In my middle school, we had this kind of "capstone" project in 8th grade. It was called the Culture Fair - a weeklong event celebrating the diversity of our school and community.
When I started middle school I thought it was incredible. By the time I reached 8th grade, I was terrified of it.
We routinely studied other cultures in class, digging deep into history, music, art, food. It was eye-opening to see how different other cultures were from my own, and I was fascinated by the differing struggles, sounds, images, and tastes of each.[ref]Our teachers would frequently bring in prepared meals and snacks from some of the people groups we studied.[/ref]
Every year, leading up to the annual Culture Fair, we'd have several week-long course units that focused on one culture or another represented by students in our school. We never got to everyone, but did cover a large number of students.
For 6th an 7th graders, it was an opportunity to be inspired as to the work we'd be doing later in the school. We'd be able to gather ideas, poster concepts, long-forgotten ethnic recipes - that is, if anyone ever remembered to write things down.
I was a bit of an overachiever, so I did take notes in the years leading up to 8th grade. I had no idea what I could use as a culture fair project, so I wanted to figure out something good for when the project came around.
My family doesn't do any ethnic-based dancing, so those displays were out.
The only music we listened to was the oldies station, so no presentation there.
Our weekly menu consisted of Hamburger Helper, mac & cheese, grilled chicken, vegetable soup, and other Safeway staples - no fancy meals from my heritage there.
As the project grew closer, I ran out of ideas entirely. I asked a teacher for help.
I went home that day crying. My teacher explained to me that the Culture Fair was really for other students, the ones who come from places different than mine and how I didn't really have a culture to present because I was white.[ref]My parents instead helped me put together a family tree. It didn't demonstrate any one culture from which I come, but many. Among other things, I'm English, Russian, German, Ukrainian, Irish, French, and even Native American from two different tribes.[/ref]
It was one of the most traumatic conversations of my childhood.
I spent the majority of my college years still trying to overcome my limitation of being white and therefore lacking culture or diversity in the eyes of others. I was an active member of the Diversity Outreach Team (DOT) for several years, hosted both academic and social events geared towards better understanding, recognizing, and celebrating diversity, and worked diligently with university officials to improve programs on campus to do the same.
I learned of a summer program that would bring students from around the world to study at our university for a few weeks - the program was seeking current students to serve as ambassadors and guides during the summer. As I knew very few international students, I thought it would be a great way to get involved, learn, grow, and contribute to the community.
I applied for the position.
I received an interview that week and discovered through other channels I had been the only student application. It meant I had a good shot at getting the position, but I was still worried about the interview.
I spoke with the department head over the phone, and everything looked incredibly promising. We met in person to discuss the position, and she frowned when I walked in the door. What was supposed to be an offer/planning meeting turned in to an off-the-cuff "we have decided not to pursue your employment" conversation.
I was confused.
I demanded to know why, given my background with the DOT, my work with the university's Center for Diversity, and the multiple recommendations I'd submitted (including those from the Vice President of the university) I wasn't a "good fit."
"I don't feel you'd be able to relate to the struggles and challenges our minority students will face when they're on campus. There are going to be many cultural issues to address, and I don't think you would be able to understand what it's like having a culture different than those around you."
"So, I can't have the job because I'm white?"
"Basically, yes. I wish you the best of luck in finding something else to do this summer."
I appealed to the university and did get an official apology, but the administration backed the department in refusing to hire me.
Labels and Culture
I didn't grow up in the most diverse environment. One of my closest friends in elementary school was black, but I didn't understand what that meant until we were older. She was my friend, and as kids that was all that mattered.
I didn't realize how uniform my environment was until I was asked to explain my "culture" to my peers. Family traditions around Christmas and church didn't count. Family recipes for biscuits and country gravy weren't unique enough even if they'd been passed through 4 generations.
My teachers in middle school labelled me an average, middle-class, white male and actually told me this meant I didn't have a culture to talk about.
College administrators labelled me an average white male and actually told me this would prevent me from ever relating to or understanding the challenges faced by minorities in America.
I am more than a label. I am more than the sum of my outward characteristics. I bring more value to the table than the color of my skin and the way you perceive that to affect my background and experience.
Labels, particularly those applied by someone else, are divisive and restrictive. The immediately separate us into groups; when one group is given privileges over another, be it real or perceived, the same labels breed disgust, resentment, and hate.
I am white, but I still have culture and represent a facet of diversity all my own, whether you're willing to accept that or not.
I won't label you, because that label will distinguish the value your cultural experience and heritage brings to the community. The ways in which you differ from me - color, sex, religion, politics, finances, etc - strengthen our community.
I welcome the day our inherent differences are embraced and celebrated rather than used as tools to divide our community into groups of "us" and "them." That is the kind of culture I want to see.