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

Co-responsibility. The race issue for white Americans is ultimately a question of action:

What are we going to do? It is not a black problem or an Indian problem or an Asian problem or a Hispanic problem—or even a white problem.

The reality of cultural diversity in the U.S. is an inclusive human issue, a struggle and an opportunity we are all in together. 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 have to solve them together.

The Search for Authentic Identity

When white people become aware of the realities of our history, it sometimes becomes difficult for us to feel good about ourselves. Where do we turn to find positive images? In the 1960’s and 1970’s, while blacks, American Indians, Hispanics and Asians were experiencing an explosion of racial and cultural awareness and energy, what were white youth doing? There was a revolution happening with them as well—a revolution of rejection. While the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women’s liberation movement were bringing to public attention the fundamental flaws of white male dominant culture, the youth of white America, were searching for an alternative identity.

White America was at war with itself. The children of affluence and privilege, the very ones who had benefited most from membership in the dominant culture, were attacking the foundation of their own privilege. In creating a new counter-culture of rebellion and hope, they borrowed heavily from black, Indian, Hispanic and Asian traditions. Their clothing, ornamentation, hairstyles, spiritual explorations, jargon, values and music became an eclectic composite culture—a symbolic identification with the oppressed. In their rejection of the dominant culture, they sought to become like those whom the dominant culture had historically rejected.

When the truth of our collective history is brought home to us, we turn to other traditions for a new place to be.

But there is another alternative for a legitimate white identity. It is not necessary for us to look for culture in other peoples’ traditions, because we can find a rich source of identity in our own. This became dear to me when during a study tour in 1990-91, I was immersed in rich experiences with Navajo, Hopi, Maori, Aboriginal, Balinese and Nepalese people. I gained much from exposure to these cultures, but the most powerful personal experiences came in the place I least expected them—my own ancestral Europe. In a prehistoric cave in the Basque country of northern Spain, I discovered twenty-one handprints created by ancient Europeans that were in the exact style of prints in the caves of the Anasazi and the Australian Aboriginal peoples. In this experience I recognized that I had not only found a connection to my own people’s ancient culture, but a connection to the universality of all human experience, as well.

It is time for a redefinition of white America. As our percentage of the population declines, our commitment to the future must change. It is neither possible nor desirable to continue to be in positions of dominance.

In touring ancient sacred sites in England and Scotland, this sense of rootedness and connection was deepened. The culture of my Celtic ancestors had been overwhelmed by the two-fold aggression of the Roman Catholic Church and by the Roman imperial army—thus much of their history is lost to us today. Stone circles, such as Stonehenge, testify to the power of that cultural history and its sacred connection to both earth and sky.

My experience in Europe taught me that white Americans do not need to look to other cultures for our own senses of identity. The history of oppression and expansionism perpetrated by European nations is only part of our past reality, but not our only heritage as white Americans. We have a rich and diverse history, just waiting to be discovered. And when we push back far enough in our cultural history we come to a place of common connection, where people of all races are brothers and sisters on the same planet.

In this recognition, both out of uniqueness as European Americans and our universality as human beings, we can begin to make an authentic contribution to the healing of our nation.

Who are my people?

It is time for a redefinition of white America. As our percentage of the population declines, our commitment to the future must change. It is neither possible nor desirable to continue to be in positions of dominance. We need not continue to identify only with that strand of our history which is a legacy of oppression. White Americans can be full participants in the building of a multicultural nation.

In the America of the twenty-first century, white Americans will still have a major role to play in the leadership of our businesses. Rather than continuing to be isolated in our role of dominance, we now have an exciting opportunity to join with Americans of all cultures in creating a nation that actually embodies its own ideals. At the deepest level, we are all one people—and this could be our vision.

Adapted by the author from his article, “Whites in Multicultural Education: Rethinking Our Role,” which appeared in The Phi Delta Kappan (September, 1993). With permission of The Phi Delta Kappan and The Diversity Factor.

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