Proceed with caution

Misguided, aggressive attacks against cultural appropriation do not effectively combat oppression

Proceed with caution

A new trend of using online media to challenge social injustice has been on the rise. As a result, cultural appropriation has become an increasingly relevant topic in race relations.

Cultural appropriation is when an aspect of one culture is taken by individuals belonging to another culture.

For example, an inarguable case of oppressive cultural appropriation is when white people wear Indigenous headdresses as a fashion statement, with no respect for the significance of the headdress. This is highly offensive due to the history of oppression between Indigenous people and colonizing Europeans – oppression that, in some forms, involved conscious efforts to eradicate Indigenous culture.

Of course, calling out individuals and institutions for appropriating culture is often done with good intentions. However, misguided charges of cultural appropriation are frequent. Outcries like this are a result of people perpetuating faulty definitions of cultural appropriation and simply jumping the gun before evaluating whether something is actually being appropriated. The proper definition is often misunderstood, because online news and social media validate misapplications of the term.

Cultural appropriation is indeed a valid form of oppression and a massive insult to those who have had their identities denied. However, some methods of challenging cultural appropriation can be misguided and can often make matters worse.

A viral video from San Francisco State University is an excellent example of how challenging what is perceived to be cultural appropriation can be misguided. In the video, Bonita Tindle, a young African-American woman, attacks Cory Goldstein, a white student who has dreadlocks.

Regardless of your opinion on whether Goldstein’s hair was an act of cultural appropriation, the video makes it clear why Tindle’s approach was wrong. Cultural appropriation or not, this is not an appropriate way to challenge social justice issues. No matter how offended you are, you have no right to put your hands on another individual.

Beyond that, attacking someone because you believe they are appropriating a culture is counterproductive for many reasons. For instance, it is often difficult to determine at first glance somebody else’s cultural background, especially in diverse cities such as San Francisco or Toronto.

There is a colossal difference between a yoga instructor offering a free yoga class on behalf of the university’s Centre for Students with Disabilities and a massive company like Lululemon Athletica profiting from the commercialization of yoga

By confronting those who you believe to be appropriating a culture that doesn’t belong to them as Tindle did, you run the risk of attacking someone who is in fact practicing their own culture. The fact that many people do not understand the true meaning of appropriation further aggravates this problem and can lead to serious misunderstanding or offence.

This kind of approach also discredits those who fight against social injustice, culminating in the use of negative terms like ‘social justice warriors,’ ‘offended Tumblrites,’ and ‘fanatics’ to describe those who challenge systemic racism.

This is extremely damaging to legitimate social justice movements such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has been speaking out about anti-Black racism and violence. The movement has been repeatedly labelled as an ‘overreaction,’ despite the important injustices it brings to light.

Hyper-analysis and overly aggressive challenges of cultural appropriation can distract from more pressing issues in race relations. There are many cases in which a person, institution, or company has been falsely accused of cultural appropriation.

For example, the University of Ottawa suspended yoga classes after receiving complaints that it was committing cultural appropriation. However, there is a colossal difference between a yoga instructor offering a free yoga class on behalf of the university’s Centre for Students with Disabilities and a massive company like Lululemon Athletica profiting from the commercialization of yoga.

While we continue to be offended by yoga classes, celebrities, and appropriated lunch foods, we overlook egregious instances of systemic racism. While legitimate cultural appropriation is a problem, calling out unsubstantiated incidents does not address it; furthermore, combating systemic racism and racially-charged violence is where the bulk of our social justice efforts should be focused.

Responses to charges of cultural appropriation can be ineffective, or produce unintended negative consequences. In the case of OttawaU’s yoga dilemma, the reinstatement of the yoga class culminated in hiring an Indian woman who believes she only got the position based on her race; she admitted to not having experience in teaching yoga to students with disabilities.

While we continue to be offended by yoga classes, celebrities, and appropriated lunch foods, we overlook egregious instances of systemic racism.

These situations also fuel the problematic assumption that millennials are offended by everything, which unfortunately discredits young individuals who fight for social justice causes.

Cultural appropriation is a highly complex issue and is undoubtedly an oppressive form of racism; how it should be challenged needs to be intelligently determined. It is imperative that we are cognizant about how to properly police cultural appropriation, because aggressive attacks only serve to create a more divisive rhetoric.

Ultimately, the goal in fighting cultural appropriation is about opening a respectful dialogue that could lead to positive change; this means that challenges need to be conducted in a respectful and cautious way.

Stephanie Yaacoub is a third-year student at University College studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations.

U of T strikes Truth and Reconciliation steering committee

Native Students’ Association supports mandatory Indigenous studies credit

U of T strikes Truth and Reconciliation steering committee

In the wake of the recent release of the full report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), U of T president Meric Gertler and U of T vice president and provost Cheryl Regehr have struck a university-wide steering committee to review and implement the TRC’s conclusions. The committee was created on January 15.

The TRC released its historic final report which includes a total of 94 “Calls to Action.” These “Calls to Action” are recommendations that cover steps institutions and people can take towards expediting reconciliation. Many of them involve educational reforms.

Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, coordinator of U of T’s Council of Aboriginal Initiatives and director of Aboriginal student services at U of T’s First Nations House, alongside professor Stephen Toope, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, are the steering committee’s co-chairs. Community Elders Lee Maracle and Andrew Wesley are also confirmed to be providing “guidance and wisdom” to the committee.

“The steering committee will be guiding the implementation of the Terms of Reference. I will participate in the same way all the members of the committee do,” said Maracle.

“The role of the committee is to consider the recommendations of the TRC and implement those that are relevant to the university. Students and faculty can become involved in the working groups attached to the steering committee and projects the committee proposes to undertake,” Maracle continued.

Other supporters of the committee include associate professor Sandy Welsh, vice provost, students, and professor Sioban Nelson, vice provost, academic programs and faculty and academic life, who will work closely with academic divisions and other stakeholders following the TRC’s Terms of Reference.

Native Students’ Association calls for mandatory Indigenous Studies class

The Native Students’ Association (NSA) recently circulated a petition calling on the university to implement a mandatory Indigenous studies credit across all levels of education. The petition, which was posted on Change.org last week, had 476 supporters at press time.

“The topic of Indigenous studies is relevant to everyone who was born or resides in this country as it is an often overlooked but essential factor in the search to fully understand our collective Canadian history and identity, regardless of one’s ethnic background,” said Matthew Cappella, Maten Clan Leader of the NSA.

“There are so many Canadians that are not educated on Indigenous people in Canada. I see this everyday in my classes. The University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay have already approved mandatory Indigenous studies for undergrads,” said Roy Stebel, Bear Clan Leader with the NSA.

The movement in support of a mandatory Indigenous studies course now directly responds to Call 62 of the TRC, which calls for funding and for the inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge on high school and university curricula.

“The University of Toronto is far overdue in keeping up to speed on such an important issue. It is about time that university students begin to have a better understanding of Indigenous Canadians, this will ensure a stronger more succinct nation for our future,” said Stebel.

According to the NSA, the steering committee has yet to reach out to them, and NSA members hope to be included in the process.

“At this point we know very little of the committee. Unfortunately we have not been contacted by anyone yet either. However, since we are already responding to Call 62 of the TRC Calls to Action, we are confident that at least one of our members will be selected for the committee,” said Dhanela Paran, Loon Leader, and Audrey Rochette, Crane Leader, in a joint statement.

“In fact we are hoping to have at least three of our council on the committee due to the tangible work we do everyday, every month, and every year on campus and [the] impact we have not only through thoughtful discussions but through our events, campaigns, community work, and dedication to our goals. We do this work already and our insight could be very valuable as student leaders,” they added.

Committee set to have “working groups”

“I am Mohawk, so this impacts many people in Indigenous communities and myself,” said Hamilton-Diabo. We want to be able to increase the inclusion of Indigenous people in the post-secondary sector and society where many members have disadvantages. [This is] me working for my community,” he added.

Hamilton-Diabo says the committee will look at all mechanisms available to them when considering a mandatory course in Indigenous studies for all students at U of T.

“First Nations House have been putting it out there on behalf of the NSA we support any activity the NSA puts forward to recommend change, and I think it is a important piece and we are well aware of the work they are doing and interested in seeing larger discussion that needs to take place. Should this go ahead, it would need to involve other areas. It sparks a very needed discussion,” commented Hamilton-Diabo on the NSA’s petition.

“I think we would definitely be looking at having a wide range of people that can be a benefit to the committee. [There will be] lots of opportunity for people to get involved. We will create working groups,” he said on the committee’s development.

For his part, Hamilton-Diabo is looking forward to exploring Indigenous language courses, which are currently offered at U of T. Courses teaching Indigenous languages were named in the 94 “Calls to Action” as an aspect of knowledge that post-secondary institutions should share and promote.

The committee is expected to present an interim report to Regehr and Gertler by July 1, 2016 and a final report by December 31, 2016.

Nominations for faculty, staff, and students to sit on the steering committee will close on January 25, 2016.

Calls to action and universities

The TRC Calls to Action that apply to post-secondary institutions include: asking universities to create degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages; requiring students at medical and nursing schools to take a course specifically related to Aboriginal health issues; requiring law students to take a course in Indigenous law; and educating future social and child welfare workers about the effects and legacy of residential schools for Aboriginal communities and families.

U of T currently offers courses related to Indigenous issues within these disciplines; however, not all programs require an Indigenous studies course to graduate.

The university also houses services for Indigenous students such as the First Nations House, the Council on Aboriginal Initiatives, the Indigenous Language Initiative, and the Indigenous Health Science Group. The most recent initiative is the newly established Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous health, a research institute dedicated to the health of Indigenous Canadians.

U of T begins race data collection

Move to advance goals of diversity, equity, inclusion

U of T begins race data collection

The University of Toronto has agreed to begin demographic data collection pertaining to race. The decision was reached at a December 7, 2015 meeting between members of the U of T administration and members of the Black Liberation Collective at U of T.  Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of news & media relations stated that the university believes it would be beneficial to collect such data. “These data will help to inform policies and practices to further the university’s interest in embedding diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Members of the Black Liberation Collective, U of T vice provost, students Sandy Welsh, Angela Hildyard, U of T vice president human resources and equity, and Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, the anti-racism & cultural diversity officer attended the meeting.

Several organizers with Black at UofT were approached for comment and all declined on the basis that [they] have found [The Varsity] unwilling to acknowledge, rectify or combat [it’s own] racism.”

Race-related census data collection can include data about student admission and graduation, and staff and faculty hiring and promotions. U of T is now exploring the details of how this data will be collected.

“The university will now explore the best avenues for individuals to report such data should they choose to do so,” said Blackburn-Evans.

More information is forthcoming.