by contributing writer Quinlan Mitchell
The problem with diversity as it is largely practiced in American culture today is that the term is more or less shorthand for “smiling-ethnic-people-waving-to-curious-white-onlookers.” Think early twentieth century World’s Fair style. If we’re being real, most talks about diversity, cultural showcases, and So-and-so’s History months are often just exploitative ways for white culture to ease its guilt about continuing oppression. I once went to something called a “Diversity Showcase” which consisted of (mostly people of color) dancing on stage for a large, white audience.
I was floored.
No dialogue, no voice for people of color, no meaningful cultural exchange. Just vaguely “ethnic” peoples dancing around in ‘authentic’ costume. For a lot of people, unfortunately, that showcase is what diversity is all about. People of color were oppressed before the Civil Rights Movement, but now we’re all equal so let’s celebrate—somebody find some ethnic performers to dance!
Diversity events like that showcase allow dominant Anglo culture to posture as inclusive and multi-cultural, without addressing the fact that the barrier between the white audience and the darker-skinned people on stage is merely a stand-in for a real historical and cultural gap so wide that it is taboo even to talk about. And away from the stage, harsh economic and social realities keep people of color smiling and performing for monied white patrons.
Black History Month is sadly more of the same. Back when I was in school learning about ‘black history’ meant rehashing how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. freed the Negro, and Rosa Parks freed everyone from the tyranny of assigned bus seats. I certainly respect and appreciate the work of these amazing individuals, but I refuse to accept that constantly repeating the stories of a handful of black people represents any kind of sufficient cultural engagement with anything.
Ask most African-Americans (and people of color, in general) fresh out of high school and they will be able to tell you, at the very least, most of the significant milestones/people in Anglo-American history. Ask an Anglo-American about the history of any culture besides their own and in their response you will most likely get a mix of untruths, subtle inaccuracies, historical fluff (black people made peanut butter!), stereotypes, and probably some overtly racist shit. Once a good friend of mine in school told me that while her ancestors were busy being civilized, mine were “dancing around in monkey suits.” Another time I was on a boat with an African friend of mine. When a good amount of water splashed everyone on board and her make-up started to run (hopefully she’s now buying waterproof brands) a white acquaintance turned to her in shock and said, “I didn’t know black women wore make-up”. Jesus, take me.
Judit Moschkovick in the 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back (read it. NOW.), wrote an essay called “—But I Know You, American Woman.” In it, she lays down a pretty awesome quote.
Think of it in terms of men’s and women’s cultures: women live in male systems, know male rules, speak male language when around men, etc. But what do men really know about women? Only screwed up myths concocted to perpetuate the power imbalance. It is the same situation when it comes to dominant and non-dominant or colonizing and colonized cultures/countries/people. As a bilingual/bicultural woman whose native culture is not American, I live in an American system, abide by American rules of conduct, speak English when around English speakers, etc., only to be confronted with utter ignorance or concocted myths and stereotypes about my own culture.
Within the context of the United States, ignorance about other people and cultures is not stupid, awful, unforgivable, sad, or pathetic — it’s intentional and aggressive. I have no issues with those who want to spend a month learning about black people’s or any other people’s history. I take issue with a national model that ghettoizes the innumerable past events of people of color into 30-day holding containers.
At the end of the day, among an endless number of other things, black people did the hard labour that made this country rich. Latino people owned large swaths of this country before it was violently wrested from them in war. Asians built the lines of transportation that actually united these states. Native Americans are still the people to whom this land belongs. And these are just very crude brushstrokes. An innumerable number of other peoples were also a part of the collaborative project of the United States. Those populations not explicitly mentioned here are not invisible to this author. And we as people of color do not want to be invisible in this country any longer.
In the end, our history is American history. It should be treated as such.