College Cultural Centers

The cultural centers at Oregon State University were the subject of a recent column in the student-run Daily Barometer.

Vs. Column: Bridging the cultural divide?

In the spirit of open discussion, this week Eric Wilson and Renee Roman Nose were challenged to write “vs. columns” about whether cultural centers seek to unite or divide the OSU community. Their responses to each other have been unknown until today.

Eric Wilson’s column called for assimilation via the melting pot and that he would feel uncomfortable entering one of OSU’s Cultural Centers:

I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking into a cultural center that is not of my own race for fear of discrimination. However, this raises an even greater question: How exactly are we expected to move forward when our own community leaders continue to be segregationist? If we continue to hinder interaction among various ethnicities, our goals of achieving racial homogeny will continue to fall short.

I wonder if Eric Wilson thought about what it must be like for a student of color to walk almost anywhere on OSU’s campus and to not see any persons of color? It might feel a little uncomfortable…

In response to Eric Wilson’s white privilege-assimilation-racial homogeny-anti diversity column, Luke Sugie (Queer, Brown and Uppity) returns to his Barometer column with vigor:

Throughout his column, Wilson asserts that a goal of the United States is to assimilate citizens into a “melting pot.” By “melting pot,” I assume he takes the dominant stance that minorities and marginalized folks should willingly enact the core beliefs and ways of life of the majority. Wilson claims that cultural centers hurt the melting pot by “segregating” students of color and creating “racial stratification.” But the melting pot, as Wilson and others who use this verbal cliché consistently fail to articulate, applies only to non-white persons. Whites who immigrated to the Eastern U.S. did not adopt the customs or cultures of established indigenous groups. Whites who immigrated West did not assimilate to established populations of Latinos and indigenous cultures. Whites in the South did not assimilate to the significant population of Africans forcibly brought over in the slave trade. In fact, history and experience shows that the reverse was truer: everywhere groups of whites immigrated, the forced assimilation of others to white culture followed. Wilson, in silently acceding to this idea on assimilation, is not advocating for whites to assimilate to another culture. He is asking people of color to assimilate to his culture, or rather a nebulous culture of the United States rooted in the supremacy of whiteness.

Commonly, I hear the defense of this belief (if it is acknowledged) resting on an idea that indigenous cultures “lost” to technologically, culturally and industrially superior European cultures that replaced (or “assimilated”) them. Unpacking all the assumptions contained in this myth is too big for this column, but I would be happy to discuss this in greater detail at some other time. A question here may help: if the “melting pot” was so great, why was assimilation into a “superior” culture hardly voluntary for non-Europeans, given the use of violence and legal discrimination to systematically destroy, disadvantage and coerce indigenous and non-white cultures to assimilate? By using the fallacy of the “melting pot,” Wilson subtly advocates a form of white dominance and superiority in his arguments.

The second issue I feel the need to address is Mr. Wilson’s use of discomfort in the cultural centers as a moral argument against the use of student fees to pay for them. I was uncomfortable with new ideas I discovered in calculus courses, but continued with the series because I had to articulate complex mathematical concepts to earn my engineering degree. Similarly, I consider it a duty (as a person and citizen) to understand the experiences of others in this country in order to articulate how our society operates. When ideas bring a sense of discomfort, it is the first step toward challenging beliefs and understanding others. I am often challenged, uncomfortable and unnerved while studying feminist issues, but the discomfort is needed to understand the experiences of women since I wasn’t raised as a woman, nor do I identify as one. Since the cultural centers are places to learn and celebrate non-white cultures, I assume Mr. Wilson’s discomfort arises because he feels beliefs about whiteness and white dominance are challenged, much as my own conceptions of masculinity and dominance by men are challenged in feminist courses. I would encourage Mr. Wilson to be challenged, to engage in a space where his culture is not dominant, to immerse himself in an experience different than his own without jumping to judgment, and without reservation. Discomforting, yes; harmful, no.

Further, it may be instructive to note that people of color feel discomfort every day in our culture, as Renee Roman Nose pointed out in her wonderful column. Every institution – cultural, academic or political – is dominated by and catered to white cultures and white experiences. The discomfort Mr. Wilson feels at a mere five locations on campus is similar in nature (but not in quality or quantity) to the discomfort people of color feel all the time. I seriously doubt Mr. Wilson would suffer any lasting harm from visiting a cultural center and being “uncomfortable,” because Mr. Wilson can make the choice to avoid these organizations and spaces if he should ever feel physically threatened or dominated. People of color, queer folks, women and other marginalized communities cannot “escape” from others’ dominance. Attempting to make his privilege invisible, and then advocating for the de-funding of cultural centers because of his privilege, is an argument so disingenuous I cannot let it slip past.