Many places I turn today I see, hear, and read about an emphasis on multicultural studies, intercultural relationships, and managing diversity. Both my head and my files bulge with the concepts those words represent. Most of what I have heard about, read, and seen has been good; I applaud those who engage multicultural and diversity issues as major foci for the emerging century.
BUT …multicultural/diversity emphases are not enough! Not enough if we are to address the serious national problem of racism. There is one focus for learning about racism and how to combat it: that focus is racism … racism … racism! That focus will not be popular. No encounter with that reality will be easy, or comfortable. Still, I shall continue to say that racism is the only focus for dealing with racism; that must be done directly, and not by an circuitous routes, for they usually turn out to be roads of avoidance. A direct focus on racism may be threatening, but, like the surgeon’s knife or the psychiatrist’s probing, is necessary for a society in need of restored health. Racism was/is present in the foundations of our society, and will not be removed by anything less than addressing it directly.
A study of racism probes the reasons for the problems which make multicultural diversity studies necessary. Multicultural relationships would not be difficult for so many people were it not for racism. Studies of the contributions of races of people of color would not have to be encouraged if they had not been excluded by racist assumptions that all good proceeded only from Europe. Norms of what is beautiful in human form or art were dictated by racist aesthetics which ignored cultures which were “different.” The same ethnocentric, racist judgments prevailed in regard to language, sexual relationships, music, governance, and most every aspect of life; our nation was founded on a view which assumed the “rightness of whiteness,” and anything different was regarded as deviant and/or inferior. It is demonstrable that racism is a major root of the problem we face as we respond to an increasingly diverse population trend.
As one who has chosen to keep the focus on racism, I am often suspicious that the multicultural diversity emphasis is popular precisely because it frequently avoids the issue of racism. A school can put great emphasis into a multicultural celebration of differences, but fail to alter an informal system which “tracks” students by race either toward college or not. Managing diversity can be a legitimate pride for a Human Resources team in a corporate setting, but an Asian employee may still suffer isolation from colleagues who have not resolved attitudes they learned about “Japs,” and which they apply to all Asians. A college may feature Native American studies, but a young Native woman enrolled at that college may experienced prejudiced treatment when she wears a band on her head which reminds people of her culture. In a hospital emergency room where personnel have been taught to respect diversity, tough racist stereotypes may quickly emerge as a Black male attendant works with a white woman on a rape case in which the rapist has been identified as Black. In a state agency with a clear intent to diversify in employment practices, an Hispanic employee who wants to transfer to a department which offers a better chance at promotion, may encounter strong resistance rooted in convictions about his “inferior” language.
The point is made: multicultural diversity introduced into a setting which is racist will not work, unless at some point the racism is acknowledged and responded to as racism. Institutional settings are predominantly white, and those often present a psychological minefield for employees of color. Most white managers and other employees are oblivious to, and are not eager to hear about such facts. Until they come to understand how racism functions in our society and its institutions, most will remain unable to respond in any corrective way. It is not enough to address multicultural diversity and not address racism. In order to understand and eliminate racism, there must be an emphasis on the study of racism, because racism is racism!
To study racism means to trace history particularly in England, because the United States was intentionally founded as a white, Anglo nation. That history lives in our present. Such a study will discover ideas, values, beliefs, customs, ways of perceiving, and doing which are based on racism. To understand racism means to know the consequences of a national foundation built on a terrible contradiction between a thrilling belief in equality and a degrading belief in white superiority. It is to discover that literature, art forms, history, philosophy, religion, medicine, and most of the disciplines which are supposed to serve humankind, are infused with a racism which means they cannot possibly serve all people justly. A study of racism will lead one to know that institutions which are the carriers of culture communicate racism along with all the goodness they represent. It is to understand that the media are racist, and that, when the medium becomes the message, both are racist in their effect. It is to know that the interaction of institutions and systems in social planning often are shaped by assumptions of white superiority which are buried and appear only in unintentionally racist effects.
To study racism as it impacts the white psyche will reveal manifestations in attitudes and behaviors, each alternately affecting the other. It will reveal that ways of thinking, of formulating problems and solutions, of putting thought into word and feeling into act are fused with racism. It will lead one to understand that how people relate across racial lines is frequently shaped by racism, that expectations, often molded by racism, are powerful determinants of encounters between people and ideas. A focus on racism will illustrate that all people suffer from its cancerous nature. People of color are its targets, but white people are damaged because it also diminishes their humanity. The slow disease undermines the foundations of a society all must share.
An emphasis on the multicultural and diversity aspects of our society is important and, when done in a context which addresses cultural and institutional racism, can be a powerful tool for change. Seldom, however, have I heard the word or concept of racism used in written or spoken descriptions of multicultural education, training or concerns for diversity.
So here is a call for keeping the focus where it must be if we want to address the causative problem. Let’s learn to identify, and detect racism wherever it is, and then let’s turn to the task of becoming anti-racist individuals, anti-racist institutions, an anti-racist society.