We need to do more listening

I’ve been thinking about Andrew Shield’s June 19 letter to the editor, “It was a compliment,” discussing minstrel shows.

He prompted us to remember that “mimicry is the highest form of praise.” But minstrel shows weren’t mimicry; they were mockery, a different beast. Minstrel shows reinforced white myths about black lives and encouraged the dismissal of black people as human beings. If we don’t listen to people’s complaints about them today, we’re still being dismissive.

Shields asked, “The white man has copied the black man’s music, menus and dress style. Why do we not hear complaints about that?” I’ve actually heard and read a number of complaints, critiques and discussions about this topic. Reading Nadra Kareem Nittle’s piece “A Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Cultural Appopriation” might be a good jumping off point for anyone wrestling with these questions, and I enjoy Percival Everett’s short story, “The Appropriation of Cultures.”

I’d caution anyone who says that talking about issues from the past isn’t important. People are speaking up about blackface and minstrel shows, drawing attention to the fact that choices we make for “entertainment” can cause real pain and inflict real damage. In everyday life, when someone says, “It hurts when you do this,” we don’t usually think it’s acceptable to reply, “That pain isn’t important.” It’s likewise a poor response to the frank discussion of minstrel shows. If all that’s at stake is entertainment, shouldn’t listening be easy? It’s a simple step we’re long overdue in taking.



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