A Multicultural Globalism
Does maintaining cultural ties mean giving something else up?
A few weeks ago, I attended a research conference at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Titled “The Borders in All of Us: A Global Approach to Three Diasporic Societies,” the gathering of 50 or so scholars seemed to push back some of the boundaries through which we contain ourselves when we deal narrowly with ethnic studies.
While the curriculum is enriched by the approach ethnic studies scholars bring to learning, especially after centuries of Eurocentric scholarship dictating the contours of higher education, when ethnic studies becomes narrow and territorial it is not as expansive as it might be. Thus, when University of Colorado scholar Dr. Evelyn Hu-DeHart spoke of the migration of Asian people into Latin America and the United States, she offered a portrayal of Asians that is not popular. Her scholarship resonated with me as I recalled my mom, a Mississippi native, describing Chinese Mississippians who had both a Southern drawl and an entrepreneurial history in her neck of the woods that was a century old.
In some ways the Cal State gathering had a flavor much like that captured in Sheila S. Walker’s new book, African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas. Many of the essays in Walker’s edited volume speak, too, to the mutability of borders, to the ways cultures influence each other, and the impacts of migration. Dr. Joseph E. Inikori, a history professor at the University of Rochester, contributed one of my favorite essays in the volume, titled “Africans and Economic Development in the Atlantic World, 1500-1870.” Inikori speaks of the ways global migrations shaped cultures, and the ways the African labor drain essentially supported the economic development of Europe, the United States and Latin America. The issue of labor mobility was a theme among the scholars at the California conference, as Drs. Timothy Fong and James Sobredo looked at waves of Asian migration and their impact, and as others looked at the ways migration shaped contemporary language, literature, and social and economic development.
Why is this view of the global world so frequently missing from popular conversations on global development? To let some folk tell it, globalization means the United States trades with Europe and exploits Africa along the way. That’s certainly accurate, but there is more to the global story than that, and part of it has to do with the ways global ties are maintained across generations and centuries, and the connection people of color have to their ancestral homes. One of the questions that remains unanswered is the difference between the diasporic connection that people of color experience — do African Americans feel a different connection to Africa than Asian Americans have to Asian countries, or that Latinos have to the countries of their birth? When we speak of diasporic societies, what do we really mean, and what is the nature of connections? And in a United States that encourages assimilation, especially now, does maintaining ties mean giving something else up?
When our political leaders speak of global economic development they generally speak of it as a good thing, a positive, an enhancement, that has value added. But when they deal with connections that people of color have around the globe, some chafe at the notion that we describe ourselves as “hyphenated” Americans. Yet the hyphens are evidence of our globalism, of our connections that transcend our narrow national experience. Why is that a good thing when it is being touted by a White corporate executive, but a bad thing when being explored by a scholar of color?
Dimensions of national origin, often ignored, will be explored in coming years both because of our world’s increased interdependence, and because economic trends demand connections outside our borders. Those who bring a global perspective to the table must ensure that assets that come from the West are not more highly valued than the assets that come from the developing world. In other words, collaborations must be partnerships and mutually respectful connections, not dependent relationships. And yet, the developed world often behaves as if those on the rest of the globe must gratefully kowtow to it.
When “world economic leaders” meet, they come from the G-8 countries, mostly Western (except Japan and Russia). Some of the rationale is a matter of size — the gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States, at $10 trillion, is about 142 times higher than the $7 billion GDP of small African countries such as Benin or Togo. The entire developing world can’t be invited to the G-8 table with the expectation that a productive conversation will result. At the same time, representatives of these countries should be brought to the table consistently, unless economic globalism means that the world’s largest countries are empowered to set the tone for everyone else.
Economic policy is an important aspect of world globalism. The amazingly rich connections revealed by the multicultural globalism examined at the conference are also an important aspect of world development. Just as economies are intertwined, so are cultures, and these connections and relationships need to be explored. The issue of globalism isn’t just about dollars and cents, but also about people and mobility. As we move into a global world, some people are asking different and more provocative questions about the ties that bind us, about the borders in all of us. When scholars provide the answers, existing conceptions of history are likely to be shattered.
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