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A Problematic Multiculturalism (yeah, yeah, a Star Trek Post) 22 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Race & Ethnicity.

voyagr11.jpgAt the risk of revealing my total nerddom (for those who don’t know already that I’m addicted to the Sci-Fi channel and regularly play Dungeons & Dragons), I’ve been watching Star Trek Voyager on DVD (thanks be to netflix.com!) with my best friend. [In my defense, I’m not as nerdy as these people or these…seriously, I’m not!]

Anyway, in an episode I watched last night, one of the subplots was about B’Elanna (the fetching half-Klingong/half-Human to your left) grappling with her Klingon heritage and trying to decide whether or not she was going to honor a particular Klingon ritual of getting poked with pain sticks after eating a scrumptuous blood pie. There are a series of scenes where crewmates try to convince her to go through with the ritual.

What prompted this odd and meandering post on my blog was the arguments her crewmates used to push her into the ritual. One crewmate argues, “But it’s who you are!” and another says, “You’ve been running away from who you are your entire life.” The problem here is that this kind of sentiment is at the heart of racism itself. Taking a step back, racism is the belief that a certain (arbitrary) set of physical attributes is connected to a corresponding set of personality and cultural attributes; racism assumes that this connection is biological, inherent, and essential to the individual; and racism finally assumes that an individual’s culture and personality are visible on their bodies for everyone to see. To say this another way, racism believes that cultural and personal characteristics are biological and inborn. Thus, in a racist paradigm, B’Elanna must undergo a Klingon ritual because it is who she is — despite the fact that, in the story, she was raised on earth by her human father.

We live in a nation (indeed in a world) where people are migrating at a rate heretofore unknown and where people in every country in the world now have contact with people who are both physically and culturally different. This has been an increasingly important dimension of human life over the last 500 years following the spread of European influence around the globe and colonization and intermixing of cultures. Today, technology allows migrant groups to maintain connections to their ‘home cultures’ and to resist cultural integration and to even build stronger ethnic boundaries around the world. In a pluralistic democracy, this has necessitated the various theories of multiculturalism, especially in Europe, North America and Australia. The problem comes when trying to figure out how to organize a society that respects cultural diversity without becoming a society that requires cultural diversity.

The common way that we talk about multiculturalism is in terms of “identity” (it’s who you are) and we commonly draw ethnic boundaries based on the relationship between identity and cultural practice through creation of ethnic normatives (e.g., Latinos speak Spanish). These boundaries are drawn both within and without ethnic groups. The problem is that by attaching the cultural practice to the identity, it ends up essentializing the practice, that is, it makes racist claims. Multiculturalism has the weird effect of helping us to see external racism (it’s obvious to when a white person tells a black person that they can’t dance ballet because they’re black) while blinding us to multicultural racism that seeks to maintain cultural difference (it’s less obviously racist when one Latino says to another that they are ‘traitors’ because they can’t speak spanish). In our well-meaning efforts to allow people the right and ability to create and practice whatever culture they want, we inadvertantly end up reifying racist boundaries.

B’Elanna isn’t biologically connected to a ritual or cultural practice. She is who she was raised to be and who she choses to be. Traditions can be important identity markers, but they are by their nature cultural boundary markers. And cultural boundary markers in a free society must be porous and permeable. Culture is a choice, not a biological destiny. The tension in a pluralistic democracy is that white boys listen to hip hop, black folks own mansions, Asian Americans become Shakespeare scholars, and Latinos run for office wearing American flag lapel pins. The ethnic boundares in practice really are fluid and porous. But the social costs of crossing the boundaries in any direction can be high (loss of identity, loss of community, loss of family), becauase we nostalgically cling to our racist assumptions.



1. mattblack - 25 July 2006

Sweet, a Star Trek post. It’s really courageous of you to take on Klingon/Human identity politics. Maybe it’s a symptom of being a white, middle-class, male but I have a hard time identifying with my own ethnic background. I tend to see identity as a purely personal thing (i.e. who I am has less to do with what color I am than the differences between me and my biological siblings). At the same time, I don’t think there’s any major problem honoring your cultural, religious, or racial background if you make a space for the individual within that mass association. I think equality happens on an individual level and we only run into problems when we insist individuals conform to a broader category (and of course certainly when those broader categories are used as a basis for discrimination).

2. J. Todd Ormsbee - 25 July 2006

Yeah, white folks definitely have ethnicities, but they are “hidden” by their privilege in the society. I’m sure when you lived in japan that you were hyper aware of your ethnic identity, even if you didn’t think of it in those terms.

My problem with tradition, ethnicity, and “heritage” is when it gets reified and normative, as if it were something “real” and eternal and as something you *have* to do. It all feels really constricting to me. Like you, I recognize that I feel that from the posiiton of a white guy in the U.S. But then I watch my students go through weird shit, like they can’t learn to write English because then their “race traitors” or that just by being in college they’re “acting white.” I literally had a Latina (mexican american) tell a kid whose parents are from guatemala that he wasn’t a real hispanic because he was eating cheetos. What the fuck? I realize that’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the dynamic that makes me uncomfortable.

I do understand why minority communities draw such rigid boundaries, but I’m bothered by other perhaps unintended consequences.

3. molly_o - 31 July 2006

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about cultural identity a lot lately, b/c Mark and I are taking the first steps toward adoptive parenting, and (whether we go domestic or international) are unlikely to have a white child. We don’t want to ignore the cultural identity issues, because sooner or later our kid’s gonna be out in the world dealing with other people’s assumptions. On the other hand, as a white couple, helping our child develop a non-white cultural identity will be a challenge. It’s a short distance between giving a child the tools to cross cultural boundaries (making them more porous) and reinforcing those cultural boundaries (making them less porous).

From that perspective, and sticking with B’Ellana as an example, I probably *would* encourage her to go through the Klingon ritual — not because it’s “who she is” (b/c the whole ancestry is destiny thing is just ugh), but because in the long run having that experience might put her on surer footing in her interactions with other Klingons, and possibly help her feel less conflicted about being part Klingon.

Have you watched Stargate:Atlantis at all? I never watched SG1, but I’m hooked on the spin-off. It’s a weird show — very much like the original Trek (each week, the away team, which inexplicably includes most of the senior personnel, visits a new planet and wacky hijinks ensue). The writers have a frustrating tendency to come up with storylines that pose juicy ethical dilemmas and then either totally ignore the ethics or have the (reasonably intelligent) characters spout totally bogus argument for plot reasons.

4. Todd - 31 July 2006

Mollster! I love hearing from you on the blog. it’s been too long since we hung out.

So the adoption thing is VERY cool. Congrats! You’ll have to tell me how that goes and your experiences with it. I’m seriously considering starting the process when I get back from Turkey (if I get the Fulbright) in 2008.

I think the mixed-race ethnicity thing gets incredibly muddy in the U.S. because we are so attached to our unspoken assumptions about race and ethnicity. There’s a great article you should read by Vincent J. Cheng in a collection called Inauthentic: The Anxiety over Culture and Identity from Rutgers UP. It’s academic but also personal, as he is in a mixed race/ethnicity/religion relationship (he’s from Taiwan and his wife is Jewish American); he himself was raised all over the world and so doesn’t have a clear ethnic identity himself; and they have adopted children from China whom they are raising to be Jewish. The two articles I’d recommend from the collection are “International Adoption and Identity: The Anxiety over Authentic Cultural Heritage.”

SG-A is funny, although Rodnery is almost irritating enough to keep me from watching. Unfortunately, only the Colonel is hot, so there’s not much slashiness going on for me (but last week’s episode was a cross over with the now decrepit SG=1 and so Colonel from SG-A and Colonel from SG-1/Farscape should have really had a snog).

5. MacArthur Series reBlog » A Problematic Multiculturalism (yeah, yeah, a Star Trek Post) - 1 August 2006

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