Getting along with family can be tough. Mostly it’s because a family is just randomly thrown together. Whatever baby pops out is the one you have to keep. The parents are (ideally) the same, but genetics, it turns out, can produce quite a bit of variation. None of my three siblings have the same hair color or body type, much less personality and interests. Growing up was a challenge. Sometimes my older brother used me as a wrestling dummy and sometimes I pestered my little sister. Now that we are grown we get on just fine, and though no one would call use intimate, we are undoubtedly a family. Throw in spouses, kids, and cousins and we’ve got a pretty diverse cast that we have no good way to avoid. So beach trips, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas mornings are always interesting and, at times, uncomfortable and, for some, infuriating. Even when we want to change each other, we can’t. But we keep coming back together regardless and are better for it. Despite our variation, we all spring from the same fount. Our unity is the source and guarantor of our diversity.
The opposite is not true. Diversity cannot produce unity where it does not exist. If you meet someone with whom you have no relationship and find you have nothing whatsoever in common, you might talk and argue and yell all night, but after that event you will probably not put in the effort to see them again (unless you share a common interest in vigorous debate). We naturally form our voluntary associations with those who are like us, not only because of our innate biases and need for affirmation, but also simply because in our times of relaxation and in our times of distress we prefer to be comforted and understood over being challenged. But no matter how much you argue with your mother you are not likely to run away from home. You won’t, I hope, leave your spouse over his choice of music or her views on education reform. You might disagree, you might fight in irreconcilable terms, but at the of the day you will still sleep, if not in the same bed, then at least in the same house. You might at times feel hurt or neglected. But then, you also might enjoy it. You might even learn something from it. Always, there is a chance at reconciliation. Estrangements do happen, but they are long and slow in coming.
A nation is not a family. We do not all come from the same places. Not all of us have been brought up and nurtured in close proximity, and there is no point at which we can all meet. Some of us have been abused. But the need for a foundational unity is the same. Without it, there is little sense in speaking of diversity. What good is diversity if we are so separated that we never come into any meaningful contact with each other? What are the benefits if nothing can be shared and nothing can be learned? Without an underlying assumption of unity, diversity is just a bad marriage, all parties alternately ignoring and antagonizing each other until the inevitable separation. If we can’t form some sense of unity with those unlike us then we will give up our diversity to achieve it with those who are, and we will all be smaller for it.
What is there to join us together when our history and institutions bear the marks of division and oppression? On what basis can we form a cultural unity that is not essentially “white” in nature onto which multicultural components are grafted? The dominant culture in America is eager to embrace and adopt foreign ideas and expressions, whether it is hip-hop, fusion foods, or yoga. This is a pathway into mainstream culture for the creators of these arts, and yet because of our strenuous efforts to put diversity first, acceptance and celebration are often met with resentment, as though an American interpretation of yoga somehow besmirches the original or an American movie about China is an insult rather than praise. But painting a seascape doesn’t cause beach erosion. We can acknowledge that both are beautiful in their own way even though a copy will never capture the full beauty and meaning of the original. Any cross cultural expression will necessarily involve a blending of forms and ideas. If we jealously guard our own cultural expressions (ignorant of the historical confluences that brought them about in the first place), then we will forever be isolated in our own groups, victims of a stale and antagonistic diversity.
I believe everyone acknowledges this in practice. Whatever we profess, we are always willing and anxious to share our creations, our histories, our stories with whomever will listen to them. As an artist, I want nothing more, and I love imitation even as I imitate those I love. The source of cultural resentment does not lie in an unwillingness to share. It comes from a conviction (often grounded in long experience) that they are not receiving fair value for their contribution. Hence the language of appropriation, of theft. Minority groups hoard their cultural identity as a form of leverage in the face of perceived power differences. Yet as long as the group is a recognizable minority, it’s members will always be on the disadvantageous end of the human preference for similarity and comfort. Jealously protecting a group (or personal) identity ensures bias against you, which leads to renewed resentment and further withdrawal. The cycle of isolation and estrangement continues, and it can only end in divorce. Yet there is little reason to form a new cultural union when the promised benefits of such an arrangement have so often not materialized as promised.
So I propose a new social contract: justice for justice. Social justice for economic justice. Integration for equality. In this environment, the way to break the cycle is for the dominant culture not only to accept those from the outside but, consciously working against their biases, to actively seek their flourishing. Minorities today cannot be part of a permanent underclass or they will never want to be, much less actually become, part of an integrated, multifaceted culture. That’s a difficult, complex problem to solve made even more so by a reluctance to see it for what it is and address it directly. The irony is that we are quick to blame race for problems but hesitant to acknowledge it in any solutions. Creating a colorblind society free of racial preferences (free of any meaningful distinction of “race”), must first involve addressing and rectifying the divisions we do have. Only when nothing but race separates us will race cease to separate us too.
Even if you agree in principle, the exact methods are sure to be controversial. If we could solve black poverty by giving every family $50,000, would you do it? It would be a small price to pay, but we have no idea whether that would actually solve poverty. There are no easy answers, so any approach will have to be multipronged and incremental, both national and local, corporate and personal. Everyone from all sides must be involved. Maybe it takes the form of welfare and tax reform to remove barriers to improvement. Maybe it takes education guarantees, a modern GI bill for formerly oppressed minorities, along with education and vocational reform. Maybe it takes childcare subsidies and public school schedule changes. Maybe it takes prison and sentencing reform and stricter parental accountability measures. Maybe it takes mandated employee ownership stakes in companies. It certainly should include hiring minorities and putting minorities in position to hire. It will have to include taking in refugees and caring for immigrants, along with, yes, immigration enforcement and English language requirements. Not everything will be effective, but those that are can be expanded for the benefit of all, and that does not relieve us of our obligation. A sincere commitment is not a solution, but it is necessary to finding one.
Large-scale minority participation in the middle class will transform our communities. It will make the breakup of our de facto segregation, if not inevitable, then at least possible. It open up access to the full range of cultural goods and places where people of different types can meet and interact, which is currently a major barrier to integration and acceptance. What’s the point of contributing to a culture you don’t get to enjoy? How can you be accepted if you aren’t seen?
For minority groups (and other marginalized subcultures), there is a cost. To be loved and accepted is to give up your claim on yourself. A marriage can’t survive while either part holds back a piece of themself in fear or pride, which leads to defensiveness, mistrust, secrecy, and isolation. To love is to be vulnerable, even when you know that you have been hurt and will be hurt again. You can’t wield your partner’s faults or mistakes against them. In today’s environment, perhaps out of necessity, perhaps out of spite, grievances of all kinds have been weaponized for political and social advantage, which, even when effective, ensures constant strife. In a unified culture, everyone shares in the same history, possessing an equal share of the blame and the obligation, the guilt and the lesson, so that neither has a claim over the other, but it is only possible when everyone works toward the same goal. Each person has a personal history, which may include hardship and abuse or privilege and wealth, but there can’t be a “black” history of being oppressed and “white” history of oppression or “black” and “white” will continue to be a meaningful source of division among us. There can only be an American history, which includes both oppression and freedom, and a common commitment to move away from oppression and poverty and toward freedom and prosperity for all.
This is the opposite of whitewashing, which assumes that a minority culture is destroyed by assimilation. Rather, it is the creation of a society in which there is no white with which to wash, in which any role can be played by any person with a shared understanding of the history and cultural influences that produced it. Unity in this way produces an environment where diversity flourishes among individuals rather than everyone being locked into a category based on color or origin or orientation. Secure within a higher identity, freed from group conformity, allows each person to pursue their own interests, associate with whomever they choose, express themselves however they like. There may be people who love and cherish the African or Native or European portion of our history without having directly descended from it. There may be artists who blend music styles from around the country in the same way chefs fuse food styles from around the globe. What could possibly be wrong with that, done in the spirit of love and gratitude and equality?
In the same way, being married changes your highest desires and goals, but you retain your individual personality and passions, which are made more complete by sharing them with your partner and sharing theirs in return. Whether in marriage or a nation, whether two or two hundred million, it’s a hard process turning the many into one, involving sacrifices on all sides, but we’ll be richer and stronger and fuller if we do. For out of many we are one, and from the one come many, many more.