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

Family realities

Like many white Americans, I trace my roots in this country back to the land, the

Minnesota farm my mother’s great-grandparents began working in the 1880’s. My uncles and aunts still farm this land, and I spent many summers with them. On this land and with these people I have known my roots—my cultural heritage—much more deeply than in any connection with things European.

I have a close friend and colleague whose traditional Ojibwa tribal lands once encompassed the area now occupied by my family’s farm. This farm, which is the core

experience of my cultural rootedness in America, is a symbol of defeat, loss and domination for her people. How do I live with this knowledge that my family’s survival and eventual success have been built upon the removal and near extermination of an entire race of people? In this reality is embodied much of the irony of the white American experience.

Some of my relatives hold narrow and prejudicial attitudes about cultural differences. The racist jokes they tell at family gatherings and the ethnic slurs that are part of their daily chatter have been an integral part of my cultural conditioning. It was not until my college years, when I was immersed in a rich multicultural living situation, that these barriers began to break down for me. Most of my relatives have not had that opportunity. They do not understand my work in diversity and multicultural education. The racist jokes diminish in my presence, but the attitudes remain. Yet, I love these people. They are my link with tradition and the past, even though many of their beliefs are diametrically opposed to my own. My family is not atypical. For most white Americans, racism and prejudice are not theoretical constructs; they are members of the family. When we open ourselves to the historical perspectives and cultural experiences of other races in America, much of what we discover is incompatible with our image of a free and democratic nation. Our collective security and position of economic and political dominance have been fueled, in large measure, by exploitation of other people. The cultural genocide perpetrated against American Indians, the enslavement of African peoples, the exploitation and discrimination against Mexicans and Asians as sources of cheap labor—on such acts of inhumanity rests much of the success of the European enterprise in America.

The luxury of ignorance

In the face of our past and present, many white Americans simply choose to remain unaware, a luxury uniquely available to members of any dominant group. If you are black, Indian, Hispanic or Asian in the United States, daily survival depends on knowledge of white America. You need to know the realities that confront you in the workplace, in dealing with government agencies, in relation to official authorities like the police. To be successful in mainstream institutions, people of color in the U.S. need to be bicultural, able to function in two worlds, able to play the game according to the rules established by the dominant culture. For most white Americans, on the other hand, there is only one game, and they have traditionally been on the winning team.

The privilege that comes with being a member of the dominant group, however, is invisible to most white Americans. Social research has repeatedly demonstrated that if an African American friend and I walk into the same bank on the same day and apply for a loan with the same officer, I will be more likely to receive my money—and with less hassle, less scrutiny and less delay.

Likewise, if I am turned down for a house purchase, I don’t have to wonder whether it was because of the color of my skin. And if I am offered a new job or promotion, I don’t worry that my fellow workers may feel I’m there not because of my qualifications but merely to fill an affirmative action quota.

Such privileged treatment is so much a part of the fabric of our daily existence that it functions outside the conscious awareness of most white Americans. From the luxury of ignorance are born the Simi Valley neighborhoods of our nation, which remain painfully out of touch with the actual experiences and sensibilities of multicultural America.

Emotions that kill

At some level, however, we are aware of our past and the fact that our prejudicial attitudes are out of synch with our belief in equality and justice. This is the basis for the cognitive dissonance we experience. When we are asked to participate in programs confronting these attitudes, we resist. We wrap our uncertainties in protective layers of denial, hostility, fear and guilt.

Denial. The most prevalent strategy that white Americans employ to deal with the grim realities of our history is denial. “The past didn’t happen. All the talk about workplace diversity and different cultural perspectives is merely ethnic cheerleading. My people made it and so can yours. It’s an even playing field and everybody has the same opportunities, so let’s get on with the game and quit complaining. We’ve heard enough of your ‘victim’s history’.”