Monday, June 20, 2005

Cultural hegemony

Part of my weekend was spent in Barnes & Noble. As one of the many services I provide, when I get bored in a bookstore I wander into the Cultural Studies (or Native American Studies, whatever) section, cull through it for the crap which doesn't belong, and drop it of in a more relevant section (fiction, New Age, whatever).

This weekend I was a little more bored than usual, so I took my finds to the customer service desk, and very politely told the young woman there that all these books had been mistakenly placed in the Native American section of Cultural Studies.

Employee: "I'm sorry, but that's where those books go."
Me: "No, it's not. That's what I'm trying to tell you."
e: "But that's where we have them categorized."
m: "That's why I'm bringing it to your attention. Look at this; "The Education of Little Tree" by Forrest Carter. This is fiction, and the author is not only white, but a segregationist and klansman. How does it get into Native Studies?"
e: "It's about an Indian."
m: "Sherman Alexie's books are about Indians. N. Scott Momaday's books are about Indians. Leslie Marmon Silko's books are about Indians. All those authors are Indians, but you have their books in fiction. You're telling me a white author's fictional book about Indians belongs in Native Studies, but an Indian author's fictional books about Indians go in fiction?"
e: "Um, that's right. Listen, these get assigned by corporate, we just do what they tell us."
m: "And you have no ability to move them from one part of the store to another?"
e: "No, because then our catalog will tell us to look in the wrong place."

Like the BIA in miniature. I understand the poor woman's dilemma, but it's sad and frustrating. As I've said before, there are big problems with perceptions and stereotypes, but when someone maybe wants to find out a little more about Indians they're almost as likely to be presented with fiction or New Age claptrap as genuine accounts.