The Culture Crucible

Over the past four years, I’ve witnessed a number of presentations in school meeting from student clubs representing ethnic, religious or cultural minority groups on campus. Each time, the performance has followed the same script: a presentation on the student club, a brief definition and history of the cultural grouping, a presentation of the group’s well-known ceremonial foods, a list of cultural traditions including annual celebrations, and finally, astoundingly, a “guess the ethnicity” slideshow of the group’s most notorious celebrities, usually ones who have appeared on the cover of People or US magazine; all this is followed by an “artistic” presentation: a dance, song, or skit reflecting the group’s culture.

To begin with, the problems with this script have the effect of restricting various cultural groups to only a few characteristics: food, annual holidays, most exuberant celebrities, and most ethnically distinctive art form. While this script is partly due to perceived pressure in school meeting to “put on a show” and engage the student body with humor and satire, this should not be a justification for such a performance. In presentations aimed at exploring the diversity of cultural groups, the patent, self-defeating failure of this consistent program should be clear.

Even more striking, however, are the inherent problems that emerge from the very existence of these contrived presentations. From their inception, the presentations toe a difficult line: answering an apparently urgent need to “explain” or “discuss” these affinity groups. The major differences between racial, religious, cultural, and even linguistic groups dissolve into the final, degrading label: “minority.” Furthermore, they proceed to degrade the groups themselves, enforcing stereotypes, dismissing or conflating nuances of culture between various sub-groups, and eventually turning students off of any real discussions.

For instance, despite some encouraging elements, last year’s school meeting celebration of Black History month ultimately descended into a rap performance, crafted with too little, if any, subtlety. The rap, replete with references to illegal drugs, only enforced the stereotypical conflation of African-American community and the musical genre of rap/hip-hop. Likewise, even the constructive, edifying distinctions and lessons made in last week’s school meeting, (for instance, the difference in cultural grouping made between Hispanics and Latinos) were lost in the rush. The presentation only repeated stereotypical depictions of the Hispanic community as uniform, without important divisions of nationality and religion.

At the end of the day, the broad equation of all these different communal groups is simply faulty. Our attempt at embracing cultural recognition of minority groups had resulted in the opposite impression: we risk turning people off the topic entirely, pushing students toward apathy and ignorance. An adequate solution is not easy. Are we trying to educate students about different social groups, dispel notorious stereotypes and encourage cultural acceptance, or publicly provide a raison d’être for our so-called cultural affinity clubs? Likely all of these.

Already, numerous administration-directed school forums are devoted to exploring student perception of minorities; themes of relationships between minorities and majorities are widely explored in History and English classes, and so many student clubs host a number of positive and education events celebrating various cultural traditions and holidays. The time for student-directed minority presentations in School Meeting has passed; they show little sign of improving.

-JRM