When NPR gave me culture shock

It’s been crazy-making busy, so I present you with… another response paper like this one and this one. I’m tempted to rewrite the last paragraph. Identity politics is useful and necessary – but lately I’ve run into enough separate instances where stressing differences can drive almost-allies away that I think I’ll let it stand.

I did not experience culture shock in Korea. Whether it was because I was insulated within the realm of US military bases for most of my year there, or because of the relative rapidity of change in my life at that time I do not know.
The greatest culture shock I experienced was from National Public Radio.

While there are no commercials on NPR, there are station identification breaks, along with recognition of “Day Sponsors”; those who have donated a sum to have a dedication read on a specific day. This one began: “Thanks to Day Sponsor Mark, who dedicates this to his partner of forty years. Congratulations to you two, Mark and George.”

I nearly crashed the car.

I consider myself a relatively open-minded individual. I’ve partied with transvestites and transsexuals after watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Three of my better friends in college was gay (though one didn’t admit it until later). I am fully in favor of gay marriage. Yet this dedication was so surprisingly shocking, that I’m still trying to figure out what that means about my internal framework.

It’s important because of the Thomas Theorem (Parillo 36). What we conceive of as real becomes our reality. Whether it is the paranoid woman from Farmersville living in a constant state of imagined terror or the idealist believing we can all just get along, our beliefs shape our reality. Therefore, it’s important to really take these beliefs, these emotions, and examine them. Are they what we want to believe? Do they serve to better us, and our situation, or do they keep us upset and angry?

Realizing the extent to which we truly believe our beliefs may explain the variance in attempts to use frustration-agression theory to explain prejudice (Parillo 85). This weekend I had the pleasure of meeting Darryl Fairchild, a local minister who has done a lot of work to further race and minority relations in Dayton. At its best, he realizes that Christianity should be a mitigating force in prejudice, but it is not always so. Perhaps it is the individual’s beliefs that make it so. Christianity both has offset rewards (e.g. Heaven) and revised expectations (be thankful for what you have) to help reduce frustration, aggressions, and feelings of economic inequity. Yet if one is simply going through the motions of religion, and does not truly believe, then these rewards will not alter your behavior.

Of course, the Thomas Theorem also could be applied to both sides of the concept of “the Culture of Poverty” (Parillo 62). External forces limit achievement for minorities. Values stretch to reflect those “achievable” goals (Parillo 64). That mindset becomes reality via the Thomas Theorem. Then that mindset is transmitted to peers even as the external forces persist in thier prejudice, ensuring that the effect is never extinguished.

It is important, though, to recognize progress where it exists. Parillo makes a great deal of fuss about the persistence of stereotypes across generations (90). Yet the increasing reluctance of the respondents to ascribe those stereotypes is downplayed. This is unfair to current generations; while many are aware of the stereotypes of Fu Manchu, German Nazis, or even Polack jokes, that is not the same thing as utilizing or internalizing them. Conflating the two gives a much more dire picture than is realistic. Unfortunately, a less-than-dire picture tends to lead to complacence.

We must be vigilant, because prejudice has become more subtle than stereotypes would have us believe. Last week, four women sat at a round table near me in the cafeteria. The two instructors sat opposite each other at three and nine o’clock, the students at twelve and six. Throughout thier meal, I observed the instructors’ have thier bodies oriented towards the student sitting at the six o’clock position – even while specifically addressing the student at the twelve o’clock spot. They maintained that orientation even as they got up to leave. The student at the twelve o’clock position clearly felt the exclusion. Her pained look was obvious, even though she tried to hide her discomfort. Something as subtle as body orientation indicated status (Johnson 55). Very clearly, one student was favored over the other. Both instructors were white; the student at twelve o’clock was black.

Yet we must be positive. Again, it is the Thomas Theorem. We must imagine ourselves as better than we are, or we will be stuck in our old ways. All of us can lapse into those old ways of thinking. Even Johnson has a failure of imagination in looking at appeals to fairness and goodness as a solve for prejudice (72). He makes the point that appeals to goodness rely on separating the givers from the recievers, on creating an us-and-them attitude, which carries the danger of morphing into an us-vs-them attitude (72). This need not be so. Army Emergency Relief (AER), an organization within the Army, is funded solely by soldiers for the aid of other soldiers who are in financial crisis. Rather than a us-helping-them attitude, it relies on an us-helping-us attitude, a sense that we are all in it together.

This kind of frame is an important one. By reframing our problems as helping fellow Americans (or humans), we reinforce our commonalities as people. It is here that identity politics can become harmful; by stressing differences, it is much easier to make minorities and other unprivileged groups into “others”. Stressing commonalities does not need to be full assimilation, but can be encompassed by a sense of cultural pluralism (Parillo 49-50). That our melting pot may not melt anything, but instead cooks a really great, thick, chunky stew with lots of different flavors in every spoonful.

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