Swans Commentary: Letters to the Editor - letter194



Letters to the Editor

(June 28, 2010)


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Ethnic Insensitivity or Cultural Misunderstanding? Michael Doliner's Time.

To the Editor:

I found Michael Doliner's article on Time (June 14th, 2010) absolutely fascinating--thank you for a really provocative piece! In fact, I was all ready to forward it to my partner who just happens to be a watchmaker. Unfortunately, the article was marred by the ghastly sentence: "But by what criterion do we say that Satchmo has rhythm and Jane doesn't?"

I was stunned that an obviously educated, intelligent thinker would choose such an awful and offensive stereotype to illustrate his brilliant argument! Satchmo??! Come on! Someone who can think so imaginatively can certainly come up with a more imaginative and less historically offensive example! Why "Satchmo," and "Jane?" I'm not saying that many Black people don't have a hell of a lot more rhythm than many Whites -- I'm just taking issue with the use of such an obvious stereotype and the historically insensitive use of the name "Satchmo," which -- Louis Armstrong excepted -- has about the same amount of dignity as calling a black man "boy."

Too bad...the watchmaker, my partner, is African-American and I really can't send her an article that says "Satchmo has rhythm," now can I? It would be like sending my Jewish friend an article that referred to "Shlomo, the money lender" or, in the case of the Mexicans I know, "Pedro and his siesta."

I hope you understand what I am saying here. This is not a frivolous point. I GOT what Michael Doliner was saying about Time and I was intrigued; and disappointed that his cultural and historical blindness completely took the focus off the real point of his fascinating argument.

Susan Julia
New York, New York, USA - June 21, 2010
ed. I sent an e-mail to Ms. Julia as I almost always do with letter writers to acknowledge receipt and advise that the letter will be published. This e-mail read:
Dear Susan Julia,

Thank you for reading Swans and for your comments that will be published in the next issue.

I'm a bit puzzled by your perception that Michael's question contained an ethnic connotation. I too have referred to Armstrong as Satchmo in a piece that was an homage to Ray Charles as well as a contrast to the life of Reagan. Please see "Ray and Ron" at http://www.swans.com/library/art10/ga180.html (June 2004). There was not one iota of racism in the usage.

Actually, it would be interesting to see what would be the sentiments of your partner about these two pieces.

Gilles d'Aymery
Swans Commentary
ed. Ms. Julia took the time to send a thoughtful response, which is worthy of readers' attention.

Thank you so much for your prompt and thoughtful reply. Of course, the biggest issue here is that a poor choice for an example has eclipsed the important points made by Mr. Doliner's excellent article. Even when there may be a perfectly good justification for a usage it may be the better part of wisdom to use a more neutral term rather than run the risk of distracting your audience/reader from the real points you are making.... I once heard a perfectly good sermon ruined by the minister's use of the word "niggardly," which was perfectly appropriate in the context. And, of course, "niggardly" isn't at all racist. But the mainly white congregation THOUGHT they were hearing a racist word and just froze, paralysed in embarrassment or shame, and apologizing to their fellow black congregants. Obviously, the real point of the sermon was forgotten. The point here is that sometimes a well-intentioned word can be misunderstood or misinterpreted and it doesn't matter how much it can be justified -- the real point is lost because of a simple linguistic misstep.

As for your puzzlement: Yes, Louis Armstrong was indeed known affectionately as "Satchmo," which is why I specifically made him an exception in my comment -- and it WAS his nickname. No question there. (Although there are some who would say that his "Satchmo" persona was a shuckin' and shivin' persona he assumed to please his white audience -- amongst his peers he was more often known as "Pops" -- but that's another issue altogether.) However, I have not the slightest doubt that you referred to Louis Armstrong as "Satchmo" with the utmost good intention and respect.

The situation is very different in Michael Doliner's article. 1) This is such a tired old stereotype particularly as an illustration for an intriguing new perspective; Mr. Doliner is making a case for seeing something through "new eyes" -- so such a stereotype is counterproductive at best and, more importantly, 2) there is absolutely NO indication that Michael Doliner is referring to Louis Armstrong by using the name "Satchmo." One could argue that there was only ONE Satchmo, therefore it must refer to LA. Unfortunately, hate speech often takes over and in this case "Satchmo" has been coopted as a generic name for a minstrel-type black caricature. "Uncle Tom" would be another name that has taken on a negative connotation completely unrelated to the intent of the novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Taking this a step further: if "Satchmo" really does reference the historical person, Louis Armstrong (who was noted for trumpet playing & his idiosyncratic vocals and NOT for his especially rhythmic movements), then who does "Jane" refer to? As far as I know there is no historically iconic "Jane" whose lack of rhythm could be contrasted with the rhythm displayed by the historical "Satchmo." ** And why use one specific, historical name and contrast it with one that is obviously generic? I don't buy it...both "Satchmo" and "Jane" are used generically in this instance.

One doesn't have to be a racist or have any racist intentions to make the occasional gaffe. It's not a crime and I never accused Michael Doliner of being racist or having racist intentions. Perhaps having such a "gaffe" pointed out could be accepted as an opportunity to broaden one's awareness of how another group of people may perceive one's actions or language. It's about a point of view, a perception based in socio-cultural location and historical context... I myself am puzzled that it's so difficult for white people to simply say, "I had not realized how this might be perceived" instead of falling all over themselves in self-justification. It's just something to be understood, a new piece of information about how our words can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

By the way, my partner? She simply sighed when she read the "Satchmo" sentence and said it took so much energy to keep trying to "educate" white people about their cluelessness that she just gets sick of it -- but it always stings. No amount of justification or wide-eyed "I didn't mean it like that" makes the hurt disappear.

The unfortunate thing is that Michael Doliner's article was about Time and here I am writing in about a single sentence that isn't even critical to his argument. Should I have just overlooked it, despite the way it jumped off the screen at me? Perhaps. But then a potential "teaching moment" would have been lost and that's what I hoped this might be -- just a moment of insight into how easy it is to inflict a little hurt, to reinforce stereotypes, to ignore the sensitivities of those who live in a different cultural context than we do.

It could so easily have been avoided and instead my letter might have more appropriately addressed the points he was actually making and the interesting idea he was presenting.

Best, Susan Julia

(Perhaps some of my points clarifying my argument might be included if you publish my original letter...as well as the fact that I recognize that there was no racist intent whatsoever and that I only hope to increase an awareness that at times we stumble over cultural perceptions without meaning to....sj)


ed. Ms. Julia added the following in a third e-mail:

As if my response isn't long enough (!), I neglected two points made by my partner, who is an African-American from Chicago.

1) When she read the sentence that referenced "Satchmo" her first thought was: "he might as well have used 'Sambo'." She, too, read the use of "Satchmo" as a generic.

2) She also reminded me that the subtext here might not be evident -- or even comprehensible -- to a non-American reader. The specific historical context of the United States in regards to race (e.g., the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, "Jim Crow," segregation, etc.) and the ongoing dehumanization of black African-Americans by some white European-Americans are what gives the reference to a "Satchmo" its potentially racist connotation.

I know I may seem to be belaboring this point. I persist only because I believe that it is important for us all to become more culturally aware and more sensitive to the wounds we may inflict or re-open unintentionally. The world would certainly be a better place if we would all commit ourselves to really listening to each other and making an effort to understand differing cultural perspectives -- even those that we may not fully understand or that make us uncomfortable.

Again, thank you for your time and attention.

Susan Julia


Fourteen million trees are cut down in the U.S. each year to supply paper bags nationwide.

To the Editor:

What is the bad of cutting trees for paper bags?

Just ask the following questions:

. Is it bad to cut crops?

. Do you think it is a better idea to use plastic bags made of crude oil instead?

. What would be the alternative? Can you offer an alternative with a lower environmental footprint?

Have you ever heard about sustainable forest management?

We think:

. When applying sustainable forest management (as we are doing in central Europe since more than one century) it is not bad to cut trees.

. Conservation to all forests is not the solution -- well-balanced use of forests (conservation and timber utilization) by applying environmental sound operations is the key.

You might ask this question instead of the paper bag statement on the front page:

. How many of the fourteen million annually cut trees for paper bags are harvested by the principles of sustainable forest management?

This would make more sense.

To be mentioned: I like some of your articles very much.

Markus Sommerauer
Vienna, Austria - June 19, 2010

Gilles d'Aymery responds:

Dear Mr. Sommerauer,

Thank you for your e-mail. There is nothing wrong with forestry management. I'm all in favor of it. However, where I live in Northern California, the management of the ancient redwoods has been dismal, to say the least. Centuries-old trees were felled with abandon, destroying both the forests and the forestry business.

As an alternative to plastic bags or paper bags for groceries, one can use and reuse a good old basket or several of them to do one's shopping. This is becoming more common in California. Plastic bags are being phased out and so will paper bags in the near future -- which is simple common sense. We need to stop being a throw-away society.


The Lame Accusation of anti-Semitism? Femi Akomolafe's Israel: A Bastard Behaving True To Form.

Hey Monsieur d'Aymery,

Poor Femi Akomolafe is going to be tagged with the anti-Semitic slur for pounding so potently on the Zionists' nefarious behavioral stupidity.

Still, who creates hell deserves hell in return. It was an excellent article.

Allez, bon vent!

Alouette Arouet
Paris, France - June 17, 2010

ed. Femi did indeed get accused of crossing the line to anti-Semitism and of writing in bad taste. He simply dismissed the kerfuffle by ironically asking who defines the line and taste...the gatekeepers of political correctness?


Berlusconi and Mussolini

To the Editor:

I am very surprised that no one -- especially Peter Byrne who lives in that country -- comments on the erosion of liberties in Italy.

That country is turning into a dictatorship. Does no one care?

Karen Moller
Paris, France - June 15, 2010


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Published June 28, 2010
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