White Americans in a Multicultural Society: Re-thinking Our Role

by Gary R. Howard

Sometime during the first half of the twenty first century, a profound transition will take place

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in the United States: white Americans will lose their status as the numerical majority. In a nation where the term “minority” has traditionally meant people of color, this new reality will require a significant rearranging of our psychic maps, particularly for white Americans.

How does an historically dominant ethnic group adjust to a more modest and balanced role? How do white Americans learn to be positive participants in a richly pluralistic nation? These questions have always been a part of the multicultural

agenda: now they are coming more clearly into focus. Most of our work in race relations and workforce diversity in the United States has emphasized the particular cultural experiences and perspectives of black, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian groups. These, after all, are the people who have been marginalized by the weight of European American dominance. With the shifting tide of population in the United States, however, there is now a need to take a closer look at the unique and changing role of white Americans.

Part of this need is generated by the growing evidence that the transition out of their dominant position may not be a comfortable one. As our population becomes more diverse, we have seen an alarming increase in acts of overt racism, and the number and size of hate groups in the United States is actually on the rise. Of equal or perhaps greater concern has been the prolific outpouring of anti multicultural sentiment from some of the most educated and accomplished members of white academic circles, who tread frighteningly close to providing an ivory tower rationale for the hate group activity of their less erudite counterparts on the streets. In addition, many white politicians fan the flames of racial fear and hatred to lure various constituencies into their camps. Too many segments of our white American population remain committed to their position of dominance, willing to defend it and legitimize it even in the face of overwhelming evidence that our world is rapidly changing.

Taken as a whole, these realities strongly suggest that a peaceful transition to a new kind of America, where no ethnic or cultural group is in a dominant position, will require considerable educational change and deep psychological shift for many white Americans. Attempting to effect these changes is part of the challenge that leads us to a central question: What must take place in the minds and hearts of white Americans to convince us that now is the time to begin the journey from dominance to diversity? It is critical that we white Americans come to terms with our reality and our role. 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? What can be our unique contribution, and what are the issues we need to face? How do we help create a nation where all cultures are honored with dignity and the right to thrive and express their full potential? I explore these questions here from the perspective of a white American.

American immigrants

European Americans share at least one commonality: We all came from somewhere else. In my own family, we loosely trace our roots to England, Holland, France and perhaps Scotland. However, with five generations separating us from our various “homelands,” we have derived little meaning from these tenuous connections to ancestral cultures. This is true for many white Americans, who are often repulsed by the appellation “European American.” They simply prefer to be called American and forget the past.

On the other hand, many white Americans have maintained direct and strong ties with their European roots. In the Seattle area, there is an Ethnic Heritage Council comprised of 103 distinct cultural groups, most of them European. These people continue to refer to themselves as Irish American, Croatian American, Italian American, or Russian American—terminology which acknowledges the two sides of their identity.

European Americans are a diverse people. We vary broadly across cultures of origin, and we continue to be diverse in religion, politics, economic status and lifestyle. We also vary greatly in the degree to which we value the melting pot notion. Many of us are ignorant of our ethnic history precisely because our ancestors worked so hard to dismantle their European identity in favor of what they perceived to be the American ideal.

The farther our immigrant ancestors’ cultural identities diverged from the white Anglo Saxon Protestant image of the “real” American, the greater was the pressure for assimilation. Jews, Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, and minority religious sects all felt the intense heat of the melting pot. From the moment they arrived on American soil, they received a strong message: forget the home language, make sure your children don’t learn to speak it, and change your name to sound more American. In dealing with the history and culture of European Americans, it is important to acknowledge the pain, suffering and loss often associated with their immigrant experiences. For many, it was a difficult struggle to carve out a niche in the American political and economic landscape while preserving some sense of their own ethnic identity. Some white American workers resist the diversity movement today precisely because they feel their own history of suffering from prejudice and discrimination has not been adequately addressed.

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About the Author: Gary R. Howard has 35 years of experience working with issues of civil rights, social justice, equity, education, and diversity. He is a keynote speaker, writer, and workshop leader who travels extensively throughout the United States and Australia. His most recent book, We Can't Teach What We Don't Know, Second Edition (2006), was published by Columbia University and is considered a groundbreaking work examining issues of privilege, power, and the role of White leaders and educators in a multicultural society. Contact Gary at: 206-634-2073

Gary R Howard