Since Everyone Knows My Customs, Why Bother?
Creating a Quilted Community
I am not at the intersection of race, gender, and sexual identity. I am a white, middle-class heterosexual, married to her first (and hopefully only) husband who happened to be her second boyfriend. I am Protestant, raised in the Southern Baptist church by a father raised Presbyterian in a small Iowan farm town and an Assemblies of God mother raised in a dirt poor family in a small Oklahoman town. I was raised in a midsized central Florida city in a middle class, white neighborhood. I spent ten days with my college German professor in Germany in March 1996. Other than that, I have never been outside the United States. I teach at a high school that is two-thirds free and reduced lunch and just over half white. The school is in the middle of nowhere. Blink and you will miss it as you drive US 17 between Winter Haven and Bartow. Speed and you will receive a ticket since that is about the only income for a town whose population seems to double when school is in session.
For many whites in America, there is no need to understand the customs of other groups because they do not come into much significant contact with other cultures.
There is a seeming homogeneity of thought in my Republican-dominated, everyone-must-speak-English, send-illegals-back-to-Mexico county where I live and work. This makes me angry and is an insult to those who are not white and who choose to live here. Yes, you probably already know my customs as a white, middle class woman raised by white middle class parents with their white middle class values. It is unfortunate that so many Americans, especially those who are of the dominant white variety, truly believe that their customs are the only customs that exist. This paper will show that Euro-Americans can promote a quilted community by letting go of the idea that their own customs are the only “correct” American ones by learning about some of the other cultures that exist in the United States; reading essays by women of color such as those in Colonize This! can aid white Americans in erasing their ignorance so that we, as Americans, can build a blended community.
We learn of one community in “Because You’re a Girl.” Ijeoma A. explains the importance of football (known as soccer in America) in her home country, especially when Nigeria made it to the finals and “everybody who was anybody that knew somebody” would be watching the game (215). But she did not get to see the game. As the only girl in a household where a woman’s “office is the kitchen,” Ijeoma A. was responsible for cleaning up after the ten people who were at the house to watch the game (216). For the good girl in Nigeria, the only vocation is to serve (218) and to be submissive as instructed in her land’s fairytales (217). Deviation from marriage and family in this culture means an unhappy afterlife (217). Despite living in the capital city, Ijeoma A.’s extended family of guardians had grown up in rural villages (216). Thus, they enforced their traditional beliefs of a woman’s place as being subservient to males. At school, though, Ijeoma A. had control as Class Captain since her task was to assign chores and enforce rules. She made the boys work as hard as the girls (220), which would never have occurred at her house. The teachers also encouraged her despite her gender. Their concern was that students “absorb their teachings and use them in productive ways” (220) and used her “insight in resolving problems that they used to test the students” (219). She was never regarded with this respect at home.
America for Ijeoma A. was a different place from Nigeria. Here, there was no one to tell her how to live, and she was the one who had to take initiative (223). By attending university in America, Ijeoma A. discovered herself as well as liberation (226), and that made her return to Nigeria difficult as she had to relearn how to fit in and was told that she had “forgotten about her heritage” (225). What surprised her, though, was how American women “could be discontent with the gender conditions of the same country I credited for liberating me” (226). Here, the author was experiencing a freedom she had never known. It came at a price, however. Ijeoma A. shares how she misses the Nigerian sense of community, food, devotion to family, and festive celebrations ingrained in her culture (227). But a sense of community, food, devotion to family, and festive celebrations are part of the quilt that Ijeoma A. offers to Euro-Americans. Her cultural heritage is a piece of fabric that she can sew into the quilt, helping to create a sense of community in a country that focuses so much on individualism at the expense of the community.
Another culture that Colonize This! introduces the reader to is that of the Kanienkehaka Indians. Kahente Horn-Miller in “Bring Us Back into the Dance: Women of the Wasase” shares how her people balance power and peace through the Longhouse tradition (243). She relates a 1997 event in which her people decided to have a Wasase (or War Dance) in response to a thirteen-year-old girl’s attempted suicide (231-233). Traditionally, the women support the men during the ceremony, which means they are outside the Longhouse (233). The men listened to the women’s concerns, because they “do not impose their ideas on women,” as the women discussed the issue of women’s participation in the Wasase (234). The women agreed that they would participate in fulfillment of what Horn-Miller refers to as “Kaienerekowa, our Great Law of Peace” (234). Kaienerekowa is both knowing and seeing, according to the author (234). It is listening to the natural world and then understanding it (235). Because the girl’s suicide affected all of the Indians, the women’s participation was an important part of recognizing their place in the community and of dealing with their own emotions connected to that event.
In addition to discussing the process of achieving Kaienerekowa through open discussion, Horn-Miller discusses her childhood away from the tribe and the history of oppression of her people by whites. There were the civil and native rights movements that her mother participated in during the 1960s (239) and the governmental interference that took the young away from the tribe for education and church indoctrination (241). There were the negative stereotypes and assumptions in films and the illegalization of the language, names, and practicing of beliefs (241). This affected the “sharing and reciprocity” within the community (240), where respect for others and their voices, for other cultures, and other nations is paramount (240). As Horn-Miller explains, she must always think about how anything she does “will affect the seven generations to come” (240). It is important to note that Horn-Miller’s tribe is in Canada (239). The issues of erasing her tribe are not limited to just the Canadians; America has its own history of genocide towards Native Americans, and the issues Horn-Miller mentions cross national boundaries in the Americas. But here we see a male influence different from that of the white male. The Kaienerekowa Indian male respects women by giving the history of a situation and by giving advice but by allowing those affected to make their own decisions (234). It is another fabric to add to the quilted community.
Colonize This! also introduces the culture of India. Just as understanding Native Americans’ culture is important for promoting understanding by Euro-Americans, so, too, can learning about Indian culture aid Euro-Americans in understanding how other people relate to an “American” way of life. Just as we shared in class our own histories so that we could understand where each student comes from in relating to literature by women of color, so understanding Tanmeet Sethi in “Ladies Only” will help us better empathize with those of Indian descent. Sethi tells how her mother left her “upper-class family in India to work with her husband in America” (247). Only her father understood her mother because he understood her memories of Indian culture and life in India, and her mom had to explain herself to others because of their ignorance of her culture and customs (247). Sethi says that she thought her mom was invisible but then realized “that these people were blind” (247), unaware of who her mother really was and not comprehending her experiences. How much easier Sethi’s mother’s life would have been if she had not had to explain her every step to ignorant whites.
Sethi practices Sikhism, a religion many Americans may not be familiar with. In Sikhism, the men sit on one side and the women on the other during workship. Men and women sit separate from each, according to her Sethi’s mom, because “In God’s eyes, we are all equal.” The segregation, however, reminded the author of the “separate but equal” racism of America that she read about in her school texts (246). Many Euro-Americans might not think that there is such gender segregation in twenty-first century America, but as an American Indian practicing Sikhism, Sethi indicates that this is the case. (Note also that gender segregation also exists in Jewish synagogues.) One of the most telling examples of cultural difference is when white American males believe Sethi is a nurse when she tells them she works in a hospital, and Indian men assume she is a doctor (249). Sethi describes several other cultural differences between Indians and Americans: the henna tattoos that Indian women wear but American women think are just a sign of “feminine power” (250) and dressing in red (instead of white) and being decked in gold for her wedding (251).
The author also discusses her work as a medical expert in other countries, about women in Mumbai, India, who must work as prostitutes because they have no education or money (252) and the woman who already has two daughters and whose family will decide to abort the baby girl she is pregnant with (253). She tells of explaining to two white American women, in revealing clothing, how some women wear a “burkha as a symbol of power…[to]…refuse to be judged by their body or face” (254). And she tells of how she shows an Indian man who speaks only Punjabi how to comfort his wife while in labor. Sethi says she has “merely instruct[ed] him on how to be human” (256). Indeed, it is the knowledge from these articles that can help Euro-Americans act in a human way, empathizing with the difficulties immigrants face when coming to America in the hope of economic stability and freedom from gender discrimination. These articles allow white women the opportunity to understand how their choices are not necessarily the right choice for every woman in every country. Acting in a human way means understanding that we white women cannot dictate that which is right for anyone, especially not for someone who does not share our cultural heritage. Instead, allowing a multiplicity of beliefs in one community, such as allowing women to wear the burkha without fear of condemnation by other women, strengthens the community by allowing strong scraps of fabric to work together as one quilt.
So what happens when a South Korean baby girl is adopted by a white New England family (279)? According to Rebecca Hurdis in “Heartbroken,” the only color other than fall foliage that she saw was white (281), and whiteness in feminism represents privilege, power, and opportunity (289). Hurdis seeks to “live a life of multiplicity,” where she can exist in all of these places [the mind and the heart], uncompromisingly” (279). She wishes, to use my term, to be part of the quilt of a mixed American community. As an adopted Asian child, Hurdis learned to be compliant. She discovered that her “identify was being created for me not by me” because instead of being herself she was trying to be the “good little Asian…brought to the land of salvation (280). Her sadness came from “playing a script” instead of being who she was (282). Hurdis states that we must acknowledge the differences among us both openly and honestly, but we must be careful not to be trapped in that difference (290). Focusing solely on the differences instead of on similarities, or even in adapting our differences to function in a different relationship to the culture as Horn-Miller’s people adapted (238), leads to apathy (290), and apathy would mean that there is no understanding of others’ and no community.
Can we “resituate[e] women from the margins into the center,” as Hurdis asks (284)? Can everyone exist at the center, or must some be marginalized? With a quilted community, there is no true center. It is a new fabric of a multiplicity of beliefs and customs joined together in a new creation. It is as small or large as is necessary for the purpose it serves. As pieces wear out, they can be recut to fit a new location, or they removed altogether should they prove to be beyond repair. Our communities can become quilts of diversity, bits and pieces of individuals who come together to form something newly useful. But how do we move those at the margins into the center?
The first step, as Hurdis indicates, is to seek to live a “life of mulitiplicity” (279). We can recognize that there are more than one or two cultures at play in the United States. We can begin multicultural education through history classes taught in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. By emphasizing more than just the view of the white man, history teachers can introduce all students to colors other than white. The serious study of different historical perspectives will not only promote understanding, it can also promote a more rigorous curriculum as students must demonstrate comprehension of multiple perspectives. This can continue in the English literature classes at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels with a curriculum that includes more than just the typical white male canon of authors and the token ethnic writer (cf. Berlin). For those who enter college without much knowledge of the issues of women of color, a course that uses a text such as Colonize This! is a place for students to begin learning about issues that nonEuro-Americans face.
Next, we can improve the economic reality all who live in America. This will be a difficult thing considering the fact that Euro-Americans, in particular, believe in individuality, of earning wealth for themselves instead of merely giving it away to “undeserving” peoples. There are several attempts underway (and under attack) to improve all American’s economic reality, though. The creation of a national healthcare plan and the momentum created by the Occupy movements to create a more “fair” tax code are steps in the direction of creating a quilt without holes. While we should do more, the passage and implementation of a national healthcare system and changes to the tax code that do not penalize the poor, working, and middle classes will help redistribute wealth.
Furthermore, changes to the political and educational systems are necessary steps to creating a quilted community. Recognizing that there are more than just Democrats and Republicans and providing other parties the opportunity to generate funding and promote candidates is another essential step in promoting multiplicity in America. In addition, providing funding for schools and re-evaluating No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top so that schools address basic skills required for graduation instead of only college readiness skills, as the state of Florida does with its FCAT 2.0, will help to ensure that more students graduate high school with basic skills for survival instead of attempting to graduate all students with college readiness skills, which is resulting in many students not graduating (cf. Florida Department of Education reports, in which only 39 percent of sophomores passed the state exit exam in 2011).
The political, educational, and economic initiatives above are just a beginning. They require more work and coalition-building in order to bring them to reality. There may even be better ideas out there that will promote a more integrated society. Understanding different cultures, different people’s backstories, though, will allow Euro-Americans the opportunity to understand why changes in politics, economics, and education are necessary. Reading essays such as those in Colonize This! is a first step in promoting a quilted society.
A., Ijeoma. “Because You’re a Girl.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 215-229. Print.
Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2003.
Florida Department of Education. “Statewide Comparisons Reading Scores – Grades 9 and 10: FCAT Reading (2001-2010 and FCAT 2.0 Reading (2011).” PDF File. 6 February 2012. http://fcat.fldoe.org/mediapacket/2011/pdf/2011Reading Comparison.pdf
Horn-Miller, Kahente. “Bring Us Back into the Dance: Women of the Wasase.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 268-278. Print.
Hurdis, Rebecca. “Heartbroken: Women of Color Feminism and the Third Wave.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 279-292. Print.
Sethi, Tanmeet. “Ladies Only.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 245-256. Print.
For additional information on changes to the State of Florida’s assessment system and its emphasis on college readiness for all students, please see the following sources.
Milles, Melinda. “Senate Bill 1908.” PPT file. 6 February 2012. http://www.fdea.net/fcrc/Milles_FCRC_Powerpoint.ppt.
Southern Regional Educational Board. “College and Career Readiness in Florida.” Web. 6 February 2012. http://www.sreb.org/page/1517/college_and_career_ readiness_in_florida.html.