Why Race Unity is More Critical Today than Ever Before

This past week we reached a demographic milestone that barely made a blip in the media: American children aged 5 and under, there is no racial majority. The reality is that the aggregate of black, Latino, Asian and American Indian children as a group out number white children. This is phenomenal because just last spring it was infant births that made a similar occurrence. It is ironic that the milestone almost coincided with the bi-racial family Cheerios ad debut. Children under five years old today are living in an America where there is no racial majority. This is a world different than I grew up in and different than the world in which I raised my children. The Cheerios ad is important for a couple of reasons. This is their world and they need to see these images of an interracial family and more of them. Kudos to Cheerios to posting it.

The fact that the ad sparked a deluge of racist comments underscores the need for us to discuss why racial unity is critical for the prosperity of the American people, especially parents of young children.  The good news is that Cheerios is marketing to families that fit this new reality.

So why is race unity critical? Our society will prosper at a quicker rate if we teach our children how to interact with love and respect across the races. UNICEF indicates that societies are healthier when all children have access to health care, proper education and nutrition. Take a look at any city where children of any race are treated poorly and I guarantee that that city is not prospering. I believe that developing and implementing equitable practices are key to prosperity.

Racism will continue unabated if we do not take action and work towards racial unity. We need to talk to our children about race. White families especially need to talk to their children about race without fear and eschew color blindness. Children see skin color as early as they see other colors. Birgitte Vittrup’s ground breaking work on race and children is a must-read for all parents. Our children generally see color and are not born with the social construct of race with its preconceived notions of color bias, stereotypes and the like. We teach this to our children. How wonderful it would be for us to take a moment and watch the children under 5 see how they treat each other. Our children can teach us.

The changing demographics are an opportunity for parents to be proactive in teaching our children how to work through our racial issues peacefully. Some of us fear this change and will choose racial segregation but I encourage us to have courage to make interracial friendships. It is poignant that with the negative firestorm about the Cheerios ad two major research groups counteract with positivity. Not only are interracial marriages are on the rise with 8.4% of marriages in 2010 being interracial, up from 3.2% in 1980. Gallup reported that  in 2011, 86% of Americans approve of interracial marriages.

Without parental interventions, the children in this demographic transformation will self-select across color lines, as Vittrup points out, as we all did when we were younger. We are putting our children at risk of not being able to interact with children of other races in 1st grade and up. The same fear that we have that we will say or do something racist will persist and occur at a faster rate in this diverse milieu than in our more racially segregated adult venues. A counter strike would be to make interracial friendships. Our future generations depend on the actions we take today.

Going Deeper into Culture Cut and Paste with Kevin Locke

This last week’s post Can Anyone Own Culture Today? generated a lot of questions and comments. A few people were concerned that I was saying that a Mexican can’t perform a German opera or a German can’t learn how to make enchiladas and open a restaurant.  This is what happens. As a commenter pointed out:  “we all humans love to learn”. Isn’t learning the same thing as cultural cut and paste? People do learn new things from other cultures like food preparation, customs and practices and use them in their life. The issue is how we do it. Do we do it with respect and authenticity or not? So what is the difference between learning and cultural cutting and pasting? What I mean by cultural cut and paste is that the learning goes to the next step. The next step is the cutting of that learning from the original culture and pasting or integrating the learning into one’s cultural every day. The difference between learning and the cultural cut and paste process is the application feature. Cultural cut and paste is the application or action step that a human takes to apply what was learned. Sometimes we learn something from another culture while on a trip or going to someone’s house and we don’t have any interest in using it at home. If we decide to do it, the issue is how to apply the learning in a respectful and authentic way.

Cultural Cut and Paste Process


Culture Cut and Paste

Upon reflection this past week, I decided there is another component to this process. It is the added dimension of “copy”. Sometime we copy something from another culture much like we copy text from one document to another. When we copy text, we leave the original text intact. Much like when we copy something from another culture, the original culture stays intact. Or does it? Let’s take a dominant culture encountering an indigenous culture for example. One cannot guarantee that when a dominant culture copies something from an indigenous culture that the original piece stays intake. I believe there are times that the way the dominant culture messages the copy and uses it could alter the original. This is a cautionary tale to consider as dominant cultures across the globe have interacted with indigenous cultures and continue to do so. All cultures are like precious natural resources and should be protected from materialistic decimation.  As stated in the previous post, we have a collective responsibility.

Cultural Copy and Paste Process

Culture Copy and Paste

In the context of a dominant culture, a corporation or an individual attempting to take or own another culture provides the context for why both (learning and respectful cut/copy and paste) are important. We are moving towards increased multiracial and intercultural interactions which behoove us to figure out how to apply our new learning in a meaningful and authentic way.

Another question that came up is: How do I know if I am ripping off another culture? So much of what we do is cultural cut/copy and paste. What if I am inspired by the fashion, music or something from another culture? Can I just take it and use it without giving credit? An example is what I noticed in the southwest during my last visit. Local Dine artists created and sold their silversmith turquoise jewelry to tourists at a price they thought was fair and market bearing. A quick trip to a nearby city or town off the rez showcased similar jewelry made by non-native artists who sold their work at quadruple the price of what the Dine used. This is an example of ripping off another culture for personal gain.

My last post featured insights from Kevin Locke, award winning Dakota flutist and hoop dancer. Readers had more questions and were interested in carrying on the conversation with him. So we are blessed to be able to ask him a few more questions.

Kevin Locke Interview

Thank you Kevin for sharing your perspective last week on the cultural misappropriation of the Dakota flute and that no one can own a culture. My readers are interested in what to do when they want to apply their learning and do a respectful copy and paste process. You have interacted with so many diverse peoples, what advice would you give to individuals or businesses who want to be authentic?

We have to shift our perspective from a material one to a spiritual one where we believe that we are all legitimate heirs to humanity’s cultural wealth. I believe that everyone has the right to achieve one’s destiny.

An example I can share is that a person can learn something from another culture in an authentic way. For instance, right now I am teaching a class on the Dakota flute for teachers to get trained on the authentic way of Dakota flute playing. We did a whole section on the indigenous American flute. The flute playing is so unique compared to the European classical style. It is unique in that the individual ornamentation of playing like the grace notes of vibrato, creating breath sounds, and the like, is individual to the flutist. Their individual style would be inspired by the song birds of their locality. So teachers are learning the Dakota foundations and origins in an authentic way.

How do you think people could handle the permission aspect when someone may feel awkward or don’t know anyone from the new culture they have learned to love and want to copy something?

This is a sensitive issue and the answer depends on the community. For example, the Meskwaki from Iowa, until recently, did not want their language written down. Some Lakota still feel that way today. The onus is on us to reach out to others and be respectful and authentic. I believe that it is our youth who have the great opportunity to achieve the goals of being respectful to everyone from other cultures.

Kevin, you have made me think. What about something that comes from one culture and becomes main stream in an inauthentic or false way into the dominant culture? The Dakota flute is a great example of a dominant culture copy and paste. You explained that a European way of playing the Dakota flute has spread across the globe and become main stream.  Now that we know this, what could a lover of the flute do to rectify their inauthentic cultural copy and paste?

This is an opportunity to pause and reflect. Once a person knows, they can introduce themselves to the underpinnings and indigenous foundation of the Dakota flute.

Thank you Kevin for your insights! We should take the time to reflect on our practice.

My main point is that as we continue to work together more closely and our cultural practices, beliefs, foods, jewelry, designs, etc. will be on display and be shared. As Kevin points out, we need to reach out to each other so we do not rip anybody off and have authentic, genuine friendships. It is up to us in 2013 to figure out how to be authentic and respectful towards each other.

Homework: Reflect on your own practice. What kind of cultural learner are you? Do you cut and paste or copy and paste? If yes, what skills are you using to ensure that you apply your learning to reach out to other cultures to copy and paste authentically?