From nobody Fri Jan 13 13:59:55 2006
Newsgroups: soc.culture.african.american,soc.culture.china
Subject: Re: Should we abolish black history month?
From: Haines Brown <>
Message-ID: <>
NNTP-Posting-Date: Sun, 25 Dec 2005 11:53:14 EST
Date: Sun, 25 Dec 2005 16:53:14 GMT

Should we abolish black history month?

By Haines Brown, 24 December 2005

The interest in multiculturalism arose at the end of World War II, when it was widely believed that ignorance about one's neighbors in the world contributed to the racism, xenophobia, and nationalism that served to justify wartime mass murder. Major efforts were undertaken (such as by UNESCO) to encourage the kind of education that would help people become more cosmopolitan and overcome the fears and social insecurity that had fed the war.

It strikes me that things are a little more complicated than this. There seem to be a variety functions that are served by multicultural studies, and we can't very well discuss them without taking these functions into account.

1. By becoming less parochial and narrow minded, one is able to establish in the mind a relationship between one's own culture and that of other peoples. However, it is not a foregone conclusion that one will see some other culture in a positive light; instead one might learn to dislike that culture and reject its customs. However, at least that dislike is now more rational and so can be re-evaluated as necessary. It is often said that violence is a manifestation of irrationality. I'm not sure that's always true, but at least a rational relation with others should reduce some causes of violence.

2. Multicultural studies are sometimes taught with a bias that the culture under study is in some way superior and necessarily admirable. This, of course, is naive and probably one reason for opposition to multicultural studies. However, passing such judgements seems out of place, for we generally don't enter social relationships because of how we judge people, but because we share interests with them. The interests and concerns we share with the rest of the world makes it useful to enter into a constructive relation with people of different cultures, and knowledge of these cultures facilitates such a relationship; it does not require that we pass judgement.

3. Another issue in multicultural studies, I suspect, has nothing to do with the object of study because it offers a way to begin looking upon our own culture as relative and subject to change. The aim here is to liberate us from the tyranny of the past so that we become masters of the future. Of course, for those two would prefer to preserve old values, this flexibility might seem threatening, but the fact is that culture and values always do change. Admitting this does not mean that tradition has no importance. The implied contradiction here between freedom and determinism here is an ideological artifact and can't be presumed true; being able to think critically about our culture does not counter the value of the culture we inherit from the past.

4. Yet another issue is that multicultural studies can serve to rectify an institutional disregard for cultural traditions that are in fact important or are becoming more important in one's social and political environment. For education to adjust to emerging social realities probably requires political intervention. So there's nothing intrinsically wrong when those in leadership positions, in politics and education, to point the institution in a more positive direction. Education that would convery values out of joint with the world will have betrayed the student.

5. While I believe that multicultural studies are useful and necessary, they also seem to rest on a naive view of social realities and systematically underestimates the importance of economic and political interests. It almost seems that the ruling class is trying to manipulate mass education in order to prevent any potential threat to its own interests. The obvious need for multicultural awareness obscures such an agenda behind multicultural study. Some opposition to multiculturalism may be the result of people's intuitive sense that it serves class interests other than their own, so it is important to decide whether multicultural studies can have value independent of these interests. .

We in fact live in a complex society and in a complex world, with interdependency growing rapidly every year. So there can be nothing virtuous about indifference to or ignorance of our social environment. While our own culture remains of crucial importance in our own lives, it is not because our culture is in some mysterious way better than other cultures (it would be silly to suggest this, and it is probably impossible to make value judgements about culture in any case), but because of its real subjective value. This does not make indifference to other cultures a virtue, nor is one's own culture threatened by contact with other cultures.

Someone asked why it was necessary to have an African-American month rather than include some African-American culture and history all year long. Of course, it would be useful to embed multicultural aspects in all fields of study, but there is a good practical reason to have a day, week or month focused on a particular issue.

In many aspects life, a special period of time is set aside for us to focus on something, and the advantage is that it provides a context for its integration. That is, instead of having a culture broken up into various topics (the history of, the sociology of, the art of…), all these aspects are brought together thanks to a special time and place set aside for the whole. For the same reason, it offers a framework for people to join together and contribute their particular insights, such as at international conferences.

— Haines Brown

From nobody Fri Jan 13 14:00:10 2006
Newsgroups: soc.culture.african.american,soc.culture.china
Subject: Re: Should we abolish black history month?
From: Haines Brown <>
Message-ID: <>
NNTP-Posting-Date: Mon, 26 Dec 2005 07:26:06
Date: Mon, 26 Dec 2005 12:26:06 GMT

Jim Walsh <> writes:

> On Sun, 25 Dec 2005 16:53:14 +0000, Haines Brown thought carefully and
> wrote:
>> …. Multicultural studies are sometimes taught with a bias that
>> the culture under study is in some way superior and necessarily
>> admirable.
> Well if it ever happened, it would be silly.
> Multicultural studies means “studying more than one culture”. It
> would not be possible to teach MANY cultures “with a bias that the
> cultureS under study is in some way superior and necessarily
> admirable.”

Yes, superficially my point sounds contradictory, but it is not in fact. Multicultural programs usually imply the institutionalization of several cross-disciplinary area studies taught by people specializing in one area.

The people who teach these areas probably do so in part because they are in love with their specialty, and that love probably contributes to making their courses more interesting and stimulating for students. Someone who teaches calculus probably loves math, and that is a good thing. It seems necessary and beneficial for an area study teacher to be personally biased in that for them the culture they teach seems superior and admirable. My experience suggests that this is the norm, not the exception.

The point of my remark is that this bias, as useful and necessary as it may be for pedagogical reasons, is unscientific and can't be used to support a comparative evaluation of the relative quality of cultures (and so-called “civilizations” or “races”). Someone's love of math does not imply that math is somehow “better” than music. A teacher of East Asian studies knows that his enthusiasm for the area is his own personal bias, and this does not imply that Caribbean studies is about an inferior people or culture.

In short, as a teacher, you know that your bias toward your subject has primarily to do with a personal relationship between you and the subject that you teach, and it has nothing to do with anything intrinsic to the subject itself. It is not a matter of science, but of a personal relationship.

Of course one can compare specific features of cultures, such as their complexity or age, but this is not an evaluation, but the comparison of the results of measurements. Languages, an important part of culture, tend to evolve in the direction of simplification, not complexity, while cultures as a whole probably become more complex as the circle of our social interactions has widened over time. So complexity is not a good or bad thing, and is not a necessary trend for cultural evolution, but is feature appropriate to specific circumstances.

Some people have objected to area studies because the fascination and love for the culture that a teacher would instill in his students strikes them as being in some way a threat or betrayal of the dominant culture of their nation. The word “treason” has even been used. In principle, this charge strikes me as invalid, for the study of outside cultures only widens our cultural horizon and does not replace our own culture by some other culture; cultures are not in competition because there are no cultural wholes that a competition seems to require. However, the dominant culture in one's nation probably has an ideological function, and this function seems to require that it be seen as intrinsically superior. This ideological function is indeed challenged by one's becoming more cosmopolitan. But this has nothing to do with science, but with ideological hegemony.

To address a point you may want to raise at this point, our often arbitrary and subjective demarcation of a subject of study does not imply that it corresponds to an objective coherence. But this is a big and difficult topic. A term such as “Caribbean Studies” should not imply that there's a single culture in the Caribbean. On the other hand, I can't agree with historians who would dismiss the term “feudalism” as an empty convenience, for in this case we are talking about a system. A “culture” is not a system, but a set of persistent behaviors and symbols that are probably not even coherent or consistent.

I wouldn't have expected you to doubt my assumption of a personal bias among people teaching in a multicultural program, and I thought you would instead have strongly objected to my casual remark that there's no objective basis for the comparative evaluation of the intrinsic quality of cultures (or now, also “civilizations” and “races”).

Haines Brown