Caryl Phillips - Official Web Site

"American Tribalism"

From The American Effect, Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

I arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts in the fall of 1990 with the understanding that I would be spending a year teaching in a liberal arts college. I had not thought about exactly who I would be teaching, beyond the fact that they would be Americans. When I walked into my classroom on that first morning I was greeted by a rainbow coalition of faces; black, white, brown, yellow. Even at an institution as famously conservative as Amherst College, diversity seemed to be a wonderfully natural part of the make-up of the campus culture. I have to confess that had the classroom been in London, or Paris, or Amsterdam, I might well have wondered—perhaps even asked—how many of them were foreign students. A European education encourages one to employ such clumsy and reductive thinking about notions of identity. However, I was not in Europe. I was fully aware of the long history of racial conflict in the United States, but I arrived in this country believing that for most citizens a sense of pride in claiming the more inclusive identity of being an American would far outweigh any professions of loyalty to a particular racial or ethnic group.

Twelve years later I am now an American resident and I know differently. I have lived through the Crown Heights riots, the Gulf War, the Rodney King beating, the L.A. riots, the O.J. trial, the Abner Louima case, the crisis of September 11th 2001, and many other events that have further furrowed the nation's creased brow. These have been troubling times. I have also listened to my students, my colleagues, and my friends, and I now understand that behind the façade of a racially and ethnically mixed society all is not well. I know that the students who sat silently before me in 1990, all harboured different degrees of attachment to the notion of being United States citizens; I know that the imagined harmony of this classroom was a figment of my own romanticism, and no matter how much the United States may wish to claim that it is a society in which everybody has a chance to succeed, irrespective of race or ethnicity, this is simply not true.

Back then I think that I desired the United States to be everything that Britain was not. Having grown up in the Britain of the sixties and seventies, I had been exposed to a society in which diversity of any kind was not to be encouraged. But this is an old British tale. Minorities, be they religious or racial, have always encountered difficulties as they struggle to adjust to the vagaries of British life. As a young black boy, and a northerner at that, the double yoke of race and class was slipped firmly round my neck. I spent a great deal of my time as an adolescent as the only 'different' face in the room, and this did not change on going to university, particularly so as that university happened to be Oxford University. After graduation I made frequent business trips to the United States, and from my cursory observations of the society I began to convince myself that there was a world in which one was not going to be solely judged by one's appearance; as far as I could see, being 'different' in the United States did not necessarily mean that one would encounter insurmountable obstacles on the journey through life. It was with this mindset that I arrived in leafy Massachusetts in 1990, and arrayed before me in my classroom was the evidence of a healthier, and more palatable, society.

After eight years in Amherst, I eventually left and moved to Columbia University's Barnard College. Only a few days after the collapse of the twin towers, I sat in my New York classroom facing my undergraduates. Everybody was understandably still shocked at what had transpired, and I was aware of the fact that my seminar felt more like a memorial service than a forum for lively discussion. The books under scrutiny were irrelevant, and no matter how much I wished to make them relevant, they resisted. Eventually I gave up and turned to the Chinese-American girl. I asked her why she was wearing a stripes and stars bandana on her head. I knew she was a first-generation migrant from Shanghai, and I also knew that on encountering this country she had changed her name and appearance. Hardly unusual behaviour in a migrant, but I was curious about her relationship to the flag that she was displaying.

She took a deep breath and announced to the class that this was her way of expressing solidarity with the victims of the disaster that had occurred. However, she continued and admitted that she did feel somewhat uncomfortable with the symbolism of the United States flag. 'Why?' I asked. And then I became a teacher again. I gestured to the whole room. 'Who in here feels one hundred per cent comfortable with describing themselves as a citizen of the United States of America?' The face of diverse America cracked. Not a single non-white student raised their hands. I felt disturbed, not so much at their response, but at my own stupidity for I knew that had I asked the same question in 1990 the classroom response would, in all likelihood, have been the same.

I had been duped by the United States. Like all great imperial powers, the United States has the capacity to mythologize herself with a conviction that will sweep up all but the sternest doubters. And one of the greatest tenets of United States lore is that irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, everybody has equality of opportunity. We believe these words because we want them to be true. We believe them because in all likelihood wherever it is we are arriving from such equality of opportunity has been denied to us. Like all immigrants, we arrive and metaphorically kiss the ground, and then we stand up and look around and slowly we realize—and this process often takes many years - that the place we thought we were travelling to is, in fact, imaginary. In 1990 I had arrived in an imaginary United States of America.

The pattern of one group of immigrants to the United States displacing another at the bottom of the pile is an old game. Jews, Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and many others, have all served their time in the basement of American scorn. Of course, for Native Americans as original inhabitants, and African-Americans as involuntary migrants, the painful process of assimilation has been fraught with very special difficulties. As one century closes, and another one opens before us, the truth is there is not one America, and in all likelihood there never was. There is white America, black America, brown America and yellow America, and they are all to some degree separate and undeniably unequal. This is not the face of the United States that is exported to the rest of the world. American sports teams are integrated. American music and popular culture is similarly 'mixed'. The American armed forces are not only integrated, they are perhaps the most fully-functional multiracial institutions in the country. This is what most people outside of the United States see, and this is precisely what the self-mythologizing American power structure would wish them to see. However, as the facts reveal, and as my students know, up close and personal things are very different.

What are the facts? The top one percent of Americans have more wealth than the bottom ninety per cent, who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. The unemployment rate for young men in inner cities is over thirty percent, while the national rate is under five percent. The leading cause of death among young black men is gunshot wounds. The United States population is eight per cent African-American, but this community accounts for forty-nine percent of the inmates in state and federal prisons. The development of what the singer George Clinton has termed 'Chocolate Cities and Vanilla Suburbs' has become a reality across the length and breadth of the country. Gated communities, in which homogenous groups with siege mentalities cluster behind guarded and patrolled walls are the norm from the Atlantic to the Pacific. People are not only physically retreating to be with their 'own kind', they are, more worryingly, doing so mentally.

In the United States of the twenty-first century, race and ethnicity have become essentialist boxes into which people have begun to locate themselves, thus limiting their capacity to function as fully active American citizens. Some are retreating into this space in the belief that they are being pushed there; others believe that racially or ethnically 'pure' space provides them with the only place in which they feel free and at ease to think and live as they please. However, to submit to the view that race or ethnicity encapsulate the greater part of one's identity or, even worse, determine one's fate, is to surrender to a certain despair. For many non-white people, their feeling of being shut out from American opportunity understandably leads to separation in thought and action. For white people, many of whom regard whiteness as an unexamined norm against which to measure difference, there is a palpable sense of fear at what they perceive to be a growth in culturally-centric 'attitude', as well as a lament for the disappearance of the kind of world they used to see in Spencer Tracey movies.

Americans have always had to learn to become new people and synthesize their old history with their new life in a manner that has ultimately transformed them into larger and more complex individuals. The nation is made up of people whose stories have involved challenging the fragile nature of identity; changing their names, religion, manners, language, in order to begin anew. Sadly, these personal transformations have never led to the kind of open, fluid 'melting pot' of a society that one hears so much about. And today, personal transformations seem to do little more than reinforce separate identities. Former President Clinton's 'Dialogue on Race' was an attempt to say: Can't we at least acknowledge that in this United States of ours there is a major problem around these issues of race and ethnicity? Is it not clear to everybody that discrimination against those who are perceived to be different is causing huge sections of our population to accept the label of American citizen, but with increasingly well-flagged modifying clauses?

The type of society that the United States should be attempting to engender is a plural, non-tribal society in which citizens feel confident enough to communicate with each other, rather than co-exist as self-isolated islands. However, before the citizens can begin to reach out to each other they have to recognize the magnitude of the divisions and prejudice that already exists, and understand these divisions to be what they are; huge yawing chasms, not thin fissures that can be papered over with titillating discussions, such as those that grew up in the wake of Clinton's 'Dialogue' as to whether the president should offer an official apology for slavery. Really, the situation is more urgent than this. As long as non-white men and women in the United States cannot buy or sell a house, raise and educate their children, or get a job without having to factor in race, then there will always be 'aggressive' loyalty to racial and ethnic identity that no amount of talking can ever hope to redress.

Perhaps the two most pressing questions are, is it too late to do anything about this corrosive process, and if not what should we do? First, it is not too late. It cannot be. The United States needs artists, politicians, educators, and those in the media, to not only undermine fixed and racially-centric notions of identity, including—some might say especially—'white' notions of identity. Second, there is a clear need for legislation, for this has been shown to be the most effective way of combating people's prejudices. Take interracial marriage as an example. Since 1967, when the United States Supreme Court struck down the last anti-miscegenation laws, interracial marriage has risen by eight hundred per cent. A decade before this decision, Brown v Board of Education had already categorically stated that 'separate' is always 'inherently' unequal. And this decision radically improved educational opportunities for all American citizens, not just African-Americans.

The United States was founded on legal principles, one of which states that all men are created equal. Many millions came to the United States because of this idea that was written large into the constitution. Strong legislation to address continued forms of discrimination in American life might go some way towards convincing some citizens that the ideal of human contact, and a concomitant transcendence of self, is a more desirable form of lifestyle choice than a retreat to the essentialisms of race. But legislation by itself will fail. Despite the Supreme Court decision in 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional, South Carolina, until recently, still had a constitutional clause which afforded them theoretical provision to ban the 'marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eight or more of Negro blood'. Although legally impossible to enforce, on November 3rd 1998 the provision was finally repealed, but a shocking thirty-eight percent of South Carolina voters cast their ballot in favour of maintaining the 'irrelevant' ban on interracial marriage. Sadly, we cannot legislate what is in people's hearts, and this fact places increased responsibility onto the shoulders of teachers and writers. I remain optimistic that the United States will not allow herself to fracture along racially defined lines. In fact, it is an important part of my job to try and make sure that this does not happen. However, in the twelve years that I have spent in this country it has not always been easy to live through these difficult times and remain an optimist.