Saturday, August 23, 2008

The new racism

Tom Wolfe in his novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, has touched a subject that is both delicate and disingenuous. This subject isn’t the real story in his book but it glosses over a political and social issue that still reverberates with disdain among the conservative section in our society.

Two former high school classmates and friends meet at home during their Christmas break from college. Laurie from NC State U is talking to Charlotte, the book’s principal character and a student at Dupont U, about her school. Laurie says:

“At State, everybody calls diversity dispersity. What happens is, everybody has their own clubs, their own signs, their own sections where they all sit in the dining hall – all the African-Americans are over there?... and all the Asians sit over't these other tables?...except for the Koreans?...because they don’t get along with the Japanese, so they sit way over there? Everybody’s dispersed into their own little groups – and everybody’s told to distrust everybody else?....Anyway, the idea is, every other group is like prejudiced against your group, and no matter what they say, they’re only out to take advantage of you, and you should have nothing to do with them – unless you’re white, in which case all the others are not prejudiced against you, they’re like totally right, because you really are racist and everything, even if you don’t know it? Everybody ends up dispersed into their own like little turtle shells, suspicious of everybody else and being careful not to fraternize with them”

If you’re moulded in the objectivist mind of Ayn Rand, its philosophical guru, what Wolfe referred to in his novel as dispersity is simply racism in a politically correct disguise. Objectivists have no tolerance for ethnic diversity, which they consider a complete sham. This is why objectivists continue to defy the diversity movement in schools or in society as a whole. To them you cannot extinguish racism and build tolerance of differences by teaching students that their identity is determined by skin colour, or by advocating to society to celebrate the differences of its members based on racial identity.

A vociferous critic of the diversity movement in American colleges wrote: “One cannot espouse multiculturalism and expect students to see each other as individual human beings....One cannot teach collective identity and expect students to have self-esteem...The purpose of a university is to impart knowledge and develop reasoning, not to be a demographic mirror of society.”

But Ayn Rand’s followers clearly miss the real gist of multiculturalism or diversity. Multiculturalism derives its significance from the belief that all cultures are equal, that every group in society can keep their identities, their pride in their ancestry, and yet still have a sense of belonging. It is not race that determines one’s culture. One ethnic group may not be equal with another, say with white Anglo-Saxons, but this inequality is not rooted in racial inferiority. Their unequal status could be due to their lower political or economic leverage in participating in public or policy decisions. Most members of Parliament or the local council are white because of their superiority in English as the main language, come from politically or financially well-entrenched families, or have better access to election campaign funds. Nobody’s pinpointing the blame to racial dominance, but the reality is, while everybody may be culturally equal, there are still inequalities in the distribution of economic power and political influence.

Multiculturalism, however sanguine, nonetheless carries a lulling effect. It is not enough for ethnic groups to celebrate their cultural heritage without being able to access opportunities in the corridors of political and economic power. Too much dosage of culture and tradition only for the sake of celebration or entertainment will not help multiculturalism achieve the ultimate objective of equality.

Filipinos in Toronto, for example, are so intoxicated with their annual or periodic cultural celebrations that sometimes even simultaneous events are being held for the same audience, which may have the effect of promoting rivalry or competition among various groups. The worst thing these celebrations can do is to give a false sense of euphoria, to make a group consign itself to the petty role of being a purveyor of social events that have nothing to do with raising their stature as citizens of the larger community.

Multiculturalism or diversity offers ethnic groups the portal to civic engagement, an opportunity for their members to become decision-makers or leaders. If ethnic groups will continue to restrict their attempts to achieve equality to mere celebrations of their heritage in parades and festive gatherings, the real value of multiculturalism is reduced to being a contributor to the collective fantasy that everybody is equal. Sadly, multiculturalism could also be a kind of collective bribe the government and those who have control of political and economic power dole out for ignoring the real causes of inequality and to keep the restive masses in check.

1 comment:

alexf said...

hey man, I just checked out your blog. nice.

this is a good post man, the multiculturalism policy really is a tricky one. During an event a few weeks back I heard a speaker talk about how originally the policy was put into place here in Canada to quell the rising tide of nationalism in Quebec. By putting multiculturalism in place the gov could now just say that French culture was but one in a multitude of cultures within Canada. I don't know much about that, but it's an interesting thought...