. Both are in the hospital… and I am beside myself.

Part of what is so upsetting is that these vicious attacks have occurred in the wake of recent major news headlines concerning rampant sexual harassment and violence against women – Gamergate, Ghomeshigate, the recent suspension of two Liberal MPs in Ottawa for sexual harassment, and most disturbingly, the global outrage against the reviled, self-proclaimed “dating coach,” Julien Blanc, who travels around the world to give seminars on how to sexually assault women.

It was the Ghomeshi scandal and the Twitter hash tag, #BeenRapedNeverReported, several weeks ago that sparked an unprecedented and much needed conversation that is still going strong. This morning CBC Radio’s current affairs program, The Current, discussed the culture of fear and abuse that women experience, and how men can get involved in the fight against sexism and misogyny. (Listen to the audio segment – length 22 minutes). Sigh… we have such a long way to go.

So… after these two latest horrific assaults on the weekend I am left feeling speechless and helpless, yet it is my outrage that compels me to scream at my keyboard and formulate meaningful words and thoughts that need to be shouted from rooftops everywhere. Is there going to be no end to this???

Ultimately I feel, as every woman must, that those attacks—those victims—are in some way connected to me personally. Why? Because never before has the war on women been so outrageously obvious. Never before has the war on women and girls everywhere been so desperately in need of being formally addressed.

In my last post I touched on the role of government in ignoring the problem:

The Canadian government’s complicity in the escalation of the current crisis is in my opinion reprehensible. By ignoring repeated calls for a public inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is guilty of turning a blind eye to rape culture. Through arrogance, male entitlement, inaction, and cold-heartedness, his style of leadership inadvertently sends a message loud and clear to abusers, rapists, murderers, and misogynists everywhere that human rights violations against WOMEN are tolerated in this country. Women are open season, have your way with them. Harper’s stance is unacceptable.

Tragically, someone did have his way with a sixteen-year-old girl and left her to die by the Assiniboin River. Tragically, someone did have his way with a thirty-year-old woman and left her to die in the bushes by a C-Train platform. It’s a miracle that either survived. Now their lives have been changed forever, and whether they truly “survive” remains to be seen.

With regard to Prime Minister Harper and his denial that there is a crisis, he has washed his hands of it stating that it is a matter for the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, as if the statistics regarding sexual assault were not alarming enough, the monumental and nationwide outpouring of outrage, grief, tears, disclosures, debates, discussions, and conversations these past weeks should be a glaring sign that it’s time—time for effective leadership strategies, time for criminal law revisions, time for compassionate treatment of sexual assault victims, time for curriculum revisions in education, and the list goes on.

For the leader of a nation to stand by and do nothing is to allow the war on women and girls to continue, and most tragically, to continue blaming the victims. How many more victims will it take? The ugly truth is, this isn’t even war—it’s all out genocide.

Read more on Julien Blanc
Sign the petition to keep Julien Blanc out of Canada

To the two victims in Winnipeg and Calgary (and to all the other unreported victims who have been violated these past few days) we stand with you and wish you strength and healing through this difficult time.

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