By Jacob Carter
Fifty-four years ago, the late James Baldwin made an assertion that strikes at the heart of an identity crisis currently afflicting North Park University. He presented, “the collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are, or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.” It is within this searing dichotomy of thought and action that our institution currently resides.
The core values of North Park University were recently modified to claim adherence to an intercultural learning environment, which replaced the previous pronouncement of a multicultural environment. This is a subtle change that could easily pass unnoticed, and admit- tedly, it may seem trivial to focus on the substitution of one prefix for another. However, if the University is committed to carrying this new value beyond nomenclature, it can manifest in profound improvements to the oft-expressed diversity of campus. I applaud North Park’s recognition of the importance of intercultural learning, but there must also be accountability in order to make sure the change is tangibly recognized. As students, we should learn from blogger Kyra and recognize, “hegemony trickles down through layers of identity, but liberation surges upwards from those who experience the most compounded layers of oppression.” Our place, then, is to be the torrent of counter-hegemony that surges upwards to dismantle the oppressive power structures that still exist.
To begin, it must be understood that, at its core, interculturalism relies upon a framework in which people from different cultural groups not only interact with each other, but actively learn and grow together. This requires the acknowledgement of every individual experience as crucial to learning, however unusual each may seem. Through this process, mutually reciprocal relationships are formed and no one culture is elevated above another. Interculturalism must begin with the recognition of power dynamics, most often in the form of white privilege, and conclude with a commitment to deconstructing all insidious imbalances. As activist and author Bell Hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins) once said, “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.” Unfortunately, white supremacist patriarchal culture remains woven into the very fabric of our campus. In light of the recent value change, however, we have been presented a chance to reject this culture of degradation.
Ultimately, it must be concluded that the more accurate value held by our campus is the previously abolished “multiculturalism.” Unlike interculturalism, a multicultural mindset allows for the inclusion of distinct cultural groups but also elevates one group above all others. This allows for a celebration of diversity, which can then be exploited for its economic value. Unsurprisingly, upon North Park’s campus, white culture is presented as superior through perpetual normalization. This ennoblement can be easily observed in the overwhelming Eurocentricity of curriculum, the weekly religious services steeped in a certain style of worship (with the exception of rare moments of cultural appropriation), or in the largely homogeneous racial composition of faculty and staff. The swill of white culture has seeped into every possible arena, devouring space that must be left, and indeed belongs to, people of color. Try, if you will, to come up with one campus structure that is not saturated with mainstream white culture, outside of much needed events held by the Office of Diversity (which, in its necessity, reveals the normalization of white culture everywhere else on campus). I suspect there will be no such revelation.
However, one of the crucial aspects of multiculturalism is that it must include a fallacy of equality so that its prejudicial roots cannot be easily exposed. Quite often, certain people of color are primed to succeed, where many others are suppressed. It must be understood that this is not a negative reflection upon the quality of any individual of either group, but upon the racist system that we function within. Many people who are incredibly talented are never given a chance, simply because they do not reflect certain characteristics that mainstream white culture has deemed valuable. For example, while it reveals the pathetic ignorance of White America, people of color who speak in a vernacular that is familiar to the white masses are deemedmore intelligent than those who do not. Or, consider how black men are constantly (and falsely) taught that they belong only in the arena of entertainment, while in the fields of medicine, politics, or big business the white man still reigns. This paradox is referred to as symbolic diversity, or more colloquially, tokenism.
Tokenism presents a veneer of equal representation while simultaneously reinforcing the racist belief that white culture is superior. While often unspoken, the assigned value of any individual of color is made painfully clear based upon her or his indoctrination into dominant white culture. This leads to debilitating internalizations, reinforced by mainstream media, and can result in the acceptance of guilt by those who are being oppressed. Further, it must be understood that not only those left out that are harmed as those who are tokenized are saddled with the overwhelming and impossible burden of representing every other member of his or her culture. It is little wonder that author James Baldwin felt, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Interestingly, tokenism can still be classified as a form of diversity as unique bodies are mixed together within a mutual organization. However, rather than providing access to power or mutual representation, tokenism values a white liberal perception of equality at the expense of those who actually suffer from social inequalities. It is here that the masquerade of North Park’s diversity slips to reveal the grotesque reality beneath. This is to say, the diversity that is often fawned over as virtue is in reality a racist vice, and proves only that our institution is not interested in rectifying historical injustices but in finding new ways to maintain the status quo.
It is time for North Park, through student led initiatives, to stand accountable and face the collision of identities that James Baldwin identified years ago. This necessitates painful acknowledgement of white supremacy that has been festering for too long within the dark corners of our society, as well as a commitment to manifesting the intercultural community that is now claimed. Further, political activist and black power innovator Stokely Carmichael made clear that “in order to understand white supremacy we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anyone their freedom.” If we are to change the culture of campus it cannot be billed as a gift from oppressor to oppressed, but a reparation, long overdue.
This change on our campus should not be segregated, but more critically, cannot be co-opted by white people with an infantile zeal for revolution. The struggle for liberation has been in progress for centuries and has no need for an ivory spark to light the fuse. Yet, those who match my own privilege and hue do not have the right to remain unengaged. Bobby Seale, one of the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, drove this point home when he asserted: “There’s nothing wrong with being a white person. It’s about where your heart is ...We’ve got to get everyone beyond xenophobic isolationism.” Individual roles in the fight for a post-xenophobic campus cannot be the same, just as we are not all the same. As displayed by Nat Turner’s rebellion, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Emiliano Zapata’s agrarian revolution, or the current #blacklivesmatter movement, the fight for freedom must be led by those with the greatest self-interest and supported in solidarity and humility by those with privilege.
For our campus, this means the prevailing alabaster roar must be quelled to a whisper, allowing historically lost voices to rise. Put more simply, every white individual at North Park, myself included, must be quiet and follow the lead of our sisters and brothers of color. As author Bryan Stevenson explains in his book, Just Mercy, ignoring history will never erase it or absolve us of the ramifications. But perhaps it is writer Ta-Nehisi Coates that most accurately identifies both the problem at hand and its potential consequences by revealing, “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”