by Emma Cleveland
Think about that poster—I’m sure you’ve seen it because it hangs in many an elementary school classroom—of children holding hands around a cartoon globe, their skin varying shades of the rainbow. They might be wearing traditional dress from their country of origin, and they are smiling as they stand together. This is the image we give to our children to represent the ideal picture of the world, everyone working in a united, diverse community.
It would be hard to find an American that openly finds the first image offensive. I think the poster is more ideally American than schools segregated by skin color or restaurants that hang signs reading “All Legals Served” as in Hazelton, Pennsylvania.
A truly multi-cultural society means embracing more than just the parts of each culture that go down easy… a truly multicultural society demands tolerance for cultural differences that rub us the wrong way at first.
It has become clear that some people feel that they must fight to protect the dominant culture from attack: the culture that has its roots in hundreds of years of immigration from Protestant, Western European countries. Of course, those ancestors were immigrants too, and they were looking for a place where they could be free from persecution by the majority. Now as a majority, it’s easy to look for a newcomer to blame, a scapegoat, but the truth is that we are all in this together. When we pit ourselves against one another—legal/illegal, white/black, rich/poor, Christian/Muslim, or whatever it may be—we create chasms that can only harm our communities.
[If] it doesn’t work for ecology, … I’d argue that it doesn’t work for society either.
So, we know that we want unity, but the issue is much more complex than our elementary school, hand holding poster suggests. What do we want our community to look like? I think it is hard to find the melting-pot imagery of the past relevant today. Do we want to fight for a homogeneous monoculture? It doesn’t work for ecology, so I’d argue that it doesn’t work for society either. Protecting marginal cultures’ right to be distinct from the majority is part of our work as community members. Many Americans are left to remember their predecessors with nostalgia, perhaps cooking lasagna for Christmas dinner or wearing a kilt to a wedding, an attempt to grasp for a heritage that was assimilated and lost.
When we say that we want diversity, we mean that want a truly multicultural society. That means embracing more than just the parts of each culture that go down easy, the tacos, the saris and the pho soup. We want a society that demands tolerance for cultural differences that rub us the wrong way at first. The United States differs from many other nations because we hold to the principle that you have the right to express yourself, to worship as you please and to differ from the dominant culture.
I believe that we will build stronger communities when we take time to understand why differences may bother us. If we recommend that newcomers sit down, submit, conform and be quiet, we are denying them the very rights that they came to this country in search of. So let’s stand up for our right to differ from one another, to disagree, to debate. As Charles Schurz, a German-born general who fought for the Union in the Civil War, said, “If you want to be free, there is but one way; it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.”
Emma coordinates the Immigrants’ Rights Project for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is one of the organizers of the Collective Memory Project.
(Published in the 2011 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)