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Sep 16, 2018

Oops, we did it again: A manifesto of Multiculturalism 2.0

We scheduled a major event next week on the eve of Yom Kippur, and I have very little excuse. I have many Jewish friends (duh, I work in education), have made this very error before, and until recently, had both Jewish and Muslim calendars installed in my Outlook. Here is another oops: in our Fall retreat, we planned break-up groups by issues, completely forgetting that we only have two ASL interpreters, and thus rendering the choice impossible for our Deaf colleagues. Again, Deaf faculty have been at our College for decades, and yet somehow, inexplicably, we all forgot to check this one activity for the potential to exclude. I wish I could report these were the only two errors like this, or that I am the only one to make them. We all say offensive things to each other without thinking, exclude someone by forgetting, and impose a whole host of small indignities on each other.

It is easy to declare, and easy to believe in the idea of inclusive society. Well, maybe not so easy, but here in California’s Academia, we are well past that. Yet practicing the inclusivity is not so easy. It is not so much a problem of knowledge – we collectively actually know quite a bit about inclusive language, about inclusive practices. It is a matter of discipline, organization, procedure, of extra effort, and of habit. Some bigots may tell you that a fully inclusive society is impossible – too many things to remember, too many words to avoid. That is not true. It is within reach; we can actually see it. All we have to do is to learn a few things that annoy or offend the people we interact with every day – there are not too many of them, and they belong to not too many groups. So, we have gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, men and women, Latinx, African-American, several Asian groups, Deaf people, hard of hearing people, older and variously shaped people, limited mobility individuals, a few different religions, immigrants, etc. If I forget someone, it is probably a couple more categories. So, let us say 20 groups, and one needs to remember 10 things about each. That is only 200 facts – a really trivial task for an average human memory. Each of us remembers thousands of trivia facts that have very little relevance for anything. I can list forty Indo-European and twenty Turkic languages right now. Someone else can name a hundred football players of a sing a thousand tunes. The inclusive society is not limited by human memory; that is for sure.

The map of inclusion is complex not because of the sheer number of marginalized group. No, it is complex, because most of us are in both dominant and a dominated group, depending on who is next to us. The way we project power is not only by intention, but also by forgetting. We were taught to forget, and it is always hard to re-learn. We all are limited by the narrow conception of politeness we all learned as children. The taboo words and actions we learned were created for different times and for much less diverse and less inclusive societies. In the end, it is all a matter of learning, of will and persistence.

I am wondering that in the vision we developed, we somehow ignored our own imperfections, as if our ideal of a fully inclusive society is here already. That is obviously not true – the ideal may be here, but an every-day inclusive practice is not here yet. It would be great to spell out where we want to move next, and actually do it. It is a different idea of progress – not just to be famous and respected, not just to get more resources, and do better things, but also be someone else, evolve as a community of people, become an ideal we believe in.

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