Recently in Globalization/Diversity Category

Breaking and Mending Your Students' Heart in Anthropology

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One of the more interesting themes I'm seeing in my music Coursera course is the theme of re-examning world music through different eyes. Like most students in the course, I decided to join the course because I am interested in learning more about non-Western music.

The good news is that I am being exposed to some very interesting and beautiful musical pieces. The bad news is that now it comes with a heavier burden of trying to reconcile innocent musical pleasure with the real world repercussions that musicians from many minority cultures face.

Breaking Hearts

To give you an idea of our World Music course so far, I can tell you that:

  • Week 1 pointed out that few listeners of popular Gregorian chant understand how it relates to an actual monastic ritual
  • Week 2 pointed out that on Paul Simon's Graceland album, some of the African musicans felt slighted. Some songs also de-Africanized the original recordings quite a bit.

OK....I wanted to learn more about world music, but did I want to learn this much? Maybe not, but I do have to acknowledge that I have enjoyed Gregorian chants without absolutely no thought of honoring the original intent. It's all about the soothing music.

This is an issue faced by teachers in many related disciplines including linguistics. In linguistics I often to explain:

  • Double negatives aren't really bad grammar - just rejected by the elite (that's élite).
  • Tracing linguistics and archaeology - except when it re-ignites an ethnic conflict.
  • And my favorite - just because a language doesn't have pronouns for "he" and "she" does NOT mean their society has eliminated gender discrimination.

Yikes! If you were hoping to just learn a little bit of etymology or a few dialect words in my class, you are going to be disappointed.

Mending Hearts?

Does this mean that I'm asking you to give up the joys of Shakespeare and Jane Austen? Or the joys of listening to Graceland and meditative chant? Actually it doesn't. What I want, and what I think the Coursera World Music instructors want is to develop alternative points of view, even if it's a little painful. It is a reality that we are educating students so that they can enter into different spheres of influence. Is it any wonder we want them to do "right" when they get there?

At this point, I can appreciate the Gregorian chant albums, and also the parodies? Sometimes maturity means understanding irony. And I do admit that learning about this cultural context of different world musics helps me understand them more than I would just listening naively. In fact, I had an interesting insight into opera recently which I had previously loathed. I can't promise I will be a fan, but I could probably appreciate a performance now if I had to experience it.

However, as instructors we also have to recognize that the views we are trying to change are not always maliciously meant. I'm someone who instinctively enjoys music without trying to understand the lyrics. Does that make me a bad person?

Many white Americans are interested in focusing on tracing their origins back to ancient Scotland or Anglo-Saxon England because it is an authentic part of their past. Aren't we all interested in our own history?

I do think it's important to expose mainstream students (code for white students in the U.S.) to alternative points of view without overburdening them with so much guilt they can't appreciate the positives of their own cultures. It's just as important as helping minority cultures understand their own positive accomplishments without being overly burdened with a tragic destiny. A little bittersweetness for everyone?

A Good Role Model

A person who's done a really good of this balancing act is Henry Louis Gates. If you haven't seen his PBS series Finding Your Roots you are missing good television.

The first series traces the geneology of various celebrities ranging from Kevin Bacon and Martha Stewart to Condaleeza Rice and Linda Chavez. The most amazing facts and stories came out and almost all of it was a mix of good and bad. Almost everyone had a juicy skeleton in the closet (there's been a lot of interacial mixing in our history), but also learned amazing revelations at what their ancestors did accomplish.

By the way, the person whose European ancestors arrived the earliest in North America ended up being Linda Chavez whose roots were from New Mexico. Her family arrived when it was still a colony of Spain and remained there even as the Mexican border got pushed much further south. They were also influential in the area for many generations.

It is a good fact to remember when thinking about the complexity of our relations with Latin America.

Multicultural Education Fail?

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I've always had a great passion for global awareness, but there are times when even I have to admit - some multicultural awareness assignments are not as helpful as they could be.

Asian History in High School

For capstone assignment for 10th grade Asian history in high school. I recognize that Asian history, Chinese history in particular, is very long and complex and frankly pretty detached from Western history for the most part. You can't really expect to sensibly cover 2500+ years of history in two weeks, but here's the assignment I most remember from that curriculum.

"Pretend you're at the beach for vacation. Write two letters to friends and family - one from a Daoist perspective and another from a Confucian perspective."

For this assignment we were given some key quotes, but nothing like...when these philosophies developed or why they developed. Nor were we really given much information about historical events before the Opium Wars nor even really told that the last dynasty in China was actually not Chinese, but Manchurian (that would be WAY too complicated even if it might explain some other cultural patterns...).

"Despite the county's best intentions, somehow all of Chinese culture and history was boiled down to a vision of Arnold from Happy Days proclaiming "Confucius say..."

Best Answer?

The Fail Blog triggered this memory when it presented this timely answer to the another history assignment:

Assume the role of a Chinese immigrant in 1870 and write a letter home describing your experiences. Be sure to include your contributions and experiences in the West.

If the Adventures of Brisco County Jr are to be believed, experiences were not always positive and maybe not everyone had a chance to write a letter.

Nonetheless this student completed the assignment and for full authenticity wrote the answer in Chinese. I don't know if this was high school history or Chinese 101, but it made me smile to think what could happen if we REALLY could imagine what it was like to experience another culture.


For the record, I do not consider Brisco County Jr to be an authentic historic source, but I give the TV show credit for acknowledging that there were Chinese Americans in the West and that it was not always a "good" immigrant experience. I also felt like it epitomized the media image clash I felt when reading the 1870 assignment.

I would compare it to writing a letter about coal mining (according to family lore, it generally sucked and led to lung disease) or surviving the Irish potato famine (an experience some may have wanted to forget altogether). In other words, this kind of assignment can also unintentionally trivialize genuine suffering.

Book Review: Eyes on the Prize and a little on The Help

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Note: This is a bit off topic, but I did want to recommend a book from the ETS diversity library as a great bit of historic writing. Hopefully I won't stir up anything too controversial.

A book review that has been pending, but is timely once again is Juan Williams' Eyes on the Prize which recounts the Civil Rights struggle from 1954-1964.

I actually inherited this book when I took over some materials from semi-forgotten a diversity project at ETS and started reading it a few years ago. It's timely now though because both ITS (my mother ship at Penn State) is trying to increase diversity awareness and because the period is on our minds again due to the recent film version of the The Help.

The Beginning

The period of 1954-1964 is critical since it covers Brown vs. the Board of Education through the passing of the Civil Rights Bill which enshrined key civil rights in a political sense. This was really the period when the Civil Rights question really entered into mainstream (i.e. white) consciousness and the mainstream came to understand that the Jim Crow systemized segregation system was wrong in ways which we still cannot fully comprehend unless we experienced its injustice.

Actually though, Williams book begins a few years earlier when the African-American community understood full well that they could not achieve their dreams unless Jim Crow was dismantled. It not only chronicles early legal cases, but some of the everyday injustices including a particularly brutal killing of an African American boy, Emmitt Till, whose only crime was winking inappropriately at a white woman (apparently he was from Chicago and didn't understand his cousins' warning of the Mississippi code of behavior).

It was hard to imagine things were that bad once upon a time...but it was.

The Hope

The joy of this book though is that it focuses on the triumph, not just the tragedy. Williams does not skimp on the struggles, from attacks on children and assassinations to sneaky legal maneuverings, but it makes the victory all the much sweeter.

Williams also shows us the behind-the-scenes discussions in the civil rights movement. There was a lot of ambivalence in who should be involved and what strategies to take. This truly was an effort requiring many generations of leadership and many groups of volunteers before the community as a whole was willing to take the risks to get involved.

The miracle of this book is that for me as a white Anglo it makes me proud to be an American, but it does remind me not to get too comfortable with the benefits of being a member of the politically dominant group. It's interesting to me that while none of my immediate family were Southerners in recent generations, none of us were actively involved with helping Jim Crow end. For too many people, it was just a part of Southern culture that was too much trouble to change (especially if we did not want to offend our white Southern neighbors too much).

For African Americans, it will probably be a different experience. I hope there is also a sense of triumph, but no doubt a sense a work left to be done in terms of social equality and healing from the centuries of injustice (some of which still manifests itself today).

The Help

This leads me to the recent movie The Help also set in the Civil Rights era in Mississippi which focuses on white woman who interviews the domestic help in her neighborhood. One of the controversies of both the book and the movie is that it was the work of a white woman, a well-meaning white woman, but still NOT African American. To give the author credit, she recognizes this to some extent which is why one some of the narrative focuses on the African American ladies being more than a little skeptical that a naïve white journalist isn't going to get them all fired...or worse.

For what it's worth, I do not think it's an attempt to "co-opt" history, but rather an attempt to help grasp the harsh reality that the African-American experience at that time was often so much worse than the white experience. It may also be a bit of a romantic fantasy of how the white community should have have understood more and helped earlier, but didn't.

At the same time, I think it does address the irony that on a personal level, many white people had great respect and affection for individual African Americans. It was all distorted by the Jim Crow system, but decades after the end, the New South is often much more friendly to African Americans than the North...precisely because whites and African Americans can begin to appreciate a joint heritage and understanding.

My recommendation - watch the movie and read the book (and ignore the "dialect") ...but also go beyond that to what some African American reactions to the book. Some of it is darned good reading.

Who Can Help Fix This?

A final criticism of The Help and other movies like Mississippi Burning is that the white person becomes the protagonist of the Civil Rights movement helping "helpless" African Americans. I do have to agree that this is a just comment.

I think a lot of right-thinking whites feel terrible for the injustices our ancestors our ancestors committed (and we ourselves may be committing). It would be nice if whites could fix what we have done to another culture as easily as we destroy it.

I'm finding that although an outside culture can easily break another culture through oppression, the most long-term fix may come from the injured culture itself. A book like Eyes on the Prize is a perfect example of how African American leaders adapted the white educational system and political philosophy for their own ends....but I think only African Americans could have done it. In the same way, liberation in the Arab Spring is much quicker and probably more effective than a well-intentioned regime change from outside.

Maybe part of our "penance" is having to stand aside, take some of the blame for things we didn't personally do, and hope that some the good part of our culture can be used by someone else blended with part of their own culture to solve a problem we created.