Peterson Diversity Fair creates opportunity for cultural exchange

  • Published
  • By Rex Jones
  • 21st Space Wing Equal Opportunity director
During the mid-1960s and 1970s, the United States lacked awareness and sensitivity to the cultural needs and feelings of many ethnic groups. This attitude, coupled with other factors, eventually resulted in racial unrest. It spilled over into the armed forces and began to impact mission effectiveness. Noticing racial tension between its workers, the military began to develop and implement educational programs to counter the negative conditions that existed.

Today, ethnic observances are held annually in support of joint congressional resolutions and presidential proclamations to pay homage and recognize the contributions and achievements of all groups within the United States. These observances remind us to not forget the lessons the past has taught us. However, remembering isn't enough and being ethnic in this country is more than food, fun and famous people. We need to practice the cultures.

Let's face it, not everyone feels the same about this subject. Often these observances are viewed as more of a hindrance than help, maybe because of the, "Why can't they be like the rest of us?" syndrome. That question often arises when a dominant group in society finds itself unavoidably - and possibly for the first time - living, working and playing alongside groups who are racially and culturally different.

This can create potential problems which are invariably due to the lack of understanding and sensitivity to these differences. The results are fear of unknown, mistrust and difficulty in communication; all of which create an unproductive, if not hostile, environment. The question also adds other problems as well. It subtly suggests that conforming to society should be the goal of every ethnic person.

The United States has always been viewed as a "melting pot." This means each individual gives up his or her ethnic identity for a "standard America." This particular concept caused some cultures to abandon their traditions and disguise their ethnic identities to blend into the mainstream. But, we learned that it is OK to be yourself.

Through trial and error, we have come to recognize that people with positive feelings about their ethnic background have higher self-esteem. This translates to higher productivity within ethnic groups.

Today, our society views itself as pluralistic, yet unified. This has become known as the "tossed salad" concept. Each individual vegetable is different and unique, yet when combined they are unified. This redefines people and allows them to keep their family and group traditions without fear of ostracism.

Increased ethnic consciousness can be a double-edged sword if handled improperly. In our equal opportunity classes, we challenge participants to become familiar and proud of their individual heritage. However, this pride can occasionally escalate into group superiority ("If you are not like me, you are less than me.").

A possible outcome of having only members of the recognized group plan an entire ethnic observance is known as cultural isolationism. This is the belief that only members of a given people-group can relate to the other members of the group. If cultural isolationism is accepted the group can become secluded (example: "Let's get Pacific Islanders to put on their own cultural program.").

There seems to be an attitude that if ethnic groups don't care about their own observance, then why should anyone else? This sentiment is the very core of why some observances are lackluster at best. The total planning, support and participation in these observances are seen as the sole responsibility of the recognized group. Doesn't that sound like self-recognition? What message is sent to the group when, if they don't plan an observance themselves, there wouldn't be one? If the group happens to be small, the quality of the program may suffer or be non-existent.

We in the EO office encourage everyone to have a better understanding of your American heritage by participating in cultural observances. Last May, the 21st Space Wing sponsored its first ever diversity fair. It was a huge success, and by popular demand, we are projecting our second annual diversity fair for this summer. Needless to say, this will be a perfect opportunity for you to help make a difference.

Some of you may say to yourself, "What difference can I make?"

My answer is a quote I heard by someone who made a difference, retired Army Gen. George Bombel, guest speaker of the 1994 Fairchild Hispanic Heritage Banquet. He said, "I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do and what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do."

For questions about this year's planned EO activities, contact Wynona James at 556-7691.