©St. Louis African Chorus, February 2003. All rights reserved.

SOUNDING BOARD

Commentaries on issues relating to African Music


Issues and Remedies in Diversity at the College Setting
By Fred Onovwerosuoke

Students of diversity face many issues in traditional liberal arts colleges and other universities. The key word here is “traditional,” if indeed that word is a conjecture for preserving mainstream mores and standards.

Students from diverse backgrounds must deal with generalizations that are often foreign or irrelevant to their cultural upbringing. As an international student at a small liberal arts college in Illinois I was often besieged by questions about the practice of polygamy in African societies. My American counterparts spoke condescendingly and delighted in passing judgment about the practice. Nobody seemed concerned about the error in such a broad and disparaging characterization of African societies. No one seemed interested in the fact that the practice, where it occurred, was mutually beneficial to the families and communities involved. And the irony for me used to be that most of the same students who readily passed such judgments were equally offended when told that Africans generally abhorred serial marriages that is widely practiced in America and other parts of the Western world.

In many of our campuses students of diversity frequently deal with demeaning racial and ethnic perceptions. Racism and prejudice are perhaps among the most insidious cancers in our world today. The semiotic connotations and categorizations are apparent. Ethnic hue, fried chicken, baggy pants, braided-haired men, burqua robed women, long-bearded men, poverty, funny accents, just to mention a few of the images or instances that trigger caution or curiosity in many. In addition, students must also cope with gender inequalities, and stereotypical stratification based on weight-size, height, financial status, or religious affiliation. Then there are also the not so obvious aspersion cast on non-European contribution in our classrooms. The one sided view of religion history, scientific discoveries, the origin and architects of modern civilizations, among so many other nuances.

Cain Hope Felder, the great editor of the African-American Bible once said in a lecture that if you don’t know better you’d think Christianity was a European creation. What with the Middle Eastern, African,

Asian, and Mediterranean roots so filtered out of the information written in our textbooks that they’ve become inconsequential!

In his book, Lost Discoveries, Dick Teresi wrote that for several centuries, Europe believed that Egypt was the cradle of civilization, but that this began to change in the 18th Century when Christian apologists worried about Egyptian pantheism...

I’m often tickled by a sound bite from the 3M Corporation’s commercial. It goes something like this: at 3M we don’t make the things you buy, we make the things you buy better. No one ever discounts the strides advanced by Europe in the field of science, medicine and the arts. But no one should ever discount contributions made by non-European cultures.

Perhaps, the maxim is true that the worst crime one can commit to him/herself is to feed his/her mind with one-sided information.

I once theorized in another article that Anglo-American and neo-European thought dominate modern thought, and I said that not to disparage prevailing ideologies but to challenge our sensibilities to the diverse demographies in our schools and communities today.

Policy makers in our colleges should understand that racism is real and that racial perceptions deeply permeate the American psyche. As such, we administrators should challenge ourselves to eschew denigrating notions and help recreate a society where people are treated fairly and courteously.

The world needs to nurture diversity and tolerance. With today’s American homes ruled by television propaganda and other electronic intrusion often tailored to mentally magnetize children and young adults alike, what better place to sow the seeds of harmony and peaceful coexistence than in our schools. At least here, in our classrooms, we teachers have the unique opportunity to create an environment for balanced and equitable dissemination of ideas.

Our colleges will do well to conduct regular seminars to address issues relating to race, religion, gender and cultural diversity. Formal and informal seminars are effective platforms to discuss issues relating to ethnicity, intercultural and interracial understanding, racism, and discrimination. They also are avenues to gain the sensitivity training requisite to deal with gender biases and other issues that stratify our society. We do well when we diligently seek other perspectives. Yes, if we must, then we must go out of our way to seek out and incorporate alternative viewpoints into the curricula or the information we impart to our children and young adults.

In schools located in rural or remote areas cultural exchange trips to other schools should be a regular component of the education process. We must bear in mind that by and large our graduates will eventually work, interact and mingle with their colleagues in the larger global community. They must be prepared.

Arts programming is a powerful vehicle to introduce or nurture diversity. Colleges therefore should be creative in scheduling cultural activities. And whenever these are presented the entire student and staff body should be encouraged to participate, and to discuss their experiences. Shared experiences lead to mutual understanding. People have a tendency to maintain their views about others when they are excluded or given reasons to excuse themselves from participating in cross-cultural activities.

I recall a comment one weekend by a lady attending a St. Louis African Chorus concert presented by the City of Mexico, Missouri. She said, “This is the first time our city has seen such a show, and by George, do we need more of such exposure!” Yes, policy makers in our colleges should endeavor to be deliberate in their intentions to invite and ensure diversity in our communities. By so doing we challenge and ameliorate our biases.

Factoring variables such as location, level and quality of education, etc., our colleges often mirror American society. It seems however that many people have the tendency to create negative attitudes and distorted notions about people different from themselves culturally, ethnically or racially. Policy and decision makers therefore should be cognizant of the diversity that exists in the larger American and global communities, and strive to nurture it in our schools. By so doing we administrators plant the perennial seed of multicultural and racial harmony. This to me will be true globalization, one that transcends the current wave of economic and socio-cultural domination.

Perhaps, if we all (teachers, administrators, policy makers, entertainers, presenters, etc.) help design a fair

system that preserves, nurtures, accentuates, and acknowledges the rich components of our individual contributions to society, we would be helping future generations to build a better society. Our children and their children’s children will be more sensitive, and appreciative and receptive of each other’s cultural heritage.

Bibliography:

Allport, G. The Nature of Prejudice. Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley, 1979.

Felder, C.H. Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Minneapolis, MN. Fortress Press, 1991.

Gollnick, D.M. and P.C. Chinn. Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society. 3rd edition. New York City: Merrill Publishing Company, 1990.

Onovwerosuoke, F. African Music: Faqs and Myths. Voice of African Music, Vol. 5 No. 3. St. Louis, MO: 1998.

Teresi, Dick. Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—From the Babylonians to the Maya. New York, NY. Simon & Schuster, 2002.

West, C. Race Matters. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993.

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