Friday, September 23, 2016

The Trouble with Sombreros

[ed. Ms. Shriver's reply: Will the Left Survive the Millennials?]

In early September, the novelist Lionel Shriver gave a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in which she expressed her hope that identity politics and the concept of cultural appropriation would turn out to be passing fads. During her lecture, several audience members walked out in protest, and the text of her address has sparked a controversy that has spread across the Internet and the British and American press. It has stoked a debate already raging on college campuses, in the literary world, in the fashion and music industries, on city streets, and in other areas of our social and political lives. But while this debate has raised important issues—for writers and the public—both Shriver and her critics may have overlooked some of its larger implications.

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission” is the definition of cultural appropriation that Shriver quotes from a book by Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University. The topic is a complicated and sensitive one, and Shriver’s first mistake, I think, was to ignore that complexity and sensitivity by adopting a tone that ranged from jauntiness to mockery and contempt. I can think of only a few situations in which humor is entirely out of line, but a white woman (even one who describes herself as a “renowned iconoclast”) speaking to an ethnically diverse audience might have considered the ramifications of playing the touchy subjects of race and identity for easy laughs.

Shriver began with the story of a “tempest-in-a-teacup” that erupted after two Bowdoin College students hosted a tequila party and gave out miniature sombreros “which—the horror—numerous partygoers wore.” The hosts were censured for “ethnic stereotyping” and threatened with removal from their student government posts; their guests were criticized in the student newspaper for lacking “‘basic empathy.’”

“I am a little at a loss,” Shriver said,
to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero—a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim. My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travels, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriate the souvenir to play dress-up. For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some lederhosen, pour themselves a weissbier, and belt out the HofbrÀuhaus Song. 
But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandal is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.
Like much of Shriver’s talk, this paragraph contains a kernel of truth encased by a husk of cultural and historical blindness. It seems clear that one part of the fiction writer’s job is “to step into other people’s shoes.” But to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a hat is more than just a hat. Sometimes it is a symbol—and a racist one, at that.

For many Mexicans, the sombrero (now worn almost exclusively as a costume accessory by mariachis) perpetuates the myth of the backward, old-fashioned campesino, a throwback to an earlier century, chattering away in the heavily-accented, high-pitched, rapid-fire rhythms of Speedy Gonzales, the cartoon mouse, in his big yellow sombrero. In the past one more often saw—painted on dinner plates and tourist knick-nacks, embroidered on felt jackets—a caricature of a Mexican peasant dozing off, drunk or just lazy, leaning against a cactus, his face obscured by an enormous sombrero. And this is an unfortunate moment in which to mock a college for trying to reassure its Mexican and Latino students: Donald Trump has yet to call for the mass deportation of lederhosen-wearing, weissbier-swilling German-Americans.

Even as Shriver insisted on the writer’s right to imagine and empathize with people of different classes and races, she appears to have had some trouble empathizing with the people in her audience. It’s not hard to understand why the members of minority groups have grown impatient with the inability or unwillingness of governments and societies to confront the harsh realities of racism, of economic and social inequality, of de facto segregation. Nor is it difficult to find egregious examples of cultural appropriation: the sorry spectacle of feather bonnets and fake turquoise jewelry for sale at Native American fairs staffed and attended solely by white people. White musicians who get rich performing the songs of black soul and blues singers who live and die in poverty. The fast-food chain Taco Bell, which purveys a bastardized form of Mexican cuisine while paying its workers (who, in the West and Southwest, are often Mexican-Americans) wages that average between eight and nine dollars an hour.

Choosing to ignore the real inequities that exist, Shriver takes a familiar tack often used on Fox News: trivializing valid concerns by ridiculing their most absurd manifestations and extreme proponents. She cites the Oberlin students who (forgetting that our country has long functioned as a cultural and culinary melting pot) protested a piratization of Japanese culture: serving sushi in the school dining hall! (...)

Misdirecting our indignation, we let powerful individuals and institutions get away with murder while we fight enemies (academics and novelists) whose power is marginal at best, who may reflect prevailing prejudices but whose work, like it or not, hardly affects the larger society. Surely, corporate greed and the governments that have allowed our schools and health care systems to degenerate are more accountable than the authors of short stories. Though we all share the responsibility for the society in which we live, poets and painters are hardly to blame for the fact that we live in a racist country—or for having gotten us into the economic and political mess we are in.

by Francine Prose, NYR Daily | Read more:
Image: Alex Webb/Magnum Photos