by: Elaine Leader, Ph.D.
The Challenge of Multiculturalim and the Rise of Intolerance:
In his inaugural speech of 1997, President Clinton questioned, “Are we coming together or coming apart?” Previous concepts that defined American society as a melting pot have long been discarded in favor of multiculturalism. Instead of defining oneself with pride as being an American, one is expected to precede this with a hyphened acknowledgment to one’s origins or forebears, no matter how distantly they emigrated to these shores. But following the tragic events of September 11th despite an apparent unity amongst Americans in face of a common enemy – terrorism, a wave of intolerance has again arisen. This has been continually accelerated by our current President, Donald Trump. Those with Islamic names, even those not known to be associated with acts of terror, are being targeted with epithets and acts of hate. People of color, and particularly immigrants of color, are demeaned. This intolerance, although arising from fear, cannot be allowed to flourish.
The idealism and hopes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to combat racism, prejudice and bigotry have almost been forgotten. True, many of the legal impediments to equal rights have been eliminated, but our concern now is that these may be threatened by our current administration in Washington. Also, what our young people are facing today is, for the most part, a subtler form of stereotyping and prejudice.
California’s Complex Racial and Ethnic Diversity
In Los Angeles and throughout Southern California, the sheer number and variety of racial and ethnic groups is remarkable. There are Samoans, Iranians, Armenians, Cambodians, Lithuanians, Ethiopians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Peruvians and countless other Spanish-speaking groups. The gradations of color on the faces of the people here undercut the traditional black-white dichotomy so prevalent in other parts of the country. UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Reginald Daniel, a scholar of racial identities, says, “the visual factor in racism is so critical. What you see is going to affect how you treat a person, and as it becomes more difficult to code what you see, your behavior is going to be influenced by the fact that you’re not absolutely certain of whom you’re dealing with at any given time.”
The racial and ethnic intermarriage rate in Los Angeles County is five times higher than the national average. In fact, 15% of babies being born in the state are of mixed race or mixed ethnicity, according to an analysis of birth records by the Public Policy Institute of California. Of course, the blurring of racial and ethnic lines does not automatically eliminate social and economic hierarchies based on skin tone.
As helping professionals I believe we have the responsibility to assist people in dealing with the fears and prejudices that arise from this ever changing diversity. Resources are available. For instance, The Southern Poverty Law Center provides free teaching materials, posters and videos for use with elementary and secondary school students. Other organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League have excellent programs, videotapes and speakers.
Peer mediation or conflict resolution strategies are examples of approaches to resolve difficulties that occur between diverse and divisive sectors of a school population. Schools that include these approaches in their curriculum are to be applauded. Another avenue to understanding has been the teen Drug Courts that use peers to address misdemeanor drug infractions. However, one phenomenon that must be explored if a program is to succeed, is the ways that cross-cultural differences affect communication. It is necessary for mediators to deal with their own prejudices and biases so that these do not adversely affect the mediation process.
Much has been written about the need for social programs to reflect the multiculturalism of their community by including staff who are representative of their target population. The goal is to incorporate principles of cultural and ethnic diversity to enrich the quality of service to the community. Teen Line, a well-established teen hotline in Los Angeles, deals with these issues of diversity with their front-line staff who are teenagers. Issues faced include appropriate training that encompasses cultural sensitivity, recognition of prejudice and stereotyping (both conscious and unconscious) and the development of suitable outreach strategies. Mandatory training includes experiential exercises to further insight into prejudicial thinking and stereotyping and all volunteers are required to visit the Museum of Tolerance. Many of our teen volunteers complain that at school students tend to congregate and socialize according to ethnicity. For most of them, the Teen Line training is the first experience they have of dealing with these issues in an open and frank manner. And for some it is the first time that they have formed relationships across the usual boundaries.
We all need to feel that sense of belonging that comes with identification with others like ourselves. We strive at Teen Line to promote equality, justice and humanness in a society where prejudice and discrimination are still evident. The challenge is to help our teen volunteers to recognize, understand, and confront the many types of prejudice and discrimination present in their world at the same time as we encourage cultural pluralism as an opportunity for growth.
Dr. Elaine Leader co-founded Teen Line in 1981 and was the Executive Director until 2015. She is now entitled Founder and is establishing a Legacy Line for supporters to contribute to Teen Line long term. She received her MSW from UCLA in 1970 and Ph.D. from the Sanville Institute in 1981. She has been in private practice since 1970. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Teen Line is staffed by trained teen volunteers and is accessed by teens worldwide through calls, texts and emails. In 2017 73% heard about it as a resource via the internet site www.teenlineonline.org. In addition to the hotline Teen Line has an extensive community outreach service that includes the Youth Yellow Pages which is also now available on an App, presentations at schools and adolescent serving agencies as well as an educational component for parents, training in suicide prevention for law enforcement and consultation to the media.