Why Teach Multicultural Literature?

Why teach U.S. students literature from different countries? This is the fundamental question at the heart of this encounter. I remain deeply disheartened by what I often experience in the classroom -- the defensive rage when the dominant culture is attacked.
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I have taught literature at the college level for almost a decade and at as many as six different campuses. These have mainly been classes that were focused on non-western writing. One semester, I had assigned Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus and only a week earlier her TED talk, Danger of a Single Story had started to circulate on the web. I sent the link to my students and thought we could incorporate it into our discussion on colonialism, multiculturalism, issues of race and of course, the novel itself. Little did I know that this simple talk would elicit the intensely disproportionate response that landed in my inbox the next morning. A young male student had found the video very offensive. While this letter was an extreme example, it was an iteration of the reactions to non-western writing, which tend to plague these classrooms, not just mine but in humanities disciplines across the board.

Why teach U.S. students literature from different countries? This is the fundamental question at the heart of this encounter. I remain deeply disheartened by what I often experience in the classroom -- the defensive rage when the dominant culture is attacked, the savior complex, the paranoia that something may be anti-American, the notion that racism is cyclical and that all new immigrant groups should go through the abuse that some other one went through, that impassioned writing against racism is not credible and that we live in a world that is somehow at the end of the day, a level playing field for all races and classes, so quit whining already.

Here is the video that set this off, followed by the student's letter and my response:

About the Adichie talk at the TED conference. I had some issues with it.

The problem with these kinds of conversations is that you have to be really careful about how ideas are presented and in particular how things are worded. If one is not careful, a multicultural discussion can start to look a lot like an attack on white culture (whatever that is), and the whole thing rapidly disintegrates into an Us vs. Them argument.

In my opinion, Adichie perfectly typifies what you could call the ugly side of multiculturalism. The side that is so self-important, so angry, and so biased, that it just completely undermines its own credibility and its own goals. Though I don't doubt her intentions are good, as she is allegedly promoting the idea that having just one story is a dangerous thing, I had a hard time getting passed the subtext of what she was saying.

Any time we start talking about the "dominant" culture, unless you are very careful and explicit about your terms, it starts to become clear that what is being talked about is white culture. With the idea of white culture is a whole set of problems that I won't get in to, but which include first and foremost the idea that there is even such thing as white culture. What's worse is when the argument of This Culture vs. That Culture transforms into an argument of These People vs. Those People. Those kinds of arguments are not particularly useful, especially when you are actually in dialogue with the people you are thinking of as "Those People". The next thing you know, it's no longer arguments criticizing the dominant culture and its ill effects, but becomes, rather, an argument criticizing white people.

I would have been fine if Adichie kept her discussion to the concept that diversity is good and how lack of it can lead to stereotyping and in the worst case racism. Everyone can get behind that. The way she went about it is what really got under my skin. How she structures her argument is the problem: she uses the example of her roommate, or of a publisher, one or two person out of the thousands of people she must have met in the U.S., to illustrate how ignorant and presumptuous white America is.

You could say, oh, no, she is just showing the danger of only having one story and how it impacts the way people think. I don't think that's what she is doing at all. Or if it is, you can't ignore her critique of the people she is criticizing for embracing the dominant story, which are, guess who? White people.

Maybe a lot of white people do embrace the dominant story and ignore or don't care about other stories, but I could just as easily find many, many people (white people) that are not this way.

I have attended several colleges and universities that have very impressive international exchange programs--can we talk for a moment about the U.S. and how many of our schools have invested so much money in exchange programs?--and most people at those schools go out of their way to be not only accepting but embracing of other cultures. Students and faculty alike bend over backwards to be welcoming, accommodating, curious and willing to learn about other cultures. Most of these programs are floor to ceiling jam-packed with the most sensitive, open-minded people you will ever meet anywhere, and I guarantee that Adichie met many people of this kind.

But does she mention them? No. She picks a couple of people that are the worst examples and uses them to make her point. It's cherry-picking. It's a completely fallacious argument based on using a few examples of less-than-perfect behavior to make a sweeping critique of white people.

The story about her college roommate made me feel sorry for the roommate! Can you imagine how she must have felt if she saw Adichie's talk? This girl, who was nice enough and considerate enough to take an interest in Adichie, to even bother to ask about her native culture, and she gets ridiculed for it? I mean, it sounds like this roommate did exactly what we're taught as multiculturalists: take an interest in other cultures. So she does, she asks, "Hey tell me about your native culture." And she gets mocked for it.

Granted, the roommate obviously knew nothing about Nigeria. I don't know much about Nigeria, either. Do they have stoves? Swimming pools? Cable television? I have no idea, and neither do most people in the U.S. or many other countries you could pick. Including, I imagine, many countries populated by non-white, non-Westerners.

Honestly, with so many countries and cultures to know about, is it reasonable to expect someone to know about all of them? But in Chimamanda's world this is a cardinal sin. This is somehow something to be ashamed of.

Here's the real kicker that, in my mind, makes the entire talk just laughable. She's condemning white culture for only allowing one story to be told. Did she not notice that she is an individual from another culture giving a talk--telling her story--in front of a bunch of white people that make up the culture that she is condemning for not taking an interest in other cultures' stories? I guess that escaped her attention.

Even if you want to talk in broad, sweeping terms about American culture, I mean, my God, America is practically defined by diversity. Many people in the United States take great pleasure in hearing stories from different kinds of people, from different backgrounds, cultures, or lifestyles. No one reads books any more, but just look at the vast array of movies playing at the theater on any weekend. I guarantee you there is more than one story being told.

Further to this, who has been at the forefront of equal rights, of justice and fairness for all people, for, arguably, the last 50 years or more? Western cultures. The cultures that are allegedly dominated by only one story. Go ahead and compare the diversity and human rights record of the U.S. with that of any non-western country: Saudi Arabia, or any other country in the Middle East, Japan (a wonderful culture, but very homogeneous), China, or even, yes, Nigeria, where being a homosexual can get you killed and where people are still stoned to death.

In Western countries, for example the U.S., it has indeed been a struggle. But one cannot ignore--just using the U.S. as an example--for every marginalized individual fighting for their rights, there were white people right along side them. For every Susan B. Anthony there was a Ralph Waldo Emerson (he was very vocal in promoting rights for women). For every Frederick Douglas there was a William Lloyd Garrison. For every MLK there was an RFK. Diversity and equality emerged out of American and other cultures as much from people of all cultures working together for common goals, as from the skirmishes that sometimes erupt between cultures. I really have a problem with people that seem to want to turn it into a battle between cultures. That approach is divisive and creates animosity. It's not helpful to the cause of multiculturalism.

I think that this idea that there is one dominant story is a myth. Everyone has their own story, and when you are living in a country as wonderfully diverse as this one, if you just start talking to people as individuals, you will see a whole wide array of subtle and not-so-subtle differences.

Now, are Americans the most globally conscious and well-informed people on the planet? Generally speaking, no. Definitely we do get wrapped up in our own little corner of the globe.That, I think, is the real basis of Adichie's argument. When it comes down to it, she is angry because she sees her story as less relevant than the alleged dominant story of mythical white America. Understandably so! The U.S. is a super power. It has vast, far-reaching influence in virtually every sphere of human existence: culturally, politically, financially, militarily, etc.

What does Nigeria have? Oil and a really good soccer team. That's pretty much it.

No doubt Nigeria is full of some wonderfully interesting, beautiful people. But really, it is a small, rather insignificant country (culturally and otherwise. I mean, she grew up listening to Western music). Why should I know the story of someone from Nigeria? She seems to believe so passionately that we must care about Nigeria. We must hear other stories!

This brings us to the real question that never gets asked: Why should (or would) anyone take an interest in Nigeria, or any other country for that matter, that they may not care to know about? Is there something implicit in the story of someone from that country that automatically makes it worth hearing? Is it not possible, and also totally acceptable, that a person may just not care about Nigeria?

That's what gets me. The dark side of multiculturalism is that it flattens out everything. There is no good or bad or better or worse, even on a purely subjective level. Every culture is equally worth knowing about. Every person now gets to tell their story and every story is now somehow assumed to be equally worth hearing.

And that is just not the case. For whatever reason, someone may just not care about hearing someone else's story, and that, in my book, is totally okay. Some stories are boring, or banal, or poorly told, or whatever. They're not all the same. The bad ones, even if they are from some far-away country, should sink to the bottom of the priority list of stories that need to be heard, and stay there.

Thinking that every story is worth listening to just because it is different from the "dominant" story is not only a selfish and self-important desire, but is also totally unrealistic.

You can't ram stories down people's throats. Tell the story, tell it well, and people will be interested. I really, truly believe that. There is no sinister hand of white culture making sure that the "dominant" story gets told and the "non-dominant" one doesn't. I've read Malcolm X and Sherman Alexie and Cornell West and other writers with non-dominant stories to tell, but not because I was shamed or forced into doing it. I read them because they are interesting or entertaining writers.

The other side of diversity is that we must remember that it's a choice. I take great issue with anyone that insists that people must listen to their story; that people must learn about their culture. It comes across as vindictive. It's comes across like Chimamanda wants revenge for coming from a culture where she felt somehow marginalized. If she really wants to look for someone to "blame" for making her read books about blue-eyed, ginger beer-drinking white kids, she should blame her parents. I mean she grew up in the 1980's, not the 1950's. Her parents were university professors and they couldn't get a better variety of books for her? And if there was a trade embargo preventing the import of stories about little black kids, could they have not made their own?

So, to summarize and bring this rather long diatribe to a close, I think her approach to the issue does nothing to strengthen her case. It's not fair. It's biased. And in my mind, it's self-important and borderline-- maybe not even borderline-- racist. I'm not saying she shouldn't be allowed to say what she said, but I think we should be honest and more fair-handed about evaluating what she said. That's the whole point. What you are saying should be judged on its own merit, and should not be treated differently, or more leniently, just because it comes from the mouth of someone of a certain background.

I actually, believe it or not, agree with the idea that we should have a society where we are allowed to hear any stories we want to hear. I'm all for that. Everyone should have the opportunity to tell their story. But we shouldn't force or intimidate people into caring about these stories, nor ridicule or shame them when they don't.

My response:

I think you're misunderstanding her talk and over-personalizing her ideas. Of course, there are "white people" who might have read this or that work and be aware of all kinds of things. You mention great activists against slavery and racism, yet you insist that somehow there is nothing very wrong with the context in which her speech comes about. Great black and white thinkers who oppose establishments and systems do not exist as a sign of a multicultural tolerant America but precisely to expose how this country is not tolerant and not multicultural at its "heart." Her colloquial and truly sardonic speech on the reception of African people in the supposedly "multicultural" West is emblematic of deep deep deep deep divides in this country, its profound ignorance yet its lop-sided and brutal power in the world at large, particularly in countries like Nigeria where oil and uranium is being dug up, where dictators are put in place and then done away leaving a toll of terrifying violence. Before you embark on questions of why you should be concerned with Nigeria, lets ask what is at stake politically there?

I am yet to meet a person who can have a normal nuanced non-racist conversation with me about Africa or India and I've been studying that literature for about a decade. I can't even imagine Adichie's situation stuck with such roommates and editors and having to constantly cope with racism. Of course, there is such a thing as a dominant culture - just switch in your TV and you will have proof. No, in fact, there aren't people who care to hear these multi-faceted stories but there are more people interested in hammering down the spirit and pounding their prejudiced perception down the throat of non-European "foreigners." And yes there are single stories spun every single day by people who cannot get past their own pornographic prejudiced fantasies about what the third world constitutes. You think there is some humanitarian philanthropy in US universities having foreign exchange programs and foreign student bodies? A simple review of the Cold War and the politics of the University will set that straight and tie you directly into the exploitative network of US foreign policy and its interests and networks abroad.

As for why we are at this place where we NEED to understand "other" people and cultures, a simple history of colonialism would suffice. Why am I here writing to you in fluent English but cannot hold a simple conversation in Marathi with my aging grandmother? What is the politics of this? Why do I belong here as much as "there" in the aftermath of English colonialism? You letter reeks of "be grateful to our country that accepts your diversity." And I take offense to that. As for Nigeria itself, do you know that a majority of transatlantic slave trade happened through there? Which means as an American, thanks to the history of African-Americans who BELONG in this country, Nigeria is as much your heritage as Adichie's. The point I am making is that diversity is not something that exists "outside" of you but something that is internal, that has to be viewed as your own and be given the respect and love that you would give yourself. You have no choice but to care about Nigeria. Absolutely no choice.

About your insistence on whiteness, I don't think she ever mentions the white race and in fact, blames herself for a prejudiced understanding of Mexicans, thus implicating us all, white or black or brown, in being participants in a systematic misrepresentation. At some level, my problem with her speech is that it is too kind, too funny, too light, too sugar-coated (and thus I sent it to the class because its so inoffensive). The problem here is not individual people and individual concerns, its a system of knowledge, a discourse that drags the black, Hispanic or Asian person down. She merely uses a subjective self-reflexivity and her daily experiences to bring that point home.

It is not a cardinal sin to not know about other countries but it IS a cardinal sin to approach it with sickening information gathered from strange sources that amounts to racism. I think in the US, there is this self-loving, self-indulgent discourse about ignorance - "poor me, am so ignorant, just haven't been abroad, just didn't know" - which is complete hogwash. Its never about the lack of information, its always about a specific kind of information that everyone is working with - whether its Muslim women and veils, whether its India and tigers, whether its Africa and tribes.

The problem is that people refuse to actually be innocent and ignorant, and ask real questions. It is that they insist upon framing their questions about a place through a certain system of manipulated knowledge. The point is not how many white people embrace the single story and how many don't. The need is to take a panoramic and critical look at the system within which we are implicated. Who is on top? Who decides these things? Who is shaping the discourse of race or multiculturalism or diversity? And who is frankly in POWER? And who is the one with no power at all? Even if there are tons of these people who seem to "care" and "bend over backwards", its not enough if Adichie experiences what she experiences. Good for them to bend over backwards but we need more of them then. Its simply not enough.

Also, if you find the magical sweetness of Adichie offensive, you better brace yourself for Jamaica Kincaid who's next. Its an attack! She is the hammer! Thank you for engaging though...More tomorrow in or after class.

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