Beyond Paula Deen: Why Multiculturalism Has Failed Us and Why We Need an Intercultural Dialogue

We can't begin to get along entirely if we don't seek answers from each other about the roots of our biases. In fact, that's one issue I have with the Paula Deen episode. So far I haven't seen in any of her interviews questions as to why she felt it was OK to use the "N" word.
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By Samuel Autman and Tara L. Masih

Autman: I came of age in the 1970s when schools were pushing multiculturalism on us, a term that seemed to serve us well. Even in our all-black school in St. Louis the district forced us to view movies about kids from Mexico and read books about Asian families. The name of your collection is The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. How would an intercultural dialogue be much different from 40 years of multiculturalism in the United States? And why wouldn't it be just a word game, swapping one phrase for another?

Masih: I grew up in that era as well, in a multicultural community on Long Island. Melting pot in fact was the initial term. We lived the melting pot. But eventually the term became obsolete. Immigrants didn't like the idea of melting into one great unidentifiable mass. So multiculturalism was coined. However, this term also made me uncomfortable; there was a separateness to it, I guess the backlash against melting. In 2006 I came across intercultural, which was being used in the communications field, and I seized on it. I used it to name the contest I judge, meant to encourage writers to speak out on racial and cultural issues. As for swapping one phrase for another, our language evolves just as our civilization does. How we choose our social terms is all important. Language is powerful and words, when used often enough, change our thought process. I loved the note you wrote me after your essay won an intercultural award: "The other thing you gave me was the phrase 'intercultural.' I was amazed at this idea." Tell me why it resonated with you personally.

Autman: When I heard the word it was like putting on a pair of shoes that were made for me. It wasn't an expression I had heard before so it wasn't bogged down with a loaded political connotation like multicultural or affirmative action. I'm convinced that words like these are triggers and people stop listening. Intercultural was so fresh. I was struck that anybody or any race could participate in this dialogue. By implication whites could participate and that was a new one. They had always been kind of shut out of these kinds of conversations. When I saw the beautiful, colorful cover I thought it truly reflected the perspectives of people from Asian, European, and African descent without shutting any group out. I'm curious to know from you, as the person who pulled this all together: which of the stories in your opinion strongly illustrates the complexity of the intercultural identity told from an Anglo perspective?

Masih: We have authors of European descent, telling stories of growing up within foreign cultures or stories of families addressing anti-Semitism. "The Other" is not necessarily someone of color in a white community. It can be reversed in different situations. It can be about religion or sexuality. Many authors are of mixed origin, too, so it's impossible to compartmentalize their ethnic backgrounds. But the essay I am proudest of including from the white perspective is by Mary Elizabeth Parker. Her essay, "'Miss Otis Regrets,'" bravely confronts her own discomfort with people of color and seeks to understand it. I feel it's important in every venue, not just literature, to include all voices and intertwine our histories, prejudices, and expectations of each other, erroneous or valid. We can't begin to get along entirely if we don't seek answers from each other about the roots of our biases. In fact, that's one issue I have with the Paula Deen episode. So far I haven't seen in any of her interviews questions as to why she felt it was OK to use the "N" word. What in her background made her feel it was OK 30 years ago? Does she understand now the pain that word can bring? I hope someone asks her this, so we can learn something rather than condemn, which does no further good in wiping out bias. So what is your take on this? We've both been called the "N" word at least once in our lives. As an African American, what's your perspective? Why do you think it struck such a chord?

Autman: It struck a chord because diversity is in everybody's face right now, in the news media and in life. I just read a report this week that in Houston, one of the nation's biggest cities, no single group -- neither Anglos, blacks, Latinos, nor Asians -- holds the majority. Even in this small Indiana town where I teach, we've got kids from Asia, Africa, and Europe in my classes. We're already an intercultural nation. And one of the great things about living in the U.S. is we have freedom of speech, but saying anything you want has a price. Paula Deen is paying the price. I'm not naïve enough to believe people don't use the "N" word in private conversations. But one would think that a nationally known public figure, especially a southern white woman, would realize the volatility of this word. Just because rappers and people in Quentin Tarantino movies get away with it doesn't mean it's not hurtful. It reveals our unhealed "stuff" and it's a sign that we need to have a different kind of dialogue around race, identity, and language. I sure would like to believe that people are hungry for a new conversation on all of it. What are your thoughts on the future of a true racial dialogue?

Masih: Having parents who eloped and married pre-civil rights era, I can say confidently that I have much hope for the future. We've grown in great leaps in 50 years, and credit must go to those who had to change their biases, not to the people who already were unbiased. And I'm proud that our freedom of speech sets the stage for a dialogue that might not be able to happen in other cultures. Consumerism often sows the seeds for change here, and I think the sponsors leading the way and distancing themselves from Deen, one of the highest paid chefs in our nation, sends a message that racism won't be tolerated by their companies. Now, we just need educators and the media to get behind the issues, rather than just trying to make them prettier or being afraid to address them for PC reasons. Bring them up in the classroom, discuss them in a safe atmosphere, and encourage youths to read about others, not flame each other online. Reading increases empathy. When we read, we set off parts of the brain that exercise the empathic response. We can't afford to lose that ability.

By Samuel Autman and Tara L. Masih

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