How to be branded racist by a Tweet
In an age when false tweets can easily be misconstrued as truths, I wish to make a public statement beyond 140 characters. -- Alan Twigg
October 19th, 2018
First, I wish to sincerely apologize to any person who was upset by anything I said at a private event the Writers Union of Canada (TWUC) held for its members in Vancouver Oct. 17. It was not my intention to embarrass or disrespect anyone and I am taken aback by the controversy that ensued.
Second, it is essential to understand the context for my comments. I have belonged to TWUC for over 35 years as a writer of seventeen books in my private life; my membership has absolutely nothing to do with being the publisher and chief writer for BC BookWorld. TWUC has recently gone through a debate over adopting a new policy on equity and inclusiveness. I fully support this new policy and wish to see it succeed. TWUC recently hired Rebecca Benson, a young Tuscarora writer, as its Equity, Membership and Engagement Coordinator and charged her with rolling out the new policy, which is what she was doing Oct. 17. For BC union members like me it was our first chance to examine her presentation, and, so I thought, to discuss it. This TWUC event was not open to the public. I addressed her not as a spokesperson for Canada’s First Nations, but as a regular staff member of my union.
I found much of her presentation doctrinaire. When Ms. Benson completed her address, there was no invitation given for any feedback. I raised my hand and stepped away from the wall so that she might be able to see who it was among the TWUC members-only gathering who wished to comment. It was a large room. No microphone was supplied for responses. Ms. Benson was at the other end. I had to raise my voice considerably just to be heard. The optics of trying to address anyone in a crowded room at a distance are dreadful.
Given that the speaker was hired to make addresses for my union across the country, I chose to treat Ms. Benson as an adult filling an important union office and address her as a responsible colleague. I believed some constructive response would be in our collective best interest. Knowing our diverse and independent-minded membership as I do, I wanted to say I felt it would be more effective to make a persuasive case for equity rather than trying to impose it. I began by saying, “I get the feeling you are telling me how to think.”
Before I could get to my main point, an event organizer I did not recognize as a TWUC member began waving her hands in my face and telling me to stop. I was confused, as I had never before faced censorship at a TWUC meeting and I tried arguing that I had a right to speak as a fully paid-up, long-standing union member. My protests were not directed at Ms. Benson, but to the organizers trying to silence me. There were no profanities; I did not come in contact with any other person. Nonetheless, one male organizer, who was not a member of our Writers Union, threatened me with physical removal if I persisted in trying to speak. At that point I gave up and fell silent.
It was not the loudest and certainly not the longest disturbance ever to occur at a TWUC event and probably would have ended with the meeting but for a Toronto TWUC member named Dave Bidini, whom issued a post on his Twitter feed saying there had been an ugly event at a Writers Festival party where a man named Alan Twigg made racist comments to an Indigenous writer. Bidini does not know me; he had to ask a fellow TWUC member who I was but he has hundreds of Twitter followers and many of them took his accusation at face value. I have now received hate mail, worried calls from supporters, and a campaign to boycott BC BookWorld has caused one publisher not to advertise. Most distressing for me personally, I find my life’s work as a campaigner for social justice under threat.
If anyone cares to read the thousands of pages I have written and/or published about Indigenous authors and First Nations’ issues over the past 40 years, they can make a much fairer assessment of whether or not I am a racist.
When Dave Bidini was unable to substantiate why my truncated attempt to improve Ms. Benson’s equity presentation constituted racism, he subsequently proceeded to fabricate an outrageous quote allegedly gleaned from a brief parking lot conversation. He stated in a Tweet that I feared Indigenous people wanted to “boot us off our land.” I emphatically deny saying, or even thinking any such thing-ever. Anyone who knows me or reads my writing knows how foreign to my value system such a statement would be. But in a Trumpian age, apparently many people are more than willing to believe in an outrageous lie.
If Dave Bidini did some research, he would discover I have published and written a great deal more work to promote awareness of First Nations-related literature than nearly any other member of the Writers Union. I am not entirely sure why I was made a member of the Order of Canada, but that might be one of the reasons.
The wonderful growth of appreciation and understanding of Indigenous peoples that we are now witnessing in this country is the result of constructive actions and some difficult conversations. I will continue to provide preferential treatment at my own discretion, not because of any governmental dictum, to books from and about Indigenous societies and individuals, as I have been doing non-stop, in every issue of BC BookWorld, since 1987.
Today, there are at least 266 Indigenous authors in B.C., and more than 60 Metis authors, and I know that because that’s how many I’ve recorded on ABCBookWorld. I have a manuscript of more than 1,000 pages on this subject, a book that is far too big to publish.
Along the way I wrote and produced a CBC documentary, Jeannette Armstrong: Knowledge Keeper, of the Okanagan, in 1995.
In 2005, I published the first and only book entirely devoted to Indigenous authors of one province, Aboriginality: The Literary Origins of British Columbia.
In 2016, I had the honour of organizing the presentation of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award to Jeannette Armstrong, making her the first Indigenous writer in BC to be so recognized.
While I might not agree with absolutely every TWUC policy and action that has been taken during more than thirty years of membership, I understand that overall the work accomplished by TWUC has been vital and progressive. If someone says or does something that we find problematic in some way, well, historically we have always been welcome to voice our views within TWUC. That level of candour and honesty and engagement is important for the integrity of any union.
When criticism is disallowed, we move towards autocracy. The fact that union members were not told in advance that such a speech would occur, and that union members were instead invited to attend a gathering for social reasons only, was disconcerting, and I know I was not the only person who found portions of the speech were cringeworthy–but one can forgive someone for being relatively inexperienced at public speaking, and possibly the lack of notice for Ms. Benson’s address was simply an organizational gaffe.
I was objecting instead to the content of the speech. Essentially, a hired speaker was flown across the country by my union and this colleague assumed her audience was largely ignorant of First Nations and First Nations issues. The speaker also inferred that her audience harboured prejudices against First Nations — and such attitudes had to be acknowledged and cleansed. I objected to being pre-judged.
Five days after Mr. Bidini’s Tweet, I got the news that my campaign to aid the distressed village of Luhombero in Western Tanzania has now raised enough money to buy a much-needed new pick-up truck. For the past two years I have spent my holidays in Tanzania, assisting the villagers in that remote community. I prefer to demonstrate my values through my actions and leave twittering about racism to the Bidinis.
“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — Jonathan Swift in “The Examiner” (1710)
“To call Alan (Twigg) a racist with the kind of progressive work he has undertaken over the years is slanderous.” — Irene Watts, Holocaust survivor and author