As a former English teacher, therapist, and young adult author, I experienced living in a multi-cultural society even before the term was appropriated by mass culture. Like the term "post-modern," "multi-cultural"seems to have taken on a life of its own, meaning different things to different people. To some, it's all inclusive. To others, it's exclusive. Us against them. To still others, it's simply confusing.
Regardless of how one defines the term, however, for better or worse, it exists. More importantly, people are beginning to ask questions of themselves and others that they may not have thought to ask in the past. In the following paper, I would like to explore my own observations and the impact on me, both personally and professionally of, at least, asking the questions, even if I can't always answer them.
In order to complete the course work for my master's degree in psychology, I was required to take a class in multi-cultural counseling. I was interested in the reticence of the class to come to terms with their own possible short-comings in dealing with people of other cultures and to admit that they harbored any kind of prejudice against those of other ethnic origins or nationalities.
Even at the end of the quarter, most students clung to their perceived notions of themselves. When the professor asked for a show of hands to indicate if any of us had any prejudices, I was the only member of the class to raise mine, admitting that when I don't censor myself, there is one group to which I automatically react negatively.
I went on to admit that it is a group with whom I am almost entirely unfamiliar, and that when I have actually engaged in conversation with individuals from this group, I've found them as interesting or dull, honest or dishonest, humane or inhumane as individuals from any other ethnic group. Recently, it also occurred to me that, while I count many black and Latino writers among my favorites, I have never read anything, other than political commentaries, from the particular group to which I tend to respond negatively-- even though they have a rich literary history.
This, of course, led me back to something I've always believed -- that literature can be a powerful force, and that it is through the use of literature that we can explore, not only ourselves, but the so-called other.
Rather than using textbooks for Multi-Cultural Counseling, which the entire class regarded as biased, many of us suggested that reading the literature of the African-American, Asian-American, Native American, and Latino cultures we studied would give us more valid insights into those cultures. Even when we saw tapes of therapists from minority cultures counseling their own people, what sometimes became evident was that the minority therapist had often assimilated, had adopted the point of view of the dominant culture, and had little understanding of his or her client.
One tape in particular comes to mind. A Native American female therapist counsels a Native American male. As he tells her his story, we see how painful it is for him. He has come to counseling because he slapped the woman he's seeing in front of her small child, and he is devastated by his action. During the conversation, the man, a successful contractor, mentioned that, when he is in the desert painting, he feels at peace with himself. When he is in nature, with nature, his anger dissipates. The therapist, however, was so determined to teach him that anger is inappropriate that she neglected to really listen to what he said and skimmed over the fact that he had been duped in business by a white man. She discussed ways of curbing his anger without exploring the long history -- spanning generations -- during which that anger has rightfully grown. She totally ignored the man within the context of his culture, even though they shared the same background.
Many in the class talked about the man's anger, just as the therapist had in her discussion of the case. What I saw was a gentle man, who had made a mistake and who longed for a way back to his true self.
Perhaps it is I who misperceives the man, and not the class or the therapist, but I can't help thinking that had we read the work of Louise Erdrich, our class would have had a much better understanding of the entire dynamic -- the whole man, cut off from his history and his roots. What we see in Erdrich's fictional characters is the impact on a people of the land who for generations have been deprived of their mother. Psychologists have studied the negative effect on children separated from their mothers. They see the devastating effect it has on them, even if mothers are present, but unavailable. In Erdrich's novels, we are invited to carry the metaphor beyond its literal meaning and to accept the American Indian's view of the land as mother. We feel the disorientation of Erdrich's characters, bound by a culture that barely exists for younger generations, and the mechanization that the dominant culture has both imposed upon them and deprived them of at the same time.
In other words, the fictional characters, though sometimes deeply flawed, become real people with whom we can sympathize; and it is through their stories that we get a glimpse into that particular culture, a glimpse much more potent that any textbook examination can afford us.
This glimpse offers us a way to understand and identify with a different way of being without denying our own. In the past few years, however, I have become aware of the ethnocentric divisiveness that sometimes dominates academia, rigidly proposing not a philosophy of "both and" but a dogma of "either or" on its proponents.
Please, don't misunderstand me. I applaud the efforts of marginalized minorities -- women, blacks, Latinos -- to demand that the literature of their people be not simply acknowledged, but taught. But I also feel strongly that this literature be made available to all students, and taught not only in college classrooms but from grade school on up.
I understand the need of disempowered people to jump-start the engines of their very particular trains of thought in order to gain recognition and validity. They must sound the trumpet and wake up the living dead who long ago canonized only that literature which they considered worthwhile.
But why contain African, Latino, and Asian literature in courses limited primarily to students of those cultures? How will this affect the dominant culture? Perhaps the answer might be that the disenfranchised no longer care about that.
I understand the need to separate and assume the power that has been stripped from minority cultures. I understand that taking back their culture is an essential part of healing the very soul of their collective identity, but I also feel it is important to share this identity with people from other cultures, dominant and minority, as well. And to point out our similar beginnings.
One assigned reading from Joseph Campbell might go a long way. Campbell traces common myths among diverse cultures. How wonderful for a child to learn that almost every early civilization had a flood story, much like the biblical story of Noah and the Ark.
Recently, Harold Bloom published The Western Canon , which, unlike earlier, generally accepted canons, does include women and minorities.
Bloom's new book seems to have been written in response to younger, more radical members of the Modern Language Association, who, too, have tried to rigidly impose their "either or" perspectives. But they have also forced us to confront many questions about literature that academics like Bloom ignore: Who has the right to speak? Who is considered an expert, and why is he or she an expert? An expert in what? For whom is the writer speaking? Is the writer reflecting a certain constituency or forcing roles upon this constituency? Do these roles exist because of the way people in a marginalized culture perceive themselves, or because their way of being is filtered through the eyes of those who dominate?
We must keep in mind the impact of the literature to which we expose our students. Who is writing what about whom? There is a vast difference between the observer and the observed. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, changed his perspective on life and cut short his study of psychology when he saw the impact that the traditional one-up position of the psychologist has on the client/patient. While working in a French prison, he concluded that a hierarchy of observation exists beginning with the prison commander on top of the building, who watches the prison guards, who watch the prisoners. With each level of observation, some aspects of humanity are violated, and eventually, often the individuality and dignity of the prisoner cannot be reconciled with the humiliation he feels because he is always and forever observed.
Foucault goes further, drawing parallels between modern society and the Panopticon, a 19th century prison where one guard at the top can see into all the prison cells without being observed himself. Since the prisoners never know if they're being seen, or not, they eventually behave as if they are always under observation.
Foucault suggests the same thing is true for us. Because we are continually under surveillance by government and other bureaucracies, or by the tyranny of a belief, (even one such as political correctness), we, too, begin to police ourselves.
If we extend this notion to all levels of society, it becomes a metaphor for the way in which minorities and people under colonial rule are subjected to more than a loss of their rights. When one begins to see one's self through the eyes of the beholder -- if that beholder is from a dominant culture to which one does not belong -- the question is not only whether one takes on the attributes designated by the dominant culture, but how it, in fact, changes one's self-image.
In other words, when a child reads about himself as he is seen by the dominant culture -- if he reads about himself, at all -- what is that like for him?
The young Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who was educated in England, answers these questions brilliantly in The Remains of the Day . The book is told through the eyes of the butler, so captivated by the position of his employer that he cannot see that the man is a Nazi sympathizer. It's not his place to see because he feels himself undeserving of a separate identity, of separate thought, unable to accept the love offered to him by the housekeeper because he sees himself only through the eyes of the observer, his employer. And as his employer does not recognize that love, neither can he. The price he pays for total acceptance by the lord of the manor is no less than loss of Self, with a capitol "S."
How is it, we might ask, that a Japanese man writes so knowingly of this very British butler? Perhaps the answer lies, once again, in metaphor. If we assume that the butler can also be viewed as the alter ego for Ishigura, we understand that this is the way he, an Asian, more particularly a Japanese-Englishman, sees himself in relation to the dominant culture of England -- because this is the way he is seen by that culture. We can substitute any minority for the butler and read a similar story. It takes tremendous effort and, yes, imagination, to move from observed to participant. And perhaps it's necessary to become a participant in one's own culture, among those who share particular traditions and ways of being, before one can meet as truly equal and truly separate, before one can throw off the yoke of the observer. But how long can we afford to wait?
I can tell you from personal experience that it can be devastating to belong to a minority, to have very little knowledge of my culture, and to sit in a classroom where 99% of the other students were Protestants from northern European backgrounds. I can still remember studying The Merchant of Venice in high school. There was no preparation by the teacher, no historical background, no explanation for Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock. Furthermore, Shylock was the very first Jewish character I had ever come across in literature. Was this what Jews were really like? I asked myself. I became very conscious of the way others perceived me, and at times I went out of my way not too fulfill what I now understand as a stereotype. To this day, however, even though I am much more aware of my own cultural heritage, even though I rationally understand that this comes from an old reaction to the view of the other, I experience guilt around issues of money and have a difficult time charging my clients what would be considered the going rate for a therapist.
Do I advocate eliminating Shakespeare from high school curriculum because he's a dead European male, or because he created a character who, today, would be considered anti-Semitic? No, I don't. Shakespeare, in many ways, was the father of modern psychology. Long before Freud, he recognized the power of the unconscious, and he saw into the hearts and minds of men and women what few people saw before him and few people since have understood.
But -- Shakespeare wrote many plays, so why teach The Merchant of Venice ? And if one must, then why not temper the impact with one of the many plays or novels by a Jewish writer?
Knowing that this incident still affects me now and being well aware that Jews, at this point, have assimilated into American society more than most other minorities, I can only imagine what an African-American student or a Latino student, or an Asian-American student feels sitting in a classroom where only the literature of the dominant culture is taught.
Richard Rodriguez, the child of Mexican-American immigrants, writes about his education. The first sentence of his biography is "I have taken Caliban's advice. I have stolen their books."
By taking their books, Rodriguez was educated to become an American child of the dominant culture. Unfortunately, it wasn't until many years later that he acknowledges the loss of the hyphen, the Mexican part of his heritage. Even now, he is ambivalent about his own studies when he writes about bilingual education. He states, in very moving language, that he is absolutely against it and calls it "a scheme proposed by Hispanic-American social activists, later endorsed by a congressional vote."
"What I needed to learn at school," he says, "was that I had the right and the obligation to speak the public language of the gringos."
It is only as a postscript that he admits it would have easier had he been greeted at school in his own language. He would have felt more comfortable, less afraid. But, he says, that would have prolonged his entrance into public life. One can't help but ask how much this entrance cost him.
Perhaps a compromise could be reached today. Not all schools are equipped for bilingual education, and I'm not entirely convinced that it works, but it seems that with the wealth of Spanish literature available, a whole new world can be opened up to all students. Hopefully, these students will conclude that the feared "They," in fact, adds to the heritage of our country, rather than detracts. As Pete Hamil wrote in a piece in Esquire , "multi-culturalism is an oxymoron. Culture is multicultural."
When I was teaching, many Latin-American writers were part of my curriculum --even though I never had a Latino student in my class. I would like to think that studying the culture, the literature of these great writers, had an impact on my students and forever changed their perception of Latin-American and Mexican people.
One of my current clients, a twelve-year-old girl whose mother is Bolivian and whose father is Mexican-American, talks about her feelings of being the other, even though she goes to a school with a large Latino population. She gave me permission to use two poems she wrote that beautifully sum up her feelings --and I think the feeling of many who are "other."
Why so isolated in a big house?
Why so confused in a small head?
Why so cruel,
Why so prejudiced?
Black, White what is the difference?
Yellow, Brown there is no difference.
We all have 2 ears,
We all have 2 legs and 2 arms,
And 2 eyes -- so what is the difference?
Prejudiced kids can't answer that,
But normal kids can.
Why so cruel?
Feel so high like in a tree,
But somehow been brought down by some source.
Feeling so low and ignored
No matter what you do.
You are always the last thing on a person's mind.
Why so small?
People judge on height
Even when they don't even know you.
But news is, they don't even know the half of who you are.
Maybe you are a type of person they are.
They don't know that.
No matter what they say,
Just keep on believing who you are.
"They" is used to describe a person or race.
"They" is used to take someone's pride.
"They" is a harsh and immature thing to call a person or other
"They" is used to hurt another race or kill their self-esteem.
People use "They" to hide their real fear of the other race or
People say that to another person or race and the person or race
take it personal.
People do that to another race because they know. They know it
But when the other race tries to fight back,
The other people tell, and the person gets into trouble because
we are too scared.
Scared of Being "They"
I wonder what impact Michelle's poem might have on other students. I wonder if Michelle would become a touchstone for those who feel disenfranchised-- Latino or not -- who understand what she's saying.
It is through literature that we can celebrate not only our differences but our similarities. But we cannot do this unless the literature that truly and deeply reflects the various cultures that make up our community become a part of every classroom. When the other becomes part of us, and we become part of the other, we all must, in some way, change.
Culture cannot be constant. If we are to survive, it must not be constant; for when we encounter other cultures, when we allow ourselves to take in the smallest essence of that other culture, we shift our perceptions. There are those who try to isolate themselves behind walls in order to keep the others out, but the mere act of walking down the street or turning on a television set gives us instant access to a wide range of ethnic and racial differences -- and unconsciously to change. We are a multi-cultural society whether we like it, or not. Perhaps those too frightened to admit that can be eased into the notion by introducing them first to their neighbor's literature. And the best place to start is in kindergarten.
In the midst of the terrible ethnic cleansing that is taking place in Bosnia today, there is a group of young men and women who come together, not as Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, but as Sarajevians searching for truth and unity. They are willing to build make-shift scenery and rehearse in dank, dangerous places in order to celebrate the literature of their being alive. In order to celebrate their oneness , not their separateness. In order to bring some hope, in a hopeless land, that we can exist together.
And perhaps Bosnia has an even deeper lesson for us. Yugoslavia was a small country, forced into existence in modern time -- traditional enemies who fought on different sides in World War II. Still, the three ethnic groups eventually lived side and side and often inter-married. Certainly, racially, the population actually had more in common than the various ethnic groups in the United States. How is it then that the Serbs were so easily led into committing such heinous crimes against others, and ultimately against themselves? Are these crimes against humanity the outcome of the Balkanization of a society? Is this what we, too, can expect if we don't confront Rodney King's very simple and very poignant question, "Can we all get along?"
While I was teaching in a private school, I was asked to take a mid-year class of ten boys who were failing English. As it turned out, seven of the ten were black, one was Korean, and two were white. The black students had been recruited because they were excellent basketball players. They didn't possess serious reading or writing skills, however. One white student was failing senior English for the second time; one couldn't get along with his teacher; and the Korean student had had a misunderstanding with his teacher and refused to go back to class. They worked at all levels, but what was clear to me was that the black students had been badly used by the school. They had been passed from grade to grade and had never really done much work. None could write a paragraph.
I immediately threw out the curriculum, and we began by reading black writers and writing about personal experiences -- one sentence at a time until they could build a five-paragraph essay.
What eventually happened in that class was the kind of learning experience I cherish most. As the result of a passage we were reading, one of the black students leaped into an accusation against Jews. The other black students nodded their heads. I was struck dumb for a moment, then I quietly asked him why he felt that way. And he told me -- at length.
We then spent the next five days talking about stereotypes.
By the end of that quarter, those students, who had come in with little understanding or respect for one another, left having been exposed to the culture and to the deepest feelings of their fellow students. There was no longer any fear of the ubiquitous "They." This class had become a "We."
I can't help believing that this was possible partially because the literature we read not only introduced students to a different culture but also allowed the black students to bask in their own reflections.
How could they not have strived for the best in themselves when they had in front of them writers who said loudly, clearly and proudly -- I am.
Toni Morrison began her 1993 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature by reciting the opening of a story that many different cultures tell in their own way. "Once upon a time there was an old woman. She was blind, but she was very wise." She goes on to tell about the young men from the city who come to the countryside to seek the old woman out and make fun of her -- to prove to themselves, and to her, that they are different. "Old woman," one of the boys says, "I have a bird in my hand. Is it living or dead?" The old woman doesn't answer for a long time, then she says, "I don't know. I don't know if the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands."
Morrison goes on to say that the old woman shifted away from the assertion of the boys' power to the way in which that power is exercised. She then draws a wholly new interpretation, saying that she thinks of the bird as language and the old woman as a practiced writer. The language in the hands of the young boy may be a dead language, an unyielding language because it has been abused by oppressors, by racists, by sexists, and therefore no new ideas can stem from this language.
And she admonishes the old woman for the boys, saying that her answer to them was indecent in its self-congratulation. "Why didn't you reach out to us? All our lives we have been told to be responsible. What does that mean? Stop thinking about saving face and help us save our lives. Tell us a story."
As she speaks to the representatives of the many nations who have gathered to hear her wise words, Morrison refers to the Bible, as she does in so many of her books. She talks about the Tower of Babel and the accepted notion that it was destroyed because God did not want the people to reach to heaven, so God caused them to speak in many different languages. But, like the new wave of critics, she asks, "Whose heaven and what kind is it?" The people were too busy, perhaps, to try to answer those questions. And, she says, no one could take the time to understand the language of the others. If they had, they might have seen that heaven is quite different from what they had assumed, that it lay right at their feet.
I'm almost embarrassed to speak of my own small accomplishments after quoting Toni Morrison, but I have tried, in several of my young adult novels, to introduce children to the idea of searching out their own cultures and other cultures, as well, in order to get beyond their personal and private fears.
In my book, Fitting In , an American Jewish girl, raised in a totally assimilated family, comes to understand that she is Jewish, after all -- at least according to others -- when her car is vandalized by skinheads. Her Russian friend, who moved to the United States with his family, realizes that many of his pre-conceived ideas about Americans were wrong and that beyond ethnic identity is personal integrity. Both teenagers suffer when they see themselves through the eyes of the dominant culture. It is only when they understand and accept who they are that they can reach out to one another.
I would like to conclude with the invocation -- and I use the word knowingly --that John Edgar Wideman wrote for Father Stories . The stories, written for his son six years after he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, are individual and moving, but they are also universal and belong, not only to his son, but to all of us, because they touch us on the deepest, most profound levels.
Finally, when only a few storytellers remained to take a turn, someone shouted:Stop! Enough of this talk! Enough of us have spoken! We must find the earth again!
Suddenly, the mist cleared. Below the people, the earth had changed. It had grown into the shape of the stories they'd told -- a shape as wondrous and new and real as the words they'd spoken. But it was also a world unfinished, because not all the stories had been told.
Some say that death and evil entered the world because some of the people had no chance to speak. Some say that the world would be worse than it is if all the stories had been told. Some believe that untold stories are the only ones of value and we are lost when they are lost. Some are certain that the storytelling never stops; and this is one more story, and the earth always lies under its blanket of mist being born.