Amherst's Multicultural Identity
By Tal Liron
Imagine a comfortable, warm room. The walls are covered with huge flags. Some of them represent countries that are major sources of immigration to the United States. Other flags are national, such as that of Scotland. Yet others are contested, such as those of Tibet and Israel. There's even a flag of Massachusetts.

On the floor in the middle of the room is a huge map of the countries of the world. It is a pleasant autumn evening, and it is meeting time in the little kids' room of CAPACIDAD, a wonderful multicultural,after-school program. This month's theme is: "where does my family come from?" We, the staff, ask the children to share information about their family, and to point out where their family came from on the map.

Some know it all, and relate stories of immigration and even point out cities in foreign lands. One kid does not seem to realize a meaningful difference between Indonesia and Michigan (I've changed all the states to protect the children's anonymity). Another does realize a difference, and seems embarrassed that his parents are "only" from Texas, and not from some far-off exotic place. For one child, we cannot locate her country on the map. The map is outdated and does not recognize the new borders. I point out my own home, in Israel. Is it really so far away? One kid thought it was just a skip and a jump down the block.

What did the children make of that meeting? They come from many different places, both geographically and ideologically. I am sure, however, that our message was clear to most of them: cultural identities are good things; they make you special; they make you meaningful. And, most importantly, everybody has them, has to have them.

Does this mean that the children will develop a cultural identity? Maybe, maybe not. Some may already have one, or more than one. Others may find the idea incompatible with the rest of their ideology. Still others may accept it now and change later on in their lives. They may even embrace some aspects of cultural identity while resisting others at the same time. In this chaos of possibilities, only one theme is constant: our intent.

Prof. Beverly Daniel Tatum writes in her book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race," "Though they may not use the language of racial identity development theory to describe it, most Black parents want their children to achieve an internalized sense of personal security, to be able to acknowledge the reality of racism and to respond effectively to it. Our educational institutions should do what they can to encourage this development, rather than to impede it."

Tatum teaches psychology and education Mt. Holyoke College, a scenic drive up route 116. Her book is required reading during first-year orientation at Hampshire College, within biking distance. For her, "personal security" for minorities, can only be achieved by a strong cultural identity. This is the same ideology that guides affinity groups and culture theme houses at Amherst. This is multiculturalism, and it's all around us.

Resistance to cultural theme housing at Amherst comes up every so often, and usually involves the controversial abolishment of fraternities, or accusing the College of a cynical attempt to draw more showcase minorities to diversify our fair campus. These complaints, while they may have merit, do not give credit to the ideological integrity of the administration, and indeed, to American new liberalism. Where do these ideas come from? Multiculturalism's intellectual origins are in American developments in anthropological theory. There can be no "multiculturalism" without an idea of a "culture," practically invented by Franz Boas in the early 20th century, working at Columbia University and in field work with Native Americans.

Boas swept aside the idea of the biological determinism of racism, and placed culture as the determinant of human behavior. Add to that the idea of cultural relativity, and you get multiculturalism: the acknowledgement of the existence of many different cultural values, while denying comparison and judgment. In other words, cultures are separate, but equal.

In reality, multiculturalism is for minorities. You may call them affinity groups, ethnicities,

or any other misleading term. The majority of Americans do not have it, or need it. American democratic lifestyle is based on majority rule, and multiculturalism is a great way to organize the minorities as separate from the mainstream. Separate but equal? Hardly. Once you have the group in a box, you can apply themes to its "culture." This is painfully blatant in the arena of globalization, where African "culture" can be described as anti-democratic, Arab "culture" as violent, and Chinese "culture" as docile and obedient. It is even used in reverse to describe American "culture" as superficial.

Does your culture make you superficial? Violent? The systems of advantage in our society and in the world have much to benefit from forcing people to stay in their box, and even more by calling it human nature. Multiculturalism is a cover-up for a new racism. For if we are not determined by our genes, we are determined by our culture, and being cultural is the very essence of being human; it is, it seems, the only true universal human quality. That is where it all collapses back to biology, more strongly then ever before. For if we are born with a capacity to be acculturated, there is no way to deny it. Unlike ideas of racial difference, no amount of genetic research can topple the idea of the cultural human. Science has been bypassed, and scientific facts can no longer help us in fighting the new racism. Even distributing "information" about cultures does not help; it usually reverts to quaint factoids, exotic foods and clothes, what Professor Change at Hampshire called "song and dance multiculturalism." We must fight it on a different level.

I hope further discussions about affinity groups and cultural theme houses at Amherst College will involve more than seating arrangements in Valentine. I hope that critiques about faculty and student policy will rise to the ideological level, where these ideas are related systematically. Some call this as overanalyzing. There's no such thing! There's only bad analysis. Don't be afraid to think deeply. The bottom line is, if you want to fight or support affinity policy on campus, you must fight or support the multiculturalism which guides it.

I choose to fight it. There are no uniform "cultures" out there; they only exist internally, in our 21st century language. "Being acculturated" is not the only trait we share. We share a planet, we share its resources, and we share an economic system. No community is isolated anymore. We also share personalities. There are people on the other side of the planet with whom you have more in common with than people in your own family.

I believe that instead of building up fictional cultural identities of minorities, we should work on demolishing the fortress of majority identity, the empty "individualism" of the privileged that attempts to solve the problem by ignoring it. It's easy to say that we are all individuals when other people treat you as such. Real individualism is more than a statement; it's a constant struggle against ideologies of separation, like multiculturalism. The task is daunting in its enormity, but I think it's the only way to break down the cycle of advantage and abuse. If you don't agree with me, I respect that, but that's the level where you'll have to convince me otherwise.

Tal Liron is a member of the Class of 2003.

Issue 09, Submitted 2000-11-07 21:54:31