By Mara D. Giles
This summer I had the opportunity to return to my native New Mexico. I got to spend some glorious days in Albuquerque and parts north. While visiting, I extolled the virtues of New Mexico, its people, its communities, and its marvelous diversity to whoever would listen. There were many who did. They in turn spoke to me about what they perceived to be the considerable amount of cultural conflict in the state and were interested in hearing my perspective on it, both as someone who no longer lives in New Mexico and as a cultural anthropologist.
I asked the people to explain more fully what they meant by cultural conflict. I was given examples ranging from historical and centuries-old quarrels between invaders and the invaded, to current struggles between families who have lived in New Mexico for generations and more recent newcomers who may not have all their governmental paperwork in order. I was told about the conflicts some people see between various regions of the state, about the class distinctions that often strain relationships, and about people’s racial differences.
One day a woman asked me, “What do you think of all of this?” I responded to her in this way:
I live in a small, rural town in southeast Nebraska of approximately 3,300 people. It is quiet and surrounded by lush farmlands and prairie wildlife. The vast majority of the population is white, mostly of German, Swedish, Czech or British descent. There are a handful of black people, even fewer Latinos (although some surrounding communities have higher populations), and no Native Americans, despite their once wide-spread presence. In my community there are 13 churches, 12 of which are of Protestant denomination and one that is Catholic.
For some people, the community in which I live is idyllic. The greatest conflict many people face is whether to root for their son or their nephew who are on opposing high school football teams. Occasionally there are crimes, mostly minor, but sometimes more serious (the frequency of abuse toward women and children is always disturbing no matter where one is). Once in a while people become inflamed that some elite families have political clout while the rest are mere citizens of the town. However, at the end of the day, they can all still be seen conversing at one of the local diners in town or at a family celebration in the park, community friends to the last.
Nebraska as a whole, and especially its cities, is actually quite varied; it simply has a different diversity than New Mexico. Additionally, the community where I live has treated us very well and there are places where one can find Keats’s “a thing of beauty.” But for all intents and purposes, the town I live in is culturally homogenous. Because of the lack of cultural variety, there also is not the excitement and energy generated from people of different backgrounds coming together to share ideas, resolve tensions, and jointly find solutions to the disputes that can arise from diversity.
Rather, what I have seen is a deep reticence with regard to change, and new ideas frequently languish in the culturally static environment. Several people in my community have told me this. One person in particular said to me, “You’re not going to try to change us, are you? Because we want to keep things the way they are. Our town’s not ready for new ideas.” This stems, in part, from a fear of not having sufficient real-world skills for dealing with the clashes that arise when culturally diverse groups come together. At one point I was asked by some city officials to help them figure out how to attract immigrants to the industries our town offers. I gave my suggestions but also explained that with the new revenue that will be generated there also comes people with their own beliefs and behaviors that may differ from those that are already in place.
Newcomers to this small town sometimes are confronted with attitudes ranging from mild suspicion to hostility, especially if they are of notably different backgrounds from those who already live in the community. There can be a social impulsion to force the newcomers to become status quo by some community members. As one person put it, “If you don’t like the way we live and think here, then move.” However, not everyone in this town feels this way, and some here are concerned with finding ways to resolve cultural conflicts.
Thus, my response to the people I talked to in New Mexico was this: Though it may be true that with diversity comes cultural discord, it is that very same diversity that creates a unique richness and mind-broadening cultural awareness that I think should be embraced fervently. In the end, no matter where one lives, it is not diversity that should be feared, but rather the potential stagnation that the fear of conflict and the espousal of just one perspective can bring to any homogeneous community.