Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Some Thoughts on Multiculturalism

Yesterday I took a break from writing my take-home final on "Hidden Dangers in Multicultural Discourse" to go to the hospital for a hearing test (long story - and my hearing is normal).

When I arrived at the ear, nose, and throat clinic, there were a few people on line to speak to the receptionist, who, it seems, was on her lunch break. In front of me were three men: an older man with a closely trimmed beard, a black kippah, and a sweater vest, a younger man with a sweater and a pair of jeans, and an older man with a long black skirt, a suit jacket, and a keffiyeh. We waited for what seemed a very long time before the older Jewish man said to the younger Arab man (in Hebrew) "you know, I was here first." The younger man quickly disputed this point. The two men, who had been standing next to each other peacefully in front of the receptionist's desk argued with quickly escalating voices. "Hold on a minute!" said the older Arab man (who I learned was the younger Arab man's father) in Hebrew, "Hold on a minute!" He stood in between the two arguing men and the Jewish man pushed the older Arab man with his elbow, still arguing, "I was here first!" There was a slight physical tussle - and it was hard to tell who was at fault but it seemed to me that the Jewish man was the agressor, but before it escalated very far, the Jewish man pulled back, took out his telephone, and announced that he was calling the police. "Hello?" he spoke brusquely into his phone. "I'm on the fourth floor at the ear, nose, and throat clinic. An Arab pushed me, he assaulted me, you'd better come." As he spoke, the younger Arab man scoffed in Hebrew, loud enough for everyone in the waiting room to hear, "I did no such thing. Thank G-d there are so many people here who can speak for me." Another young Arab man who was in the waiting room walked assertively toward the Jewish man. "When the police come, I'll tell them what you've done." The older Arab man, the father, said to the Jewish man, "Why do you do this? Because he is Arab?" The Jewish man said, "because he assaulted me - even if he was Jewish and he assaulted me I would think they should do a background check. He might be dangerous." "It was because he is Arab." The older man declared, and his son sighed, "What kind of a country is this, anyway?" By the time the police arrived, the receptionist had already returned, had gone through the paperwork with both men, and the younger Arab man and their father were in the back, seeing a doctor. The Jewish man insisted that the receptionist look into her files to find the name of the younger Arab man so the police could perform a background check, but she refused. She looked defiantly at the police officer and declared, "He's already gone and I can't give you his name. It was just a small thing, so let it go." Shortly thereafter, the policemen and the Jewish man left.

I'm not sure how to interpret this episode, and my examination of it is made more complicated by my not having understood everything that went on because I'm not fluent in Hebrew. However, I thought that the aggressiveness of the encounter would have been troubling anywhere, but was compounded by the way that the Jewish man believed (perhaps rightly) that in a conflict with an Arab man, the police would be on his side and would be suspicious of the Arab man. I don't know who was really at the counter first, but I wonder if the Jew was expressing discomfort at the idea of an Arab having an opportunity to be served before him. Or maybe the Jew really had been there first, and maybe the Arab had said something provocative that I simply didn't understand. I don't know, but I found the whole scene quite disturbing.

And all of this happened, as I mentioned, while I was in the middle of writing my exam on multiculturalism. Which led me to think about my own observation of the interaction: why did I see two individuals and immediately label them as Arab and Jew and see their conflict as representative of all of the tensions between Arabs and Jews in this country? Why do I essentialize these individuals as representatives of the very broad and diverse groups "Arab" and "Jew"? Why didn't I think of them as a short man and a tall man, or a young man and an old man (framing the conflict as a generational one), or any number of other factors that may have made these men similar or different? What is it about culture/etnicity that makes it the most important categorization and marker of difference for me in this context? And if, as I believe they did, some of the tensions of the episode occurred through the social construction of ethnocultural identities as being in opposition to one another, what can we do to change these structures?

I have since finished and turned in my final exam. I haven't written or talked much about my multiculturalism class, but it was a profoundly important class for me, I think, as it helped me sharpen my own understanding of concepts such as culture, identity, belonging, etc. that are important to my own studies and are completely fundamental to the way that our societies operate.

The last question of the exam was to provide definitions for a few key words, citing some of the readings that we have discussed in the class. I thought I would post my definitions for your perusal, so that you could have a taste of what I've been learning in my multiculturalism class:

A) Language:
Language is a system of vocal and written signs that create the conceptual framework into which we are born, and through which we categorize and understand our experiences, dividing between ideas to create what we understand as meaningful relationships of sameness and difference – our very thoughts are dependent on the linguistic tools available to us (Burr 7, 36-38, 44; McLaren 43). The words we use do not have fixed meanings, and they constantly change depending upon their context (Burr 32). Because language can be contested, it is a site of struggle over power (Burr 41). Western language is organized according to binary oppositions, which creates a dependant hierarchy, organizing subjects according to unequal distributions of privilege and power (McLaren 55-56).

B) Identity:

Identity is the ever-changing combination of the various aspects of our lives and the social discourses surrounding these aspects (Burr 51). For each aspect of our lives, there are multiple discourses that provide meaning to these aspects for ourselves and others (Burr 51-52). However, there are only a limited number of discourses available for each aspect, and sometimes these aspects seem to be in conflict with one another because of the limits of available discourses (Burr 52-53). It can seem as though ascribing to one aspect of one’s identity is a betrayal of another aspect (Burr 53). This is exactly the problem that arises when multiculturalists essentialize cultures and assume that someone whose identity includes this culture as one aspect must entirely ascribe to the discourses surrounding the culture, even if other aspects are in conflict with this discourse (Yonah 97).

C) Multiculturalism:

Multiculturalism is a broad term that encompasses a variety of approaches to include and recognize the existence of multiple cultures within one society. These approaches range from constructing the notion of a common culture and delegitimizing otherness to reforming existing institutions to provide social and educational opportunities that will allow cultures that are share a natural equality to achieve a structural equality to emphasizing cultural differences, constructing them as essences that result from a “primeval past of cultural authenticity” to recognizing representations of race, class, and gender to be “the result of larger social struggles over signs and meanings” and focusing on the task of “transforming the social, cultural, and institutional relations in which meanings are generated” (McLaren 48, 51-52, 53) They include a variety of strategies emphasizing either recognition, redistribution, or a combination of these factors, and may suggest forms of self-governance for cultural groups or integration of all groups into a society that would be restructured to better include multiple voices (Yonah 96-99). They may entail educating toward “tolerating cultural differences that are consistent with civic equality” or some other white liberal value or they may involve “substantive discussions” in which non-dominant perspectives are aired and considered (Guttman 71, Marker 22).

D) Narratives:

Historical narratives are the way that the events of the past are constructed into a framework of causality, and are used to create positive national discourses so that the past is used to justify the present (Al-Haj 47). These narratives are often deeply connected to the “homogenizing efforts” of nations to create a community “imagined in its national oneness” (Beckerman 26). They define the values and priorities of societies, and make it difficult to accept the “authenticity of alternate cultural interpretations” (Marker 8).

Works Cited:
Al Haj, Majid (2005). “National Ethos, Multicultural Education, and the New History Textbooks in Israel.” Curriculum Inquiry, 35:1, 47-71.

Beckerman, Zvi. (2007). “Rethinking Intergroup Encounters: Rescuing Praxis from Theory, Activity from Education, and Peace/Co-existence from Identity and Culture.” Journal of Peace Education, 4:1, 21-37

Burr, Vivien. (1995). An Introduction to Social Constructionism. London: Routledge.

Gutmann, Amy. “Unity and Diversity in Democratic Multicultural Education: Creative and Destructive Tensions.” J. Banks, ed. Diversity and Citizenship Education: Global Perspectives. Jossey-Bass, 2004. 71-96.

Marker, Michael (2006). “After the Makah Whale Hunt: Indigenous Knowledge and Limits to Multicultural Discourse.” Urban Education, 41:5, 1-24.

McLaren, Peter. “White Terror and Oppositional Agency: Towards a Critical Multiculturalism.” Goldberg, David Theo, ed. Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Yonah, Yossi (2005). “Israel As a Multicultural Democracy: Challenges and Obstacles” Israel Affairs, 11:1, 95-116.


Nanette Goodman said...

Wow, what a disturbing interaction.

Your class sounds interesting. There were two definitions that struck me.
Language--I don't think I realized how much language shapes how we interpret the world until I moved to Hanoi. The language--the structure, what words are available, what is considered polite etc--and the culture are so intertwined. I have a whole new appreciation of why new immigrants want to pass their "home" language down to their kids. I'm glad you are trying to save Yiddish.

Multiculturalism--you define multiculturalism to include “constructing the notion of a common culture and delegitimizing otherness.” I had always thought of that approach as “anti-multiculturalism.”

Jessica said...

you'd be surprised what some people do in the name of multiculturalism - for instance, paying lip service to the idea that everyone is equal and valuing other cultures but saying that despite difference, we must have a common curriculum in order to insure national unity. That is to say, it's OK be your culture in your home, but when you are at school, you have to learn "American" culture so that American society can remain a cohesive whole. This is what at least one of the theorists we read referred to as "conservative multiculturalism" or "corporate multiculturalism" - the second name also addresses his concern that this form of multiculturalism allows corporations to use their presumed respect for others to draw upon stereotyped images of others to sell products: ie, claiming that because they respect a certain group they will include them in a commercial, but really making use of negative stereotypes and reinforcing them in order to sell the product, and then patting themselves on the back for having included "minorities" in their advertising at all. I'm not sure I would call either of these strategies multicultural, but because some of the people who employ them refer to themselves as multicultural because it is no longer socially acceptable not to be multicultural, I suppose a definition of multiculturalism might have to include these strategies. I don't know - you're right, it's a stretch to include what I agree is anti-multicultural within a definition of multiculturalism.