Fragmented thoughts on political correctness and appropriation

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I don’t understand the problem that people have with political correctness. I’m on many sides of this issue. I think it stems from a conversation I had with my boyfriend about how people were outraged with Steve Martin’s tweet upon Carrie Fisher’s passing.

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The responses: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/steve-martin-carrie-fisher-tweet_us_58642c36e4b0de3a08f70427

Here’s one from New York Magazine:

I think Steve Martin was speaking from the heart here. People are allowed to be outraged. I personally don’t believe the tweet was in poor taste, but maybe deleting his tweet was. I can see that Martin probably got upset or tired of the responses he was getting. Keeping in mind that Martin is from a different time, I think of what he might have meant, which was probably thoughtfully considered, especially knowing that he knew her personally. Her fans knew her well too, hence the outrage. The public might have gone overboard, but in this place and time, today, if you’re going to engage with the public, you’re engaging with thousands, even millions of people. And they will respond in multitudes in real time. That is the hyper world we live in now.

This all brings me to the controversies in Canadian literature and western literature as well. Here’s the latest: Editor Resigns Over an Article Defending ‘Cultural Appropriation’https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/11/arts/editor-resigns-over-article-defending-cultural-appropriation.html

Now I’ve spent a good portion of my writing career talking about appropriation. I’ve written about the ethics and colonization aspects of it within the literary establishment. But I want to note that a lot of this conversation, a lot of this backlash is coming from writers of colour. This isn’t about being politically correct, or being too sensitive in this day and age,  or “political correctness” gone haywire. These are legitimate concerns that people of colour have had for ages. We were rarely heard though even though we’ve been shouting it out from the mountains. Why are we not giving more people of colour and the disenfranchised more opportunities to flourish and to be heard?

I like to think I’ve been “woke” since I was a teenager. The Gulf War and the Human Rights Now Tour of the 80s really made a impression on me. Reading the Charter of Rights here in Canada and the Universal Declaration of Rights from the UN, empowered me and made me feel like anything was possible. So when I began writing, I noticed a few things that I was told to brush off. Why weren’t there only a few people of colour at poetry readings, book launches, literary parties, and the like? Why were there so few people of colour as editors to magazines and publishers in the industry? The more I questioned, the more I got consoled.

“It’s not true. We’re trying. It’s all in your head. We’re a community.”

Nevertheless, after a few poetry readings I started to begin my sets by looking around the room and if I didn’t notice anyone like me, or my colour, or diverse like community in Toronto I live in, I would say, “Thank you for inviting me. It is a privilege. It’s great to see people come out for poetry. Looking around the room, we need more people of colour, more people from the community here.” And then I’d start my reading.

It’s a response to gas-lighting. It was a response to truly waking up to reality. I feel it’s a statement that forces attendees and organizers to do something about it. Unfortunately, a lot of that ends up on people of colour’s shoulders. We are asked to solve the problem the privileged have created. We are told to bring solutions to the table. Therefore, instead of us focusing on our craft and our chosen careers, our labour is given to fixing messes or putting up the illusion that something is being done about the establishment’s “diversity” problem.

As soon as that article in Write appeared, I spoke out on twitter and Facebook and quickly retreated. I did speak out a few times on threads trying to point out the ignorance in our literary community, but nonetheless, I had to let it go. I realized how much those debates take out of me on social media. In turn, I also thought about the emotional labour that the indigenous writers who were in that Write issue were about to take on. It’s scary and overwhelming, even full of opportunities because people want to “diversify” their platforms, and hey, you’re there right in the middle of it, so why not?

But it takes up your time and space in your head. It does for me because I feel really passionate about anti-appropriation and for ethical appropriation in poetry and prose. A lot of the fights I feel like taking on, I have to step back and think, “Whose voice is better suited for this?” I can’t speak for the indigenous cause, nor can I speak for the causes of a black person. I can speak from a Latinx (yes I’ve adopted this term because I’ve come to love it and I’ve chosen it), Afro-latin second generation Canadian female perspective. That is who I am and how I was born. I don’t go around saying that is how I identify. That’s just how I try to approach these controversies and debates in the literary and the real world community. At 44, I think it’s a pretty awesome freedom to be able to self-identify nowadays.

What enriches a community is not taking from its members nor imagining what their experiences might be. What enriches literature and art is taking from one’s imagination and evolving that fictional or non-fictional world through a centre of empathy and compassion. We can imagine ourselves and write from another person’s shoes, for freedom of speech is an inherent and fundamental right, but we can not steal and appropriate to our sole benefit. We must acknowledge if we’re taking a scene, a slice of life, or a culture that comes from a place of pain and colonization.

Many would dismiss colonization as real today, but all you have to do is look at your televisions, the books you were taught in school, our world leaders, and the people that hold positions of power in our literary community. I just want most of you to go out there and notice. Keep a keen eye. Open your mind just a tiny bit and see how many people of colour you interact in media and in those literary communities. Who are your professors and who are your publishing editors? Take note of the people around your neighbourhoods. The establishments you visit and the things you promote. Is it truly reflective of the community around you? If good work stands the test of the literary establishment, why is it there are so few people of colour being published or in those positions of power. We are hard working and for the most part, talented, for our stories are rich and interesting. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be appropriated by so many white privileged folk.

The personal is always political. You can’t dismiss injustice or you will get told. Get ready to interact, get ready to truly expand your work by engaging.

I’ve spent the past few years reading people’s written defences for appropriation. That we need to learn to be free to express however we want to become one people instead of a world of races. I’m sorry (not sorry), but we can’t be one people if you fail to acknowledge and listen to why we are complaining and outraged right now. Why be politically correct? I see it this way, if you’re a writer, you try to engage your reader to feel with your character and their lives. Not only that, but you have to bring something new to the table, something that innovates literature, and emboldens it like the writers of the past have. If you keep appropriating and not innovating your own experience, you stagnate and literature becomes dull and droning. Those who have learned to appropriate ethically, who have opened the doors to an empathetic and considerate new world in literature will move on without you. And when you finally wake up to the issues, for it can never be too late (oh can’t tell you how I hold to that thought fast or I’d sink), then you will be offered a seat at the table and we will share freely, full of heart, and full of good work.

Sure, outrage can go all over the place, but really, I’d rather be able to read stuff like Steve Martin wrote about Carrie Fisher, read the outrage, and then discuss. Humanity and our creative output doesn’t evolve by dismissing, but by interacting and listening. Radical empathy, please google it and do the work yourself. : https://this.org/2016/11/08/what-it-means-to-practise-radical-empathy/

 

(P.S. You can write from the imagination and from experiences that are not your own in fiction and poetry. You can learn and appreciate different cultures and be influenced by them in your style and comportment. However, the point of all of this is that people are asking you to think, express, and create from a space of consideration. If you want to share and take part, you have to listen and consider.)

 

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One thought on “Fragmented thoughts on political correctness and appropriation

  1. Most complaints about “political correctness” assume a profoundly unbalanced idea of free speech. Typically the anti-PC complainant affirms the right to be as sexist/racist/homophobic as they like without anybody pointing out that they’re being sexist/racist/homophobic. They proclaim a right of self-expression but no right of response.

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