Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Multicultural Road

Usually I don't think about it too much. In fact, sometimes I kind of forget that our family has diverse cultural heritage. When a parent loves a child you see beyond the features that the rest of society immediately identifies. So, when we gather at our dinner table in the evening, I am seldom aware that we who are caucasian are in the minority. I look across the table, and I see my children. I don't see my "Guatemalan" children or my "Hmong" children or my "Mexican-American" children or my "biracial" son. I simply see them.

I was reminded the other day, however, how much my cultural awareness has changed over the years. I was raised in a monocultural community in north central Minnesota. My exposure to diversity as a child was limited to Fourth of July celebrations in the small town when, on a regular basis, the local Chamber of Commerce would invite Native Americans (we called them "Indians") to the community to "perform" a pow-wow. Looking back, I realize what a racist action that was ... inviting Native Americans to "perform" to an "audience" on the street something that has significant cultural value for the Native American community. Invariably by the time night fell the money the group had been paid was spent in the local bars, only giving more "credibility" to those in the community who only knew "drunken Indians."

And then in third grade the first African-American family moved to our community. I still remember the raised eyebrows, the suspicion and the subtle comments that accompanied their arrival. The father was a professional, a dentist, so perhaps that aided in their settling in the community, but I wonder how much courage it would take to do that sort of thing. To move from a major metropolitan area characterized by diversity to a small, north-central Minnesota community which had absolutely no diversity.

But, I was mentioning the other day. My mother and her sister came to visit us, something we all look forward to. When Grandma Mary and Aunt Marlys are in our home the emotional level is increased, and it's always good to have them visit. My mother, who in some ways is very open to new people, described her surprise in meeting our oldest daughter's boyfriend. He had brought her to our home, so my mother sauntered out to the driveway to meet him. Relating the experience to me, my mother recounted with mock horror, "You didn't tell me he was _____ " (and filled in what she thought to be his ethnic heritage." "Well, Mom," I said, that's because he's not _____; he's biracial."

The conversation caught me off guard, not because my mother is a racist (she is not), but because I so seldom think about those kind of distinctions any more. There are, of course, moments when I do, but generally I'm in a different place in my life, which is really quite remarkable considering the first eighteen years of my life, lived in cultural obscurity.

Today I am in Nashville on church-related work, so I am enjoying the (relative) warmth of the morning. (It was 40 degrees this morning, which makes the natives shiver, but feels like spring to me). The grass is green, there are leaves on trees, and it is such a nice respite from the long, snowy winter we have had back home. I walked up the street this morning to a Jack In the Box, where I ate breakfast. If you are unfamiliar with Jack In the Box, it is a regional fast-food kind of restaurant, with interesting food offerings. They serve the typical hamburger/cheeseburger/chicken strip kinds of meals, but also serve egg rolls and other kind of unusual food items.

What stood out to me this morning, however, was the level of service I received. I'm used to receiving monosyllabic grunts from those behind the register in most fast food places, so the friendly greeting I received his morning was a nice surprise. After confirming my order, the young man behind the counter politely asked me to sit down, and that he would bring my food to me.

I sat down and observed what was happening around me. Three of the four people working behind the counter were African-American. Of the three cars pulling through the drive through while I waited, two of them were driven by non-whites. One elderly white woman was eating in the restaurant. The music was rhythm and blues. It was an unapologetically cultural experience, although no one there would have "showcased" it as such. To me that's the beauty of multicultural experiences. At some point in learning about diversity we get beyond the external features and see the simple, authentic expression of a way of life different from our own.

So, as I sat munching my breakfast ciabatta, I heard the crooning music of Luther Van Dross and Lou Rawls (look, I didn't say it was contemporary R&B) and enjoyed seeing a cultural landscape much different than what I will see back home in a few days. It is the start to a good day.

No comments: