I’d like to say a few words in defense of tacos and the Rolling Stones and your right to offend me. And my right to offend you.
This comes up because of an offshoot of the debate over the mascot at Manhattan High School. It’s the Indians, in case you’ve been living under a rock. The school board is set to decide tonight whether to ditch that mascot, after sticking by it in previous versions of this debate. The mascot has been in place since the 1940s.
I don’t really want to talk directly about that decision. I want to talk about something called “cultural appropriation.”
As you might have seen, The Mercury’s extensive coverage of a long public meeting about the mascot issue last week carried the headline “Powwow.”
That set off alarms in a few advocates who evidently view the use of that term – and the use of a mascot generally – as “cultural appropriation.” In from a majority culture that has stolen the use of the word from American Indian culture.
I respect the sentiments of the people who complained, because their hearts are in the right place. I get it. But then those sentiments got repeated by a couple of school board members, and I just have to make a point about America.
Because I think there’s something important about this.
To be a little provocative, America is all about “cultural appropriation.” We are the melting pot society. We constantly borrow and meld and steal and loan and give and mix.
That’s among the many things cool about the idea of America – you don’t have to be one certain type of person to be an American. So when I’m talking about America, I’m talking about Indians and Hispanics and Asians and Scots and Germans and Brazilians and Hindus and Scientologists and even KU fans.
“Powwow” has morphed into a term used regularly in the English language to mean “a meeting to talk about things.” It’s in the dictionary that way. We simply can’t be banned from using that term. We also can’t be forced into calling the county dump the “transfer station,” and we can’t be forced into calling a tax increase a “revenue enhancement.”
We also have to be able to call black people “black people” and white people “white people,” and disabled people disabled. We should call racist groups racists, not “altright.” It’s real English, with clear meanings.
If you say we can’t use“powwow” because we’re not American Indians, then what? Can we not use “taco” because we’re not Hispanic? And is a taco Mexican anyway? Or is it a product of the mixing of Mexican and American culture? For that matter, what about all that fusion food that’s come out in the last decade? Is it “cultural appropriation” to use kimchi on a hot dog?
Can we not listen to the Delta blues if we’re white? Wouldn’t that basically outlaw the Rolling Stones? What would life be, really, without “Honky Tonk Women”?
Once you start down that path, and say we can’t use certain terms because they’re too touchy, well, where does that end? That’s a rhetorical question, but I do think it has real consequences.
In fact, one consequence is named Donald Trump.
Advocates for retiring the mascot are probably as far from the president-elect politically as they can get. Yet by dividing America up into groups — groups that cannot mix with each other or borrow each other’s terminology — it seems to me that advocates are balkanizing America in a way that aligns very closely with Trump. Or at least with Trump’s appeal to demonize immigrants as the root of a lot of problems in America. “Us” and “them.”
Let’s stick to “us,” huh? Let’s make “us” all of us.
The melting pot society solves that problem. And it lets me eat tacos, and listen to the Stones, and write things that make you mad, and get mad about things you say, and jangle around together in a big, messy, wonderful society that accepts one another as full members of the whole mixed-up thing.
Ned Seaton is editor in chief and publisher of The Manhattan Mercury .