HOW DOES an ethnic group that has historically been dominant in its society adjust to a more modest and balanced role? Put differently, how do white Americans learn to be positive participants in a richly pluralistic nation? These questions have always been a part of the agenda of multicultural education but are now coming more clearly into focus. Most of our work in race relations and multicultural education in the United States has emphasized -- and appropriately so -- the particular cultural experiences and perspectives of black, Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian groups. These are the people who have been marginalized to varying degrees by the repeated assertion of dominance by Americans of European ancestry. As the population of the United States shifts to embrace ever-larger numbers of previously marginalized groups, there is an emerging need to take a closer look at the changing role of white Americans.
Part of this need is generated by the growing evidence that many white Americans may not be comfortable with the transition from their dominant status. As our population becomes more diverse, we have seen an alarming increase in acts of overt racism. The number and size of hate groups in the United States is rising. Groups such as the Aryan Nation, neo-Nazis, and skinheads tend to play on the anger, ignorance, and fears of the more alienated, disenfranchised, and uneducated segments of white society.
Too many segments of our white American population remain committed to their position of dominance; they are willing to defend it and legitimize it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that our world is rapidly changing. Taken as a whole, these realities strongly suggest that a peaceful transition to a new kind of America, in which no ethnic or cultural group is in a dominant position, will require considerable change in education and deep psychological shifts for many white Americans. Attempting to effect these changes is part of the work of multicultural education, and that challenge leads us to a central question: What must take place in the minds and hearts of white Americans to convince them that now is the time to begin their journey from dominance to diversity?
There is much that needs to be said to help us understand our collective past, as well as the present. In a sense we are all victims of our history, some more obviously and painfully than others. It is critical that we white Americans come to terms with our reality and our role. What does it mean for white people to be responsible and aware in a nation where we have been the dominant cultural and political force? What can be our unique contribution, and what are the issues we need to face? How do we help create a nation where all cultures are accorded dignity and the right to survive?
I explore these questions here from the perspective of a white American. Each nation, of course, has its own special history to confront and learn from, but the depth and intensity of our struggle with diversity in the United States has significant lessons to teach both our own people and the rest of the world.
European Americans share at least one commonality: we all came from somewhere else. In my own family, we loosely trace our roots to England, Holland, France, and perhaps Scotland. However, with five generations separating us from our various "homelands," we have derived little meaning from these tenuous connections with our ancestral people across the water. This is true for many white Americans, who are often repulsed by the appellation "European American" and would never choose such a descriptor for themselves. They simply prefer to be called "American" and to forget the past.
On the other hand, many white Americans have maintained direct and strong ties with their European roots. They continue after many generations to draw meaning and pride from those connections. …