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Taking Multiculturalism Personally: Ethnos and Ethos in the Classroom

(CHAPTER THREE from American Literature and the Culture Wars, by Gregory Jay)

[Abstract: This chapter discusses a variety of theories about multiculturalism, especially in regards to literary studies. The author describes his own evolving knowledge of multiculturalism through autobiographical reflection and discussion of actual teaching practices. The essay concludes with an argument concerning the ethical challenges raised by multiculturalism, particularly for white people.)


Since its beginning in the 1970s, the movement known as multiculturalism has taken two distinct directions.[1]On the one hand, multiculturalism celebrates the diversity of cultural groups.Sometimes called ethnic revitalization, this multiculturalism seeks to preserve the cultural practices of specific groups and to resist the homogeneity of assimilation.It sees the identities of individuals as primarily cultural, determined by their membership in a group, and not as the expression of a unique self-consciousness.Oriented by identity politics, this multiculturalism rejects the individualistic model of personhood and instead stresses the analysis of communal expressive traditions.The forms and values of these traditions, in turn, become the focus of curriculum reform.Pedagogy is responsible for developing a competence in the student, such that he or she can understand various cultures and appreciate their achievements.This competence may even lead to the student's choosing to join in that culture's practices, though this choice may be seen as a social faux pas and as a violation of the decorum of essentialism.For marginalized groups, an appreciation of their culture can improve students’ performances and so reverse the effects of bigotry and discrimination. Ideologically, this multiculturalism may be called pluralist, since it emphasizes the characteristics of individual cultures rather than analyzing the kind of social or political relationships between them.

This first type of multiculturalism is said by some to paint a picture of diversity in harmony, and so to obscure the structural relations of oppression, exploitation, or injustice that may actually define the differences between groups.We should not be surprised by this debate within the ranks, since multiculturalism stems in part from the political movements of the 1960ssuch as the struggles of women, the poor and working classes, racial minority groups, and gay men and lesbians.Thus the second type (or tendency) of multiculturalism is oppositional rather than pluralist (see, for example, Giroux, “Post-Colonial”; Morton and Zavarzadeh; Roman; and Wallace).It is less interested in celebrating difference than in resisting oppression.Sometimes called radical, critical, or strong multiculturalism, this branch of the movement targets the unequal distribution of power in society.[2]Rather than accepting the borders between cultural groups, it insists on analyzing how cultural divisions are constructed historically through racist policies or other institutionalizations of oppression. It insists that the teaching of cultural difference cannot be done meaningfully without studying the structure of social inequalities outside the classroom, and it advocates using pedagogy as a means toward transforming those larger social realities. Radical multiculturalism would not be satisfied with teaching the appreciation of African American cultural forms, for example, but would look for why African Americans so often sing the blues.This multiculturalism — as in the work of critics such as Geyer and Mitchell — often undertakes a reading of the specific class relations between dominant and subordinate groups within local, national, or global contexts. In some cases, these oppositional critics move away from the focus on culture, rejecting it as an ideological distraction from the material conditions and political arrangements determining the shape of subjectivities.

Such oppositional strategies for multiculturalism make crucial contributions, and I have found myself identifying with or endorsing many of their arguments. But I also feel they tend toward versions of economic or political determinism that are ultimately no more satisfying than models that examine culture only as a set of personal aesthetic practices.As Cameron McCarthy argues, we need “an alternative formulation that attempts to avoid privileging either `cultural values' or `economic structures' as `the' exclusive or unitary source of racial inequality in schooling” (5). (For various attempts at such formulations, see the essays collected in McCarthy and Crichlow.) McCarthy's call for an alternative to the impasse between economic determinism and cultural determinism will sound familiar to those who have followed countless similar debates within Marxist, postructuralist, and cultural studies circles. What emerges from those conflicts is usually a stronger emphasis on the problem of agency: despite the much heralded “death of the subject” and other requiems for humanism, critical theorists have rediscovered that the individual subject or person remains the vital and often unpredictable agent who realizes and mediates the claims of the economic and the cultural.

This renewed concern with personal agency seems to me part of a larger consensus that essentialism — whether used to define the homogeneous essence of a group or the singular nature of a person — must give way to more complex descriptions that accommodate the differences within groups and persons. (Here we can recall the positions articulated by Epstein, Escoffier, and Said I reviewed in chapter one).McCarthy's “alternative” will then require that we think hard about what multiculturalism teaches us about agency, identity, personhood, and individuality. If these are irreducible to either economics or culture, and if every person always occupies numerous contradictory social positions, then we need a third way, so to speak, to proceed, one that conceives of agency as an ethical condition, or that provides a complex description of ethos as the person’s way of life. While multiculturalism should continue to advocate an antiracist, postcolonial, and resistant politics of the marginalized, multiculturalism should also lead to a horizon of ethical questions that cannot be entirely subordinated to identity politics or the analysis of ideology and political economy.

What strikes me about the debate among the various multiculturalists is the common assumption they make about the “personal”: identity in most of these theoretical or even practical accounts is defined and determined by totalizing social structures, such as culture or economy. Given this preference for a social constructionist approach to human identities, any reference to persons or individuals tends to sound like a throwback to the discredited discourse of Enlightenment liberalism, whose image of the universal man turned out to be the reflection of a few European and American white guys. Words like humanism and individualism are now regularly prefaced with discrediting adjectives like bourgeois or Western, which in many contexts they probably deserve. But if one grants that even the choice between economism and culturalism remains precisely a choice, something in part determined by a person (and not vice versa), then we need to account for the kind and quality of freedom that agents have, and the responsibilities that these freedoms might entail. In sum I think we need an alternative formulation that avoids privileging either the social constructionist or liberal pluralist accounts of personhood in a multicultural society.

It is often said, sometimes in a tone of accusation, that the white masters of postmodernism or poststructuralism promoted the disappearance of the subject and the author at the very moment when the disenfranchised were finally gaining a powerful voice. Barbara Christian made this charge in a widely-read article on “The Race for Theory,” where she wrote:

I feel that the new emphasis on literary critical theory is as hegemonic as the world it attacks. I see the language it creates as one that mystifies rather than clarifies our condition, making it possible for a few people who know that particular language to control the critical scene. That language surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literature of peoples of color, black women, Latin Americans, and Africans began to move to “the center” . . . . Now I am being told that philosophers are the ones who write literature; that authors are dead, irrelevant, mere vessels through which their narratives ooze; that they do not work nor have they the faintest idea what they are doing — rather, they produce texts as disembodied as the angels.(71-72).[3]

Jon Michael Spencer sees theoretical critiques of ideas about race as belonging to a “pattern in our public discourse that is aimed in part at reversing the impetus to implement multicultural education,” a discourse “coming from intellectuals involved in what I call the postmodern conspiracy to explode racial identity”.[4]The debate over whether using this kind of theory is dangerous has played itself out not only in African American studies, but in Native American, Asian American, and Gay and Lesbian studies as well, since each of them is invested to some degree in the politics of identity.

Pamela Caughie defends the postmodern approach to race and the multicultural classroom by finding an allegory for them in Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing. There, as in so much African American literature of the early twentieth century, the color line is blurry as racial identity keeps exploding in people’s faces (so to speak). Different characters negotiate their passages back and forth across the color line, encountering questions of ethics and agency along the way. In the scene of recognition that opens the novel, two passing women discover one another across this line, but as the novel develops their discovery only deepens the question of what we can know of someone else by virtue of racial categorization. As the other person’s gaze fixes us with a definition of our racial identity, a complex transference of values and meanings takes place. That other person may attribute to me qualities and experiences that, in fact, I only partly if at all can lay claim to, since my racial subject position does not exhaust my personal identity. The uncertainties of “racial identity” make it difficult to resort to the “authority of experience” as a way of establishing the essential limits for identity categories, especially as we see the degree to which such authority gets granted by a kind of transference not unlike the transference that gives (or denies) authority to the racialized body in the classroom. The white teacher’s authority, notes Caughie, which is usually the product of a transference modeled on the family (in which the student’s gaze fixes the instructor as parent), gets undermined when the issue of race comes up. Black students are more unlikely to produce her authority through such a transference, more likely to produce it as a component of the teacher’s privileged racial or class position. But as authority gets passed around the classroom on the basis of supposedly sure markers of racial identity, it quickly becomes apparent that this one difference is not enough of a difference: the acceptance of the transference by someone can become a kind of passing.Taking up the authority of a supposed racial experience may be covering over differences of sex or class, region or age or religion. The result of such well-intentioned honoring of the authority of experience may be just as bad as the pedagogical moment when the white class looks to the one black student to find out what all African Americans think.

Writing from the standpoint of an African American teacher familiar with such looks, Cheryl Johnson similarly concludes that “we are all cross-dressers.” As her students’ gaze positions her according to socially constructed meanings she cannot control, Johnson undergoes a postmodern explosion of her racial identity that, bizzarely, almost makes her feel as if she’s passing:

do students empower me as an absolute authority on black womanhood (and therefore, the literature of black women) because my experience of this gives me an infallible handle on the “true meaning” of the text? Am I “read” as a representation of essentialized black womanhood, and if so, what is that “reading,” and how much do I participate in or contribute to students’ ideas about the nature of black women? (410)[5]

Johnson goes on to recount two incidents in which white students were unable to finish reading black texts because they took them too personally: these students associated the violence and sexual abuse in the novels with personal experiences to which they bore only a faint resemblance. Worse, they confided in Johnson and expected her compassion because of their own stereotypes about the nature of black women. Onto her they transferred certain qualities they presumed belonged to her by virtue of her racial and gender identities, and felt they were honoring and respecting her in the process. Unfortunately, this sometimes made her feel as if her role in the classroom were not that far from that of the “mammy” on the plantation. The misreading of the text and of the teacher were, it seems, the result of mistaking people for subject positions, and vice versa.

Though I think that Christian and Spencer are partly right, then, I agree with Caughie and Johnson that much can go wrong when identity politics enters the classroom as if it were a reliable epistemology. This white teacher and this black teacher (both of them, however, feminists) document the misperceptions generated when the cultural subjectivity of race completely overshadows the multiple differences of our positions and the idiosyncrasies of our individual lives. It remains fair to point out that in their own critiques of universalizing stereotypes the liberation movements also replaced the particulars of personal identity with the generalities of cultural subjectivities.Social constructionism goes hand in hand with multiculturalism, as both see the individual as the expression of the cultural practices of socio-historical groups.The poststructuralist cry that “language speaks man” finds an eery echo in the articulations of how race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, class and nation speak the person.

Yet multiculturalism and the liberation movements often associated with it continue to exhibit discomfort about replacing persons with subject positions.The experience, the literature, and the theorizing on multiculturalism insistently bring out the stubborn tensions between persons and positions.For example, as I live it, cultural identity is not a matter of choosing between a personal essence and a social construction.These are hypothetical entities in dialectical relationship to one another, and the shape their conversation takes over time constitutes the character of my person.Agency is one metaphor to name this dialectic: agency appears in the way I take a social construction personally, as my duty, my responsibility, my ethos, my law, my enemy, or my love.Agency also names the tendency of cultural practices to become reified and bureaucratized, to become agencies in the institutional sense.Such an agency can make people its instrumental agents, robbing them of their persons in the process of making them its subjects.

I think there could be something healthy about insisting on the difference between persons and cultural identities.The difference between me and my cultural identity creates opportunities for change.Taking these opportunities as occasions for agency, I also end up taking some responsibility for what happens as a result.If me and my cultural identity were the same, and if I imagined that identity as homogeneous and univocal, then my actions and beliefs would follow in strict accord.I would be on automatic, so to speak.Of course the multiplicity of my cultural identities and their lack of any totalizing framework ensure that this never occurs.My positions, by virtue of race or class or gender or sexual orientation or age or nation or political ideology or professional vocation include many contradictions, making me usually the dominant, sometimes the marginalized, and quite often just the muddled one in the middle.

Negotiating the internal conflict of cultural identities requires as much or more energy and theoretical savvy as negotiating the differences between social groups or cultural formations.These groups and formations are not grounded in singular essences; they are coalitions and affiliations whose appearance of identity comes into being through history, strategy, and struggle.Categories such as heterosexual or white or Jewish American or middle-class are not natural or divine divisions, but rather the products of history.This does not make them false, unimportant, or unnecessary, but it does mean that I had better accept some responsibility for them, whether I wish to advocate or deconstruct them.The solidity of these categories remains fragile and transient, as the history of these and other group formations demonstrates. As McCarthy notes, “An essentialist approach to race typically ignores or flattens out the differences within minority groups while at the same time insulating the problem of race inequality from issues of class and sexual oppression” (118). What we have learned from Foucault and others about the “invention” of “homosexuality” as an identity category may be applied to the history of words like “white” and “middle-class” as well (see Omi and Winant).Such words not only name, but help shape, the groups to which they are attached.Like any name or noun, these categorical labels create universals at the expense of particular differences that are forgotten in the process.

The differences between the Dutch, German, English, French, Swiss, Russian, and Italian are forgotten, largely for political reasons, when the category of “white” subsumes them all.Likewise the category “middle-class” obscures the real differences between men and women, gays and straights, and whites and blacks who share an otherwise common socioeconomic bracket.The differences within particular categories are suspended, then, when the identity of the group gets constructed. These suspended differences, in turn, are always potentially the sources of fracture and realignment as people respond to new claims on their passions and allegiances.Person is another name for the individual who is the remainder of this process, the leftover when totality fails, or the agent who negotiates the new contract. Ethics is one name for the way this person self-consciously conducts these negotiations, and ethos is a name for the way of life such conduct reinforces or makes possible.

There's often something a bit suspect about the plea not to “take it personally.”In the case of multiculturalism, the plea would seem especially odd, given the roots of multiculturalism in the grounds of identity politics.But is a cultural identity personal?The problem of taking multiculturalism personally comes back to this puzzling question.I want to dwell for a moment on the possibility that identity and the personal are not the same thing.If they were, how could an individual experience the crisis of wondering whether to take being black or white, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim personally?To pose cultural identity in the form of a question, as something that someone can choose to take or reject, as something that may be adopted or imposed, already introduces an element of agency, freedom, or voluntarism that strict essentialists or determinists reject.Personally, I think the resilience of the idiomatic question testifies to a practical belief that agency is both real and desirable, even if this means being vulnerable to ideological manipulation and one's own naiveté.

Within the practices of education, multiculturalism assumes some degree of personal agency in its teachers and students.Teachers are expected to take multiculturalism seriously, if not personally, and to change their syllabi, their classroom behavior, and their administrative goals.Students are expected to consider the possibility that the cultural values and practices of their group may be either the ideological mask of a will to power or the encoded expression of a people's resistance, outrage, and pride.Whether in the case of teachers or students, multiculturalism opens a gap between personal selfhood and cultural identity, and this is to the good.Taking multiculturalism personally ought to be an ethical injunction for every teacher, scholar, and student today, though obviously the effects of this ethic will vary dramatically depending on the person involved. For people like me, this ethic should be a kind of categorical imperative of pedagogy, for it insists on treating the “other” as an end and not a means. Trying to formulate and live by this ethic forces me to confront confusing and painful things about myself and my profession.


Me, I got a late start taking multiculturalism personally.It was the early 1980s.I was teaching survey courses in American literature and had begun to introduce culturally diverse works into the canon of my syllabus, partly in response to the racial makeup of my classes at the University of Alabama (for more on this experience, see my next chapter).Being from a suburb in Los Angeles and having spent the previous eight years in relatively elite institutions of higher education, I wasn't accustomed to much in the way of racial diversity. Now I was teaching just down the street from the steps where Governor George Wallace had stood, only twenty years before, in defiance of Federal orders to desegregate the university. By the early 1980s some ten percent of the undergraduate population there were African American, a proportion that regularly showed up in my survey classes.

The course tried to represent the heterogeneous groups who have given their radically different answers to Crèvecoeur's famous question, “What is an American?”As the list of compound categories multipliedAmerican Indian, African American, Asian American, Polish American, Irish American, Jewish AmericanI felt left out.Who were my people?More uncomfortably, what was I doing trying to represent the Other anyway?Couldn't they speak for themselves?What was my ethical relation to this professional and pedagogical practice?Given the manifest failure of the institution to provide the marginalized with access to speech or representation, what was my responsibility?According to some of my African American students, my responsibility certainly did not include designating them as the spokespersons for the race.The job of analyzing and denouncing racism in a classroom dominated by whites was, for them, the white man's job, since he'd invented race in the first place.

Identity politics and its discontents started following me home at night.Child of a secular Jewish father and a lapsed Mormon mother, I found myself puzzling over my own cultural identity.Did I have a race or ethnicity?A gender or a sexual orientation?A class or a nationality?Was my cultural identity singular or plural?And was it something I got by inheritance and imposition, or something I could choose and alter at my will?Perhaps most importantly, why hadn't I worried about all of this before?Who was I that I hadn't had a cultural identity crisis?Why had I so suddenly become a white man?Was it only because I now lived in Alabama?Or had I been an invisible man to myself for all the years before?

Of course I had had lots of identity crises in the past, but not ones that turned so specifically on how cultural categories determined experiences of identity.Being a child of the radical 1960s, I had long since taken it for granted that my primary social identity was that of an oppositional intellectual.Hadn't I chosen a marginal and unprofitable major in college?Hadn't I consciously rejected materialism and sought higher values in art and philosophy?Hadn't I, to my father's bewilderment, decided to teach literature as a career and ended up in Tuscaloosa?Even if I had become a professional, I could take some pride in being a relatively ill-paid, unrespected, uninfluential, and routinely alienated person.I thought of the cultural politics of my identity in conventional terms, positioning myself as the enemy of variously named forces of right-wing evil. Surely the night-riders of the Klan and I had nothing in common and could never be identified with each other.I clung stubbornly to the utopian dream of my own person, not recognizing how I too wore the white sheet wherever I walked. By this I do not mean that I finally realized the moral equivalency of my racism with that of the Klan, since guilt is not the point; rather I realized that guilt was not really the point, since whether I wished it or not my whiteness made a difference in how I was treated. Onto my whiteness was transferred a host of qualities and privileges, or of fears and hostilities, to which I had to become accountable.

Those years led me to write an essay on American literature and multiculturalism, where I added my voice to those of the canon busters. My professional identity began to change, from that of a “theorist” publishing in diacritics to a teacher of literature writing for College English. Was this shift simply determined by the marketplace — in ideas and in jobs — or was it the result of experience and choice? Had I simply jumped from one kind of opportunism to another? The more that I imagined that my professional choices had political and even moral claims, the more uncomfortable I felt (even as I enjoyed the rhetoric of polemic that these claims made possible). Professors were supposed to be useless, irrelevant, or at best ineffectual and harmless, and this went doubly so for liberal white men. Was multiculturalism an ethical way of life for the professor, and did it have anything to do with the way I lived my “real” life?

There was only one thing left to do: offer a class about the problem (I'd already written one professional article about it, the usual last retreat of academic scoundrels). I decided to design a course called “Fictions of Multiculturalism,” which I have offered regularly. The readings include modern prose fiction by a culturally diverse group of writers as well as critical and theoretical essays on multiculturalism and pedagogy.Institutionally, the course fulfills my university's new cultural diversity requirement, so the enrollment includes people from a variety of majors.Fortunately, it has also drawn a culturally diverse student population, at least relatively speaking, as mine is a predominantly white working-class school.

In its design, syllabus, and classroom approach, the course intends both to ask students to take responsibility for their own cultural identities and to practice forming relationships with people who do not share their subject position, values, skin color, religion, and so on.In the multicultural classroom, the authority of one person's experience quickly runs up against that of someone else, so that the limits of such authority may be usefully marked and analyzed.Clashes of cultural identity do not always yield to a happy pluralism, however, or cheerful tolerance.On the contrary, the differences between cultural groups are often fundamental, sometimes deadly, and are better brought into the open than repressed (at least in the classroom).Multicultural pedagogy inevitably confronts the problem of how a social structure can successfully accommodate persons who find the beliefs or truths of others to be unacceptable and intolerable.

To get my students to take multiculturalism personally, I first ask them to write an analysis of their own cultural identity, which, it turns out, is very different from writing a personal essay expressing one's self.We use this paper and the first few readings (pieces such as Adrienne Rich's “Split at the Root” and June Jordan's “Flight to the Bahamas”) to explore what a cultural identity might be, where you might get one, and how you might feel about the ones you have or the ones that others have.The notion of cultural identity strikes many of the students as strange.In the context of American individualism, the concept of cultural identity seems anomalous: identity is supposed to be personal, idiosyncratic, something that you don't share with anyone else.Seeing one's self as a cultural identity tends to erode the feeling of uniqueness so prized in American culture and so important to the process of assimilation. Assimilation results, the story goes, when an American self emerges after the immigrant casts off the cultural identity and trappings brought from another land.

This gets us to the paradox that the assignment aims to bring to the surface.Dominant American culture defines the person as essentially private and thus as lacking a cultural identity.A cultural identity would be a restraint on individual freedom, a straitjacket of convention, a prescription of inauthenticity.A cultural identity would limit what the person wore, ate, said, kissed, worshipped, wrote, bought, or sold.Modern entrepreneurial individualism, or consumer identity, considers cultural practices as strictly commodities, as entirely relative to the fundamental project of the self's acquisitive freedom. Histories of the United States regularly narrate American selfhood in terms of European tyranny versus American freedom, the cultural conservatism of the Old World versus the open modernity of the New. In traditional dominant accounts, having a cultural identity tends to be associated, then, with people from the Old World or with racial minorities. “Americans,” on the other hand, are supposed to be those people who have abandoned the out-dated garments of an old cultural identity to stand naked and reborn in the perpetual future that is America. Of course, when your cultural identity by virtue of gender or skin color cannot be stripped off like an unfashionable wardrobe, your chances of assimilating go down.

It is no surprise, then, that many of my puzzled students end up writing essays about how they do not have a cultural identity.Some proudly announce that they are “just Americans,” while others more wistfully describe themselves as “merely normal.”This perception of the self as “American” and “normal” usually involves an implicit or explicit comparison to people whom the student identifies as having a cultural identity.These people with cultural identities are usually African, Asian, or Native Americans.They are described as having special cultural characteristics, unique food and music, strange languages, different beliefs.And, not incidentally, their skin is usually darker.

Of course the lost students I am describing are the descendants of European immigrants, especially those in the third and fourth generations.They are most likely to see themselves as the norm and to see other groups as special, particular, or deviant.Having lost many of the ethnic characteristics that differentiated the quite diverse European populations who settled and assimilated in the United States, these students have also assimilated the notion that freeing one's self of cultural peculiarities is essential to becoming a normal, prosperous American.They do not see their own clothes, food, beliefs, values, or music as constituting a distinctive culture, just as they do not see themselves as having a cultural rather than individual identity.As you might expect, the exceptions are children of first- or second-generation immigrants whose families and neighborhoods have consciously preserved linguistic, religious, culinary, and social practices identified with the “old country.”

Students from non-European backgrounds have much less trouble with the assignment, since they are accustomed to being seen, and seeing themselves, as having a cultural identity that is “different.”While these students never fit into neat boxes, and while their personal experiences and senses of identity vary enormously, almost all share a daily consciousness of having to negotiate between their sense of being a person and their sense of belonging to a group.Their person, they feel, is often not identifiable with the symbolic figures that populate the hegemonic culture.They rarely see people like themselves on TV, except perhaps during police dramas or the local news.On the other hand, persons who see themselves as very similar to the dominant cultural imaginary do not experience themselves as having a cultural identity, since in their eyes they are not different.The universalization of their cultural presuppositions whitewashes them, allowing them to mistake the cultural for the personal and making them invisible to themselves.

I should note how gender skews this pedagogical exercise.As you might guess, many women students define their cultural identity in terms of their gender.They discuss how important their condition or experience of gender has been in shaping their ideas, feelings, and values.This assertion tends to come more strongly from self-identified feminists, but it also comes from many women of various political stripes.In the first two semesters, which included over seventy students, I never had a male student write about the importance of gender to his cultural identity.Just as the children of European immigrants tend not to see their skin as having color or their values as being culturally specific, men tend to dissociate their gender from their individuality.I found this pattern extraordinary, knowing as I do how much time men spend talking about and asserting their masculinity.Yet, probably in part because of the nature of the course and the presumed values of the instructor, none of the men wrote about how growing up male had affected their identity.

The results in the area of sexual orientation were similar.Given the prejudice against homosexuality in our society, it is understandable that only one person explicitly identified herself as lesbian or gay through the assignment.(One other discussed her recent exploration of bisexuality.)And why should a gay or lesbian student come out to classmates?Is it any of their business?Is sexual orientation a private, personal identity rather than a social or cultural identity?Here the ethical puzzles for the instructor are daunting.[6]On the one hand, I want to make my classroom a place that supports the expression of marginalized subjectivities, and I want that expression to alter the prejudices of other students.On the other hand, what right have I to make the sexual orientation of my students a matter of pedagogical manipulation?Is this the business of the professor?Can the professor, given his business, avoid professing biases and values in regard to sexuality or race or other social divisions merely by remaining silent upon them?And who is to say that sexual orientation is an identity waiting to “come out” anyway? Many, if not most, college students are still trying to figure out their sexual identity, as they come to learn that sexual identity is a complex process of changes that do not stop with puberty or early adulthood or even middle-age and marriage. Clearly the puzzles here are different than in the cases of race and gender, where the body usually gives people’s identities away without their being able to choose whether to “come out.”Yet even then, my ethical dilemma seems different in dealing with people depending on whether their position is privileged or subordinated.Rightly or wrongly, I have not felt much restraint about putting the race of white people or the sexuality of men before the class as a subject for critique, and I regularly push students in these categories to a more public reckoning with the relationship between their personal and their group identities. With privileges come responsibilities. The results of the initial assignment, in any case, give us a chance to analyze which kinds of identity seem to have ready access to public representation and what particular problems people face when speaking about different identity positions. In realizing the kinds of privileges or oppressions that our cultural identities bring, whether we choose them or not, students get a better understanding of the importance of history and may relent a bit in their insistence that they are not affected byor responsible for anything that happened before they were born.

One consequence of the assignment was to drive a wedge between “race” and “culture.”The students who felt they did not have a common culture belonged to the category that race discourse dubs “white.”I have argued that this feeling was in part ideologically motivated, a blind spot of privilege and hegemony.But I also want to argue that in a way these students are right.Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as white culture.Culture makes sense when talking about ethnic groups and geographic populations, but it makes less sense when oriented solely by skin pigmentation.Historically, the term white was invented in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to provide Europeans, especially Europeans settling in the American colonies, with a word for their difference from Africans and Native Americans.As the scholarship of Afrocentrism demonstrates, the term white stands for a politically constructed group, grounded in a mythical Greco-Roman classicism.

“White” designates the supposed common culture binding diverse European immigrants.Since their ethnic and national groups do not constitute a common culture, historiography had to invent one for them to help justify the project of colonialism and the institution of slavery. In fact, “white” replaces ethnic taxonomies with a racial one, producing real confusion and misrecognition when the children of European immigrants compare their by-our-bootstraps family tales of upward mobility to the bleak fortunes of African Americans, as if being a Polish or Italian or Irish immigrant were in some way commensurable with being a member of an outcast racial class (see Sleeter, whose fascinating interviews with white teachers of multiculturalism produced results not unlike those my assignment uncovered).White is a political category, not a cultural one (yes, I know how difficult it is to draw these lines, but here it seems crucial to do so).What holds white people together is not a common language, religion, cuisine, literature, or philosophy, but rather a political arrangement that distributes power and resources by skin color. By replacing a specific ethnicity with the metaphor of a colorless color, “white” has the effect of making everyone else “different.” But as Leslie Roman reminds us, “White is a Color!” This makes the “ambivalent and oxymoronic phrase 'people of color'“ troublesome: “given the tendency of the multicultural discourse to celebrate diversity without adequately analyzing power differentials among groups positioned by racial categorizations and inequalities, the phrase 'people of color' still implies that white culture is the hidden norm” (71). But I think Roman's reference to “white culture” here is misleading, since “white” came into use as a way of replacing cultural differences with racial differences.

Now it may be argued that everything that I have said about “white” applies to “black” just as well. The switch from “black” to “African American” could be offered as proof of this, since it indicates a switch from racial to ethnic or geographical or descent categorizations that have more solid footing than color distinctions when it comes to cultural formations. This is very tricky territory, for political and ethical as well as other reasons. I would venture to observe, however, that when “whiteness” and “blackness” were put to use as cultural terms, “black” (or “Negro” or “colored”) had the effect of denying the cultural value of African ancestry, and so de-ethnicized African Americans in a dehumanizing fashion. Over time, this population lived through experiences as “blacks” that became the subject of their art, literature, music, and religion, so that race and culture became joined in the recognition of a vibrant black culture. While “white” functioned somewhat analogously, especially when it centered on Anglo-Saxon and Christian ethnicity, its cultural borders kept shifting as the family of whiteness grew (to include the Irish and the Italians and the Jews, for example). In this case it seemed that no particular feature reigned except non-blackness (or non-redness or non-brownness or non-yellowness). Attempts to proudly assert the existence of a white culture are as old as the Republic, but these are considered odd, fringe movements embarrassing to the dominant culture’s ethic of universalism. While there may be a white culture, it has difficulty naming itself, for such a naming would immediately contradict the universalism of its ethos. Black culture, on the other hand, names the capacity of a disempowered group to gain voice and autonomy despite its exclusion — names a capacity to universalize from an unchosen site of particular marginalization. While white culture cannot assert itself without proclaiming the inferiority of others or becoming entangled in the history of its own sins, black culture is under no such constraint. Of course since, in the United States, these two cultures are in practice inseparably linked, it is finally impossible to theorize (much less participate in) one without becoming accountable to the other.

No wonder my students were confused.To be a white person is to have certain advantages and distinctions, socially and politically and economically, but being white does not provide you with a culture. Indeed, the discourse of race separates whites from their own culture, insofar as it lies to them about how profoundly the work and art of racially subordinated people has shaped American culture. “The sequestered suburban white student is uninformed,” writes William Pinar, “unless he or she comes to understand how, culturally, he or she is also African American,” and this means more than admitting one's infatuation with rap music, Magic Johnson, or Alice Walker (63).There is, I think, an American culture, but it is not defined by ethnic groups or racial distinctions.Rather it is grounded in economic individualism, wedded to the practice of consumption, and hostile to the traditional constraints of cultural systems whenever these inhibit the workings of the marketplace.In this capitalist metaculture, cultural beliefs and practices are not traditions that constrain and guide behavior but commodities that may be deployed in order to create effects of pleasure, knowledge, profit, and power.Hence the much observed phenomenon of the postmodern subject, a person whose cultural identity is essentially and repeatedly decentered. But as we have seen, the freedom of a person to choose or resist various cultural identities suffers painful constraints under regimes of discrimination, in part because these regimes are economic and not just cultural.


In discussing the role of ethnicity in the classroom, one might take the pun on “class” as a serious topic of investigation. We would do well to talk about taking class personally, especially today when we are so accustomed to saying that the “personal is the pedagogical.” To what degree does the classroom function as a place for reproducing or resisting class relationships of hierarchy, exploitation, and ethno-racial distinction? If the classroom works to organize the assignment of students to class positions, and thus both to economic and social ranks, how does introducing an analysis of race or ethnicity or gender affect this process?Are the volumes of controversy over the validity of these as identity categories largely made possible by evading the ultimately class-based motivation for those categories? If people from African, Asian, Native American, or Latino/a communities now find a positive value in identifying with a race or ethnicity, may this not be a sign that previous avenues of upward social mobility have been closed — or remain closed despite earnest efforts to open them?

For most European ethnics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the lure of assimilation was class driven ¾ upward mobility required shedding languages, customs, and beliefs that might interfere with the efficiency of the farm, shop, factory, or corporation. The process of becoming an American required leaving much of the baggage of the Old Country in the Old Country, or at least at home. What the economy wanted were workers, people who understood enough English to take — and later give — orders, and people who would embrace the essential principle of American culture: the principle that the marketplace determines all values, and that no one and no thing has value except in terms of the marketplace. Cultural identity in America, in its dominant form, is the identity of being a worker and a consumer in a capitalist marketplace. Ethnic or racial traits or practices will be preserved or destroyed insofar as they are judged to be conducive to profitable labor or susceptible to commodification. The celebration of diversity movement today seems inextricable, then, from the emergence of a consumer economy in which the marketing of ethnic commodities is a highly profitable way of opening new markets, creating new products, and solving the problem of the need for incessant novelty.

From this vantage, the persistence of racism toward African Americans and other “racial minorities” may be attributed to capitalism’s structural requirement that there always be an immiserated underclass that supplies cheap labor and provides a constant downward pressure on wages. As a means of preserving such a class, racism is relatively more efficient than ethnic prejudice, since ethnic traits tend to be less easy to discern and more likely to be ambiguous than the more easily spotted difference of skin color. Ethnic distinctions, both physical and cultural, have undoubtedly been used as instruments of class domination, to be sure. Yet often in those cases we find the group — be they Jews or Japanese or Italians — frequently targeted as a race. When the Irish, the Swedes, the English, the Germans, or the Greeks cease to be seen as races and instead become known as ethnics, it is a sign that these categories have lost most of the ability to produce class distinctions that they once had. The relative physical similarity of these lineages and their history of intermarriage in America makes them very inefficient agencies for marking and preserving class distinctions. So class analysis helps us understand how concepts of “race” and “ethnicity” are not synonymous and have functioned differently in American history.

This relation of ethnicity to class can be seen in the way that the term “white” was invented to give these heterogeneous cultural groups a false sense of racial identity for economic purposes. “White” is a metaphor used to demarcate the members of the dominant economic class, especially in the United States, though with the extension of American market culture around the world the value of whiteness as a class distinction has been exported and/or reinforced globally (whiteness, however, has functioned as a regulator of class privilege since the earliest days of European imperialism abroad). Once an ethnic group has enough clout in that dominant class, its members become whites. This has happened to the Germans, the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, the Jews, and, today, maybe even to the descendants of some Asian immigrants (at least as seen from the perspective of African Americans). The unique history and economic function of the term “white” in the United States and much of Northern Europe must be grasped to understand the enduring marginalization of African Americans relative to other ethnic populations.

A number of class factors may be seen in the current debates over ethnic revival, multiculturalism, and Afrocentrism (to pick a few examples). Because the physical characteristics of the so-called “new immigrants” from Latin and South America and Asia are relatively susceptible to social surveillance on the basis of body characteristics, members of these groups experience a degree of the racial discrimination long directed at African Americans. These groups form much of the new economic underclass in the United States. The constant temptation of whites to discriminate racially against these ethnic groups makes them less easy to assimilate than European ethnics, especially during a period of economic restructuring when entry-level low-skill manufacturing jobs are disappearing. But considering the immigration statistics since 1960, the size of the resulting underclass is too large for the health of the U.S. economy, which requires a greater balance between economic classes and more upward mobility for individuals (though not at the expense of maintaining rigid class structures overall). Hence the positive media coverage and corporate attention given to “diversity” indicates a reluctant recognition that at least some forms of racial discrimination are no longer profitable. In a market economy, even racism can lose its value if it doesn’t serve the bottom line.

One effect of discrimination is to reinforce the conviction among the oppressed that assimilation is impossible and undesirable, and so a celebration, preservation, and expansion of the distinct community’s own cultural identity is promoted. One problem that immediately arises, however, again takes us back to economics. Ethnic communities are rarely economically self-sufficient, especially in our era. Usually they continue to be colonized landscapes, pools of cheap labor, or simply zones designated as off-limits to investment. No amount of ethnic revival is likely to preserve a community in such a situation, since members of that community will most often have to leave the community — either physically or in terms of language, values, and cultural practices — to survive economically. Whenever immigrant groups, whether Polish or Korean or El Salvadoran, have created relatively autonomous economic zones, the preservation of the cultural identities of those communities has been far greater. The flourishing of organized crime in ghettoes illustrates the paradoxes of these developments quite nicely: barred by discrimination from access to much in the way of legally upward mobility, groups from the Irish and Jews to the Vietnamese and African American turn to organize crime as an available economic practice that also reinforces a cultural homogeneity. Thus, however important, no preservation of cultural traditions by schools or other institutions can have a decisive effect when a community remains in a condition of economic colonization. Multiculturalism cannot liberate oppressed classes, all puns intended.

By bringing a class analysis into the classroom, the teacher may be able to help delineate those experiences that bridge what may be otherwise seen as non-negotiable differences between students (or between students and teachers). However vital and essential it is to recover, study, and encourage the separate cultural productions of different communities, such work does not necessarily provide a framework for establishing those alliances across borders without which the struggle against oppression may not succeed. Class analysis connects the histories of different ethnic and racial communities by illuminating the commons structures of economic and social distinction that reinforce and reproduce the cultural meaning of ethnic or racial categories. This is why anti-racism may be more important, in the long run, than multiculturalism, at least as concerns confronting and crossing real social boundaries is concerned.

Solidarity between different communities is not likely to be produced by a focus on culture, since culture is seen as that which distinguishes, rather than connects, ethnic and social groups. What does connect such groups is the common way that the dominant systems positions them, whether as a “racial” group relatively prohibited from economic or social mobility or, similarly, as an “ethnic” group that occupies an ambiguous position between the underclass and the middle-class. Obviously too great a focus on race or ethnicity undermines such class alliances and only serves the interests of the dominant class. Focusing on race and ethnicity also obscures the character of the antagonism between classes, papering over economic differences with either the celebration or the denunciation of cultural differences. In the setting of the classroom, students should be given an opportunity to use class analysis to cross the borders between identity categories, to explore common class experiences with students of very different racial or ethnic communities or, perhaps more explosively, to confront students from the dominant class with an analysis that targets their economic privilege rather than their skin color.

Taking class personally into the classroom involves, as bell hooks recounts, the use of personal narrative to connect the authority of experience with the historical and theoretical issues under discussion. “Sharing experiences and confessional narratives in the classroom,” writes hooks, “helps establish communal commitment to learning. These narrative moments usually are the space where the assumption that we share a common class background and perspective is disrupted.” By bringing personal experience into the class dialogue, students and teachers can give the abstract concept of “difference” flesh-and-blood detail (as a good poet or novelist does when dramatizing the complexity of any concept). The exchange of these experiential narratives becomes, in turn, an experience itself as each participant is moved to recognize the hard facts of another’s life. “Just the physical experience of hearing, of listening intently, to each particular voice strengthens our capacity to learn together” (186). Such conversations tend to work against the ingrained habit of thinking that the uniqueness of our personal experience gives us a superior access to the truth, for in these exchanges we hear of different truths that emerge from equally powerful stories. We often begin such dialogues presuming that, once we have offered our narratives from experience, others must agree with our point of view. Instead we discover that other points of view have the same claim to the authority of experience. This realization may make us question the narrowness of the experiences on which we have based our opinions.

Often we take our experiences of class or race or gender for granted, especially if social or educational arrangements assure that we rarely hear stories from lives radically different from our own. The assignment of literary texts that represent a broad spectrum of experience can initiate this dialogue of stories, but the lessons may be even more deeply learned when accompanied by relevant narratives produced in and by the whole class, including the instructor. If the body of available instructors includes a range of individuals from many backgrounds and with diverse experiences to share, so much the better. Because the conversation inevitably points up the limits of the authority of experience, students learn the necessity of doing historical research, data analysis, close reading, theoretical argument, and other forms of inquiry that can help resolve the conflict between personal stories. The use of narratives, then, need not end in a relativistic stand-off in which people cling to “where they are coming from.” Precisely because the stories will differ, the class will have to reframe the tales with intellectual and scholarly materials that make the analysis of difference meaningful. As a group, a class can establish its own narrative of inquiry as a way of bridging individual stories and of connecting personal experience to the experience of groups, regions, classes, and nations.

Class analysis will and should inevitably engulf the teacher in its challenges. There is a rich, growing, and necessary literature (as the essays of Caughie and Johnson show) on the contradictory effects that the subject position of the teacher have in the classroom of,. Discussions of the identities of students and teachers, however, are vulnerable to degenerating into the stale charges of “You can’t know what we’ve been through” that resonate through debates over multiculturalism. Such charges may be leveled by students at each other, by students at teachers, and by teachers at students, since the logic of identity politics allows any cultural group to claim an exclusive authority to know and express its experiences. This acrimony leads to an intellectual and political dead-end. As an alternative, students might instead be helped to explore — through novels, poems, films, music, historical events, the study of material culture — how assertions for and against cultural identities may be unintentionally reinforcing class divisions (again, all puns intended). Readings that pinpoint how different cultural communities share certain historical experiences, erotic dreams, family struggles, and artistic longings can help fashion solidarity across lines that might otherwise divide. But to keep this from degenerating into “universal humanism,” the connections between community stories have to be made through the differences and not by ignoring them.

In Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story “Seventeen Syllables,” for example, we read of the encounter between Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans in California’s farm country. The differences between these communities, and implicitly between these communities and the white community, are connected in the story in a number of ways. The Hayashi family work a small tomato farm, where they have hired the “Mexican family” of Carrascos to help with the harvest. Everyone helps with the picking in the sweltering sun and with the sorting in the heat of the sheds. The plots revolving around love affairs and generation gaps show individual persons struggling with their identities against the backdrop of conflicts within as well as between groups. The alliance or antagonism between groups, moreover, operates in the context of larger socio-economic structures (such as the California agricultural labor system or the patriarchal regime of the Japanese husband). In this extraordinarily complex tale, Yamamoto dramatizes the common class position of the Japanese and Mexican working families, which she embodies in the teenage erotic attraction of Rosie for Jesus. The prelude to their one intimate moment takes place in the fields, where what Rosie “enjoyed most was racing him to see which could finish picking a double row first” (00).

The possibility of solidarity and love between them, however, is challenged by Rosie’s mother Tome, who has just won a prize for her writing of haiku. What appears to be aristocratic pretension on Tome’s part (her disgruntled husband prefers the imagery of Life magazine) turns out to be a woman’s protest against her fate in a patriarchal marriage. After her husband burns her prize, Tome tells Rosie the story of how she gave premature birth to her lover’s stillborn son back in Japan. Theirs had been a secret romance because of her lower class position. She had come to America out of desperation, having arranged a wedding to a man she had never met. She warns Rosie against the fate that naive romanticism leads to, urging her shocked daughter: “Promise me you will never marry!” Apparently the lesson of the old country is that class distinctions cannot be transcended, and that marriage locks women into a status of economic and social disempowerment that only fitfully allows for self-expression.

The ethos Tome prescribes for her daughter derives from her ethnic experience, and so does not readily fit Rosie’s idea of life. Her cultural identity is derived from the marketplace of American commercial culture. Rosie doesn’t know enough Japanese to read her mother’s poetry, but she can delight her Japanese American girlfriends with imitations of Fred Allen, Rudy Vallee, Shirley Temple, and the Four Inkspots. As her name symbolizes, Tome’s daughter Rosie is as American as she is Japanese, which is to say that she has already assimilated the belief in the romance of the rose: hers is the ethos of individual choice, of freedom from the past, of rebirth through the love of Jesus: “Jesus, Jesus, she called silently, not certain whether she was invoking the help of the son of the Carrascos or of God, until there returned sweetly the memory of Jesus’ hand, how it had touched her and where” (00). The border-crossing romance of Jesus and Rosie echoes that long tradition of tragic American tales of miscegenation, from the plantation novel to Ramona to West Side Story. Though Rosie makes the promise her mother demands, her heart is not in it, and her mother’s “consoling hand” at story’s end cannot wipe away the memory of Jesus’s touch. What connects all these hands is that they are the hands of tomato pickers and sorters. Tome had adopted a pen name to write haiku, renouncing the labor of the fields for the handiwork of writing. Significantly, her husband’s rage comes when the arrival of the prize takes his wife momentarily away from the urgent business of sorting the fast-ripening crop. His act forces Tome back into her identity as wife and laborer, ending her brief exercise of agency and artistic expression. In turn, Rosie’s flirtation with Jesus and her appropriation of American voices are, though she barely realizes it, crucial moments in the development of her own power to take hold of things and to act on her own desires. The bitterness of Rosie’s parents comes, I think, from their respective feelings of diminishment, and their daily experience of how quickly the ripe fruit rots. This bitterness is Rosie’s Japanese American legacy, but it is one that she turns from in seeking Jesus’s kiss. Her challenge is to negotiate between the accounts of ethnicity and gender she learns at the hands of her parents, on the one hand, and the seductive possibilities of self-transformation offered by love and popular culture, on the other hand. Her way of life will be a series of choices framed by the rival demands of her cultural and personal identities. These, too, are plural, since her cultural identity ranges from Japanese poetry to American pop songs, and her personal identities include the positions of daughter, lover, worker, and woman.

“Seventeen Syllables” shows how the tensions between ethnos and ethos can inform multicultural American texts, and how issues of economics come into the plot when characters have to sort out the contest between personal and cultural identity. It is fascinating to explore with students whether the alliance of Rosie and Jesus is meant to symbolize a working class insurgency, or is just more American romanticism designed to distract the victimized from their plight. The story offers multiple points where the reader can identify with a variety of subject positions, and so diverse students will find themselves walking in a lot of surprising shoes.Though Rosie’s predicament stands out as the one with which readers, especially younger students, will empathize, the power of her mother’s story and the symbolic attraction of Jesus split our allegiances as well. It is difficult to know, then, how to interpret the meaning of this tale, made intentionally as elliptical as the haiku form that gives it its name. Is Tome’s harsh injunction also a word against assimilation and hybridity, against the “life” her husband vainly seeks in magazines (like Myrtle in The Great Gatsby)? Does Tome think Jesus is (because of race and class) beneath her daughter, and if so how can she so clearly repeat the very injustice once done to her? How will Rosie reconcile the tragic, Old World warning of her mother with the New World’s crooning of “On the Good Ship Lollipop”? And where are the white people in this story? Do they need to be there to influence the plot, or does the American story go on without them?


Though multiculturalism begins in identity politicsin the conflation of personal and cultural identityit should not end there.Taking multiculturalism personally is a way to move in, through, and beyond identity politics, while respecting the conditions that make those politics a recurrent necessity.We may want to challenge the centrality of “identity” itself in arguments about culture, for example, by considering the difference between “having” an identity and living by an ethos. Living by an ethos implies an important degree of agency, freedom, and responsibility in the way a person responds to the various claims of multiple and contradictory identities. While the notion of having an identity tends to reinforce deterministic scenarios, in which persons become prescribed categories, the notion of ethos holds open the future of persons. In this way, the relationship between person and cultural identity becomes more, rather than less, political, in the sense that by choosing to take or refuse the claims of racial or national or sexual or class identities, a person acts politically and makes a difference in the future. But ethos also recalls the ancient sense of the way a character acts in response to “fate” or “fortune.” To talk of agency and choice is not to return to a fantasy in which the individual can be or do anything, and it is certainly not to forget the histories and material conditions that shape the context of any agent's choices. On the contrary, the notion of ethos demands that a person be aware of his or her fate and know well the historical circumstances that shape the moment in which a person must respond to what is with an action aimed at what might become.

While a first step toward ethical intersubjectivity may be to recognize and respect someone else's difference from me, that realization still tends to leave me in the privileged position: I have the luxury of deciding to be tolerant and liberal.The structure of superiority is left intact.The sense of my own settled and unquestioned identity is also left intact, while all the “otherness” is projected onto someone else. Discourses about the “other” tend to replay the original discrimination, in which non-whites or non-males or non-Westerners are the “others.” If you are one of those others, of course, you do not see yourself as the other except insofar as you look at yourself from the dominant ideological point of view.The next step, then, and it is an ethical as well as political step, is to see my own subjectivity from the other's point of view. Especially for those of us accustomed to identifying with, or being treated as, the “norm,” it is vital to undertake an active defamiliarization of one's own cultural identity and the way one has taken it personally. The exploration of otherness and cultural identity should achieve a sense of my own strangeness, my own otherness, and of the history of how my assumed mode of being came into existence historically.I could have been someone other than I think I am.And maybe I am.

As for those long accustomed to suffering the imposition of a sense of otherness as a judgment on their cultural identity, they continually struggle with that “double-consciousness” classically described by W. E. B. Du Bois: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (364). Identity politics provides one way to reunify this consciousness, rejecting the values of the oppressor's gaze and affirming instead the measures of a group's own experiences, beliefs, and visions. There may be some form of “double-consciousness” for the dominant subject too, for that subject also sees him or herself through the eyes of the marginalized, the colonized, and the despised. But we look away from their gaze, or fear it, or reject the view of ourselves it expresses. While the dominated subject is cajoled, seduced, or coerced at times into identifying with the consciousness of the dominant, the dominant undergo no such necessity, and so their moments of identification with the marginalized usually follow the forms of pity, sympathy, or horror. Insofar as the dominated achieve a sense of self through identity politics, they too will experience the need to question the consequences of privileging their own point of view. Insofar as the dominant fail to find modes of understanding and empathy that force a reassessment of their way of life, they will deserve the contempt that the word liberal has gained in some quarters. A dialectic of dis-orientation characterizes the relationship between personal and cultural identity for both the dominant and the dominated. This dis-orientation is made more complex when we realize that we may occupy both positions at once depending on which of our social relations we are talking about. Dis-orientation, then, is both the alienated condition we strive to heal and a goal of self-critical thought.

I would thus propose a pedagogy of disorientation as a complement to recent calls to restructure the educational institution from the Other's point of view. I know that many of our students already feel disoriented, either by the lives they have lead or the things that we teach. But I think we need to make these disorientations into explicit subjects of study in our classrooms, and into methods of analysis whose intellectual and ethical claims we theorize and practice.McCarthy cites Bob Connell's contention that we ought to “bring the uninstitutionalized experiences of marginalized minorities and working-class women and men `to the center' of the organization and arrangement of the school curriculum.”This suggests that “a political and ethical principle of positive social justice should inform the selection of knowledge in the school curriculum” (132).Personally, I take McCarthy's “ethical” as an injunction to disorientation, a call to subscribe to a principle larger than my own self-interested identity.

Taking multiculturalism personally will not, in the end, provide you with an identity, or resolve the hostilities between races, or defuse tribal warfare, or remedy those inequalities inherent to multinational capitalism.But the often surprising kinds of personal and cultural identification or empathy facilitated by the multicultural literature classroom produce antiessentialist affiliations. Students do make connections across the insulating boundaries we have taught them to respect, and they do find this adventure in disorientation challenging and exhilarating. Taking multiculturalism personally does not mean harmonious understanding or celebrations of ethnic diversity, however; more likely it involves bringing cultural and personal conflicts into the open and disorienting the fictions of tolerant pluralism.The classroom will need an ethical discourse for handling these conflicts, just as it will need a political analysis for understanding their material conditions and consequences.

Thus politics can also be understood in terms of how the person negotiates the space between identity and community.A relentless critique of every student and teacher's bad faith is contemptuous of the ideal of community.Unlike critique, politics as a social enterprise requires that persons form communities based on a mutual recognition of common interests, which must be understood in part by testing discourses against persons and ideas against experiences. One thing that multiculturalism disorients is individualism, since multiculturalism continually ties persons back to the web of their interpersonal cultural identities and affiliations. In the dialectic of personal and cultural identity, an analysis of one's cultural identities may disorient the fictions of one's personal selfhood — and vice versa.

Still I would resist the movement toward “depersonalization” among some advocates of oppositional pedagogy.According to Donald Morton, for example, “persons” must be “distinguished from their ‘discourses’,” so that those discourses can be effectively critiqued (82).This distinction removes the critique of discourses from the realm of the ethical, where relationships between persons require attitudes such as tolerance, respect, accountability, sympathy, justice, empathy, and humility.Most students will not readily perceive a distinction between the professor's contempt for their discourse and contempt for their persons.I do not think we can remedy the past injustice, which dismissed people's discourse because of their bodies, by returning to an ideal wherein discourses are evaluated without reference to the bodies that produce them.If multiculturalism has a central lesson, it is to teach us to respect this embodied character of cultural production.

Treating persons as only discourses would apply poststructuralist theory to pedagogy in a manner that is both theoretically reductive and strategically harmful.Depersonalizing critique and pedagogy would underestimate the emotional and idiosyncratic ties that individuals have to knowledge and power (see Worsham). An ethic of care for cultural differences in the classroom is superior, in my experience, to the pedagogy of confrontation and hostility that Morton advocates. As Schweickart argues, engendering critical discourse requires a good deal of listening to others, rather than speaking at or for them. The connection of persons to discourses is an ethical one and cannot be reduced to ideology, because discourse is where the person mediates between the various ideologies and social positions that claim allegiance or obedience. The person takes responsibility for negotiating the relationship between ideologies (or institutions) and the experience of the individual.An ethic is precisely a set of principles that is not coincident with the person, but rather something he or she embodies only individually and imperfectly.The gap between personal and cultural identity creates the space where ethics must take place.

I believe that ethical imperatives inform political change, since concepts of justice and of rights include a moral dimension.Self-interest and the acquisition of (or resistance) to power cannot found a community or a political philosophy; the former cannot do justice to social relationships involving conflicting self-interests, and power without a concept of the good is only instrumental and thus nihilistic.Social inequalities will not be alleviated without structural changes in the government and the economy, to be sure, but these cannot be motivated or justified without recourse to arguments about the evils of unbridled self-interest and the irresponsibility of the will to power.Demonstrating these points will involve careful historical argument about the particulars of a social legacy, as well as scrupulous theoretical debate about what constitutes the good, universally and in a given instance.

A focus on ethics can strengthen the process of creating mechanisms that do justice to the competing claims of different cultural groups (see Taylor).It can also make for affiliations between individuals who in their everyday lives often differ with each other, and within themselves.The importance of this ethical moment needs to be reasserted and restored in the current climate, where “the political” (often vaguely if at all theorized) reigns. Politics, I have argued, has come to be seen as either the submission to dogma or the expression of self-interest. So understood, politics tends to rigidify differences and prevent coalitions. If, however, we analyze how individual persons act as ethical agents, in everyday negotiation with one another, the result could be a more complex and hopeful insight. In practice we always make choices among competing ideologies, and our self-interests are divided among contradictory aims. Often we find ourselves caught between universals and particulars in making these choices. Responsibility and accountability, as I have been developing these terms, refer to our ethical position as we negotiate our way through these networks of demands and affiliations. We seek to do justice to the various claims made upon us (and that we make upon ourselves), although we know that the justice we do achieve will be a practical rather than ideal one. Engaging in good faith in the political process means acknowledging our involvement with others, and so resisting the isolationism bred by ideological absolutism or cynical self-concern.

The ethnic and the ethical will have to recognize each other in this territory of competing demands, a borderland that includes the classroom.To get beyond the accusations and scapegoating and namecalling, we need to acknowledge the mutual dependence of our ethical and political persons.Unless we can believe in our accountability to each other, and then act upon it, we may be in store for an endless course of self-righteousness and violence. If multiculturalism, in whatever guise, can help us fashion this kind of accountability across the borderlines, then it will have been a contribution well worth the controversies it provokes.



[1] The scholarly and critical literature on the topic continues to expand beyond anyone’s capacity to keep up. For helpful summaries see Banks and Lynch; Erickson; James and Jeffcoate; McCarthy;McCarthy and Crichlow, viii-xxviii.
[2] See Kanpol and McLaren’s Critical Multiculturalism for representative work in this regard.
[3] I cite the 1988 revised version of her essay, which originally appeared in 1987 in Cultural Critique. The argument is echoed in Gates, “Master’s Pieces.”
[4] An interesting forum in response to Spencer’s essay appeared in The Black Scholar 23:3-4 (1993): 50-80.
[5] “Does the black face of the Afro-American critic,” asks Michael Awkward, “actually lead to qualitatively superior or perceptively different readings of the black text than ones offered by scholars with paler faces? In way was is Afro-American insistence on the authority of experience comparable to the similar appeals of American feminist critics who originated the phrase and made it their interpretive catchword?” (28). Awkward’s book provides an insightful discussion of these questions, especially as regards men’s relation to feminism and the white critic’s relation to African American literature.
[6] See Mary Elliott’s “Coming Out in the Classroom” for a helpful exploration of these issues.

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