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The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding’

In response to:

The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding from the October 9, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

I have several responses to K.A. Appiah’s article “The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding” [NYR, October 9, 1997].

First, contrary to Appiah’s claim that “White people rarely think of anything in their culture as white…,” I suggest that just the opposite obtains. Any given White individual (whether of Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Croatian, WASP, etc. background) typically collapses his/her White-ethnic self into a fantasy unitarian “White-self.” So that, yes, even when praising Saint Patrick on Saint Patrick’s Day, praising Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day, etc. etc., Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans respectively are simultaneously engaging or affirming their fantasy “White-self.” And these are clearly what might be called “Whiteness rituals.” Above all, the fantasy White-self that mentally or emotively supercedes their ethnic-self (at cuisine celebration events, music celebration events, religious celebration events, etc.) is always or at least heavily not Black or not Native American.

Sure, today’s American ethnic communities “share” culture features, lots of them, as Appiah points out. But Appiah misconstrues the deeper reality of such shared culture features, like American English and religious forms. American culture-sharing dynamics function significantly at the artificial level—emotively and psychologically. Put another way, we share more in the way of “culture artifacts” than we share in the way of genuine “culture meanings.” And this is what Professor Nathan Glazer has uncovered in his fascinating and protracted retreat from a right-wing antipathy to multiculturalism. A retreat that I welcome on his part, and find it most odd that a leading faculty figure in Harvard University’s Afro-American Studies Department like K.A. Appiah (himself of Black-world culture origins) does not equally welcome Professor Glazer’s journey back to an embrace of multiculturalism, today’s genuine variant of classic American cultural pluralism.

And from badly misconstruing the difference between sharing “culture artifacts” and sharing “culture meanings” (lived and mutually respected culture patterns), K.A. Appiah almost belittles what can only be called living cultural clusters among non-White American communities. “Hispanic” is not a kind of trick-bag label or category, as K.A. Appiah would have us believe. If one reads and/or undertakes fieldwork among the units of nationalities that comprise “Hispanic” or “Latino”-Americans, the Appiah trick-bag hypothesis dissolves in its own wrong-headedness. And the same holds for Appiah’s historically ill-informed view of “Black culture” as another trick-bag category. The notion propagated by Appiah that the self-chosen nomenclature of multimillions of Latino citizens and African-American citizens is a kind of game on the part of poor-reasoning non-Whites seeking “authen[ticized] identities” is absurd. It is also a put-down notion, close to an insult if you will.

Finally, when resorting to the historical record to defend this put-down notion demeanor toward Latino-Americans and African-Americans, K.A. Appiah gets it all wrong again. He tells us, for instance, that

…Before the judicial decisions from Brown to Loving and the civil rights legislation of the Sixties, the public recognition of a unique black culture was not exactly the most important item on blacks’ political agenda. Black people wanted recognition by state and society of what they had in common with white people: their humanity and those famous “inalienable rights.” In part as a result of these legal changes, middle-class African-Americans, who have always been quite close in language and religion to white Protestants, are now in many cultural and economic respects even closer. And just at this moment, many of them have been attracted to an Afrocentrism that demands the recognition in public life of the cultural distinctness of African-Americans.

Now the mish-mash historical quality of the foregoing cannot be set straight here. Suffice it to say that K.A. Appiah would benefit from reading the works of, say, Dr. Martin Delaney, Alexander Crummell, Henry McNeal Turner, James Weldon Johnson, the many Black writers of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and even the less sophisticated Marcus Garvey, just for starters. African-Americans, in other words, did not wake-up-post-Civil Rights era and commence articulation around a cultural patterning of their American reality. Nor did Latino-American citizens either by the way, as the history of LULAC and similar organizations demonstrates. The K.A. Appiah theory that multiculturalist articulation in our era is the work of a lot of bourgeois opportunists among Blacks, Latinos, and other cultural clusters too is a lot of bunkum. It is marvellous that Professor Nathan Glazer has seen the light.

Martin Kilson

Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government


K Anthony Appiah replies:

Martin Kilson’s response seems based on a curious construction both of Nathan Glazer’s book (which is far too complexly ambivalent to be described as an “embrace” of anything) and of my review. His argument, so far as I can make it out, is that acknowledging the circumstances in which identities arise effectively denigrates them as “trick-bags.” Unless, that is, the identities in question are white ethnic ones, in which case they really are trick-bags. But identities, stalwart and stubborn things, do not require Mr. Kilson to protect their dignity. Nor do they require the invocation of grand intellectual ancestry. Indeed the interesting point about nineteenth-century black nationalist thinkers like Crummell and Delany is their relative indifference to what we would think of as cultural content. Their nationalism was essentially racial, rather than cultural: for them it was membership in a common race, rather than shared experience of culture, that bound Negroes together.

In 1978, when I first read Crummell and Delany and Bishop Turner in preparing to teach a course on the origins of Pan-Africanism, I was as surprised as my Yale students by the resolutely racial character of this nineteenth-century nationalism and by what we would now call the Eurocentrism of its cultural understanding. I found the paradox of the Eurocentric black nationalist so interesting, in fact, that this was the theme of the beginning section of In My Father’s House, a book I wrote later on the shaping of modern African intellectual life. At Yale in the late Seventies, I often had to struggle to get my students to see them as nationalists at all. In a class in which we have been reading Crummell and Delany at Harvard, my students are engaged with the same paradox. That is a measure of our distance from the nineteenth-century black nationalists. To retrofit them in our modish vocabulary of culture is to misunderstand the way in which their concerns are, and are not, our own.

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