Multiculturalism As It Really Is

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

The U-T Writing Group

WE PUBLiSH HERE an essay (slightly abridged by ATC) written by a group of University of Texas faculty members during the academic year 1990-91. First published as two pieces in the weekly cultural supplement to the U-T Daily Texan, they were written collectively in order to explain some of the perspectives and proposals on mu!ticulturalism under attack by conservative academics and media pundits. The authors sought to restore to the academic debate on multiculturalism some of the intellectual and political integrity that had been lost on the U-T campus to departmental disputes, administrative interference and personal invective—all glossed with an ideological veneer.

The U-T Austin campus, whose PhD English program in Ethnic and Third World Literatures had established its reputation, came to national attention in summer 1990 when an introductory writing syllabus, designed around argumentation and using readings on difference drawn in part from civil rights cases, was denounced by conservative critics as “political indoctrination” and cancelled by the U-T administration.

The collective authors are Brian Bremen and Ann Cvetkovich, assistant professors in the Department of English; Michael Hanchard, assistant professor in the Center for African and Afro-American Studies; Barbara Harlow, associate professor in the Department of English; Anne Norton, professor in the Department of Government; Gretchen Ritter, lecturer in the Department of Government; and Ramon Saldivar, professor in the Department of English.

IN RESPONSE TO some of the negative criticisms leveled against multiculturalism both at IJ-T and across the country, we the undersigned would like to restate the purposes and principles of multiculturalism and counter some of the spurious assumptions about “culture” and the “Western tradition” that have Impeded an intelligent discussion of the issues involved. We will describe the problems of a multiculturalist program more completely and give our own suggestions on how such a program can exist at U-T.

The University’s claims to national distinction within the hierarchy of U.S. institutions of higher learning have been disputed by recent rankings that situate U-T well below the place that it announces for itself. From teacher-student ratios to faculty salary and benefits, U-T finds itself in a position that belies its own self-image.

Now it would seem that the very level of discourse at U-T around the urgent national issue of multiculturalism has deteriorated to the same low standard. Other academies—from large state institutions such as U.C. Berkeley, Rutgers University or the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to smaller colleges like Wesleyan—all involved in the same controversies, have debated their terms with varying degrees of intellectual rigor, a spirit of critical inquiry; even, in many cases, administrative cooperation.

The UT-Austin campus, in contrast, has seen these multicultural issues of scholarly, educational and academic moment dismissed by the administration and appropriated by departmental disputes and demeaning invective, all glossed with an irresponsible ideological veneer As scholars and professors of humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, we can collectively contribute to restoring to this debate the professional seriousness that it enjoins—a seriousness that it is imperative for us to maintain if U-T’s material underdevelopment is not to be reproduced at the intellectual level.

Culture, as we see it, is a complex activity of distinct peoples that involves the production of ideals, artifacts, and knowledge. Multiculturallsm, then, is an attempt to understand how and why cultures are developed, organized and used as they are. Multiculturalism, as an intellectual and practical project seeks to interrogate manufactured categories and boundaries across history in order to assess their integrity and their unity in the understanding of multiple social realities.

How “The West” Was One

One of the major dangers that we see in the critiques of multiculturalism is the lack of interrogation of the category of “the West” itself. This peril is evinced in numerous defenses of what is called “the Western tradition.” The absence of a historical sense among the champions of the canon creates a false tradition, seamless and monolithic, that makes synonymous the words knowledge and “West.”

The intervention of the Arab philosophers, among them al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd, preserved the works of Plato and Aristotle in a period of neglect and contributed some of the most highly regarded commentaries on their work. Plato, Aristotle and Herodotus had themselves expressed an earlier debt to African cultures and philosophers. If one considers the contribution of African philosophers to debates within ancient Greece, not only was there no such thing as a “Western” project, but the works of Plato, Aristotle and others were multicultural, multi-interpretive projects from the very beginning. (Editor’s note: These issues are also discussed in Ellen Poteet’s review of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, ATC 25, March-April 1990.)

Any construction of the “West” vs. the “non-West” is not only ahistorical but also misrepresentative of the work it purports to preserve. The “West,” indeed, did not exist It was a category unknown to these thinkers as well as to everyone else until the sixteenth century, a category whose geographic and cultural parameters would have astonished the ancient philosophers.

Here the ahistoricism of the National Association of Scholars, as manifested in their recent statement, “Is the Curriculum Biased?” (a full page advertisement in The Daily Texan) becomes most apparent For them, it is the West, not knowledge, which must be reproduced and maintained. The construction of a single Western tradition reduces tensions and distinctions within the formation of what we now call “The West.”

For example, while England and Ireland could be categorized as belonging to a single Western tradition, their histories, though intertwined, are distinct and often in conflict This conflict was also manifested in the work of such figures as James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Maud Gonne, who all vociferously opposed inclusion in even a single English tradition. Nor would they have referred to themselves as members of a “subculture,” a term which critics of multiculturalism often use to reduce the experiences of others to mere appendices of English civilization.

In short, those who attack multiculturalism in the guise of defending “The Western Tradition” are caught in a contradiction. They cast themselves as the defenders of an intellectual tradition whose content and origins they ignore, while placing “non-Westerners” outside of a tradition the latter helped invent. The presence of multiple traditions within a so-called single tradition is not cultural relativism, as the attackers of multiculturalism would claim. Neither is it an ideological enterprise. It is a simple fact, the result of concrete historical processes involving and melding seemingly disconnected peoples and cultures.

As Kirk Varnedoe, curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, pointed out in a recent Village Voice article, “If you assume that we are part of a multicultural situation rather than that we in American art [are] welcoming multiculturalism into our abode, you just have to turn it all the way around and say that this is a very, very mixed world, and it is not our privilege to look and include it—we are already in the thick of it and we are just waking up to that fact.”

Even the supposedly neutral science of medicine is waking up to the facts of treating an ethnically diverse population and recognizing the vital parts that difference plays in both diagnosis and treatment All groups, doctors now agree, have genetic disabilities and a diagnosis that takes as its norm the white middle class—ignoring issues of race and ethnicity—can no longer be considered ethical.

Doctors save lives not only by knowing that certain diseases like Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia seem peculiar to certain groups, but also by being aware that Black men are four times as likely as white men to have no warning pain with a heart attack or that Asians will rarely discuss negative feelings, particularly in a therapeutic situation. Psychiatrists now realize that subtle forms of racism and fear can sometimes lead to an overestimation of a patient’s pathology.

Perhaps most important, the medical profession recognizes the need to promote cultural sensitivity while discouraging cultural stereotyping in order to heal most effectively. Its members admit that the failure to acknowledge racial and ethnic difference among individuals within these groups, are equally forms of ignorance. If we do not “wake up to the fact” of multiculturalism, we remain just that—ignorant—a condition which in an academic setting is, at the very least, anomalous, if not wholly a sign of failure. A curriculum Chat ignores the “facts” of multiculturalism is an impoverished one.

A curriculum that embodies the ideals of multiculturalism recognizes that it is not our “privilege to look and include” but rather that we need to be “awake to the fact” that this is a “very, very mixed world.” It is a curriculum that would rightly place U-T at the forefront of today’s disciplinary debates. If these claims about the benefits of a diversified curriculum are correct, then inclusion of works about and by various social groups is necessary to promote excellence within U-T.

Inclusion means not just the addition of new materials by women and minorities but expanding our complete understanding of traditional areas of knowledge. For example, within literary studies transforming the curriculum involves not only the study of works by women but also the study of how notions of gender difference have influenced the creation of all works of literature. Within the study of U.S. politics there is need for greater consideration of the role of race in U.S. political development Thus, the project of making the curriculum multicultural should affect all areas of learning at U-T rather than be confined to specific courses or sections within courses.

But if the current debate about issues of multiculturalism is not about broadening all areas of knowledge, Chen what is it about? It is about questions of power. U-T as a site of learning and research is both affected by and involved in the construction of power relations within society. For example, abundant funding from the Department of Defense and Energy in the 1980s supported projects that benefitted the military more than they addressed problems such as declining economic infrastructure, ecological crises and the AIDS epidemic. Over the last decade, more attention and resources were given to the study of real estate development than to the problems of the urban underclass. By recognizing U-T’s social place, we can begin to discuss the connections between production of knowledge and relations of power.

Multiculturalism is thus not just about what constitutes culture, but about who determines what counts as “culture,” about how power is wielded between and within cultures, and about the ways that culture is organized by politics. The establishment of a multicultural university entails not just revising the curriculum but examining the social composition of U-I Diversity within the curriculum must be accompanied by diversity within U-T. The project will involve expanding the number of women and minorities among not only the student body but also the faculty and administration.

A critical mass of individuals from previously underrepresented groups can empower the members of those communities and help facilitate discussion throughout U-I But to include fully all segments of our society we must both provide individual role models for women and minorities and make the creation of a positive learning environment the responsibility of each member of our community. Both social environment and curriculum must be altered in order to support the pursuit of multicultural research and learning projects.

We are not asking for a unanimity of voices toward a multiculturalist project at the university, but rather for CD • recognition of the dangers which claims of “traditional values” and totalizing characterizations of “the West” pose for critical inquiry, historical integrity and academic freedoms. We can be neither for nor against a multicultural ethos at the university or elsewhere. We are in it. We hope others will join us in this recognition.

The Great Right University

We would like to further the ongoing discussion about multiculturalism by addressing questions of power in the academy. We wish to clarify the role that ideology plays in the construction and dissemination of knowledge and to separate the term “multiculturalism” from the misconceptions that accrue to it. In particular, we address the charge that it has been supporters of multiculturalism who have “politicized” the academy.

Rather, we argue, the academy has always been political. The multiculturalist project simply represents an intervention into those politics. It aims to reveal the different political forces that have historically operated within the academy, as well as to facilitate a more democratic engagement with politics in university life.

One of the most naive dismissals of the multiculturalist project accuses it of being ideological, and there-fore suspect, in ways that more traditional approaches are not. U-T President Cunningham’s tentative and ambiguous support for multiculturalism in a speech given on Parents’ Weekend last October spoke to these fears. Multiculturalism, he said, “has become a code word for some people, signaling efforts to politicize the curriculum by promoting a particular ideology. We must not and will not permit such developments.”

Aside from the antidemocratic nature of Cunningham’s statement, it also repeats a common and misinformed view of the ends of multiculturalism and of the history and meaning of the word “ideology” Ideologies concern power, political relations and social norms. They strengthen social consensus, contain social tensions and link individual identities to collective ones. Ideologies can be consciously adopted sets of political beliefs, and guides for political action.

But ideologies also function as self-evident truths, attaining the status of “objectivity,” “neutrality” and even “common sense.” When Cunningham speaks of efforts to politicize the curriculum, he presumes the non-political character of the present curricula. In contrast to Cunningham, we think that ideology is most coercive not when practices are imposed on us, but when we take them for granted; not when ideas are challenged, but when they go unquestioned.

Ideologies involve “ways of seeing” that organize individual—and institutional—behavior and actions. The “way we see” reflects how we are taught to see, and it becomes the way we teach others to see as well. This process of seeing and teaching to see—the very process of education—is inescapably ideological.

To take a literary example, consider Melville’s Moby Dick. Most of us have been taught to “see” the White Whale as emblematic of some universal struggle between good and evil or between man and an inscrutable nature. These “ways of seeing,” we are told, focus on timeless truths that transcend political positions and notions of ideology. But do they?

A different reading of Moby Dick sees the Whale as most emblematic of whiteness itself. Toni Morrison and Michael Rogin have both suggested that the whiteness of the whale represents Melville’s “recognition of the moment in America when whiteness became ideology” Ahab’s solitude and madness, in these readings, results from his struggle against an entire culture’s collective beliefs—beliefs that involve the very constitution of identity. These readings equally rely on “what is actually said” in the story, as well as on the novel’s historical and political context in light of both the tensions surrounding the issue of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century and Melville’s opposition to it.

Still, some critics would argue that Morrison’s and Rogin’s readings occupy a particular set of ideological positions, while the reading that sees the novel as a universal struggle between Man and Nature remains ideologically neutral. But notice how this “neutral” position excludes the everyday, real concerns of the book’s readers (both then and now) in order to contemplate its transcendent ideas—much the same way that Ahab’s monomaniacal contemplation of the whale ignores the everyday, real concerns of his very multicultural crew, leading them to their destruction. Failing to see the consequences of its own ideological preoccupations in “what is actually said” in Moby Dick, this “way of seeing” also fails to recognize the privileged ideological position implicit in its own detached concern over “ideas.”

When he was asked whether his grandmother ever made things like doilies or samplers, Woody Allen replied in Annie Hall, “No, she was too busy being raped by Cossacks.” In other words, the making of doilies—or of “timeless truths”—may equally be available only to rich white grandmothers, or powerful white sea captains, or future white captains of industry. Rather than avoiding ideology, our first reading functions as ideology to make this detached position both natural and timeless. Those of us who struggle against and within this “way of seeing” get conveniently overlooked—if not destroyed—by it.

A headline in the September 12, 1990 issue of the Sunday “Week in Review” section of the New York Times reads “Opening Academia Without Closing it Down? The ugly idea that opening the university to women and people of color will close it down intellectually is spurious and overlooks the history of the U.S. academy as it has been disciplinarily constituted.

The “crisis” of the academy so ominously referred to is grounded within larger sociopolitical transformations of what has been designated as “Western civilization.” The issue of multiculturalism and the “crisis” of the academy are not confined either to the humanities or to the academy. To isolate these debates from their broader, historical context is to misconstrue the problem and limit the search for responses.

In a recent essay on the critical emergence of cultural studies in Britain, Stuart Hall remembered that “the truth is that most of us had to leave the humanities in order to do serious work in it.” Hall’s inquiry here into the strictures and restrictions of the disciplining of the academy argues for a larger examination of the construction of the university around academic disciplines and the role that the maintenance of these disciplines plays in containing multicultural debate.

Indeed, elements of the contemporary university, its administrative structure and academic departmentalization, might be seen as one of the legacies of the history of colonialism. Anthropology and sociology, as social scientists like Talal Asad and critics like Edward Said have pointed out, were developed in the nineteenth century in order to facilitate the European project of scientifically and systematically grasping the “other”—i.e. peoples colonized by the West.

Similarly, political science, as Timothy Mitchell argues in Colonizing Egypt, was consolidated as a “science” as part of the need to develop administrative practices adequate to the task of governing these “others.” Even the now canonized realm of aesthetic disinterest, English literature, served, as Gauri Viswanathan has demonstrated in Masks of Conquest, to elaborate a coherent national-cultural persona that could be presented to the “natives” for emulation and edification.

Academic structures, consolidated in significant part through the exigencies of empire building, have now developed their own territorial imperatives and administrative protocols. They oversee not only curricula and syllabi—through course committees and other academic legislative bodies—but also personnel, by way of admissions policies and the apparata and criteria for promotion and tenure.

The historical process of decolonization has brought about the present crisis in the academy. The debate about multiculturalism is a debate over the legacy of colonialism inherent in the university’s disciplinary and bureaucratic structures. The proponents of multiculturalism address this legacy, in recognition of the fact that the university is not removed from historical forces, but constituted by them. In contrast, the opponents of multiculturalism ignore this legacy and act as if its history did not exist.

The presence of ideology, of politics, in the academy extends from the organization of knowledge, and the organization of disciplines, to the organization of institutions. Recurrent lamentations over the ascendancy of tenured radicals and a hegemonic ideology of “political correctness” are disingenuous.

On the contrary, for students and professors alike, it pays to be conservative. There are numerous foundations that either make conservative politics as explicit prerequisite for funding, or express a preference for conservative scholarship. Among these are the Olin Foundation, Earhart Foundation, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute and Hoover Institute.

These foundations work for conservatives in a number of ways. They fund research. A conservative scholar is thereby eligible for more grants than a scholar of equal ability whose work is not conservative. Scholars funded by conservative foundations do less teaching and have more time for research.

Conservative foundations also occasionally underwrite part of the costs of publication for work they consider “politically correct,” or (as in the case of the Heritage Foundation and AEI) they may publish it themselves. Robert Bork’s book The Tempting of America, for example, was subsidized in this manner. This gives publishers an incentive to prefer conservative work, and makes publication easier for conservative scholars.

Conservative funding is not confined to academic activities. Several organizations, the Olin Foundation prominent among them, have provided extensive assistance to conservative student newspapers for printing and distribution. Other right-wing groups furnish articles. The notorious Dartmouth Review, which employed insults and intimidation against various segments of the Dartmouth community for years, received large grants from conservative foundations (as has UT’s University Review.) When the Dartmouth Review’s behavior finally prompted legal action, their defense was paid for, in main, by the Olin Foundation and the National Review.

In universities where conservative foundations have established institutes, professors and students deemed “politically correct” (i.e. conservative) are given preferential access to the resources of those institutes. Students—graduate and undergraduate—can obtain fellowships and attend conferences and colloquia that are closed to other students. There are, in short, two universities: one for conservatives, with more faculty, more lectures, more fellowships and more fancy dinners; and one for the rest of us.

This already present bias is protected by a myth of a lost academic paradise, free from ideology, free from politics. The assumption that the university is, was or ever will be a neutral site underlies a cluster of arguments against multiculturalism that pejoratively characterize it as a political position. Variously described as propaganda, pluralism, or “political correctness,” multiculturalism is criticized for introducing politics into the academy, when in fact universities have always served particular “ways of seeing.”

The distinction between supposedly disinterested knowledge and “propaganda” breaks down as the interests that lie behind the academy’s claims to neutrality and objectivity are revealed. The interests of the traditional academy appear to be noncoercive because they have been naturalized as common sense or truth.

Some critics of multiculturalism derisively argue that in what appears to be a demand for diversity the university is an effort to satisfy a particular constituency. However, as Gerald Graff points out in a recent New York Times forum on multiculturalism, “There’s a double standard here: Criticizing the status quo is political while accepting it isn’t.”

An academy that fails to address the reality of cultural diversity is already political. An academy that fails to reject this double standard is acting in defense of a particular, exclusivist ideology.

Multiculturalism has also been caricatured as leading to the enforcement of a “politically correct” set of beliefs. This equation of politics with style allows multiculturalism’s critics to avoid any consideration of the contents of its politics. Being political is not, however, a fashion or a choice; just as ideology is inescapable, so too are politics. The authors of these critiques of multiculturalism foist the responsibility for introducing politics into the university onto multiculturalism and remain exempt from accountability for their own politics. These strategies of exculpation, which pit the neutral defenders of freedom against the supposed ideologues, are disturbingly reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric.

In rejecting the illusion of a world or academy with neither politics nor ideology, we are faced with an historical question of ethical significance: Why have people of color, women and individuals of divergent sexual orientation been notably absent and voiceless in the American academy up until the 1960s? One answer (among several) to this question is the indisputable fact that until the 1960s, not only were there few people from these groups in the academy, but fewer still who could afford to be openly politically representative of their location in society.

This was the era of McCarthyism, when those with dissenting views on U.S. politics, and on racial and sexual relations, were labeled “un-American,” dismissed, blacklisted and in some cases jailed. While old-guard conservatives and the New Right speak wistfully of a mythical era when the academy was shorn of ideology, they neglect to mention that the purported “golden era” of education after World War II was the most explicitly ideological and political of modern times.

It was also a period of heightened cultural intolerance, a fact that opponents of multiculturalism neglect to mention. In the New York Times forum on multiculturalism, anthropology professor Renato Rosaldo of Stanford University remembers well the days before the “politicization” of education.

“I remember what it was like as a Chicano in junior high school during the 1950s in Tucson, Arizona. The punishment was bending over, holding your ankles and getting swats with a board. The crime was speaking Spanish on the playground.”

For Renato Rosaldo and countless others, the politics of exclusion had painful consequences that were cultural, psychological and existential, part of the broader denial of extant diversities in the United States. On this point, the historical memory of multiculturalism opponents is rather short. Yet the denial of this history is not only dishonest; it is a transgression against democratic processes within educational institutions across the country.

We do not, however, believe that a politics of inclusion in a liberal-pluralist sense will suffice to address the multicultural realities of our country. The mere insertion of texts and individuals within existing curricula, faculties and administrations will not stave off the radical demographic and economic changes this country is undergoing.

Another reality that multiculturalism’s naysayers ignore is that “the oppressed” are also people, with differing viewpoints and approaches to the world. It is their presence, and not their isolated, individuated location in U.S. education that is sorely lacking. What are needed at this critical juncture in U.S. history are politics—and strategies—of difference through which educational goals are sensibly based on the needs of those who are being educated, who have become increasingly less white, middle class and male over the last twenty years.

If this means altering the notion that the typical student is both white and male, as well as curricula that supposedly mirror that specific existence, then so be it This, however radical it appears to opponents of multiculturalism, is democracy. Democracy, truth be told, is a political project, indeed an ideological construct, to be fought for and debated over by citizens striving to attain equal access and opportunities in our society, both within the academy and without To view democracy in any form as some abstract concept, rather than a process of becoming, is lamentably to miss the point.

© 2020 Against the Current

No. 35, November/December 1991