Diversity improvements hinge on focus of issue’s history

In previous columns, I have urged students to break out of their comfort zones and embrace the possibility of a more diverse university. I also pointed out both the moral rightness and social necessity of integration for the future of the nation.What I have yet to point out are the personal risks involved in taking steps toward a harmonious, multicultural society. The reality is that many who choose to cross cultural boundaries will have to endure misunderstanding not only from the cultures they seek to embrace but also from the cultures they’re from.

Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr., two pioneering black entertainers, faced rejection from their own people because of their crossover appeal to a white audience. According to her autobiography, Horne once told the great jazz big-band leader Count Basie, “I’m not going back there. I can’t go back. I’m lonely; I can’t see my own people…”

According to Gerald Early’s book “The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader,” Davis told interviewer Alex Haley in 1966: “No matter what you do, no matter where you go, you ain’t right, even with your own people.”

Despite the fact that the aforementioned entertainers broke down the color barrier in numerous venues in the country, they were often accused of being ashamed of their race, “acting white” or being sellouts. They, of course, denied the accusations but were nonetheless ridiculed, and their explanations were met with scorn.

I do acknowledge there may be many reasons for this criticism. I believe one of the reasons is that when a person, especially a minority, has assimilated into the dominant culture, it would appear to many in the minority group that he or she might think the dominant culture is somehow “better” than the minority culture from which he or she came. Instead of recognizing the sublime opportunity to spread the “gospel” of the minority culture, it is seen as a desertion of it. Thus, the traitor is ostracized from the group and becomes practically irrelevant to the culture from which he or she came.

The sad part is that those who are banished are often the ones who have access to power and influence in the dominant culture. Instead of becoming an advocate for the “unheard,” the victim of the expulsion may potentially harden themselves against “their own people,” thus cutting off a critical voice that the dominant culture needed to hear.

Even those from the dominant culture could find themselves made fools for their immersion into diversity – look at Elvis Presley. According to Peter Guralnick’s book “Last Train to Memphis,” Presley was once insulted by a white person and asked, “Why do you do that (black singing) out there?” He defiantly responded, “I can do what I want to do.”

Thus, even the most popular singer of that period was not above being the target of hate by those who resisted any movement toward social change. Unfortunately, though the language most likely won’t be as harsh as in 1956, the modern attitude and resentment expressed often isn’t much different.

What those who dare to step out of their “culture zones” must realize is that they will be easy targets for criticism and misunderstanding. Friends may even misunderstand, no matter how hard you try to convince them of the rightness of your action. Those who dare to take the risk must remind themselves that these pioneers took the insults, did what they believed and made society a more open and tolerant place. Those who ridiculed them were forgotten.

Erick Raven is a first-year graduate student in the School of Education from Grand Prairie. His column appears every Friday.