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Teaching multiculturalism post-9/11.


The virtues and vices of multiculturalism have come under renewed scrutiny as Americans struggle to come to terms with 9/11, as my recent experience teaching an English course on the subject attests. In November 2001 I offered a 1-hour credit, upper-division weekend course focused on multiculturalism and literary study at a mid-west regional university. The course served as an occasion for students to examine more carefully their assumptions about cultural difference. This essay overviews the various positions held forth in the course as to "why race matters," as well as arguments made by students in course evaluation and discussion comments--and some presenters that reflect the intensely felt need for unity in the months after 9/11.


The virtues and vices of multiculturalism have come under renewed scrutiny as Americans struggle to come to terms with 9/11, as my recent experience teaching an English course on the subject attests. In November 2001 I offered a 1-hour credit, upper-division weekend course focused on multiculturalism and literary study at a mid-west regional university. With over 50 participants, the course mostly attracted English and English Education majors, but it was also open and advertised to other university students, as well as the community at large. The cultural make-up of the students in the course largely reflected the demographics of the community, with a majority of white students as well as several Native American (the largest minority in the region) and African-American students attending. In a more performative atmosphere than the traditional college English classroom, the weekend course was designed to involve students in the study of literature beyond the typical lecture/discussion format. The course was comprised of several cultural performances (including a student black gospel group and a Kiowa storyteller), films, and lectures by scholars in the field invited from the host university as well as nearby institutions. In addition there were several occasions in which students participated in small group discussions as well as engaged presenters with questions and comments.

The course's celebration of diversity was intended to broaden students' sense of the value of multiculturalism. Based on their initial reactions to the subject, it was clear that many tended to dismiss multiculturalism as an example of "PC" thought control, at best, and a form of reverse racism at its worst. Unfortunately, there is a version of multiculturalism that amounts to something like this, and it is this version that the media has caricatured and that many students accept at face value. As Richard Ohmann suggests, this sort of multiculturalism "takes the people of the world to be parceled out into cultures and subcultures, each self-contained and uniform, and each knowable only to its members ... Worse, it precludes learning about cultures from outside and certifies only the 'other' as a source of knowledge about other cultures ... " (18). It tends to see people as "always intrinsically what they are--black lesbians, white male homosexuals, and so on." Rejecting this version of multiculturalism becomes a moral imperative for students who view the celebration of racial and ethnic difference as threatening democracy and fostering division. The problem is that this particular manifestation of multiculturalism makes it possible for them to easily reject it across the board, without thinking carefully about all of the benefits and insights that more careful practitioners celebrate. For many of the students in the course, as some of their discussion comments suggested, multiculturalism amounts to nothing more than a coercive hypersensitivity to language, in its most innocuous form. More dangerously for these students, multiculturalism is backward-looking; it sanctions "whining," lingering on past wrongs, looking for excuses as to why certain groups remain disadvantaged. One student comment summed up this view by referring to "pity whores," those whose membership in different groups entitles them to dwell on the past as an excuse for why they do not succeed in the present. Insofar as this excuse is a "cop-out," so the argument goes, why talk about race at all?

The feeling of bitterness behind the question is one that the course gave students an occasion to vent. And if nothing else this made the course valuable, since multiculturalism, if it is to have any social relevance, has to confront this resistance or be dismissed as an anachronism from the sixties, no longer needed in what many view as "post-racist" America. It is this unquestioned resistance to multiculturalism that prompted my sense of the need for the course in the first place. But resistance took on new dimensions in the wake of 9/11. During the weekend many white participants voiced questions about the value of maintaining distinctions such as African-American or Asian-American, wanting to emphasize instead what we have in common in a time of crisis, rather than what sets us apart. Overall, the course served as an occasion for students to examine more carefully their assumptions about cultural difference. This essay overviews the various positions held forth in the course as to "why race matters," as well as arguments made by students--in course evaluation and discussion comments--and some presenters that reflect the intensely felt need for unity in the months after 9/11.

Why Does Race Matter? The Goals of the Course

The objective of this course was to have students come to terms with the question, "Why does race matter?" Paul Lichterman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, characterizes the difficulty some of them have making the question meaningful: "Critics of cultural diversity worry that Americans focus too little on common experiences--as Americans, as human beings--and dwell too much on particular racial, sexual, or gender identities" (40). The controversy surrounding multiculturalism centers on the way that our "fascination with identity has either made Americans tribal or else has opened Americans' minds and given voice to the silenced. Either way, big things are at stake, not just university course syllabi, or Columbus Day ceremonies, but the way Americans think about a collective heritage."

For English teachers and their students--and this course was comprised in large number by interning English Education majors--the question of university syllabi happens to be "a big issue." Many of these future high school teachers are already struggling to respond to those who say that we have ceased to judge literary works based on their merit, and just include texts to fill a quota, because the authors of these are black or Asian. The course set out to give these future teachers some criteria for reexamining what passes for "literary merit," what once upon a time may have been taken more at face value. Those criteria arose in response to the central question that the course posed: "Why does race matter?" In November 2001 when the course took place, that question was being asked with renewed frequency, as my students were keenly aware. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, for instance, a guest commentator on CNBC argued that it's time "we stopped referring to ourselves as Chinese-American and Mexican-American; we should think of ourselves as 'American-Chinese' and' American-African'." President Bush reminded us in the weeks after 9/11 that retaliatory acts of violence committed against people from the Middle East here at home, put us in the same category as those terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. One assumption underlying this rhetoric of post-9/11 patriotism, at least from many of my students' point of view, is that when race matters to people, it is only a matter of time before there's a Hitler on the horizon, or Milosovicz or Osama Bin Laden.

The course on multiculturalism set out to explore three answers to the question "Why does race matter?" The answers seemed largely counter-intuitive to those students who unquestioningly embrace the logic of the melting pot, whose understanding of democracy depends on emphasizing more what we have in common than what sets us apart. This understanding of democracy, especially as it has been reinforced by the rhetoric of post-9/11 nationalism, endorses the logic of assimilation, without thinking twice about the blandly homogenous picture of the world that emerges as a consequence of that logic. It seeks the common ground in American society without wondering about the history of repression and occlusion that sustains that common ground.

The speakers at the conference considered various answers to the question, "Why does race matter?" that have emerged in the study of what has come to be called "minority literature." This phrase would extend to include "post-colonial literature," texts written in a cultural context that embodies the struggle between a dominant colonial presence and an emergent native one. By looking at texts from national and cultural contexts in which the markers of race and nationality resist the "melting" process, three answers to the question "Why does race matter?" emerge. The first has to do with the strategic value of appealing to racial difference, when racial categories are used to perpetuate some social inequality. The second answer concerns the possibility of seeing the world outside the cultural coordinates one is accustomed to; racial difference may serve as the lens for a new way of seeing, a new mode of self-understanding. The last answer has to do with the need for healing, the way a marginalized community may seek consolation and refuge within itself.

The course proposed to establish another metaphor--that of the "mosaic"--for understanding the way "difference relates." The mosaic metaphor encompasses the different answers to the question about why race matters, in the way it embraces an image of multiplicity, of difference suspended rather than synthesized or assimilated. Moreover, the mosaic metaphor offers a rationale for how "white" teachers and students might find something meaningful in multicultural studies. As one participant reflected: "I have a difficult time understanding how and why Anglo-Americans are so tenacious about analyzing ... multiculturalism. As the majority population, and out of genuine respect for persons of color, much can be accomplished if Anglos would defer to the minority populations and their real-time review [sic] on the subject."

Those to whom race seemingly matters least, insofar as we claim no ethnic heritage beyond the faintest nostalgia--as well as those whose interest in the subject might seem suspiciously paternalistic--might find warrant for reading writers of color in the way those writers often turn a critical lens on the narratives that all of us hold most dear. Not the least of those narratives is the one that reinforces the idea that all of our differences can and should be melted down, leaving us to wonder why, subsequently, "we can't all just get along."

Strategic Redress

On the first evening of the course, the class examined a special report that ran in Newsweek, September 8, 2000, entitled "Redefining Race in America." In one article, "The New Face of Race," Jon Meacham points out that we now live in an "'Age of Color' in which the nuances of brown and yellow and red are as important, if not more so, than the ancient divisions of black and white." The article explores the way "Language can't keep up with the changing calculus," and cites the example of "Ryan Yamasaki, the 16-year old son of a Japanese father and a West Indian mother, [who] is sometimes unsure which label he's supposed to use. On school-testing forms, he checks "Asian, " but when asked how he truly identifies himself, he says, "I'm mixed." One of Yamasaki's fellow students at LA's Fairfax High, David Seidner, is Chinese-Cuban with elements of Spanish and Austrian blood. In Portland, Oregon, where he lived until he was 16, Seidner would have said of his friend Ryan that "he was white." But after moving to LA, he recalls how his "jaw dropped. [He] had never seen so many minorities."

Given this changing face of America, and the fluidity of ethnic and racial categories for identifying ourselves, it would seem that the arguments for multiculturalism should carry less and less weight. Students in the course were asked to consider this argument in an essay by Orlando Patterson, who suggests that the phenomenon of "ethnic revival" reflects an "increasing awareness about the need for roots. But the ideology has no content, for the roots are simply not there" (380). In other words, Patterson argues that defining identity in terms of race, ethnicity, or nationality, elides the hybrid nature of our pedigrees; there is a kind of implied insistence on racial purity necessary in fortifying these categories of ethnic or racial identity.

For Patterson, the agenda of multiculturalism is "profoundly anti-American in its anti-individualism" (381). It celebrates "diversity, not however of individuals but of the groups to which they belong. It is a sociological truism that the more cohesive an ethnic group, the more conformist or the more anti-individualistic are its members. Thus the call for a diversity of cohesive, tightly knit groups actually amounts to an assault on the deeply entrenched principle of [American] individualism." Patterson's fear, writing in the mid-1970s, is that the ethnic revival is just a new manifestation of the "vicious dogma" of separate but equal. Only now it has "the sanction of misguided leaders and intellectuals of the very groups that hardly a few decades ago were savagely repressed and segregated in the name of this dogma."

There are certainly dangers in adhering too narrowly to definitions of ethnic community, one being that pride in ethnic heritage has been linked to the horrors of genocide in recent memory, as in Bosnia and Rwanda. At the same time, as the Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney has written, while it is possible to be sentimental about or make a "fetish" of the local, the "images and stories" emerging out of local traditions nonetheless "function as bearers of value" (31):
 Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of
 elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into
 normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof
 that pride in ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade
 into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace
 our love and trust in the good of the indigenous, per se. (31-32)

Heaney's embracing "the local," a phrase that stands for the values and tradition associated with a racial or ethnic community, suggests the first answer to the question "Why does race matter?" that the course examined. That has to do with the way that racial categories may work strategically to draw a community together, a community that has been torn apart historically or subject to dispossession or discrimination. It is this rationale that motivates Amiri Baraka's poetry, a political activist and African-American poet. One poem in particular that students were asked to consider, "Ka'Ba," makes the point about how the local functions as "a bearer of value": "Our world is full of sound/Our world is more lovely than anyone's/ tho we suffer, and kill each other/ and sometimes fail to walk the air./ We are beautiful people/ With African imaginations/ full of masks and dances and swelling chants/ with African eyes, and noses, and arms ..." The hyperbole in describing the inherent beauty of the Black Soul, a rhetoric that also informs Heaney's nostalgic picture of Catholic Ireland, seemingly resonates with a dangerous essentialism that students distrust.

But through class discussion students also considered the possibility that the poem might be safe from accusations along the lines that Patterson makes--concerning the chauvinistic, anti-individualistic character of such expressions of cultural nationalism. This possibility has to do with the ironic status of the vision of community that is described, insofar as it is something not yet realized. That vision may have its roots in the local, but it also reflects a sense of ethnic community that is constantly redefining itself, not laying claim to some reified sense of rootedness once and for all, and proscribing identity accordingly. There is an openness to this definition of racial identity--a fictional rather than mythic quality that, as Terry Eagleton has written about the phrase "black is beautiful," produces "particular discursive and extra-discursive effects without direct regard for truth" (112). Contrary to what some students in the class tended to think, there is an argument that says that the phrase "black is beautiful" is not a form of reverse racism. Rather, it yields effects that have to do with feelings of solidarity and belonging, all of which are life-affirming as the individual defines himself or herself in relation to community to redress social injustice.

The complexity of this argument about the value of the local can be gauged in student reaction to the traditional Kiowa storyteller who performed during the weekend. On one level, students conveyed appreciation for the transmission of values exhibited in the stories: "... even though this is a different culture than my own, I still appreciate the morals that were taught through [the performance], and can relate because Jesus taught morals and the way things should be through stories. It's amazing that through all cultures, these stories stand through the test of time; meaning they are just as relevant now as they were then." On the other hand, as this remark suggests, there is a tendency to vacate the specific moral content of the story, to think of it abstractly rather than concretely in terms of the local values promoted. The comment suggests a level of discomfort dealing with the specific challenges that cultural difference can pose to a dominant perspective. At the same time, it points to the limits of what can be accomplished in a weekend course on multiculturalism. That is, the course's celebration of cultural difference sometimes occurred at the expense, at least in the instance of this student comment, of having students ask more unsettling questions about the "taken-for-granted" nature of their perspectives.

New Cultural Coordinates

The second answer to the question "Why does race matter?" that students were asked to consider is that racial and ethnic difference may provide us with a new way of seeing the world beyond what Ishmael Reed refers to as the "small-screen" (375) cultural coordinates we are accustomed to. Insofar as America may be defined as a multinational society, it extends the promise of "becoming a place where the cultures of the world crisscross." This is a point that students in the course had a ready-made capacity for understanding, insofar as they are sympathetically attuned to pop culture and the dynamic of what Houston Baker calls "hybridization." Drawing a metaphor from urban rap and hip-hop music, Baker suggests that the process of sampling other songs characterizes something of the fluidity of American society, in which we adapt and modify the influences of various cultures. This is possible because "the United States is unique in the world: The world is here" (Reed 376). There is critical force underlying multicultural understanding, which can remind students that our experience of the world may be culturally specific, that our perceptions may be culturally determined. But the forces of homogeneity extend also to consumer culture, and this complicates the possibility of multicultural understanding as something close to the ideal of a truly civic nation. If it signifies a world in which we are invested in the exchange of ideas and open to our differences, in the age of the global village, where we are just a mouse click away from each other, multiculturalism also risks serving as window dressing for our fundamental indifference to one another.

What makes this cultural "criss-crossing" possible is a form of cultural amnesia. This memory loss puts us in a position to view cultural traditions ever in terms of their present usefulness without getting caught up in arguments about who is entitled to those traditions or the wrongs committed against the groups whose cultural tradition we want to embrace in the present. One example of this cultural memory loss is the phenomenon of white male teenagers embracing hip hop culture, which has generated a good deal of controversy, as white rap artists like Vanilla Ice and more recently Kid Rock and Eminem become popular. As the course asked students to consider the work of these artists, students had occasion to examine the reasons behind the popularity of these performers, as well as issues relating to "cultural loyalty" (i.e. who is "entitled to" black culture and what motivates the desire to appropriate it). Many of the students held firmly to this idea of cultural loyalty, dismissing those who "cross" cultures as "confused." Or, in the case of those middle-class, white teenage boys who make up the largest part of the audience of rap and hip-hop music, some students in the course accused them of "wanting to be black" because the music helps them escape the "plain white bread" quality of their middle-class lives.

Other students tended to celebrate this quality of "active forgetfulness" that we possess as Americans, our freedom to reinvent ourselves out of the hybrid bits and pieces of the cultural traditions that comprise our American heritage. The ambivalence in student reaction to this freedom was expressed nicely by one presenter, a local Native American playwright, who read from a dramatic work dealing with what it means to be of mixed ancestry (Cherokee and white). The presenter's reading, as well as her commentary on the work that drew from her own life experiences, dramatized her pain of feeling as if she did not belong to either group, and the sense of empowerment she eventually acquired drawing inspiration from the cultural experience of both.

The Need for Healing

Through this presentation and others, students moved closer to a third answer to the question "Why does race matter?" On the one hand, this cultural memory loss, which is very much a consequence of living in a multicultural society, is cause for celebration. It emphasizes new patterns of behavior, new cultural combinations that shed light on the world and ourselves. On the other hand, this celebration of memory loss causes us to devalue an equally credible consequence of living in a hybrid society. This has to do with the need for seeking reassurance and healing within ethnic communities. Students in the course had occasion to consider an example of recent historical fiction that foregrounds this problem of cultural memory, what is at stake in forgetting, and why it is important to remember beyond looking for "excuses" and "pity." Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, as anyone who has had the experience of teaching this story about slavery and healing can attest, elicits troubled reactions in students, which are often polarized along racial lines. Beloved asks us to confront the atrocities enacted on slaves in the nineteenth-century, as well as the horrific lengths to which former slaves are driven to maintain their freedom. During the weekend I shared with students my own experiences teaching the novel in one sophomore level course for English majors, prior to 9/11. In that course many white students reacted with discomfort that, upon further self-reflection, amounted to guilt, while some of the black students reacted with rage to the events as they unfolded in the novel.

These reactions were complicated by students who were indignant at the suggestion that they should feel guilty just because they are white, and black students who were indignantly defensive about their right to feel rage, even though they had no first-hand knowledge of racist trauma on a scale such as that portrayed in the novel. As I shared these reactions with the students in the weekend course, the point that I wanted to emphasize is that both reactions, regardless of our race or ethnicity, are in order: Rage about past atrocities that are part of our shared American legacy where race relations are concerned, and guilt that the structures of belief that underlie ideas about race in the minds of nineteenth century slave-owners, still reside in our collective consciousness today. Part of the resistance to this argument in the weekend course is that students feel disconnected from the past. Having for the most part grown up post-Civil Rights, they feel by and large redeemed from the accusation of racism by a liberated consciousness that they view as incorruptible and purely present to themselves. That consciousness is always and everywhere subject to the rules of logic and freed from ideologies of all kinds, as well as the shaping influences of family, friends, TV, popular culture, etc. Based on many of their comments it is clear that the majority of students tend to view themselves as free and clear, clearly free thinkers, one and all, for whom the discussion of racism is irrelevant.

This reaction also has to do with not feeling part of a community on any level. And it is on this score that multiculturalism has something to say to every student, and it is another reason why race matters, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 when "race matters" are scrutinized more than ever. Ethnic communities may celebrate what makes them unique for purposes of forming a cohesive identity, a cohesiveness that might not develop otherwise, and draw from that a sense of direction, comfort, and self-esteem. There were mixed reactions to this point among students. Some students, in response to this point as it came up in one presenter's discussion of the history of hip/hop music, agreed that rap "has provided positive role models for inner city youth." Other students emphasized less the culturally-specific impact of rap and more its universal appeal as "an expression raw and uncensored." At the same time, many students seemed resistant to the idea that the "retreat" to group identity might serve to generate healing or to promote role models, as when some students wondered aloud about how unfair it is for there to be a Miss Black America, but not a Miss White America.

Again, Morrison's novel Beloved was instructive. The character of Sethe is only able to come to terms with her past when the black community that has isolated her for her terrible crime against her own flesh and blood, comes to her aid. The presence of the past, its shaping influence, despite what many of my students think, is as real as it is in Morrison's ghost story, where Sethe is relentlessly haunted, incapable of forgiving herself, and perpetually victim of the past. The ghost Beloved is ready to give birth, as the past gives rise to the present in an endless cycle of violence and hurt. And Sethe withdraws even more, moving closer to self-destruction. The past gives birth to the present, except for the saving intervention of the community of church women who come to exorcise the ghost off Sethe's rundown front porch. Singing gospel songs, and shaking with prayer, the women from the neighborhood exhibit all of the carnival of a Pentecostal church service, except Morrison also confers on them all the secular healing power of modern psychoanalysis. Reconciliation with community is not exclusivist or an example of "reverse racism." There is no biological essence underlying identity; rather, it is an identity that is historically provisional, dynamic, and open-ended (hooks). And in this embrace there is the possibility of recovery and healing. The process of recovery involves acknowledging and "seeing our differences"--rather than celebrating how "colorblind" we are--on our way to a point where cultural difference still matters, but for more life-affirming reasons.

Conclusion: Multiculturalism as a "way of seeing"

This course on multiculturalism ultimately became something more than what was originally intended, as both presenters and students--those predisposed towards multiculturalism and suspicious of it--were asked to think about cultural difference after 9/11. And the dialogue that the course opened aspired to what Joan Wallach Scott has written about in terms of reconciliation between the concern to preserve difference and the need to unify a community. Scott suggests that the French word partage "inform our notion of community" (42). The word means both "to divide and to share." This double and "contradictory meaning insists on what [Christopher] Fynsk calls 'openings to the other' as a condition of existence." In contrast to this, Scott argues, there is an insistence on "conformity that rules out the other, substituting one set of beliefs for another," and which brings us the "regime of yellow ribbons and American flags as the test of patriotism." For students in the course, this is the challenge that multiculturalism poses. My sense as a teacher is that many of them are prepared to face this challenge, while others seem to have retrenched with a bland form of patriotism that indifferently asserts that difference no longer matters, especially "now." To come to terms with difference and not subordinate it to some artificial "consensus" became an unexpected goal, if only partial outcome, of the course. Multiculturalism in this post-9/11 sense means "accept[ing] difference as a condition of our lives and suggest[ing] ways we might live well with it.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston. Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy. U of Chicago P, 1993.

Baraka, Amid. "Ka'Ba." Electronic Poetry Center. SUNY Buffalo. 25 March 2003 <http://wings.buffalo.edulepclauthors/barakalkaba.html>

Beacham, Jon. "The New Face of Race." Newsweek 8 Sept 2000

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 1st Ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Heaney, Seamus. "Crediting Poetry," The Nobel Lecture. The New Republic 25 Dec 1995: 27-34.

Hooks, Bell. "Postmodern Blackness." Postmodern Culture. 1 September 1990. 25 March 2003 <http:/Imuse.jhu.eduljournals/postmodern_culture/toclpmcv001.html#v001.1>

Lichterman, Paul. "'From Tribalism to Translation: Bridging Diversity for Civic Renewal." The Hedgehog Review 3.1 (2001): 40-61.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1988.

Murray, Patricia Y. and Scott F. Covell, eds. Living in America: A Popular Culture Reader. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1998.

Ohmann, Richard. "On 'PC' and Related Matters." Williams 11-21.

Patterson, Orlando. "Hidden Dangers in the Ethnic Revival." Murray 379-82.

Reed, Ishmael. "America: The Multinational Society." Murray 373-378.

Scott, Joan Wallach. "The Campaign Against Political Correctness: What's Really at Stake." Williams 22-43.

Williams, Jeffrey. PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Christopher Todd Malone, Northeastern State University, OK

Dr. Christopher Malone teaches English. His work has appeared in ELH, College Literature, and Essays in Literature, in addition to several collections of essays.
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Author:Malone, Christopher Todd
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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