One of the fascinating and frustrating things about the human existence — its temporality, its material quality, the wiring of the brain — is the way in which our filter works. You see, we must, because of the nature of our existence, know things through interacting with or perceiving things. It’s very easy to focus so much on what we see or understand that we forget to be conscious of the way we come to that. The framework is so much a part of who we are — it is who we are — that it’s invisible to us. It’s easy not to see it. It’s like a window pane that when well crafted, we do not observe.
This is not a novel observation I make here, but I raise it to make a point about how the way we understand the world is so shaped by the framework by which we can understand the world. Often, our cultural and social pre-conditions are so normative to us, that we don’t see them anymore either. When we were children, we had to learn such things, but as time passes, we come to take them for granted. You don’t think about how to walk or talk anymore; you can often go through life on auto-pilot because the lessons are so basic you can do them without thought as you mature. The same is true with the way we understand the world to work; we internalize the values taught us and often they are so fundamental that we cannot conceive differently.
And so it is when we come to study history. The subject may be new to us, but we are pre-conditioned already in how we will read these stories. Thus, what we learn and how we understand it is already shaped for us. So it is that the new law passed in Arizona prohibiting certain approaches to teaching ethnic studies illustrates the cultural differences of heterogeneous communities in our country and how we bring our differing views to our history.
Governor Jan Brewer’s spokesperson stated that she signed the legislation because she believes that public school students should be “taught to treat and value each other as individuals.” The purpose of the law, then, is to undermine class consciousness. Students will be indoctrinated to see themselves as singular rather than as members of a racial or ethnic group under the law. Leaving aside the idiocy of this notion (as if human beings didn’t naturally demonstrate a recognition of and, often, affinity for others with the same features as themselves — you will never prevent black people from recognizing their similarity to other blacks or women from finding common cause with other females for example), the real problem of the law is that it is yet another example of and continuation of the cultural war of hegemony that white culture has fought against others in this country since the beginning. Yet again, whites in authority are snuffing out diversity and forcing their culture on others, and the truth is, I don’t even think they realize what they are doing. I think the framework of their understanding is invisible to them here. I don’t think they recognize that this is not a defensive act — it is nothing short of an attempt to undermine any worldview that is not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It is an act of aggression.
In the course of the development of western civilization, the notion of individual rights evolved and this sense of personal standing was further augmented by the Reformation. As a result of these intellectual developments, the dominant white culture in the U.S. (WASP) predicates everything on these concepts of individual rights and liberties. They are enshrined in our Constitution, making that framework normative and mandatory for our society. Unfortunately, not all of our citizens and residents share that particular worldview. Those from other traditions sometimes come from a culture where the group is valued more than the individual or the value of the individual is measured by his/her role in the group. Hence, the differences between Cherokee law and white law. To dominate the Indians, the white-run government had to first attack their culture and strip it from them in order to force them to assimilate. Thus, for example, they were forced into individual land ownership when they had held property collectively before. Catholics, too, share a sense of group consciousness, and, of course, Hispanic culture has been largely molded in that tradition (where Catholicism was the official religion of the Spanish empire and its offshoots for so long). When persons from these non-WASP cultures reside in the U.S., their culture often conflicts with the WASP framework dictated by our Constitution and social organization. The new law in Arizona completely misses that fact.
Forcing students to understand themselves as individuals is to indoctrinate them into the WASP tradition and, in doing so, force its hegemony over their other cultural traditions (religious or otherwise). The law, then, is a continuation of the practice of attacking diversity, and this is largely unrecognized on the part of those who want to dominate. They don’t even realize that this is what they are trying to do. They have a sense, I think, that they are taking on group consciousness, but I think they are doing so in order to “Americanize” these students. They are teaching them the “right way” to approach life and racial/ethnic relations in this country — that is, the way certain white people would prefer it. They do not realize that this perpetuates resentment toward whites because it is so in keeping with our previous attempts to force out other cultures and worldviews. So, when the governor thinks she is promoting individualism, she does not see that this is, also, a form of racial and cultural domination. Her view of the framework through which she sees is too dim.