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When Different Groups Converge, the Ignorant and the Curious Can Be Unexpectedly Rude

THE CHALLANGE OF DIVERSITY: One in a series

April 02, 1989|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

In California--a place that's been called "The World State" because virtually every racial and ethnic group on the planet is represented here--racially mixed children, interracial and intercultural couples, and couples of one race who adopt children of another race or ethnicity are relatively common.

In 1980, a quarter of all foreign-born people in the United States lived in California. Europeans made up less than 20% of the state's foreign-born population in 1980, Asians were 25% and Mexicans 35%, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Nationally, it's projected that from now until the 21st Century's "third or fourth decade," immigration and higher fertility rates among the nonwhite native-born population will lead to a "non-majority population" in the United States, says Cary Davis, vice president of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Most of the population growth will be among Latinos, whose numbers between 1980 and 1988 "grew by 34% compared with an average growth of 7% for the rest of the population," Davis said.

Demographers have put the handwriting on the wall in the workplace, too. From now until the year 2000, the U.S. Labor Department estimates, women, minorities and immigrants will make up 84% of the entrants to the American work force. Already, white men make up less than a majority of American workers.

When racist or culturally insensitive incidents occur in the workplace, the tension they cause can undermine morale and productivity, experts say, making people perceived as "ethnic" feel isolated and as if they are the objects of hostile curiosity.

To defuse conflict in this drastically changed work environment and to exploit benefits of a multicultural work force in a global market demanding knowledge and sensitivity to different cultures, corporations are exploding with seminars on "managing cultural diversity."

And universities, trying to help students understand a society undergoing profound demographic changes, are responding with "ethnic diversity" courses.

Jacquelyn Mitchell, director of the Afro-American Studies program at UC Davis, is the architect of one of the most popular undergraduate courses at the school: "Survey of Ethnicity in the United States." When she started the course four years ago, only a few students signed up. This quarter, more than 300 students signed up for the 178 available seats.

One attraction of her class is that it creates an environment where students can ask everything they wanted to know about another culture but were too afraid of being beat up or berated to ask.

Even so, it's also part of the class "learning experience" to tell someone if a remark is offensive, she says.

"Or, that I've encountered this situation of being questioned about who I am, why I look the way I do time after time, and you are being very insensitive by the question you are asking or the assumptions you are making," says Mitchell. "People are very much unaware of how insensitive they may be to issues that are very important to other people, and they need to be told."

Her son, for instance, attends UCLA and recently graduated from Davis High School, where he was one of a few black students in a predominantly white school. He was in the chair when his dentist said he had seen his picture in the paper. "You're one of the better-looking black students in the school," the dentist said.

"He didn't just say he was one of the better-looking students at Davis, and he didn't understand the difference," Mitchell said. "My son got very angry and came to me to talk about it."

Though people from the "majority" culture complain that minorities overreact to such incidents, multiply that type of situation several times in a week, dozens of times over a period of months and it gets to be wearying, she says.

When Mitchell called the dentist to explain that his behavior was inappropriate, "the dentist never understood," she says. He said he was just "trying to pay my son a compliment. But my son felt he was put on the spot. There he was in the dental chair, the man was working on his teeth and waiting for him to say thank you."

No one group in America has a monopoly on racial insensitivity or cultural ignorance.

Many of the nonwhite students in Mitchell's class said that until they took her course, they didn't think white people had any culture.

"White ethnic groups--that's something I learned about in that class. Boom, it just opened my eyes," says Qadir, one of Mitchell's students. "I thought white people were culture-less. It made me more aware of my friends who are proud to be Irish and German and resent just being called white."

"Yeah," says Lisa Coleman, a 22-year-old African-American student who took the course, "it's basically hard to see white people as having different ethnicities. I saw them as just one group together, particularly the blond, blue-eyed ones. I never considered that many of them, like the Irish-Americans, came from oppressed backgrounds."

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