Biculturalism a code word?

I was engaged in an unexpected, but interesting dialogue today. I’ll explain first why I call it a dialogue. It wasn’t just a discussion, that catch-all term for a wide range of various numbers of people talking. It wasn’t a debate, colloquially known as an argument, though there were two sides. It was two people talking on two sides of an issues, or perhaps two issues, as it was a lopsided dialogue. My other side dialoguer was asking questions in a faintly Socratic mode, but clearly trying to get my understanding of the validity or at least accuracy of her position…well, not position really. I had a position; she had a term that she had a definition for, and it seemed she wanted badly for me to embrace it…Well, really, I think she wanted me to say, ”Oh, I see. I’m wrong; you’re right.” As in my saying, “You don’t need to change what you have been saying or promoting or, for god’s sake, thinking…maybe even believing.” The problem with the dialogue was that I was in a different one than my counterpart. I was saying my belief, although I was sort of working it out as I was going, and I didn’t really care if she agreed, but I did expect her to do the academically honorable thing and agree to disagree. She is, after all, a college instructor, officially if not in practice, and I am too, in practice if not officially—mine being only adjunct.

Here’s what it was all about: newly arrived, acquirers of English in our mixed classroom (English language learners and native English speakers) who will not make eye contact. Her position was that we should develop the students into bi-cultural, bi-lingual individuals so they can succeed in mainstream culture. I can agree with that. She believes that if we have such a student in our class, we should gently and respectfully confront this behavior, statedly, because it will advantage them to know and be able to do this in our culture. We all acknowledge that eye-contact sanctions vary greatly across culture groups, and in many cases are linked to respect. I couldn’t see that bringing this to a student’s attention was my role, and I don’t see how it can be done either gently or respectfully. I’m not about setting up an impression that I, who have some interpersonal power over students to say noting of my culture group membership, devalue one of that student’s cultural standards.

My position was that such behavior, on the part of teachers, is in the category of cutting the hair of American Indian children who had been abducted and imprisoned in 19th century Indian schools to be turned into Americans. It is very different in degree, but I believe it is in the same category of abuse of power to impose one culture on another. It suggests, or may suggest to the student a state of right and wrong, good and bad, in reference to cultures and cultural values. I will not assume the right to do that to another human being.

I might have a conversation with a student of any culture who doesn’t seem to be getting the message from his peers, cultural or intercultural, about acceptable social norms, if two important conditions exist. First, I must have already earned a deep trust of that student, and I mean deep, virtually familial. Second, I must believe that what I am going to advise is truly necessary and in the best interest of the student. I already do this with my generic advice on Standard English and accurate spelling.

Another consideration I have on this subject is that we have as much responsibility for promoting tolerance in those of the mainstream of American culture as we do for preparing those NOT of the mainstream of American culture to thrive in it. Most of our New Americans, as has been the case with American Indians, will never be assimilated, and will never be accepted as bicultural, but will always be viewed as “other.” The same blind chauvinism that expects immigrants to become like the mainstream, will never allow them to do so, because it then redefines the mainstream. As long as one culture dominates American society, that shall be so. So efforts at assimilation and biculturalization appear to me as efforts to bring “aliens” into cultural compliance, thereby affirm the cultural dominance of the mainstream culture.

Now, I think my dialogue counterpart is well-intentioned. I am well-intentioned too, but even though I have been examining where I am in this dominant culture, and particularly where I am as a white man, I must admit that I find new facets and different perspectives that have been as difficult to recognize and realize as air. I make the effort. I intentionally surround myself with the unfamiliar. I still think I’m far from getting it. What must it be like for those who live in a cultural bubble? What what it be like to know you go anywhere, essentially, and do anything and be allowed to be first always? How does traveling as a privilege inform traveling as a refugee? And herein lies my conclusion. By what power do we tell? Telling implies a priory knowledge. What if with respect we strove more to simple ask? Asking implies incompleteness and an openness to becoming complete.

No, I guess biculturalism isn’t a code for assimilation. It is perhaps an effort to use language to escape the shame of assimilation, but they are only words. I think a better starting point than renaming an assumption of right is in respectful questions that seek to learn what is right. By learning we better and empower ourselves with our knowledge and understanding of ourselves through understanding others. By learning we show others the road to self-betterment and self-empowerment, and showing is better than telling. I want to say something pithy about being here, but I think that’s a different dialogue.

About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

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