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Beyond Multiculturalism: The New Life Before Us

by: Lynice Pinkard on October 29th, 2009

I often say to my congregation, “We are not individually salvageable.” Salvation, in my view, is not individual but collective. The only thing that will save us, as empire systems come crumbling down, is deep, sustained relationships, not just with those like us, but across every line of difference. We are going to need each other.

I believe that we go to church (or to any other faith community) not to affirm and preserve our identities – whether black, white, gay, straight, working class, middle class, or whatever – but to be transformed, alchemized through deep full-on engagement with each other, into Holy Spirit-infused community with the power to confront the forces of empire in solidarity with each other and with those living in the margins of the city outside our doors. This process will require each of us to lay on the altar some parts of who we believe ourselves to be – parts that don’t serve the flourishing of all life. This is not multiculturalism but what I call interculturalism. Multiculturalism places cultures side by side; interculturalism involves the alchemization of cultures into something entirely new.

In order to understand why multiculturalism is so utterly insufficient as a model for Holy Spirit-infused community, we have to look at how “whiteness” functions to appropriate cultures and consolidate power. Whiteness is not a culture in itself. There were no ancestral “white people” with a “white culture”; rather, there were scores of cultures that have been assimilated into whiteness in a move toward power.

The first construction of whiteness was a blackness that was tied to the degradation of African cultures and bodies. Africans were kidnapped to America with a rich array of cultural difference. Africans had no concept of “blackness.” There was no such thing. Whiteness actively sought to destroy the native cultures of enslaved people, seeing these cultures as a potential power source for discord and resistance. They sought to replace these ethnicities with a uniform slave culture that was centered on dependence.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of whiteness is how it also cannibalizes European ethnicities, destructively consuming these ethnicities so that they can admit more people into the white club in a consolidation of power. Irish, Slavic, and southern European ethnicities were heavily discriminated against through the early 20th century. With the elimination of slavery and increased agitation for political power among African Americans, WASPS felt it important to increase their power base. This shift can be seen in the history of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s first targets were Catholics. In the final decades of the 1800s the Klan began to shift its focus to Blacks. This can also be seen through lynching statistics: Lynching of white people peaked in the 1880s and then began to decline. Lynching of black people peaked in the 1890s but remained high through the 1920s while white lynching rapidly declined. This is not to say that access for Irish, Slavic, and southern European people was granted easily or that discrimination against these groups disappeared. Quite the contrary. Marginalized European ethnicities were still derided, but individuals were allowed to forsake their cultural alliance in order to become white. This was accompanied by a shift of primary focus in active persecution from European to Black.

Whiteness is cultural nihilism, the destruction of culture in order to secure power and privileges for white people. Just as a neutron bomb destroys people while leaving buildings intact, whiteness destroys culture while leaving institutions intact so that they further subjugate people of color and maintain power in the hands of white people. White customs are “cultural” only in the way that necrophilia is “sexual.”

(It is important to note that not all people with white skin or European descent choose to or are able to access whiteness. Those people are not, in my definition, white people. It is also important to note that almost all people with white skin in America can and do access this privilege, and are white people.)

Ironically, whiteness can be at work even while “diverse” people and cultures are being promoted. Tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism, as they are generally implemented, accept whiteness as the standard. They then seek to teach white people to accept and even enjoy variety. But variety does nothing to disturb the nihilism imposed by whiteness, except maybe to make its deadness more bearable by adding a little spice. Just as whiteness from the 1890s to the 1950s sought to include Europeans by amputating their ethnicities, diversity seeks to admit people of color by amputating both the cultural and political experience while using dismembered bits of it, in the form of multiculturalism, to prop up whiteness by ameliorating its vapidness. Diversity as it is commonly practiced affirms whiteness by mimicking inclusion while truly forcing sameness.

An example of this is multiculturalism in education. While the original attempt was to break up the canon and create spaces for voices other than “dead white men,” this effort has been co-opted by whiteness, so that only “bite-sized” elements of cultures are presented. They are ripped from their political, philosophical, and historical contexts to be easily consumed. Beaded necklaces, stick dances, egg rolls are all available for white people to enjoy. Since they have already sacrificed their own culture in a move to power, they may now pick the fruits of other cultures.

Multiculturalism then plays into the moral void of cultural relativism. Believing that all people and cultures are beautiful, the well-meaning, well-socialized person avoids difficult conversations that may provoke rage, fear, sadness, or confusion because everyone’s feelings are equally important and shouldn’t be hurt. This inability to root culture in real circumstances, or discuss injustice in a meaningful way, reinforces the notion that everything is just fine. It preserves the illusion that the dismembered parts of cultures presented for consumption, these culture McNuggets, are complete, wholesome, and normal.

Furthermore, well-meaning attempts at inclusion of many cultures in the classroom often results in a decrease of core skill-building. Making friendship quilts and Native American bracelets takes the place of math and reading. Students are left with no real cultural base with which to resist the system, nor are they given the skills required to survive within it.

This discussion of multiculturalism in education begins to reveal the ways in which institutions and social systems inscribe whiteness as the standard even as they (often) pay lip service to ending oppression, leveling the playing field, leaving no child behind, and even as many of the well-intentioned human beings within those systems earnestly believe in the espoused social changes. To the degree that any of us is involved in socializing anyone into cultural norms of white, male-dominated, capitalist culture – from teaching conventions of academic discourse to urging assimilation to standards of dress and conventional “manners” – and urging people to develop “discipline” that involves obeying an external authority, we are likely participating in the perpetuation of these systems rather than dismantling them.

To understand this, let’s examine the role of the Judas goat. Butchers found that an efficient way to slaughter sheep was to build a ramp over a deep pit. They herded a number of sheep into a pen at the foot of the ramp. They then introduced a single goat to the sheep within the pen. After a short while the butchers opened the gate to the ramp, and the goat sprang forward, up the ramp, and jumped clean over the pit to the grass on the other side. The sheep, encouraged by the success of the goat, jumped after it. But sheep cannot jump as far as goats. Sheep after sheep plummeted to its death gazing with surprise and wonder at the goat munching contentedly on the other side.

Sometimes people will ask me whether racism “goes both ways,” in other words, whether it is possible for black people to be racist and to discriminate against white people, as has been argued in cases against affirmative action, for example. Here it is useful to differentiate between prejudice – treating people differently based on assumptions one makes about them because of some group to which they seem to belong – and racism, which involves systemic oppression. While plenty of black people are prejudiced, they cannot be racist unless they manage to seize control not only of national political and economic power but also the ideology that sustains it, in other words, unless they appropriate whiteness. The sheep would have to become goats.

If we don’t want to aid and abet whiteness and the domination, destruction, and deadness it perpetuates, what then is the alternative?

1. Foster in ourselves and those we encounter the discipline of the warrior, not of the slave. The slave is taught to obey external authority figures and constraints. The warrior is taught to focus her internal power so that no external power can stop her. Cultivating this internal power requires not the shucking off of difference but the deep embrace of the best parts of one’s authentic cultural heritage. Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” shows that the warrior’s power is deeply rooted in chaos and passion. To work for the advancement of marginalized communities requires one to be subversive and transgressive, undermining the very systems that frame our existence and becoming “savages” ourselves. Liberating our common life (i.e., the work of bringing into being God’s Kingdom) is not a matter of reform or improvements; it necessitates indecent dissent/descent (really a rise, in the sense of resurrection) into crisis, chaos, and passion.

This is culture with meaning-creation and action emerging out of the struggle for life. It is not the supplication of protest, the futile hope for a better day, the search for love and self in the faces of the “oppressed,” the self-indulgent staking out of a political position, or the reckless descent into disorder. It is valuing different forms of power: the unabashed engagement in relationship in our fullness; the assertion of difference without apology, the creation that is disturbing by its nature, the willingness to defend those we love with our lives. This is the erotic.

To fully embrace this consciousness is to become the Other in a profound way. If you do this, you will never see white people the same again. You will feel repulsed by them. You will face exile and persecution from the system and still remain isolated from marginalized communities. The oppressed will feel that you (if you are white) are leading them to slaughter while remaining safe through your privilege. A Judas goat, even if repentant and rebellious, can never be a sheep, or at least it can’t except that in Jesus “all things are possible.”

2. Engage in authentic and revolutionary relationships through an encounter with the divine. We must recognize that each of us is both the focus of and the gate for divinity. This step is critical if we are to do the seemingly impossible act of shedding patriarchy and racism, transcending “category” into authentic relationship with other people across lines of difference, not over those differences but in and through them.

The close of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” – itself delivered by a black woman to an audience of mostly white women – points to the revolutionary effects of these relationships: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side-up again. And now that they are asking to do it the men better let them.” Although her phrase “let them” might indicate an acknowledgment of male power, the implied threat is strong. She evokes a rich tradition of scripture which forecasts doom for those in power who fail to liberate those whom God has chosen. Since the Moses epic is never far from Black Christianity, Sojourner Truth calls upon vivid images of men beset by plagues and eventual death by raging seas if they should seek to stop women in their quest for freedom. The actions of men are therefore rendered irrelevant as women first attain individual transcendence through faith, and then achieve revolutionary relationship in the realm of the erotic.

Today men as well as women are called to the terrifying crucible of the erotic, to the inter- and intra-sections of our cultures, where gender, community, and other aspects of identity begin to break down and swirl together, transcending categories through authentic relationship with each other and the divine.

Whether one feels this tearing and release, this crucifixion and resurrection of the self, as the work of demons or angels depends on one’s openness to transformation and revolution.

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2 Comments on Beyond Multiculturalism

  1. […] that proposed intellectual discussion of “whiteness” and whether their is something Beyond Multiculturalism. It was food for thought. It was originally posted by my […]

  2. […]  In Nov. 2009, in order to start to address the topic, I posted another author’s article Beyond Multi-Culturalism, which drew a large number of heated comments on my Facebook note. It is a very […]

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