DNA’s and the newspaper’s masks … or, thoughts occasioned by an excellent essay called “Meet the man who hides behind a mask.”

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Before linking to a very good column written by assistant editor Jason Thomas of the News and Tribune, kindly permit me a necessary digression.

Earlier this year I exchanged e-mails with N and T’s editor, Susan Duncan, on the topic of Develop New Albany’s Taco Walk, during which several of the organization’s higher-ups decided it would be hilarious to wear sombreros, shake maracas and sing the Frito Bandito’s corn chip theme song.

Needless to say, not everyone found it so funny. For more on why it isn’t, revisit this posting about William Anthony Nericcio’s “aggressive, relentless, and, at times, pathological interrogation of Mexican, Latina/o, Chicana/o, “Hispanic,” Mexican-American, and Latin American stereotypes.”

Actually I wrote to the newspaper in part because DNA consistently refused (and continues to refuse) to so much as acknowledge receiving my e-mails inquiring about the circumstances of the Taco Walk.

Here is the text of my letter to Duncan.

Dear Susan,

Last Saturday, Develop New Albany sponsored a Taco Walk. Member(s) of DNA’s board thought it would be cute to bring sombreros, mariachis and other stereotypical symbols of Latino culture of the sort that led to a major scandal at the University of Louisville during James Ramsey’s tenure.

I’ve personally spoken with an employee of a downtown eatery – a first-generation American with Mexican roots – who said she mustered every last bit of discipline to avoid crying when DNA’s own board members came into her establishment brandishing these items, and singing the theme to the old Frito’s commercials (ay, ay, ay ay).

This surely ranks on a par with blackface in the lexicon of appropriation and inappropriateness, and yet not only did the News and Tribune completely fail to notice, but it also published at least one photo documenting the tastelessness that utterly evaded editorial scrutiny (see attachments).


Naturally my efforts to engage DNA have been met with silence.

In vain, I’ve asked the question to them: If it was wrong for James Ramsey, why is it right for you?

As with U of L, DNA is the recipient of taxpayer support. As it pertains to individual participants, if someone wants to indulge in this manner it’s his or her free speech; tone deaf but permissible. But taxpayer-supported organizations simply must aspire to a higher bar. 

To me, DNA’s response is simple: “We’re sorry it happened, here’s why it’s inappropriate, and it won’t happen again.”

It’s a teachable moment, and for once would place DNA in the position of educating about its own National Main Street mandate. Instead, DNA has circled the wagons. It’s a virtual arm of city government, and as the newspaper seems determined to avoid addressing, NA’s current city government is not a transparent entity.

Since the Charlottesville incident, the pages of your newspaper have been filled with earnest denunciations of bigotry and white supremacy. This is fitting and proper. Does a sombrero during a Taco Walk equate with the lessons of Charlottesville? Perhaps not in scale, but certainly it’s a branch of the same tree – and in your eagerness to capture the forest, you’re missing this particular tree.

Thanks,

Roger

To Duncan’s credit, she quickly replied, although handily avoiding the non-vetting of her newspaper’s questionable photograph (above).

Thanks for keeping us updated. We are likely to run an editorial about this, if nothing else as a reminder to be more culturally aware. Event organizers missed an opportunity to promoted Mexican heritage and cuisine, instead tapping into stereotypes. Insensitive, yes, but I doubt it was done maliciously, likely without thought.

Then a month passed. DNA continued to stonewall, and so I asked Duncan what had happened.

I did follow through with broaching this in a meeting of the editorial board. The consensus opinion was that a better result would occur if we challenged DNA before next year’s event to use it as an opportunity to promote cultural awareness. The thinking was that too much time had passed since the taco walk, that running an editorial now would have seemed out of place and resulted in less chance for real change.

As an interesting side note to all this frantic circling of wagons, both here and in Jeffersonville, it helps to know that a member of the community first conceived of the Taco Walk idea and brought it to DNA with the best of intentions, imagining that by doing so, the community would benefit.

While DNA has alluded to the event being a windfall success financially (DNA will not release exact numbers), the volunteer concluded she wasn’t happy with the way her idea was implemented — cultural appropriation was among the reasons for her decision — and so, working under the assumption the Main Street organization possesses a fundamental sense of decency, she told DNA she’d be taking it back for a future reboot.

Um, nope. Seems the anchor already had been dropped.

DNA wasted no time in sending her packing: Taco Walk belongs to DNA now, and the organization will do with it as it pleases — and don’t bother running to Big Daddy Gahan, because the fix is always in.

It was horrendous treatment of a person who was just trying to be helpful, so let’s hope the N and T follows through in 2018 and holds DNA’s feet to the fire as it prepares to profit once more from the idea it purloined.

You might even say lots of community pillars in New Albany are wearing masks, if not Frito-encrusted sombreros, which brings me to Thomas’s recent essay.

As aspiring writers, we’re constantly advised to write about what we know, and so it might make perfect sense to write about oneself; surely we know ourselves better than anyone else, right?

Alas, not so much. Autobiographical honesty is fiendishly difficult to achieve, and that’s why full credit goes to Thomas for trying. This piece is very good, and I’m glad he wrote it.

Maybe the other members of the editorial board read it, too.

A boy can dream.

Meet the man who hides behind a mask, by Jason Thomas

Who am I?

I am white. I am male. I am a father. I am a fiance.

Other than that, I’m not sure.

Who are you?

I wear a mask. It cloaks me in confidence, in extroversion, in a self-prescribed aura of coolness.

The mask is ugly.

Behind it is a man of broken faith, a man unsure of his footing, a man who says he would die for his son and his son’s mother. Would he?

A man — a person — like many of you.

I watched a movie on Christmas night that made me think. Really think.

It was called “Get Out.” It has received considerable attention, in part, for its exploration of white people’s exploitation of black culture. And for many other underlying themes that made me, a white male of privilege, squirm in my flannel-pajama-wearing cocoon of comfort …

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