The Latest In Cultural Appropriation

Another outbreak of cultural appropriation here, though I read it’s complex because of connected issues of exploiting the pain of others. (Like video games, I guess.) Plus corporations and other rich people making money. People of color, making far less, and it would seem, getting fewer opportunities. I also see women targeted for criticism, the author, Oprah, among others, and I wonder if it’s another case of low-hanging fruit. Nobody is calling out McD’s breakfast burritos, or some of the Tex-Mex chains for inauthentic food themed south of the border. Are men like Weinstein, Bezos, and the heads of corporations untouchable? But women are easily perceived as targets for impactful ire. So we have a hierarchy: corporations, white men, men of color/white women (I’m not sure where that one lands these days), women of color. Don’t reach too high above you on the ladder of ascendancy if you plan to be a critic.

As a musician, I’m also curious. For me, at what point is playing non-white musical styles considered appropriation? Is my nearly-invisible position as a church musician a safe one since I’m hardly getting rich with the occasional Gospel tune or liturgical song with a cumbia feel?

From what I read, Flatiron Books made some serious errors in the promotion of Jeanine Cummins’ book. The corporation is making far more money than the author, and maybe the hype for the book is inappropriate. Small things, like barbed wire decorations, make things even worse. (Who thinks up these ideas, anyway?)

The author herself claims one-fourth Puerto Rican descent. That would spell target-for-racism once upon a time. I recall Jennifer Lopez was a questioned casting for the bio-pic Selena. For most whites, the distinction between Mexican and Puerto Rican dance and musical styles is lost. The final concensus, as I remember, was thumbs up. If a writer gets some of those thumbs, as she seems to have received, how many are enough to mitigate criticism from a large body of detractors?

Ms Cummins claims she did substantial research for the book. But there remain holes in the language, and in stereotyping people of darker color than she. Maybe the work itself is inadequate. I don’t and won’t know. I don’t plan on reading the book.

As I read today the book tour has been cancelled over safety concerns, let me sum up what I see as a litany of excesses:

  • Enough reviewers have said the prose is not all that good, so the publisher suggesting we have a 21st century Steinbeck is too much.
  • If actual people suffering and dying at the border and south of it aren’t enough to move people, then a work of fiction isn’t going to add anything, so suggesting it does move people is too much.
  • If the book is so poor, then threatening an author and booksellers with violence is way too much.
  • If we need celebrities to tell us what to read, we aren’t listening to friends, or our local librarians enough. Whenever I’ve been at a loss, I’ve asked the person behind the checkout or information desk. They love to do that. Oprah, God bless her, is too much.
  • The time to have conversations about people of color in writing, editing, and publishing is not when a controversy erupts. That’s when it’s too late.

We need to hear the real stories of abused and threatened migrant persons. And we need more diversity in fiction that’s being published these days. This much seems clear.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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