Academic journal article MELUS

Multiculturalism and Epistemic Rupture: The Vanishing Acts of Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Alfredo Vea Jr

Academic journal article MELUS

Multiculturalism and Epistemic Rupture: The Vanishing Acts of Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Alfredo Vea Jr

Article excerpt

Despite the threat it poses to proponents of Western cultural supremacy, English-only movements, and other desperate campaigns to whitewash U.S. curricula and culture, multiculturalism often serves to distance, contain, and control the very "cultures" it presumes to promote. If, as Stuart Hall contends, marginality "has never been such a productive space as it is now" (467), the dominant multicultural paradigm, operating simultaneously as a curricular structure and consumer ideal, territorializes the margins in order to harness and tame the "productivity" of difference. Certain manifestations of multiculturalism recall the Disneyland attraction, "It's a Small World," filled with colorfully dressed childlike performers who affirm the message that we are all so different, yet all the same,(1) as the viewers, riding safely in their little train through the world of cultures get to be entertained by them but remain untouched, unchallenged, emerging into daylight at the end of the tunnel, safe from them all. Even its resemblance to spooky carnival rides plays upon the fear of the other while singing these fears to rest. This form of multiculturalism essentializes cultures, flattening them out into easily consumable icons that contain difference and make it less threatening. Diverse peoples with complex and often brutal histories become packaged like breakfast cereals, with snappy images and, if you're lucky, a fun prize inside.

Multicultural soundbites do nothing to promote cross-cultural understanding; instead, they offer up easy-to-digest tidbits for consumption. As bell hooks argues, "the commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other's history through a process of decontextualization' ("Eating the Other" 31). Decontextualization whitewashes bloody histories and current systemic inequities in order to offer up a banquet of cultures that can be blithely consumed. As an angry white woman in John Sayles's Lonestar retorts during a heated debate about whose version of history should be taught in the schools, "If you're talking food and music I have no problem with that, but if you're talking about who did what to whom" forget it. Indeed, a "utopian discourse of sameness," Guillermo Gomez-Pena argues, helps us to forget: "if we merely hold hands and dance the mambo together, we can effectively abolish ideology, sexual and cultural politics, and class differences" ("The Border" 57). The mambo dream induces historical amnesia and diverts our attention from systemic oppression by substituting cultural inclusion for social change. As E. San Juan, Jr. argues, "multiculturalism may be conceived as the latest reincarnation of the assimilationist drive to pacify unruly subaltern groups" (60).

While there have been many thoughtful and incisive critiques of the politics of multiculturalism,(2) little attention has been paid to the epistemological framework that undergirds it. Multiculturalism has so readily become a paradigm of mastery and consumption not only because of its obvious ties to global systems of consumer capitalism, but also because as a curricular framework it intermeshes with a dominant epistemological paradigm that seeks to distance, order, and control its "objects" of knowledge. Despite its celebration of "other cultures," the hegemonic form of multiculturalism places an Anglo consciousness at the center as the knower and marginalizes other peoples and cultures as static objects of knowledge. The consciousness of the knower remains unmarked and thus transcendentally confident about the clarity its perspective affords. This paradigm both insists that Students need to learn more about "other cultures" and encourages them to feel that they can readily master--if, indeed, they haven't already--what Native Americans believe or what "Asians" are like. …

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