I remember growing up in a big city. I had always been surrounded by lots of people with different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. We lived in a neighborhood that was a slice of the melting pot. Down the street you could knock on anyone’s door and you would find a neighbor that had lived in each of the world’s continents. We would have block parties, where everyone would gather together for pot lucks and to share food communally. I remember being invited to monumentally large barbecues. These were culturally diverse affairs, where everyone got together whether they were Turks and Greeks or Christian and Jew. This all changed however one year, for a brief time when we moved to an upper class neighborhood in the Midwest. The colorful backdrop I had become accustomed to disappeared and I found myself surrounded by lookalike houses rather than the personable homes created centuries before with character and style.
My first thought, not to be disparaging, was how “white” everything was, people, politics and perceptions. In the great Midwest, the themes most prevalent seemed to be cowboys, Christianity, and Republicanism. I felt like an outsider if for no other reason than I was accustomed to sharing everything that I had, including the intimate details of my personal life. When I began to do this with people that invited me “in” I was often given the impression that providing information on a personal level was a violation of courteous standards. It became increasingly evident that the culture I came from was not ethnocentric, except in that it invited many cultures to participate, and promoted a more egalitarian sharing of resources and information. I had moved into an environment where the norms, values and beliefs were based on very dogmatic principles founded on a patriarchal, highly Christianity-based moral system.
You were included if you adhered to the rules and laws of the land. That meant playing by the cultural standards, getting a taste of country music, and adopting less “ethnic” perspective. John Steckley and Guy Letts (2010) refer to this phenomenon in their book, suggesting that many systems and communities, including the educational system, are based on an ethnocentric and monocultural model. This model according to the two researchers encourages assimilation, which is the basis for much of the religious practice in the Midwest, and cultural “normalcy” of a predominately white-based republican society. This type of assimilation according to the researchers can create racial bias, not only in the educational systems, but also in communities, in hiring boards and I believe, further along in employment agencies (Steckley and Letts, 2010). Racial bias suggests as Steckley and Letts find in their research that one culture is far better than another. This could not be further from the truth.
The rigid patterns of thinking and religious dogma prevalent in some areas compared with others left me wondering how it is that stringent and persistent bias exists despite modernization. In the modern era, themes of globalization and modernization are moving toward greater multiculturalism. It would seem then that no matter where on moves, it is likely one will witness greater multiculturalism and less monoculturalism. That doesn’t appear to be the case, as I was shocked to witness. On investigating this matter further as a reflection of this paper, I learned according to research conducted by Inglehart and Baker (2000) that cultural traditions can persist despite modernization. In fact, the cultural heritage of an area, most strongly whether an area is dominated by certain religious ideals including Romanism, Catholicism, Confucianism or Communism, can largely influence the values that people have regardless of global changes (Inglehart and Baker, 2000).
This may help explain why multiculturalism is more prevalent in coastal regions where ethnic populations are diverse and people from many different religious heritages live in communities together. However in regions including the Midwest, where communities may have been established largely on one or two faith-based systems, like Catholicism or Protestantism, it makes sense that cultural values may remain persistent for years, leading up to cultural shock for anyone that may be moving there from a very multicultural region. I found the best way to adapt in this environment was simply to blend in and treat everyone with respect and courtesy, although the discomfort experienced during the transition time was tangible.
Without the rich ethnic landscape easily evidenced in other communities, it is easy to accept the idea that a monocultural society or culture or religious ideal is best. The dominant culture, moral values or norm becomes the ideal, especially when there are few opponents to resist it. This majority of European-based and middle-classed culture has more income with which to push certain standards, values and even political candidates onto society. Within religious communities I often saw wealthy patrons driving luxury cars into large mega houses, while poor ethnic minorities who could use donations and charity seemed neglected. I remember one shocking incident when I was visiting local churches to see whether I wanted to attend one, and saw other students walk in. They were dressed in Goth clothing, while other members of the congregation were mid to upper class, dressed in their “Sunday” best. I would think that in this environment above all else, these students would be embraced and shown love an acceptance, yet never before did I see such stares of disapproval and here comments among congregation members including staff about the inappropriateness of the student’s garb.
This just reinforces the idea that certain members of this society are superior or more culturally acceptable than others. This also represents a cultural schism between one generation and another perhaps; students and an older population that may be out of touch with a disenchanted portion of the community seeking the same resources albeit in a different manner. I do not think I would have noticed the disdain for these individuals had I not noticed my own level of discomfort having gone from one extreme of cultural integration to the opposite extreme of a community or environment where monoculturalism dominated not just the educational systems but also the townships, communities and political beliefs of the individuals living in the town.
- Inglehart, R. & Baker, W.E. (2000). Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of
Traditional Values. American Sociological Review, 65:19-51. Retrieved October 1, 2013 from: http://www.asanet.org
- Steckley, J. & Letts, G.K. (2010). Elements of Sociology: A Critical Canadian Introduction.
Oxford University Press.