At the Summer Sparkle Dance Party that we hosted on June 22, one of the drag performances featured a person who is not of South Asian descent or culture wearing a veil and articles of traditional South Asian clothing. We, the organizers of the Catherine White Holman Wellness Centre, deeply regret that we did not prevent this act of cultural appropriation from happening and are truly sorry for the hurt and offense that this performance has caused. This occurrence represents a failure on our part to uphold the collective ethics we strive to actualize in all aspects of our organization – and we want to be accountable for this failure. We are using this as an opportunity to talk about how we can continue to acknowledge, unlearn and resist the visible and invisible ways that we are a part of reinforcing racial and cultural hierarchies in order to create safe-enough spaces within our clinic, at our events, and beyond.
What is cultural appropriation?
One way to understand cultural appropriation is that it refers to “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission…It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited.” Frequently the minority group has a long history of being exoticized or victimized for the way they look, whereas a white person wearing the same clothing is unlikely to receive this response (and may even be praised for being ‘fashionable’). Furthermore, those who appropriate items or rituals from other peoples’ cultures often do so without understanding the significance or meaning behind them, distorting them from their original contexts into caricatures.
South Asian people (those who live here in Canada, and those who do not) have historically been and currently are subject to violence, exploitation, and cultural imperialism by white people. By allowing this performance to take place, we contributed to these larger systems of oppression, and we failed to create a safe-enough space for those in attendance at our event.
Why does this matter?
Our centre exists to help improve the health and wellbeing of trans and gender diverse communities, and we believe that a commitment to anti-oppression is crucial to this goal. We recognize that trans people have multiple identities, and that the liberation of all trans people is dependent on the resistance of racism (and other forms of oppression, like classism and ableism). We also recognize the interconnectedness of different oppressions, and that we cannot dismantle one kind of oppression (like transphobia) if we are contributing to another (like racism).
We want to be accountable to the history and the present-day reality that we live in a white settler culture where white supremacy is the order of the day. This means that we as a team of organizers (a majority of whom are white and benefit from white privilege) do not always recognize when our own actions are complicit with racism. When these moments are brought to our attention, we aim to acknowledge them, educate ourselves, and learn from them so that we are less likely to repeat the same mistakes and cause further harm. We are always learning how to be more thoughtful and proactive as a volunteer-run organization that strives (however imperfectly) to enact our commitment to anti-oppression.
What are we doing?
We acknowledge that co-creating safe-enough spaces involves more than being accountable after a transgression has occurred. It is also important to anticipate transgressions against safety. With this intention, we have opened dialogues centred around racism amongst ourselves as organizers, and will continue to talk with the performer, our party organizer, and our community partners at the clinic about how we can better co-create safe-enough spaces.
We will also:
- Establish a protocol that ensures that event planning is approached and vetted as thoroughly as our in-clinic organizing and activities
- Discuss or view the content of performances well before our events, to ensure there is space for this kind of dialogue and learning before our parties and performances take place
- Continue to improve representation from diverse communities amongst our organizers, community partners and Board
- Continue to be aware and accountable for our role in (often unintentionally) reinforcing oppressive structures – as individuals and as an organization.
- Continue to hold each other accountable when we transgress our collective ethics
We welcome all thoughts and feedback from community members, especially queer and trans people who are also indigenous/people of colour, about the situation and our response. We also welcome suggestions and constructive feedback from community members about further ways our organization can recognize, confront and dismantle systemic racism. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shantel Ivits, Fin Gareau, Marria Townsend & Rowyn Devito
The following is a statement from Jen Kovich, our party organizer:
My apologies for not inquiring about the intent/content of the performance that turned out to be offensive to some attendees at the Sparkle Party. It was not clear to me in the brief moments when I saw the performer before her act that the outfit was indeed racist but I did question it. It didn’t occur to me that that outfit was appropriating a specific culture as I didn’t recognize what specific culture it was referencing. The tied dyed veil that was revealing only the eyes was the item that I was questioning the most but along with a blonde wig, thick beard and a shiny pink pant suit I couldn’t figure out what exactly the intention of the outfit was. Due to distractions and having to cue up the music and do the lighting for the performance I did not approach the performer before she went on stage and have sincere regrets for not doing so. I should have followed my gut and just questioned her. I will be accountable for my actions and say that in the future, I will inquire as to the intent/ content of a performance before booking any act and if I think something is questionable I will not hesitate to approach the performer before they go on stage. In the future, I will not allow an act that contributes to racism and cultural appropriation.