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The puzzle of pluralism


Recently I was part of a faculty committee at my school that was determining the language for two job searches, one in Old Testament and one in field education. One search already contained the words “ethnic minorities are especially encouraged to apply.” It was decided that the term “ethnic minority” is problematic. Obviously those who are minorities in the United States, such as those of African, Hispanic and Asian background, are majorities in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Although this was not said, one might note that males of Euro-American background are 35 percent of U.S. Americans. Are “white males” a minority group?

We decided to add to both searches the phrase that persons of “color” are especially encouraged to apply. While I supported fully the intent of this decision, it caused me to meditate on the limits and inadequacies of our language for “racial pluralism.”

What is a “person of color?” It is assumed that this means African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans and perhaps natives of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It excludes Euro-Americans. But a careful examination of the current terminology for this collection of groups quickly reveals its limits.

Many Hispanics, particularly the educated elite that such a job search seeks, are solely European in background: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, even German. How do these people become “persons of color” when they migrate to Latin America and have Spanish or Portuguese as their first language, while all their ancestors were “white”? Or are Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese also “persons of color” in the U.S. context? Is this an ethnic, cultural or pigmentation term; for example, do Southern Europeans become classed as persons of color if they are swarthy, as white if they are pale? Might this mean a difference of classification of people of the same family? In my own family, which is mostly English, with some Austro-Hungarian, I am of pink complexion; my sister is swarthy or “olive skinned,” as we called it.

The term “persons of color” assumes a hidden “other” over against which they are defined. Who are the “colorless” ones? These are called white, a color possessed by no human being, except the European dead. Whiteness is not an ethnic or cultural reference, but a symbol for a hegemonic group of people of Northern European background. Originally, in fact, white meant English Protestants. Irish Catholics were not included, and were regularly pictured as ape-like subhumans in anti-Catholic cartoons of 19th-century Boston.

As the Irish became assimilated and middle class in America, they have become white. This same expanding definition of white has come to include other European ethnic groups. Ashkenazi Jews are classed as white, although Sephardic Jews are in an anomalous position. They are blacks in Israel. German, Dutch and Scandinavians early became white, if they were Protestant. Indeed the word was changed from English to white in 18th-century America to include these other European Protestants. But Catholics were still very much others until the mid-20th century.

How about Arabs? Are they white or persons of color? Or are they persons of color only if they are first generation immigrants who speak with an “accent” but white if they are fairly light-skinned or speak with an “American” accent? Again how do we divide the swarthy from the light-skinned Palestinian, Egyptian or Syrian?

Also what about ethnic plurality within one’s own ancestry? This was long a concern for U.S. Americans in the definition of blacks. It was determined that a person is black if they have any African ancestry. This definition is still assumed; persons who appear white are black by defining themselves by their African ancestry, however minimal.

With Native Americans we have had a different standard. A person with less than a certain percentage of Native American ancestry is not defined as Native American, although this definition has varied between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Native Americans themselves. The bureau defines Native Americans through the male line of descent; the Native Americans include the female line.

How about people who are part Asian or Hispanic? Do they get to be Asians and Hispanics only if their fathers were Asian or Hispanic and so have Asian or Hispanic family names? What does this do for women married to Asians or Hispanics?

What we really have in the United States is a lingering remnant of a racial and gender apartheid system, which sought to set up a group privileged by English Protestant and then by Northern European (white) ancestry and maleness. Affirmative action was originally about trying to break down this system of male white privilege, by consciously seeking to give “equal opportunity” to the “others.” This is a worthy principle and one I fully endorse. I am proud of my school that we are still consciously adhering to this principle, at a time when it is being attacked as discriminating against the white male. But as pluralism grows, the difficulty to defining the majority and the minorities become increasingly contradictory.

The affirmative language of the l970s spoke of being an “equal opportunity employer.” That language seems to have disappeared, I suspect, because it signaled an interest in women as well. (White) women are now seen as having done well enough, and there is no need to include them in special consideration. There is an unspoken rule that men stay “equal” only by having a two-third’s monopoly in a profession. A profession that is tipping toward one-half women is in danger of losing its status; that is, becoming low paid. One seldom sees an ad that specifies a “woman of color” as especially welcome.

Even the effort to retain affirmative action toward ethnic diversity is myopic and limited. One is really not interested in religious diversity, for example. A theological school does not seek a Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist to add to their diversity of religious conversation. By calling the field for which we are seeking a scholar “Old Testament,” we, in effect, signal that we wanted a Christian who will teach from a Christian perspective, not a Jew for whom these writings would be called Hebrew Scripture. Our commitment to pluralism then tends to be one that welcomes a certain limited difference of external “coloration,” within a very similar world-view. We would like people who look a little different, but all think alike.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999