By George McDowell
McDowell is a retired professor of Rural Development Economics at Virginia Tech. He lives in Christiansburg.
Over the years we Americans have described our culture as a “melting pot” — a sort of gumbo in which people come from all parts of the world, from different nationalities, ethnicities, and culture come and become one. There is however, a problem with the “melting pot” analogy because in America, today and yesterday, we have all manner of people as described, but we still have groups that gather to share and remember the cultures of their origins. America is, I believe, better described by another culinary analogue, the fruit salad. In that fruit salad we can still distinguish the individual components, enjoy them and better enjoy the whole for the mixture of the tastes we have experienced.
Culture is, according to Helen Spencer-Oatley, a British Professor of Applied Linguistics, “a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behavior.” So, culture is a set of norms that guide, though do not necessarily determine, behavior for groups of people. In a multicultural – fruit salad – society there will be conflicting norms over all manner of ideas and behaviors that are based on different cultures. Fortunately, our British origin citizens have quickly abandoned their cultural norm and adopted our cultural norm of driving on the right hand side of the road when in America..
A friend of mine, Ronald Edmonds, goes further in describing culture and interactions between people of different cultural groups. He speaks of “cultural democracy” and “cultural autocracy.” Cultural Autocracy is the inability and unwillingness to either recognize or respect the basis of cultural differences. Cultural Democracy is both the ability to recognize and to respect the basis of cultural differences, and to act on that recognition and respect. One of the examples that Edmonds gave of cultural autocracy and its dangers was the practice by some adoption agencies to place with parents who could not have children, babies with whom they had some physical resemblance. That resemblance would allow the adoptive parents to pretend fertility. For Edmonds the only criteria for the placement of any child was the suitability of the adoptive parents to provide for the child’s growth and development.
White supremacy is the epitome of cultural autocracy — it cares nothing about the differences between different peoples of color and only judges them on the basis that they are not white. The strength of America in the past and in its future is in the degree to which it is culturally democratic. When people come to shared problems from different approaches because of differences in their cultural backgrounds, there is a wider array of alternative choices about how to solve the problem. This is strength of diversity in our society. This is why bagels and humus and pizza are in the mainstream of our American culture. The political forces that seek to use the differences between us to pit us against one another are culturally autocratic and may very well destroy this American experiment.