Gary Howard (1996) asks, (p. 324) “What does it mean for White people to be responsible and aware in a nation where we have been the dominant cultural and political force?
One of the reasons Howard cites (p.325) for those of European ancestry feeling so ambivalent toward the perceived threat of a multicultural society is that–for many of them– persecution, prejudice, and discrimination are part of their own ancestral past, a history that many feel has not been adequately addressed. Weren’t the Irish and Italian immigrants ostracized and often outright killed, even as they settled into large, industrial cities? Weren’t the Eastern Europeans looked upon with suspicion, having to change their sir names and lose their accents, in favor of more Anglicized forms?
Taking this into account, perhaps white American culture should be more mindful of the high cost their own ancestors paid to become part of this nation. Should we not afford the same chance to other races and cultures, who continue to come to our shores looking for the very same things European immigrants sought so long ago? And once here, should they not be given the opportunity, not to simply assimilate and comply with established White norms, but add to the society that has given all of us a chance at freedom and self-determination?
Every time this nation makes room for new people, new languages, and cultural backgrounds, it enriches us all in ways we do not fully realize. It happens so minutely, that the dominant culture believes that these newcomers must be assimilating, becoming “Good Americans”; when actually, they are adding their best to our own. Everyday life—from what we eat, to who we choose to provide us with medical attention—is enriched by immigrant contributions.
Even as many whites rail against “foreigners” bringing crime, poverty, and odd belief systems into their communities–these same whites are more than glad to partake of the delicious foods, the social and luxury services, and professional, thoughtful care immigrant people provide to them, each and every day. Not to mention the often demeaning and difficult jobs they are willing to take on, that white workers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
So, how can white Americans be more responsible? They can own up to the fact that we need immigrant people’s cultural contributions, just as much as they need what a new life in our country offers. We can defend them like our long-lost brothers and sisters. We can throw out common, prejudiced misconceptions. We can help to raise their voices, and give them room to contribute, rather than try to keep them down.
What can be our unique contribution, and what are the issues we need to face?
Howard (p.327) suggests that our white, dominant-culture privilege affords those of us who inhabit it to prosper more easily than our multi-racial counterparts. He also acknowledges that, even when whites fail, they never have to worry that it is because of their skin color. So, I think perhaps our unique contribution can come from our position of relative ease: We can use our privilege to make room for those who do not have it so easy. We can advocate for them. We do not speak for them, but provide them room to speak for themselves. We defend their dignity, we honor their tenacity. We level the playing field, not just for the white race, but to include all players—not to assimilate and deny their ethnicity, but to celebrate it. We should call out institutional racism, and fight for equity for all. White people have the power to do good—that is our contribution. But we must be vigilant not to let that make whites feel superior, however. Instead, we should be custodians and mentors, allies and partners. Sometimes even silent partners.
How do we help create a nation where all cultures are accorded dignity and the right to survive?
Howard states (p.328), that underlying both the denial and the hostility (of whites toward other races), is a deep-seated fear of diversity. White dominant-cultural “guardians” defend the supremacy of a white, European-based, Christian society, that actually does not really exist. We have actually been a nation of many religions and races for much longer, and continue to go in that direction, even as widespread racism and violence has taken hold again. It is all fear-based.
Immigrants and the multi-racial populations typically become scapegoats, when there is an economic downturn, or increased crime. But when we examine the issues at a deeper level, these events are symptoms of the fear that caused them in the first place. Growth comes in fits and starts, but then we defeat ourselves as a society when fear settles in. Violence begets violence. We take two steps back, even as we step forward. How do we change this paradigm? Own up to our cultural shortcomings, and begin to heal. Facing reality is the beginning of liberation (p. 329). As noted earlier, we as a nation must advocate for the marginalized and oppressed among us. Get educated, open a dialogue, and decry racism, violence, and backward thinking at every opportunity. Lose the fear that grips us as a people, before it really is too late…we will become our own undoing. America was not meant to be exclusive–check the Constitution. At its central core, it is a set of agreements that provide basic rights and freedoms for ALL. That has not changed, nor should it, but we can amend and improve upon it to reflect the times. Those times, bad or good, depend on all of us pulling together. Simple, yet not so much.
Banks, J. A. (1996). Multicultural Education: Transformative Knowledge, and Action: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Gary Howard, Chapter 17-Whites in Multi-cultural education—rethinking our role. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, NY.