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  • Strange Faces in the Mirror: The Ethics of Diversity in Children’s Films
  • Heather Neff (bio)

Race has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay . . .

(Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark)

I. Envisioning Division

Multiculturalism, in all its various and often conflicted forms, is a concept that has formed the fabric of the American nation from its earliest days, and which continues to resurface as the subject of much debate. Somewhere between the optimistic vision of an American “melting pot,” with its sense of essentialist patriotism and positivist social Darwinism, and the American insistence on the importance of plurality—the beauty, richness, and ultimate democracy that are obtained by the harmonization of many disparate voices—lies a true sense of the tensions which drive this nation to retain its character, its color, it unity.

Yet few of the socially and economically marginalized groups in the United States would accept the concept of “melting pot” without some hesitation. Members of groups defined as “other” are all too aware of the dangerous myth-making potential that underlies the American vision of itself as a white, Anglo-Saxon nation which by virtue of its innate moral strength, Christian faith, and racial superiority has both the duty and destiny to rule the world. Those who make up racial and social minorities know well the experience of exclusion, and have watched in helpless rage as their ethnic heritage, foreign languages, cultural practices, and national histories have been displaced and left to die by the great highway of [End Page 50] American-ness. Even more frustrating is the sense that “American-ness” is itself so loosely defined, for it is a specific attribute that the “American Adam,” so unencumbered by the moral and social ideologies of the Old World, has fashioned himself into an adventurer, living from one moment to the next by his wits and recreating himself as the need arises.

The character of the United States reflects a national adventure, a passionate and deeply narcissistic journey into the future, taking or excluding that which seems relevant or imminently useful at a particular moment in time. We are a profoundly economically-driven nation that often couches our greed in social or moral terms; thus the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was for centuries excused as a manner of Christianizing “unredeemed” Black pagans, while our genocide of the Native Americans has been encapsulated in the convenient term of “Manifest Destiny.” The real horror of this unapologetic attitude is that we have allowed ourselves no opportunity to confront our national past or to prepare ourselves to avoid similar horrors in the future. The anger and frustration felt by the survivors of these two holocausts fuel ongoing distrust in the American nation, negating even the most optimistic “pledges of allegiance,” with their insistence on “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Most ironic in the ongoing struggle between the melting pot and the mosaic is the fact that this division has become the source of our dialectic of self-identity, fueling a search for an understanding of the self in relation to the marginalized “other.” In the United States, marginalized groups have historically provided the social, cultural and even religious mirror that allowed the mainstream to both conceptualize and realize itself. The juxtaposition of disparate ethnic identities in forced daily contact, such as that enacted in plantation slavery, and in deliberate segregation, such as that imposed upon Native Americans forced to live on reservations, has formed the crucible of American-ness, by virtue both of what is seen and unseen. What the white man perceived to be true of the black man who lived and labored beside him as his slave became the basis for a set of racial prejudices, often trivial and untrue and always deadly in their lack of sensitivity or objectivity. What the white man did not see in the Native American whom he had sent into exile he imagined; creating an image of himself against visions of the “other.” These images justified and sanctioned the exile and enslavement of non-white peoples and encouraged the bigotry that still haunts this nation...

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pp. 50-65
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