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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
A Reflection on Racial and Cultural Assimilation
Nana Apraku
La Pietra Dialogues
October 5, 2016

As a Black student attending a historically White institution it is difficult to grasp how the issue of race will color the social and professional interactions you have with your peers and teachers. I grew up in a predominantly Black and Latino community in the South Bronx, New York. As a freshman at NYU’s Stern School of Business I thought I had an advantage relative to other students coming from far away states and even farther countries. They, I supposed, would be forced to adjust to an entirely new place and juggle the multiple demands of the rigorous curriculum at Stern, but, I quickly learned that they adapted better than I did; they came to an institution where they could foster their own communities, connect with students who came from similar backgrounds and formulate support systems to combat their hardships--all things I lacked during my freshman year at NYU.

Much of the leadership at Stern remained resistant to discussing the issue of race; it seemed a social taboo to even mention it. So, when I came to Florence to study abroad and discovered that not only did NYU Florence host talks about race but also encouraged student participation, I jumped at the opportunity. I attended a La Pietra Dialogue titled “Diverse Experiences, Common Causes” where Nicole Lapierre, a French social anthropologist, and Manthia Diawara, a professor and director of the African American Institute at NYU, presented their thoughts and work on racial interactions around the world. Their talk brought the issues of race and identity down from the abstract to the tangible and ultimately helped me frame my racial experience at NYU.

Nicole Lapierre sought to answer the question: “Do we need to look alike in order to live together?” Must we congregate solely upon our racial resemblances? Lapierre argued that although the obvious answer may be to reject this question, history and current events show that humanity has always erected physical and social barriers in order to exclude or assimilate those who do not resemble members of a particular group. She asserted that exclusion, structured as racial segregation or ghettos, has been generated by racists to “essentialize” differences in an effort to tie them to identities and use them as an instrument of political ambition. By emphasizing what makes people different, racists can distinguish themselves and claim superiority based on superficial distinctions. This denigrates the personal identity of the racialized group and elevates the identity of the group characterized as superior.

Lapierre discussed another way society can diminish one’s individual identity, through assimilation, which is a less obvious construction of racial bias. This process acts within the subconscious, forcing the assimilated to think that their previous identities or cultures are inferior to the culture they wish to join. Lapierre’s premier example is the French Republican system whose motto boldly promises “Liberté - Égalité - Fraternité”, translated as ‘Freedom, Equality and Fraternity.’ As Lapierre noted, this system promoted assimilation as a means of emancipation and was also used to justify global French colonialism: those allowed access to French citizenship “gained” equal rights; to be free meant to be French and to be French meant absolute adoption of strictly defined French cultural norms. This logic had played a beneficial role in the creation of a public “free and compulsory education” because it opened the schoolhouse doors to all children living in France, fostering a unified French way of life, but, it also undermined “regional languages and local traditions”, which soon became “objects of scorn.” Many citizens of colonized Francophone regions began immigrating to France and introduced a new racial dynamic to the French assimilation model. As time progressed, immigrants did not feel that the French Republican system guaranteed them the liberties it guaranteed white or caucasian French citizens. As Lapierre notes, many “lost their particularism in order to gain social mobility”, but equality remained elusive to many minority groups.

The theoretical principle of equality is central to the French Republican model, so much so that it is illegal to conduct studies or research on a population based upon their creed or race. In theory, the French reject categorization based upon ethnicity, so it remains difficult, if not impossible, to track or examine systemic racism within French institutions. This means that African and Arab immigrants coming from Francophone regions have no way to substantiate claims of discrimination with statistics. On paper, every French citizen, regardless of their race, is equal, but immigrants, taught the French definition of liberty and freedom, raise their gaze from their textbooks to face a very different reality. Lapierre cited a study conducted by the Open Society Justice Initiative that revealed racial profiling by the French police. Titled “Profiling Minorities: A Study of Stop-and-Search Practices in Paris”, the report exposes that “Blacks were between 3.3 to 11.5 times more likely than Whites to be stopped; while Arabs were stopped between 1.8 and 14.8 more times than Whites.” This report substantiated the fact that police officials in Paris stop people on the “basis of ethnicity” and, more importantly, that the French Republican model of “formal equality” is not working. What should be a state supported system of equal opportunity becomes an abstruse way to ignore racial inequality. Muslim women in France are asked to remove their veils based on the principle of secularism--the principle that no one in a public space should seek to impose their religion on others. Lapierre argued that this guise of neutrality has become a tool to oppress minority women; to force women to take off their veils limits their freedom of expression and their individual identity. Emancipation by force is not emancipation at all. Without racial equality, assimilation becomes an avenue to erase racial and cultural differences and, by proxy, force minorities to forgo identities that French society is uncomfortable with.

Manthia Diawara, a Malian writer and cultural theorist, also discussed racial identity. As a citizen from a French colony, he has direct experience with the contradictions of the French Republican system. His movie on Edouard Glissant,“One World in Relation” discusses how colonialism and its forced cultural hybridity has shaped the idea of identity. In the movie, Glissant discusses the concepts of multiplicity and opacity, both ideas relating to the complexities that exist within humanity that we can not immediately understand. Opacity, what is within that we can not see, is sometimes a barrier to cultural exchange. Glissant asks: “Why must we understand to accept?” He explains that each of us has “the right to difference”; every individual is born with a uniqueness that is unexplained, similar to the many things in the world that we can not explain. This obscurity may be frightening, and we may be compelled to discern before we accept, but Glissant believes it is barbaric to impose one’s ‘transparency’ on others. Glissant affirms that we should be embraced as individuals before we are “measure[d] [by] solidity with the ideal scale providing [the adjudicator] with ground to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgements.” He describes that there exist within all of us something we do not understand and we should be able to accept this opacity in others as well.

Our own opacity is just one of the few things that make us who we are. Every person has their own unique collection of characteristics and Glissant coins this idea as multiplicity. Within the Black diaspora, a community resulting from the enslavement and mass movement of Africans from their home to the Americas, Europe and various other regions, Black people have felt very keenly this sense of multiplicity. Their cultural mixing is a direct consequence of colonialism. For example, Glissant’s unique amalgamation of traits comes from his African ancestors trafficked through the Atlantic Slave Trade, his immediate Caribbean roots, and the French culture dominant on the colony of Martinique where he was born and raised. This myriad of identities merged to create the writer and poet Edouard Glissant. As Glissant notes, many Black people within the diaspora feel lost because of this multiplicity, as they are unable to identify with a single group, but he believes that their multiplicity through oppression has made them richer and stronger. As he notes, the African-American experience has resulted in Jazz, Blues and the creation of a thriving culture with leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.. Glissant describes a kind of reverse colonization where Africans who were taken from their home as slaves have now created new cultures around the world that have globally impacted us all.

I understood as a freshman the multiplicity within me, but Nicole Lapierre’s examination of the French system helped me more deeply understand my experience as a student at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and the feeling of minimization I endured. Stern is a lauded business school, ranked within the top ten in the world and home to alumni who have started companies and worked on Wall Street. The Stern administration prides its culture and they scream “We.Are.Stern” just as loudly as the French proclaim “Liberté - Égalité - Fraternité”. The school is held in high regard and perceived as superior, similar to the way the French model of governance is seen as the foundation of so many democracies that developed in the civilized world in the 18th century. Similar to immigrants who are sold the dream of success, joining the Stern community is seen as a blessing and teachers always remark how lucky we are as students. I joined the Stern community with hopes to better myself and become a leader, but I failed to recognize how this upward social mobility would conjure a sense of forced abandonment of my previous identity.

I lived the influences of the Black diaspora within my small neighborhood in the Bronx. I grew up as a proud listener of Bob Marley and a Harriet Tubman fanatic even as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. It was because of this pride that I felt such disenchantment when my identities were not accepted at NYU Stern. I recall a day in which my classmates and I got lunch on campus at the Weinstein dining hall, after which we watched videos and listened to music before our next class. Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda video appeared on the screen and everyone in the room remarked how her butt was disgusting and her dancing dreadful. They looked to me to comment and I did not know what to say. I came from a lineage of curvy woman who looked just like Nicki Minaj and flaunted their assets just as proudly. I laughed off their comments, but did not disagree.

Weeks later, the streets surrounding our campus were packed with New Yorkers protesting the death of Eric Garner, a Black man from Staten Island who was suffocated to death by police that past summer. I called my brother and we talked about the developing hopelessness filling the hearts of Black youth in response to the continuous police brutality afflicting Black communities. My same friends from Weinstein, while walking to their dorms, complained about the traffic and street closings, upset that their daily routine was disrupted by the protest. I walked alongside them in silence, feeling conflicted. I did not tell them that I planned to attend the protest that night. I never did attend the protest, but I did attend my business writing class the next morning where my professor made an off-hand comment about how the police deserved our understanding.

Stern’s assimilationist culture subverted my personality and made me consciously nitpick who I was. The Stern culture leaves little room for those who do not assimilate, and as a student I felt forced to assimilate or risk social isolation. Stern has a set of standards seemingly guaranteed to get you a job and make you successful, and defecting from this cultural model makes you feel as though you cling to something inferior. I was molded subliminally to believe that I joined something better than what I left behind. I was thrust into a completely different culture resistant to change, so instead I sought to change myself. Before joining Stern I was awarded multiple “Best Debater” awards for my rambunctious voice, not afraid to educate my peers on the racial constructs within institutions, but at Stern I felt a social pressure to be silent and become the normal docile student ignorant of the racial prejudices that surround them. This cultural structure is destructive because it disallows the individual to be who they are within Stern and disregards the multiplicity within our backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences. As Lapierre explains, to refuse diversity is to “refuse the reality of people as they are, and as they will never cease to be.” The assimilationist culture I found at Stern claims to be “color-blind” but, like in France, the failure to recognize diversity, and the fostering of a culture that does not directly address racial bias, has left those who are diverse feeling unwelcome.

Assimilation, as a cultural model, demeans the singular identity under the guise of equality and acceptance within a larger culture. It convinces us to strive for one ideal, which may not be the best ideal. This aspiration to a single paradigm is the result of centuries of domination by people who believe the white race is superior. We should not feel forced to live or look alike according to a single model perceived as superior. Rather, we must develop what Lapierre calls “a concrete humanism open to diversity”, a humanity open to dialogue that addresses the best ways to enrich cultural exchanges and combat conflict. The vital point expressed by Lapierre and Glissant, which was emphasized by Professor Diawara during my private interview with him, is that we must not believe that exchange with one another destroys who we are individually. To cling to our racial identities as a point of difference is an internalization of white supremacist thought. We must reject the rationale that focuses on our differences, as Lapierre notes “The more the difference is invisible, the more acute becomes the obsession of the racist to reveal it.” Racism aims to divide us when, instead, we must learn to live with our individual multiplicity and the general multiplicity that exists in the world.

I believe what binds us is the ability to form our own respective truths. It is ignorant for us to believe that there exists one ideal, one truth, or one culture to which we should all aspire. We will never all look the same and we will never live in a world of singularity. Humanity always will be diverse, it has become even more complex and variable than ever before. In order for us to continue our steady progress towards peace we must first recognize that our philosophies will always differ. The new world belongs to the mixed world. Lapierre, Diawara and Glissant all agree that comfortability in multiplicity is key.

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