Movements have a funny way of losing authenticity and believable grammar when their language is co-opted by abstraction, like when a Christian movement professes to love God and either hates or ignores their neighbor. Wendell Berry writes, “People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves.” As a child during the ‘80s, I watched (unaware) the multiculturalism movement gain momentum in public education. Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like without the culturally in-forming “Ad Council” broadcasts and public service announcements from my youth, reminding me and my classmates that hate language and discrimination are both wrong and morally passé. Imagine my shock when I began to hate, and further, when I began to feel hated. Didn’t I grow up in a “tolerant” society with “evolved” speech that didn’t allow for racism or ethnocentrism of any kind? Turns out movements, even really good ones, fail sometimes.
I can remember attending a church picnic around the spring of 1987. Collections of families and organized groups commonly gathered at Caldwell Park in Redding, Calf., to spend the afternoon. Around tables and barbeques, mostly grilling hotdogs and spooning potato salad, people seemed to experience life in its fullest.
I spent most of my childhood among white children, their parents and their families. Nevertheless, ingrained in me was this unspoken assumption that ethnic minorities never ventured out of their houses or into our parks (terrible, I know!). This day in the park was different for two reasons. First, I noticed a large Hispanic family eating together and enjoying each other’s company at a table nearby ours. Second, the boys I normally hung out with at these events had invited along a kid I had never met, a gregarious dark-skinned boy.
It’s no wonder, as I walked among the picnics with my buddies, that I was intimidated by this new acquaintance from an unknown background. I’m sure my family’s opinions, which they had shaped along the border of their home state Texas, helped to shape my own thoughts about Hispanics and dark-skinned individuals in general. The truth is, my conservative neighborhood and family had economic as well as political motivations to scare me away from minorities. I heard stories that left me feeling vulnerable and insecure as a kid.
When my friends paid more attention to this new guy than me, I became jealous and full of insecurity. Perhaps I thought to myself, “This is just what I expected!”
The large Hispanic family, speaking a chorus of syllables and notes I didn’t understand, mingled with each other as they stood holding food. Their children chased each other through the maze of adult appendages, laughing and tagging the shoulder or waist in front of them. Perhaps they were unaware of us, much like we were unaware of them. That quickly changed. As soon as the thought came to me, I made use of the opportunity to be “funny.” I pointed to the Hispanic table and said to our new dark-skinned acquaintance, “Hey, why don’t you go hang out with your family!” This nameless and placeless boy, along with my friends, looked at me with disgust.
I responded tentatively by blaming his ambiguous racial makeup, “What are you anyway?” Maybe I knew when I said it that he had every right to fire back what he wanted to say and eventually did say. Maybe it had already sunk in, the guilt and failure that revealed a festering wound (hidden no more). Coldly and more justified than I, he spoke from the wound of racism, and made fun of me.
I wouldn’t have thought of myself as rude or, especially not, as racist. Most white Americans growing up during these last 40 years have been exposed to such a huge quantity of civil rights language and metaphors I am sure we know it like the back of our hand. Still, I sometimes wonder if it means anything to us besides our abstract value for “diversity.”
What was left for me to say? There could be no excuse for what I did. We were left frozen by the knowledge that racism had reached into our boyhood and pulled out ugliness. I wish I could say that I learned from this experience, that I never repeated those words (or similar ones) again. I wish I could say the wound I inflicted on myself and those around me (particularly the boy) has healed without any scarring. I’m afraid the void I cast that day on the Hispanic family at the park and this new acquaintance of mine has come back to haunt me time and time again. In fact, the only way I see this abstraction finally taking shape, becoming fully human, is through our stories and conversations about racism and fear. Ignoring or denying the reality and influence of hate has given it the opportunity to steal our innocence and to keep us afraid.
A movement, much like mystery, can too easily become reductionistic, routine and average (especially the larger it gets). The best movements I have been a part of have been ones that challenge me to rethink everything, even the thoughts I have about their particular causes. Though I’m not convinced multiculturalism as a movement goes far enough in the way of meaning what they say, I am grateful for being invited into a conversation that (when their language is authentic) means responsibility and justice for the weak. The world, I think, is ready for this kind of conversation. We are looking for some new possibilities, a re-imagined speech. Whatever it is that emerges, I am ready to declare myself its newest “unofficial” member.