Multicultural Malaise

The idea of an Ethnic Studies program or department at Harvard has had some trouble rousing all but a handful of minority activists at Harvard, who are having an equally difficult time rousing the administration. But in case it starts catching on, we should realize that Ethnic Studies is not only a bad idea, it's a wrong idea. Simply, and in order of severity, Ethnic Studies is redundant, narrow, ignorant of history, perverse, and inimical to the very idea of a liberal arts education.

The exact proposal--put forth this fall by representatives of LaO (the Puerto Rican students' association), Raza (the Mexican-American students' assoication), and the Asian American Association--asks the College to implement Latino and Asian-American studies courses in traditional departments like English and sociology. Ethnic Studies proponents hope for the eventual establishment of an American studies or American cultures department. These activists complain that they cannot count on the availability of Asian and Latino American Studies courses unless Harvard hired permanent Asian and Latino American Studies professors, who could in turn conduct their research only with the support of an institutionalized Ethnic Studies program or department.

What was not mentioned, however, is that "ethnicity" has already become a major area of interest within the liberal arts disciplines, where it rightly belongs. There are now more courses, for example, dealing with African American history, literature, and culture under Harvard's traditional liberal arts departments than there are in Afro-American Studies. Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence A. Buell, a proponent of Ethnic Studies, characterized Harvard's ethnic studies offerings as "embryotic [sic] right now--scarcely there except for a transient few courses." Buell clearly hasn't paid much attention to the undergraduate education course offerings. Those "transient few courses" currently number over 130 under the heading, "Courses Related to Ethnic Studies in the United States," in the course catalogue.

What about an Ethnic Studies program that borrows offerings from other departments and relies on a centralized tutorial program, like those in Social Studies, History and Literature, or History and Science, to put things in an "ethnic perspective?" The truth is that the idea of Ethnic Studies is much more ambitious than the aim of, say, Social Studies, which justifies itself on the grounds that economics, government, and sociology are best understood as overlapping disciplines that inform each other in important ways. Ethnic Studies, by contrast, makes the claim that "race" or "ethnicity" informs all humanistic--and for some proponents, scientific--disciplines.

More importantly, Ethnic Studies seeks not only to elevate the category of "race" to academic respectability--which it already enjoys without an Ethnic Studies department--but to make it the primary dimension and focus of the study of American history and culture not just for African-Americans but for all ethnic Americans. If African-Americans have Afro-American studies, why not Asian-American studies? Why not Latino American Studies? Behind the apparently unassailable multicultural assumption that all ethnic histories and cultures are equally rich and valuable lies a deeper, tacit, and more insinuating assumption that "race" and "ethnicity" are the critical lenses through which one must view everything social, political, and historical.

This idea of using "race" as the primary analytical category is akin the use of "gender" in Women's Studies, which makes the normative assertion that gender is a critical and overriding factor in explaining women's lives. Afro-Americanists make the same kind of claim when they argue that race has been the overarching factor in explaining the African-American experience, from the first Transatlantic crossing four hundred years ago to the Brown v. Board decision in 1954 to the latest cinematic reincarnation of Malcolm X. The difference is that whereas feminists and Afro-Americanists are upfront about their basic assumptions about race and gender, multiculturalists cravenly hide behind the fuzzy epistemological and moralistic cover of "diversity."

Consider what will happen to Afro-American studies if an American Cultures Department or an Ethnic Studies Program does make its way into Harvard: The next logical step would be to subsume Afro-American Studies under American Studies, making it co-equal to an Asian-American and a Latino-American Studies. But this prospect grates loudly against our common sense: How can you compare African-American history to Asian-American history? How can you compare African-American literature to Latino-American literature?

What makes Asian and Latino American activists demand "representation" in the curriculum is the spurious egalitarian logic that says that "race" should somehow be as important to their lives and in their education as it is for African-Americans. Asian and Latino Americans have undoubtedly suffered from racial innuendo, discrimination, and even violence. But the racism that affects these minorities has not been nearly as pervasive, isolating, recalcitrant, and deeply-rooted as the racism affecting African Americans, whose 400 years' experience of slavery, exploitation, segregation, ghettoization, and struggle has kept them by and large a distinct "nation within a nation." The rural South and the urban ghetto have for just about all African-Americans rich cultural and historical significance. By contrast, while there are admittedly many Chinatowns and barrio bordertowns in America, these enclaves are not germinating places for Latino and Asian American cultures that are strongly shared or felt by most Latinos and Asians in America.

Some Latino and Asian American activists will tell you that Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, and Japanese Americans have been here for more than a century, working in coal mines and building railroads, implying that they deserve--by dint of this contribution--the recognition of their own cultural spaces. They are right, to an extent, but they deserve no more than the descendants of Jewish, Italian, Irish, German, Polish, and West Indian immigrants. All of these groups are properly viewed as inextricable parts of American history, not as distinct histories in themselves. The line--sometimes literally a line--that has separated Blacks from the rest of Americans has been clear throughout American history. There is no such enduring political, social, and economic divide between that rest of America's ethnic groups and this entity called "America."

Perversely, some Latino and Asian American activists want such a line drawn, often operating on the same vulgar assumption held by the racists they oppose, which is that "ethnic" is the opposite of "white." What else does the phrase, "people of color," mean, except that Jewish, Italian, Irish, German, Polish, and other "people without color" are not "ethnic" groups in the politically correct sense? Ethnic Studies proponents begin and end with the principle of exclusion: Since Latino history is excluded from American history courses, let's make a history course that deals exclusively with Latino history! What some Latino and Asian American activists want, in other words, is to institutionalize what they consider to be their own marginalization--the extent of which is highly debatable.

It is no surprise, then, that Asian American and Latino activism pales in comparison--in numbers and in enthusiasm--to the Black and feminist activism that started in the 60's and continues to this day. Unlike the pseudo-radical and derivative character of Asian-American and Latino-American activism in the university, both Afro-American Studies and Women's Studies have truly radical origins. They were driven by an overwhelming need to articulate the experiences of two distinct groups that were previously suppressed and excluded not only from academic discourse, but from mainstream America in general. They were part of a larger grassroots movement that produced civil rights for African Americans and women. The movement for Latino and Asian American studies at Harvard, by contrast, is not grass roots but top-down, spearheaded almost entirely by the officials of campus ethnic organizations and confined to closed meetings between stodgy administrators and frustrated student activists.

Consider this comparison: When African Americans at Harvard protested for the revival of a failing African-American Studies Department in October of 1990, 150 protesters in front of Derek Bok's office chanted, "What do we want? Afro-American faculty. When do we want it? Now!" Three weeks later, 70 students marched to the Harvard-Yale football game in protest. Almost exactly two years later, in October of 1992, The Crimson reported that representatives of Raza, La O, and AAA were "mobilizing to pressure" the University and were considering "such methods" as were employed for Afro-American Studies as "a possibility if administrators fail to listen to their requests." Well, what happened to the protest? Did we miss it? No, the fact is that a protest never got off the ground. As Veronica Rosales dispiritedly recounted in her November 23rd editorial, her plan to stage a new march to the Harvard-Yale game protesting for more minority faculty--this time in solidarity with all the ethnic organizations--met outright apathy from all sides.

If Rosales' experience teaches us anything, it is that Harvard needs a new, more honest approach to ethnic issues. Multiculturalists can no longer pretend to derive their legitimacy from any kind of coalitional "solidarity" among equally oppressed minority groups against an academic establishment they consider inherently recalcitrant to--even threatened by--challenges to white Eurocentric hegemony. A true multiculturalism can and should appeal to the very values that the academy holds dearest: thoroughness, accuracy, and, above all, curiosity. Moreover, we should set aside indiscriminate demands for more ethnic "representation" in the curriculum to embrace a new, more nuanced approach to ethnicity that discriminates between what is properly studied as an "ethnic" matter and what is better understood through other conceptual lens. In other words, what we need is a critical awareness of "race" that is critically aware of the limits of its own usefulness.

This new, critical multiculturalism can be realized through two conditions. First, as discussed above, the subject of "ethnicity" should be studied within the traditional liberal arts disciplines and not the other way around. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we have to re-evaluate the tight, almost suffocating association that has developed between "ethnicity" and pride.

I think we ought to revive the forgotten notion of a liberal arts education, premised on the belief that through education we can and should be able to transcend ourselves, our communities, our time and our place to wander freely and imaginatively across time and place. Vulgar multiculturalism promotes the perverse notion that pride comes about from fencing oneself in, from staking a territory and protecting it from cultural invaders. The idea of a liberal education rejects this deep cynicism and loss of faith in the self. As Wynton Marsalis once commented on his philosophy of music: "Everybody has two heritages, ethnic and human. The human aspects give art its real enduring power... The racial aspect, that's a crutch so you don't have to go out into the world."

Daniel H. Choi '94 is a Social Studies concentrator and a Quincy House resident.