Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

Spelling It Out: Difference and Diversity in Public Conversation

Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

Spelling It Out: Difference and Diversity in Public Conversation

Article excerpt


While "free spaces" may well be a site of democratic change (Evans & Boyte, 1986), what types of discussions happen in such free spaces? How are issues of social difference, particularly that of race, handled in democratic public conversation? Using ethnographic data, this paper explores the "democratic dilemma" of race (Minow, 1990) looking at a series of public conversations about arts, culture, and regional development. This series of public conversations is in many ways a "cosmopolitan canopy" (Anderson, 2004), a place where people can interact civilly across social cleavages-and yet the salience of racial difference to a majority-white group emerges as both a pitfall and a possibility to new ways of understanding diversity and the importance of inclusive and representative public conversation for democratic change.


At a moment in history when public conversation and civic engagement are recognized as hallmarks of a robust democracy, questions about the types of conversations-and indeed, how to create a context for conversation across social cleavages1 of race, class, geographic region, etc.-abound. Polletta and Lee (2006) identify a central paradox of public conversation: personal narrative is valued for its persuasive and humane values even as those who value this type of communication believe that it is not effective at a policy level because of its emotional tenor. Other social critics argue that many attempts at "public conversation" simply serve the interests of elite groups, and that citizen voices are generally left out of the conversations.

Yet for those interested in living in an "unoppressive city" (Young, 1990; Green, 1999), face to face conversation across social difference is a crucial way to move past historical and current oppression, residential and ideological segregation, and other ways that urban spaces can easily fracture along lines of identity. Moreover, face to face conversation-particularly public deliberation, by and for citizens of all social categories-is a hallmark of social change. In the past 50 years, in particular, the "small groups" of the women's movement, the training and organizing groups of the civil rights movement, and various cells and collectives (among other clusters) of the student movement (SDS, SNCC) and of groups like the Black Panthers have shown that conversation and collaboration are central to a particular vision of social change (Evans & Boyte, 1986).

But what happens in these groups? If "free spaces" are the site and source of democratic change (Evans & Boyte, 1986), even the most "free" of "free spaces" have been shown to reproduce inequalities along race, gender, and class lines, among other social divisions. Stokely Carmichael's widely-repeated "joke" about the position of women in SNCC ("prone") is one of the more notable examples of this sort of social reproduction of mainstream roles in an ostensibly "free space" of social change. But this tendency for even selfconsciously democratic or radical groups to reproduce the status quo in terms of leadership (particularly privileging men over women and white people over people of color in groups that strive to be multiracial or work across gender differences) is a pitfall of nearly all known social change movements or small groups. DuBois' 20th century problem of the color line (1903/1989) bleeds over into this century and reminds us that for "free spaces" and other potential sites of change, the problems of difference and the difference difference makes continue to baffle us and too often stymie progressive possibilities.

In Philadelphia, issues of arts, cities, and social change twine together to provide a glimpse of what one local arts activist has termed an "Urban Arts Democracy" (UAD). This Urban Arts Democracy, a hopeful space, is not unique or limited to this particular city, although this city is a very interesting case study for exploring the relationship of arts, cities and social change. …

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