America Struggles in the School of Diversity
|Jean-Wilson Muscadin Jr. ’03 is a business administration major and computer science
minor at IWU. Among his many extracurricular activities, he is president of the Black
Student Union and a Student Senate representative. After graduation, he plans to pursue
an M.B.A. degree and a career in the financial services industry.
Black Student Union President Jean-Wilson Muscadin Jr. ’03 writes on the need for
a new model for cultural acceptance in America.
Like most schoolchildren, I commonly heard the phrase ‘melting pot’ used by teachers
and in textbooks to describe America’s people. “We are a great nation because we have
so many different types of people all coming together (as one).” As I have matured,
I have come to realize this melting-pot ideal is a misrepresentation of America.
In high school chemistry, I learned about molecular structures. When an object is
melted, its chemical composition is changed. Molecules that were once tightly packed
together in solid form become loose and detached in liquid form. Applying this principle
to the concept of a cultural melting pot implies that to become American one has to
change his or her cultural makeup and release the values and ideals of one’s heritage
to adopt American ones. Our values become loose, detached, and liquid.
Is this how we want America to accept and embrace diversity? Turning Mexican food
into Taco Bell is not accepting or embracing diversity. The melting-pot metaphor has
been challenged by newer examples such as a stir-fry or a salad bowl. These are examples
in which the contents are not changed, but the individual ingredients add to the taste
and flavor. Putting stir-fry or a salad in a blender would be quite an unpleasant
As America attempts to graduate to the next level in the school of diversity, we will
have to stop trying to change our people and work harder to understand, accept, and
embrace our people and the variety of cultures they represent. Too often we are closed-minded
to things that differ from our long-established norms because what is familiar to
us seems best.
How do we go about understanding our own people? America is the most culturally and
ethnically diverse country in the world. Yet our education system, particularly at
the primary and secondary levels, remains stubbornly Eurocentric. I remember, as a
high school student, questioning why every subject seemed to begin in Europe and how
little I knew about Asian, African, South American, and Native American cultures.
I could tell you about every Anglo king and queen—from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth
II—but I have no historical perspective on African kingdoms or Chinese dynasties.
Our survival as a nation and as global citizens depends upon our ability to understand
the perspectives of our fellow citizens—domestic and global. February, for example,
is recognized as Black History Month, and should be an occasion when all Americans
take time to learn about and celebrate the history and culture of our African-American
citizens. Instead, most Americans scarcely pay attention to this history, and our
mainstream media and schools hardly encourage them to do otherwise. Rationalizations
of slavery, a paragraph on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a sentence on Malcolm X, and
a footnote on Rosa Parks are not sufficient to aid the cause of knowledge. But with
a better grasp of the true meaning of diversity, we can use Black History Month as
an opportunity to replace such ignorance with understanding.
For those of us fortunate enough to attend a college or university, the journey from
ignorance to understanding becomes more of a possibility. During this transition from
childhood to adulthood, we learn to define ourselves in the context of our environment.
We dig into a deeper level of understanding of disciplines as we question professionals
and their perspectives. The fundamental virtue of a liberal arts institution like
Illinois Wesleyan is its support of the idea that there is more than one right answer,
and more than one perspective. As a university, we pride ourselves on the breadth
of our knowledge, not the depth of one specific topic. Our classrooms, organizations,
and residence halls contain people from many backgrounds. We as students may have
different views, values, and perspectives but strive to create an inclusive atmosphere
that fosters higher learning.
The rest of America could learn a lesson from this liberal arts model. Diversity is
not just a political buzzword; it is a decision, an understanding, a lifestyle. Diversity,
for example, means that liberals and conservatives can compromise and find common
ground. Embracing diversity will be the challenge in America for decades to come,
for it is the soul of America.
To meet this challenge, Americans will first have to learn to leave their cherished
melting-pot ideal behind and learn to appreciate cultures the way they really are.
Secondly, we have to understand that our differences only add to our depth as a nation.
Lastly, we have to do more to recognize the world around us and do a better job of
understanding issues with a global perspective. These will be the lessons Americans
will have to grasp before we can finally graduate from the school of diversity.