Thursday, May 26, 2011

Putting the white into multiculturalism



In her latest Salon column, Joan Walsh takes on the recent study that reportedly shows white Americans believe that anti-white bias is on the rise and that it surpasses anti-black bias. (Attention study participants: loss of privilege does not equal racism.) Walsh, along with the New York Times, went to Victoria Plaut for one potential explanation for the stunning results.
Plaut's research "'What About Me?' Perceptions of Exclusion and Whites' Reactions to Multiculturalism," with co-authors Flannery G. Garnett and Laura E. Buffardi, looked at five different studies designed to measure white and non-white attitudes toward multiculturalism and diversity programs. Plaut and her co-authors found, maybe not surprisingly, that whites tended to feel excluded by multiculturalism, where people of color felt included. But this reaction could be lessened, or intensified, by a couple of variables. In one of the five studies, one group read a description of multiculturalism and diversity activities that made clear that the experiences of white Americans were part of the mix; a control group read an identical description, with no mention of white Americans. The whites who were told diversity approaches included the experience of whites felt more "included" than those who were not. In another study, researchers looked at subjects' "need to belong" -- it has an acronym, NTB, who knew? -- and found that whites with a strong need to belong felt particularly excluded by activities and approaches around multiculturalism and diversity.
In an experiment known as "Me/Not Me," respondents were asked to quickly rate whether a series of terms having to do with race, ethnicity and diversity had anything to do with them personally. It found that the white students related more favorably to the terms associated with "colorblindness" -- equality, unity, sameness, similarity, color blind, and color blindness – than to words associated with "multiculturalism": diversity, variety, culture, multicultural, multiracial, difference and multiculturalism. 
Interesting.




Walsh goes on to add:
What does this tell us? The study authors (as do I) take for granted that it matters -- it would be a good thing -- if whites embrace diversity and multicultural initiatives, whether in schools, workplaces and community groups, and they therefore suggest that people designing such programs consider that "whites’ reactions to multiculturalism … are rooted in the basic social psychological need for inclusion and belonging." Stressing that multiculturalism encompasses the wide variety of white ethnic and class experiences might help. Emphasizing words with positive resonance like "equality" and "unity" might too.
That makes sense to me.
Fair enough. But while we're searching for rhetoric to make white people feel better about growing racial diversity, we should be sure to give attention to why some folks find the term "multicultural" exclusionary. I suspect it is due, in great part, to ingrained thinking that white cultures are the default/normal and that brown cultures are "other." It is the same thinking that makes white folks proclaim my kinky hair "cool" when I pull it back into an afro puff, while finding a white woman's pulled-back, straight hair unremarkable. It is the same thing that makes some white friends, when I mention that I am researching my family history, say "Oh, that must be so interesting. My family is just (insert German, Irish, English...regular), our history would just be boring." It is the thinking that makes people throw around terms like "black culture," "Latino leader" and "Asian community," but rarely "white community" or "white leader" or "white culture."

In this view, people of color have cultures, white people are just...well...people. Colorblindness seems like an ideal goal. In a colorblind world, no one sees "cultures." We are all "regular" like white people. If one views whiteness as, not a culture, but the regular order of things, then multiculturalism can easily be viewed as just an attempt to lessen or mitigate whiteness. I imagine that can feel to some like an attempt to diminish them.

Sure, we can change the way we talk about diversity, but I think that alone is simply providing cover for ingrained race-biased thinking. We have to change the thinking that preferences white culture, while also believing that "culture" (socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions) is something separate from whiteness.

Photo Credit: Pharyngula

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