Identity, Race, and Multiculturalism: Teaching History in a Would-Be Unified World

Earl Lewis, October 1994

In one African folktale the villager Hornbill ignores all entreaties to fully join his community. He refuses to attend all community functions and learn the rituals that tie him to all others. One day his child falls ill and dies. Hornbill finds that he needs the help of the very people he ignored; only this time, they ignore him. When he asks for the location of the cemetery they simply respond, "I don't know." He walks and walks and walks with the rapidly decaying corpse of his child perched on his head.

The futile sojourn of the lost father holds much meaning for our times. Like the villager, too many of us have narrowed our vision of community, and our responsibility to it. We look the other way when the elders and the young call for our assistance. Instead of reaching out and learning more about our "village," our "family," and our ancestors in a global sense, we embrace the particular needs of our own—people, nation, or race—while ignoring that which defines our differences and commonalities. Unless we learn new ways of approaching the old and envisioning the new, we too face the burden of carrying the decaying corpse of a failed tradition.

Many recognize the urgency of my appeal and the difficulty of the task ahead. Over the last two years, for example, we have been confronted by a shocking variety of murderous campaigns. Think of the vivid and horrifying scenes that fill the daily newspapers and crowd the evening news on television: Hutu murdering Tutsi and Tutsi killing Hutu; Sarajevo burning because ethnic passions and long-simmering hatred cancel reason and compassion. What of the fetid bodies of Inkatha supporters lying next to an armored tank first called to our attention by an antiseptic headline in the New York Times? Recall as well the pictures of a smoke-choked Los Angeles during and after the latest urban uprising.

Nor is a simple racial reductionism the key to understanding the world in which we live. What happened in Los Angeles and numerous other cities is more than America's continuous dilemma being played out between black and white. How many times did you hear commentators describe the episode in black and white terms when the accompanying footage or photograph offered another reality?

Rethinking Our View of Community

At first glance the men and women of Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Sarajevo, and Kigali might seem far removed from the particulars of our enterprise. But the fury in Rwanda, Bosnia, South Africa, and the United States calls into question our understanding of the "world," the ways we teach ourselves and others, and our need to fundamentally rethink the role and purpose of history education. If, like the African villager, we are to be taught to appreciate our village, the acquiring of a fuller perspective is needed, one that connects that which is national and that which is global.

As Benedict Anderson has asserted, we have created profoundly effective means of perpetuating the viability of the nation-state that crowded out all other visions. Without alternative constructions, we are left with what we created, an imagined community. Consider the power of such constructions. We all envision our nation or community as exclusionary. Otherwise, we would not require permits to enter, elaborate procedures to join, and exact a price for those who willfully leave it. It is also viewed as sovereign. Therefore, we don't have to worry over its confiscation. These rituals of belonging ensure its creation and endurance. Writes Anderson, "It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." This communion pivots on the forging of national or domestic identities.

Yet, the manufacturing of these national identities reinforces differences at precisely the moment in history when we are experiencing the greatest global economic interdependence. As Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has written, the world is in the throes of a radical realignment, the by-product of which is a global economy where nation-states do little more than house capital. In fact, one could say ours is a time of considerable disequilibrium—social, political, and otherwise. How is it and why is it that at the exact time nation-states have less of a say in economic terms, they assume an inflated role in the imagination of countless people worldwide? Is this merely an attempt to reestablish equilibrium? Is it because of a paucity of alternative models that we can imagine no other structure than the nation-state?

Shift to any classroom in America. The morning bell rings and the children, from memory, recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They stand before the flag that ties them to this land. Many go on to sing the national anthem. Others learn from a curriculum that encourages them to memorize more discrete information, much of which glorifies their achievements. Is this kind of patriotism bad? It need not be. If the day's opening moments are examined and connected to the world at large, the forging of domestic identities can be a worthy undertaking. If the social studies teacher also talks about the globalization of American business, ideals, and values, nationalism will not become the tool of limited visions.

Regrettably, in this age of unification, the forging of domestic identities exposes the underbelly of the human condition, especially our inability to live locally and think globally. Those same rituals of inclusion that tie together distant members of a nation can be used to divide a nation. Most nations are peopled by individuals who live in several overlapping communities and have multiple affiliations. Membership in these multiple communities, history has shown, has left individuals and their aggregates open to attack. For religious, ethnic, or racial reasons, groups have found themselves defined, for instance, as un-American, un-German, un-Rwandan, often because long-held prejudices quickly enable reasonable people to suspend reason and to play the horrible and frequently tragic game of identifying and castigating the "other."

Some of you may recall the tragic encounter between an Asian American and two unemployed white in Detroit. According to published accounts, the two autoworkers, seduced by reason imbibed from a bottle, engaged in the old and powerful game of identifying the "other." Vincent Chin, a third-generation American of Chinese origin, and his friends stopped by a bar after work to celebrate his upcoming marriage. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz turned to Chin, thinking him Japanese (a "Jap"), and derisively accused him of taking their jobs. A fight erupted that ended sometime later in front of a McDonald's. Ebens and Nitz, after securing a baseball bat, chased Chin down the street. One held him while the other used his head for batting practice. Vincent Chin died that day in July 1982, the victim of international markets and domestic identities.

"Race," or our notions of race, represents a global sign. It is the one thing we all think we know about the other. How many have played the racial guessing game? How many of us have looked at someone of ambiguous parentage and tried to figure them out? Where did you place them? How many of you have even played the game recently? Regrettably and frighteningly, the game, which is neither isolated nor nationally restricted, can quickly turn deadly.

Antidotes to the "Game of Difference"

But is the antidote for racist thinking or the game of difference infusing the curriculum with a heavy dosage of multiculturalism? Would knowing more about the numerous contributions of Asian Americans have saved Vincent Chin's life? Sadly, I am afraid not. The study of the diverse contributions of this nation's many people in isolation from a sound critique of the meaning of race, the globalization of the economy, and the forging of domestic identities will prove a valiant but ultimately hollow undertaking.

This interlocked approach hinges on our ability to modify both what we teach and how we teach it. Three developments seem crucial. First, a more concerted effort must be undertaken to talk about race as a social construction, as a metalanguage. Second, internationalization must be considered as more than the study of the foreign, the removed, yes, even the exotic. The link between that which is international and that which is domestic must be explored. And third, any substantive change in the curriculum that fails in the process to directly confront the issues of domestic identities consciously sidesteps the most vexing and potentially the most damning problem confronting the world at large.

Humanists and biologists have resoundingly interrogated the notion of race as a biologically determined category. The discussion has been aided by important shifts in the politics of intellectual inquiry. The firm belief in the immutable boundaries of racial taxonomy has disappeared. Some geneticists and anthropologists have even reported that "Eve," symbolic mother of humankind, was most probably African. Moreover, the majority of geneticists agree that when we isolate certain genetic characteristics and thereby create population groupings we call races, we find greater intragroup variation than intergroup variation. As a consequence, race loses its analytical power as an explanatory category because we could as easily talk about the big-foot "race" and the brown-eyed "race."

When placed in historical context, the concept of race retains its importance as a useful way of understanding the world. We should remember that to talk about race is to talk about power. As Winthrop Jordan and George Fredrickson have ably indicated, Americans with the power to impose their viewpoints subdivided the overall population into social groupings called races for self-serving purposes. Europeans were invented as whites; Africans as blacks; Indians as reds; Asians as yellows; and all others as browns or mongrels. In the social order that followed, those created as whites were always superior; the others fought for the position of the best of the least, although the imprecision in classification made for numerous exceptions and considerable variation.

In the process, race ceased to be merely a concept, it became an ideology. In stressing this point, Barbara Fields writes, "Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons." Indeed, "race" has assumed all the properties of an ideology: It is the doctrine, myth, and symbol accepted by a large segment of the population. At the same time, is "race" any less an idea? It is also an impression, notion, or conception, after all.

Consider for a moment the enveloping power of the concept, and its ability to distort, transform, and empower. What, asks Evelyn Higginbotham, makes some hair "good" and other hair "bad"? What makes some speech "correct" and other speech "incorrect"? What makes some dress "loud" and other dress "fashionable"? In answering these questions, Higginbotham observes, "Race serves as a 'global sign,' a 'metalanguage,' since it speaks about and lends meaning to a host of terms and expressions, to myriad aspects of life that would otherwise fall outside the referential domain of race." Given this, the transfiguring power of "race" as a global sign must be studied by all historians.

Because of race's function as a metalanguage, we fail to adequately prepare our students if internationalization means only studying a foreign country—e.g., South African culture, South African society, South African business expectations. Of course, these are important areas of study. Yet, in this instance, I think that an area studies approach is woefully inadequate. One of the greatest challenges we all face is linking the international and the domestic, and not simply because of the changing demographic makeup of America. The overall pace and depth of change has been staggering the last quarter century, a pattern that does not seem to be abating. As a result, we must consciously and carefully reconsider what it means to be educated. If multiculturalism is going to play a role in transforming what we teach, then it needs refitting.

Debating Power/ Debating Multiculturalism

Stripped of its trappings and intellectual hijinks, the raucous debate over multiculturalism is ultimately about power—and often about race. We have all heard the cries and complaints on both sides of the intellectual fault line. Proponents champion multiculturalism as the answer to the educational malaise ostensibly gripping America's urban schools. Bolstered by demographic projections that show a coloring of America, they note with a certitude that students of color need to know more about their contributions. More than that, some maintain multiculturalism challenges us to consider the contributions of non-Europeans; they view the approach as an alternative to a Eurocentric perspective. Detractors raise the specter of unbridled irrationality. We are told that claims are exaggerated, differences rather than commonalities are underscored, and a certain multicultural perspective can potentially undermine the integrity of the republic—culminating in the disuniting of America. Depending on where they sit, members of each group struggle to hold or wrest power—the power to define and lay claim to the "true" history of America and the world.

Conflict may be healthy, but if my children and their classmates are going to find us useful, we need to stop and ask a number of searching questions. First, what do we mean by multiculturalism? At my university and in countless school districts around the country, it simply means multiracial or multiethnic. Does such a formulation, when we so circumscribe its practical meaning, allow us to unlock the full potential of the concept? Most people and their histories are informed by a multiplicity of factors—racial, ethnic, religious, social, cultural, ethnic, sexual, and gender. When do we get to emphasize the multi and the cultural?

Second, is multiculturalism more than a cynical game of political appeasement played by a perplexing array of educators? Sure, some are well intentioned; others less so, I fear. But as a group, irrespective of political orientation or ideological leaning, real attention to curriculum innovation loses out to the Brylcream approach to historical understanding. Remember the old ads: "A little dab will do ya." Well, the Brylcream crowd favors a little dab of this group and a little dab of that group. As a result, the signal contributions of racial and ethnic minorities are removed from the sidebars in history texts, but their presence does little to alter the traditional narrative. Is this satisfactory? Surely we need to tilt the lens of analysis more than we have in the past. More important, multiculturalism should mean more than multiethnic and multiracial. It should include an analysis of various religious perspectives, discussions of sexual orientation, and a systematic and probing analysis of what is meant by cultural—without sacrificing critical racial and ethnic perspectives.

Third, should not multiculturalism be a conversation about more than Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism given the rich and interrelated histories of this nation's overlapping racial and ethnic diasporas? Yet, a series of articles in the November 1992 Washington Post conflate multiculturalism and Afrocentrism. Moreover, many historians use the two synonymously as well. In a much-discussed rejoinder to curriculum reform in New York state, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., blasted the proponents of Afrocentrism as radical multiculturalists. Notwithstanding the merits or demerits of Schlesinger's characterizations, the question of what is multicultural warrants more critical attention than heretofore accorded.

Consider for a moment the merits of Afrocentrism. Its basic precepts are as old as the study of African people. In one way or another W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and St. Clair Drake were African-centered scholars. They conducted research that maintained that we could see the world through the eyes of African Americans, and learned a lot about this nation and its history in the process. Long before the generation I represent entered the academy, they realized that such a perspective was about more than oppression and victimization. If you read the bulk of their scholarship comparisons with Europeans were instructive but seldom used as a social baseline to mark deviations from the norm.

Then, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this area of inquiry was codified into a mostly coherent field called first black, and later Afro-American, Africana, and now African American studies. As Darlene Clark Hine observed a couple of years ago, African Americanists fit broadly into three groups: traditionalists, meaning scholars, who except for their subject matter, look like others in their departments; originists, those scholars concerned with ancient contributions of African people and their contemporary applications; and feminists, scholars attempting to formulate an Afro-centered feminist epistemology. Yet, seldom does this broad gathering get acknowledged as part of the Afro-centered thrust. It should, and perhaps then we would be in a better position to separate the useful from the vacuous. For example, I would never teach a child that Beethoven was black. If one is truly a multiculturalist, an essentialist construction of identity won't do. How can Beethoven be black if he didn't know it, if he acted and behaved as any European of his era and social position?

At the same time, I can't ignore the politics of intellectual inquiry. Twenty years later there are still those who smugly and arrogantly dismiss Africana Studies as a reactionary impulse engineered by racial chauvinists hell-bent on promulgating their own orthodoxies: "Voodoo," we have been told in the New York Review of Books. Upon calmer reflection, most of us know this is not the case. One is even inclined to ask: why the fuss? Clearly those who would relegate women's, African American, or American studies to the margins have read little in the last ten to fifteen years. Otherwise, you ask how could any reasonably educated person, who truly believes in objectivity, canonicity, and meritocracy, conclude that the expansion of our knowledge base is illiberal, simply political, and thus to be dismissed as inappropriate advocacy?

The Reconstruction of "-centrisms"

Ironically, however, in a need to defend their place in the academy, many have sought a spurious symmetry. Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and others, on too many occasions, would have us believe that all of worth flows from ancient Greece. The ancients it seems were all knowing, forever timely, the beginning and—it appears—the end. In modern renderings, the ancients became Europeans, and once claimed, they became white. The marriage between "whiteness" and a Eurocentric perspective troubles many of us. Not because we seek to deny the accomplishments of members of the European diaspora, but because such an orientation has limitations. As Du Bois signaled in his 1920 musings on the souls of white folk, Europeans were created as white, not born as such. Certain uncritical claims ignore centuries of historical conflict, histories that confound contemporary perceptions.

Nonetheless, the slippery slope of intellectual reason has produced a counterargument that inverts but does not improve upon the dominant paradigm. Some originists accept—somewhat uncritically—the logic of European hegemony. They fail to question the appropriateness of constructing all-knowing ancients; instead, they challenge the right of others to proclaim that their ancients are more universal. In the view of the late Cheikh Anta Diop and others, civilization as we know it began in Egypt; the Egyptians in turn trained, taught, and educated the Greeks. Indeed, there is evidence to support such a construction of history, if one believes that the substitution of African hegemony for European hegemony is what we need. Yet, we know that for every Pharaoh there were slaves and peasants who experienced a different reality; for every Plato and Socrates there were the men, women, and children who lived on the margins of a privileged world. What do we as scholars say about them? Should our goal be the positing of countermodels of centricity or should it be about questioning all orthodoxies in any form? This does not mean that we reject Afrocentricity; it simply means that we carefully delineate the various forms of Afrocentricity and recognize that Afrocentricity and multiculturalism are not always the same thing. Most important, it means that any discussion of multiculturalism includes an examination of the creation of nationalism and the construction of racial identities.

Let me conclude by returning to the parable of the villager who forsook his community. By all indications we live in a global village, although most of us lack the visual acuity to see beyond the borders of our own sanctuaries. When we do, we don't like what we see. Everyone else looks like an outsider, a stranger, a foreigner. Teaching history in a would-be unified world calls for a new kind of partnership and a broader vision of community. Publishers must have the courage to stand up to pressure groups, especially those who would eliminate important figures because those figures inflame sensibilities. Historians must be free to think globally and link the political, social, intellectual, and economic. And all scholars must be encouraged to investigate the meaning and practice of race. Mostly, the educational community should embrace the opportunity to debate the time's most salient issues, among them the forging of domestic identities, race, and multiculturalism.


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Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. "African American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race." Signs 17 (winter 1992): 251–74.

Hine, Darlene Clark. "The Black Studies Movement: Afrocentric-Traditionalist-Feminist Paradigms for the Next Stage." Black Scholar 22 (summer 1992): 11–18.

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—Earl Lewis, former director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and associate professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is completing a book of essays titled Skin Color: Race and Its Multiple Meanings in Twentieth-Century America. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 1992 AHA plenary session on teaching history in a would-be unified world.