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

Hostility. Another response is hostility. The Aryan Nations organizing in Idaho, the murder

of a black man by skinheads in Portland, Oregon, the killing of a Jewish talk show host by neo-Nazis in Denver, cross burnings and Klan marches in Dubuque, and the increase of racist slurs and incidents on college campuses all point to a revival of hate crimes and overt racism in the U.S. We can conjecture why this is occurring now: the economic downturn, fear of job competition, the roll-back on civil rights initiatives by recent administrations, or increasing diversity that is seen as a threat by some whites. Whatever the reason, hostility about racial

and cultural differences has always been a part of American life, and was only once again brought into bold relief by the first Rodney King decision and its violent aftermath in Los Angeles.

Fear. Underlying both the denial and the hostility is a deep fear of diversity. This is obvious in the violence and activism of white supremacist groups. Because of their own personal and economic insecurity, they seek to destroy that which is not like them. The same fear is dressed in more sophisticated fashion by many of those who continually resist attempts to bring multicultural awareness and equity to the workplace. The uncertainties of the current business climate, from the shop floor to the board room, exacerbate underlying feelings of resentment of the new workers. People who have faced competition only from others “like them” now must compete with people they neither understand nor respect. So they attempt to characterize diversity work as “political correctness” and claim “favoritism” and “reverse racism” when a new worker receives a promotion or a position.

They try to defend a cultural turf which was never really theirs. The United States was never a white European Christian nation, and this fact is becoming more evident in our places of work every day.

Denial, hostility and fear are literally emotions that kill. Our country—indeed, the world—has suffered endless violence and bloodshed over issues of racial, cultural and religious differences. And the killing is not only physical but emotional and psychological as well. These negative responses to diversity threaten to destroy the precious foundation of our national unity, which is a commitment to equality, freedom and justice for all people.

Ironically, these negative responses to diversity are destructive not only for those who are the targets of hate but also for the perpetrators. Racism is ultimately a self-destructive and counter-evolutionary strategy. The positive adaptation to change requires a rich pool of diversity and potential in the population. In denying access to the full range of human variety and possibility, racism drains the essential vitality from everyone, victimizing our businesses, our communities and our entire society.

Guilt. Another emotion that kills is guilt, a major hurdle for well-intentioned white Americans. As we become aware of the heavy weight of oppression and racism that continues to pull our nation apart, it is natural for many of us to feel a collective sense of complicity, shame or guilt. On the rational level, we can say we didn’t contribute to the pain; we weren’t there. Yet on the emotional level there is a sense that we were involved, somehow. Through our membership in the dominant culture we remain connected to that painful history, continuing to reap the benefits of past oppression.

There can be a positive side to guilt, of course. It can be a spur to action, a motivation to contribute, a kick in the collective conscience. But ultimately, guilt, too, drains the life blood of our people. If we are finally to become one nation of many cultures, then we need to find a path out of the debilitating cycle of blame and guilt that has occupied so much of our national attention.

Responses that heal

It is possible to move on. We have the opportunity to overcome the dissonance that characterizes our national consciousness and create a new kind of national unity. It is still possible to redefine the meaning of “America” by helping people learn how to bridge the chasms of ethnic, racial and gender differences and create new ways of honoring ourselves and one another. Moving on in this way for white Americans requires honesty, humility, respect and co-responsibility.

Honesty. Facing reality is the beginning of liberation. As white Americans, we can face with honesty the fact that we benefit from racism. We must support historical research providing a more inclusive and multidimensional view of our nation’s past—even when that view confronts us with the woeful immoralities of our forebears. American business needs to be visible in its support of the work of scholars and educators who are searching for the literature, the experiences, the contributions and the historical perspectives that have been ignored in our Eurocentric schooling. The children of today who are to be our workforce of the future must be prepared to recognize the worth and validity of one another’s traditions.

Humility. The future belongs to those who are able to work with and walk beside people of many different perspectives, cultures and lifestyles. A healthy dose of humility can help white Americans overcome the Eurocentric limitations of our past. Part of the unfortunate legacy of our European dominance is the lingering assumption that this perspective is better than others. But where diversity is a bottom-line issue, corporate leaders are recognizing that this single-perspective thinking prevents employees from dealing effectively with change.

Respect. One of the greatest contributions white Americans can make to cultural understanding is simply to learn the power of respect. In the Spanish language, the term respeto has a connotation going far beyond mere tolerance or even acceptance. Respeto acknowledges the full humanness of other people, their right to be who they are, and their right to be well-treated. When white Americans learn to approach people of different cultures with this kind of deep respect, it enables us to see ourselves more clearly as well. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of others, we have a measure of our own— and we can build on our mutual strengths to create more productive, stronger organizations as well as a safer and saner society.

One of the greatest contributions white Americans can make to cultural understanding is simply to earn the power of respect…. No one group alone can solve the problems we face. We have become embroiled in these issues together over the 500 years of our history, and if we are to survive and thrive as a nation, we will have to solve them together.