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Child and Youth Care Institutions: Melting pots or cookie cutters? 

Gary Weaver

I want to thank everyone concerned for inviting me here and for the hospitality I’ve received at child care facilities throughout South Africa. It was very important for me to see everything, from Soweto in Johannesburg and Crossroads in Cape Town to some very beautiful facilities and group homes, and to see the wide range of difficulties that you are faced with here in the area of child care. I have also seen, of course, the disproportionate numbers of facilities and levels of care available to people of different races. My hunch is, this will change dramatically in the next few years. In many cases you may face problems that we face in the United States.

An American viewpoint
Let me say that all of my comments during the next few days are based on the American experience. It is true that I’ve lived in other countries, but I certainly know very little about South Africa. If what I say is useful, that will be wonderful and I hope you can extrapolate and use it.

There are a great many similarities in our experiences, culturally and historically. Landing at the airport in Johannesburg after being in Nairobi, I had the feeling I wasn’t in Africa: it was like being in a European country. Your streets are not only well paved, but they’re cleaner than in the U.S.A. The similarities jump out. But of course we have many many differences. In the USA so-called ‘non-whites’ are in the minority. Here in South Africa they are the majority. As Ashley Theron has said, in the USA if you have one drop of black blood you are then black. Here if you have one drop of white blood then you are ‘Coloured’. The black communities in the USA are concentrated in the urban areas, in the inner cities. Here the black communities are outside of the urban areas.

The concept ‘non-racial’
One very important distinction that I have noticed during my trip here has to do with certain words you use. One word that I’ve heard used over and over which I don’t think you would hear in the USA, especially among non-white Americans, is ‘non-racial’. If I were to use the term ‘non-racial’ in the USA, to a large extent it would be understood to be denying the racial differences and ethnic differences that exist — and our struggle in the USA has been to affirm these differences to say that these differences are important. The city of Washington DC is nearly 80% black American, and we are now requiring all school children to know of their African roots It’s called Afrocentric education, to counterbalance the Eurocentric education that existed for so long in our country.

So, here I see a very dramatic difference. In the USA ethnic groups and racial groups have fought long and hard to establish their differences, where ‘Black is Beautiful’, Chicano (being a Mexican) is beautiful, and so forth. This is where we are in our stage of development, while here in South Africa I find the term ‘nonracial’ used all the time.

American culture
Let me say a word about the American Culture, if I may. First of all, most Americans, and indeed I would guess a large percentage of you in this room, don’t even think we have a culture! If you asked an American, “what is your culture?”, the American would think you were joking, because we don’t sit around and talk about our culture. We are not like the French, sitting in cafes discussing what it means to be French. Generally, Americans take their own culture for granted.

If you forced an American to define the ‘American Culture’ you are likely to get one of two answers: The first might be that the average white American (the dominant culture in the USA) is Northern European. The first immigrants who came to the United States were from Northern Europe. So it is said: “There is no real difference between the average mainstream American and the average Northern European, except that we speak a different language and we eat different food.” Believe me, this is a popular assumption. And it’s very clear that Americans aren’t Northern European. Our history is completely different. For one thing, every European country has gone through a feudal period, and through thousands of years of evolution from villages to cities to city states and nation states, with hundreds of years of internal turmoil.

We Americans never went through a feudal period, and consequently the way we look at the world is quite different. I would argue that when Europeans look at the world, they see tragedy — like the old Greek tragedies where good people sometimes do bad things and bad people sometimes do good things — there’s a great deal of in-between good and bad — and often evil wins out. ‘The bad win’ as we Americans say. We Americans never went through a feudal period, and therefore the way we look at the world is rather like a melodrama, like those old cowboy movies, the good guys are absolutely identifiable: they wear white hats. The bad guys are absolutely identifiable: they wear black hats. There’s no in-between good and bad. And in our cowboy movies the good guys always win.

We recently fought a war in the Persian Gulf — and many European friends have discussed that war with me. They would say that we Americans got into that war because we wanted to control oil, or for economic reasons or very gross political reasons — “You want to take over the Middle East, with the vacuum in the Soviet Union”, and so forth. And I would say, that’s possible, but a very sophisticated analysis. But if you listen to George Bush explain the Gulf War to the American people, it was very simple: he said it was good against evil. And for the vast majority of Americans, that thinking still exists today.

In Europe even today, if you travel a 100 miles in any direction you’re in another culture. People speak a different language, they eat different food. We Americans never really had that experience. People came from the “old world” to the “new world”. In those early migrations, most didn’t have round-trip tickets, there was no flow in the opposite direction, and once here, they were isolated and insulated from the rest of the world for the first two hundred years. The price of admission to the American society was to give up the culture they brought with them. This explains our lack of awareness of our own culture in the United States. As long as you’re surrounded by people who think the way you do, who share your beliefs, your behaviours, your own culture, you take it for granted. But all at once, when you’re surrounded by those who are culturally different from you, then you become more consciously aware of your own culture.

The irony is that the way to find your culture, is to leave it. Remember that the so-called Black Identity movement in the USA did not begin on black college campuses. It began on white college campuses. As large numbers of black students came onto white campuses, they didn’t become white, they began to ask the question “what does it really mean culturally, to be black?” They were forced to examine their own culture. As our society in the USA becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, particularly in the work force, cultural differences don’t disappear, they become even wore important. I think it is perfectly naive to think that you can mix staff, or children, and that everyone will automatically understand each other, that they would link arms and sing “We are the World” and all differences would disappear. Exactly the opposite is likely to occur — at least this is what we have found in the USA.

The cookie-cutter mould
To return to our question “What is the American Culture?”, the second answer might he that there’s no such thing as the American culture, rather that the USA is a mixture of cultures. People have come from all over the world, they have brought their cultures with them, they threw their cultures into the melting pot — and that’s what an American is: simply a mixture of all these cultures, with no particular culture, and I would say that there’s certainly some truth to that.
But I would argue that instead of the melting pot, historically we have had much more of a cultural cookie-cutter: a cultural cookie-cutter with a white male protestant Anglo-Saxon mould.

And if you could fit that mould, then you could more easily move into the dominant culture.

It was not simply a matter of “Come to the USA, contribute your culture to the pot, work hard, enter the class system and then you can advance on the basis of your own individual merit.”

Every so often I will have a student who tells a story like this. “My grandpa Strapinsky came to the USA at the turn of the century, a Polish Jew. He couldn’t even speak English. He worked hard as a labourer in the streets of Milwaukee. He sent his children to school. Look at the Strapinsky family today: every grandchild has a college education. Now why in the world can’t Blacks, Puerto Ricans and American Indians do the same darn thing?” That would be a fair and legitimate question — if we had a melting pot. The question suggests that Blacks, American Indians and Puerto Ricans have not been successful because they lacked the will to work hard — or as some Americans say, “those people really like being poor”.

Let’s look at the facts. If grandpa Strapinsky was typical of many European Jews coming to the United States at the turn of the century, he may have temporarily suspended the public practice of his Jewish faith. He didn’t give it up; he simply blended in to the protestant community. This is a well-documented pattern. If Strapinsky was typical of many immigrants, he probably didn’t even allow his children to speak Polish or to speak Yiddish: the quicker they learned to speak English without an identifiable accent, the quicker they moved into the mainstream. If Strapinsky was typical of many immigrants, he probably changed his name to make it a little more “Anglo” — and today the Strapinsky’s might be the “Stevens’s”.
The point is, the way the Strapinsky’s got into the mainstream, into the dominant culture, and advanced, was not just a matter of “come to America, throw your culture in the pot.” It was also a matter of giving up those cultural characteristics that didn’t fit the cookie-cutter mould — language, religion and name.

And of course the reason that Blacks, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans were not as successful as a group, is not because they were lazy, and not because they liked being poor. They couldn’t fit that cookie cut mould even if they wanted to, they couldn’t change their skin colour or their hair texture; they were identifiably different. The point I’m trying to make is that there really is a cookie-cutter mould, there really is a dominant culture in any society. I am not denying the diversity in America, but nevertheless there still is a dominant culture, and I would argue we have to understand the dominant culture before we can begin to examine other cultures.

Child care work
Let me relate this to child care work. I think that just as the cookie-cutter has worked in our society to allow for advancement, so cookie-cutters can exist in child care facilities. Very often I think that how we define normality, what therapy we use, and the prognosis we look forward to, are all based upon white, middle-class assumptions in the USA
I am afraid that sometimes when a non-mainstream child enters a white institution in our country, we judge that child as abnormal to a large extent because the child doesn’t act like a white, middle-class kid. And very often we see ‘therapy’ as forcing that child to fit the white, middle-class cookie-cutter mould. Then if the child fits that mould, he becomes certifiably ‘normal’ and gets out of the institution. The price this child must pay is to give up his/her culture. That is the price, and we call this ‘therapy’. Often we say that we can’t accommodate all the diversity that exists, that we must be consistent. I’m saying there’s no reason why we must be consistent.

I think normality to a certain extent, except for severe psychosis, is very often culturally defined. We fail to see cultural behaviour as different; we often put a value on it, and nine times out of ten that value judgement is negative. What they’re doing is “wrong” or “bad” — we don’t describe it objectively or scientifically. And if you can’t describe the behaviour objectively, how in the world can you understand it?

When I return home somebody is going to ask me “What did you think of South Africa?” I will say “I had a wonderful time, I had a great many false expectations. But you know South Africans are strange people, I’ve noticed. Firstly, they don’t know how to eat — they don’t know how to change their knife and fork all the time like we Americans do. Secondly, South Africans definitely do not know how to drink tea — they put tea in their milk, rather than cream in their tea. And of course thirdly, South Africans drive on the wrong side of the road.” Well South Africans don’t drive on the wrong side of the road, they drive on the left side of the road. You see, because it’s not my side of the road, I call it the wrong side. Not only how we define normality, but how we measure normality, I think, to a large extent, is influenced by culture.

Let me conclude by pointing out the benefits of diversity in child care in our society. Why is this important? Why don’t we just stick with the old assumptions of normality, and if children who are different come into the institution, let’s just squeeze them into the cookie-cutter mould?

I think the value of diversity is, first of all, that when we can manage the differences for a child, I know we are being more therapeutically helpful. We know in the USA that the stronger a child’s identification — a black child identifying with being black — the higher that child’s self esteem, and the quicker that child responds to therapy. If our job is to help these children, then the worst thing we can do is to deny their cultural differences. Why should we see the differences as impediments to therapy, instead of opportunities to provide even better services to these children?

A second benefit we find by acknowledging diversity is that we become even more aware of our own culture. This is the beauty of working with those who are culturally different — we find out so much more about ourselves. I think we get to self-discovery by working with people who are different.

Lastly, it is very clear to us Americans today that we have to recognise diversity before we can have the greater unity. We feel that we have to acknowledge the differences, first, before we can come together. In spite of the difficulties I know you are facing here in South Africa, I think they can be seen as enormous opportunities and challenges. Keep that in mind as you look at the long term goal.

This feature: Weaver, G. (1991) Child and youth care institutions: Melting pots or cookie cutters? In Gannon, B. (ed.) Old Limitations, New Challenges: Towards unifying values and practice in child and youth care programmes. Cape Town: National Association of Child Care Workers. pp.6-11