Reading Response: “Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. makes a cogent case for pluralism in the American cultural context. In the American academia of today the formation of curricula is largely dependent on the ethnic composition of the enrolled students. This implies that courses that come under the purview of liberal arts are seldom offered in colleges with a high ethnic/racial diversity. Gates Jr. sees this practice as discriminatory and divisive. He alerts us to how “political representation has been confused with ‘representation’ of various ethnic identities in the curriculum”. (214) Hereby, instead of real diversity in the classroom, what we have is notional diversity of perspectives in the course content. The effect of this trend is one of promoting a concocted common American identity where none such exists. Political conservatives have tried to justify this practice by citing fears of ‘tribalism’ and ‘fragmentation’ in society. But considering that plurality is at the very core of American history and culture, the conservative view point does not hold up. Gates’ allusions to W.E.B. Dubois and Herman Melville add weight to his argument. He sums up the issue aptly by saying “it’s only when we’re free to explore the complexities of our hyphenated culture that we can discover what a genuinely common American culture might actually look like” (215) To realize this goal we must first achieve a degree of separation of political influence in the education system. More broadly, we as Americans will have to develop tolerance and understanding toward cultures of color, in order to develop a “truly common public culture”. (215)

Work Cited:

“Whose Culture Is It Anyway?” by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chapter 7, pp. 213-215, originally published in The New York Times, Copyright 1991.