Integration: Searching for a Place in the Culture to Call Home

Photo by Christopher Schwarzkopf.
Photo by Christopher Schwarzkopf.

It was said we were in a “post-racial era” after President Obama was elected … just like it was said we were reaching a “post-racial era” when Bill Clinton was “Americas first black president.” Remember that? Seems awfully embarrassing in hindsight.

It is one of the most confounding aspects of Americans society that we have made so many of these obviously wrong proclamations. We make such progress, we take such large steps, yet the problems of race and integration only seem to get muddier. The new movie Dear White People is a comedic demonstration of a very dramatic principle: access to institutions, long seen as the essence of the struggle for equality, in fact leads to issues of culture, resentment, and new forms of aggression to replace the old.

A recent article in The New York Times on the fascinating work of Eve Fairbanks, who studied the integration of South African higher education, highlights the problem—and its existential origins.

According to Fairbanks’ research, which she believes to be directly applicable to the U.S., integration generally follows a fairly predictable process: first, access is significantly difficult to obtain, and those few members of a minority group who get in are grateful and glad to be there. As more minorities begin to come in, however, they do not encounter explicit prejudice so much as the expectation that they are guests in higher education rather than residents—and that while they are expected to conform to the culture, the culture sees itself as to important to adjust to them.

“People are fine with racial difference as long as there’s no culture conflict” a professor at the University of Cape Town told her. But “the more black students there were on campus, the more they felt empowered to speak up,” asking why the institutional culture was still dominated by white faculty and administrators, why the curriculum had not changed to reflect the black African experience, and why culture and ritual all defaulted to a white European norm.”

The key question then, and this does seem vital for the U.S., is not whether minorities can gain “access,” but whether they can gain “ownership” of the societies to which they belong.

“Culture,” the sociologist Philip Rieff said, “belongs to those who submit to it.” If that sublimation is denied—if culture is submitted to without ownership following—then we have a “dream deferred,” as Langston Hughes so eloquently put it. Conflict is sure to come.

At heart, this is a manifestation of the basic humanistic need for self-determination: the more we are squeezed into institutions that treat us as an alien, the more alienated we are sure to become. The more we are forced to submit to institutions that do not share our values, and that we are powerless to influence, the greater the shadow that is likely to build up. This is most manifestly true in cases where second class citizens are still struggling to live out the equality they were promised, but I suspect it also speaks to the increasing armies of temp workers and marginally employed in the first world. And to the vast majority of Americans who are not ideologues of any stripe but who can’t seem to figure out the way to stop the political machine they live in.

Is anyone who cares about the environment, or civil liberties, going to say that helplessness doesn’t lead to bitterness and anger? Anyone?

Of course it does. As Carl Rogers noted, the need for personal growth is fundamentally human—and that requires some ability to change one’s environment.

“When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, Rogers wrote, “I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”

The proof of this is also found in Fairbanks’ research, in the case of South Africa’s University of the Free Sate. Its first black vice-chancellor, appointed in 2009, “took a much more aggressive approach to cultural transformations,” requiring that students talk and listen to one another about ways the culture they lived in could be changed to one they had in common.

The results have, she says, “made a huge difference.”

We can learn from that.

— Benjamin Wachs

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