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The term “multiculturalism” is usually employed to describe the promotion of multiple cultural traditions, and the acceptance of such traditions, within a particular place, through policies and activities both official and unofficial. In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Arkansas’s population to consist of the following racial makeup: 79.9 percent white, 15.6 percent African American, 6.9 percent Hispanic or Latino, 1.5 percent Asian, 1.0 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.3 percent Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and 1.9 percent two or more races. As both Arkansas and the United States as a whole have become increasingly diverse, steps have been taken by academic institutions, organizations, government entities, businesses, and individuals to encourage positive multicultural environments.
Academic institutions in Arkansas promote multiculturalism on campus by putting diversity value statements into action and celebrating mutual learning among individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Although historically there have been significant tensions between ethnic groups in Arkansas, campuses statewide are helping to make Arkansas a place that is increasingly appreciative of cultural differences. There are two main ways that universities encourage multicultural environments. First, they host academic support programs to promote equal opportunities by having programs that assist traditionally underrepresented students in their course work. Second, they encourage intercultural understanding among students by making students aware of relevant issues and celebrating different cultures.
In 2010, for instance, Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County) opened its Multicultural Center, which provides “not just a space, but a place for all,” featuring programs such as Minority Welcome Week, which helps new minority students adjust to college life; the LGBT Lecture Series, which addresses topics relevant to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities; and several heritage and history months for traditionally underrepresented communities.
The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway (Faulkner County), in its Office of Diversity and Community, offers students a variety of programs to facilitate the academic success of students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, with offerings such as the Black Male Achievement Challenge, which is “a program created by Black men for Black men”; the Minority Mentorship Program to help increase student retention; the Latino/Hispanic Outreach Initiative, which celebrates Latino and Hispanic culture with music, food, and dance; and the PRISM Alliance, which supports LGBT students.
The University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) officially observes holidays in celebration of Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, National Indian American Heritage Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Irish American Heritage Month, and Gay and Lesbian History Month, among others. The university also familiarizes students with different cultures through the Distinguished Lecture Series. On May 11, 2011, for example, the university welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama to take part in a panel discussion on non-violence, joined by anti–death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean and social activist Professor Vincent Harding.
Various organizations in Arkansas encourage multiculturalism by their own initiative. The Bentonville Film Festival had its first annual festival in May 2015 in Bentonville (Benton County), featuring about seventy-five films, with the intention of “championing women and diversity in film.” Founded by Geena Davis, also the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the festival worked to spread awareness about the skewed representation of minorities and women in film. The Arkansas Diversity Council is also a significant player in the promotion of multiculturalism and diversity in Arkansas. As a branch of the National Diversity Council, it states that it is “the first non-profit organization to bring together the private, public and non-profit sectors to discuss the many dimensions and benefits of a multicultural environment.” Services include the Multicultural Summit, the Youth Conference, and the Multicultural Roundtable, an event geared toward professionals of color.
The state and federal governments have taken steps to promote multiculturalism within Arkansas. The Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993 protected Arkansas citizens from being discriminated against on basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, or the presence of any sensory, physical, or mental disability. In 1996, President Bill Clinton, under Executive Order 13007 (“Accommodation of Sacred Sites”), preserved many Native American sacred sites. Just five years prior to Clinton’s executive order, members of the Quapaw tribe gathered in Arkansas for the designation of the Menard-Hodges Site as a National Historic Landmark.
Also notable are the efforts undertaken by businesses within Arkansas to welcome cultural diversity. Although previously one of the least diverse parts of Arkansas, northwestern Arkansas has experienced growing diversity due to various factors, including an influx of workers, especially Hispanics, into the area; a large population of Marshallese also resides in the region. Marjorie Rosen, in her 2009 book Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community, discusses how Walmart in particular has brought diversity to its hometown of Bentonville, bringing in a diverse array of managers and executives and contributing money to the efforts of various ethnic and religious groups.
Some Arkansas businesses engaged in the fight for diversity on a political level, protesting a 2015 “religious freedom” bill that could have allowed for businesses to exclude the LGBT community from services based on religious conviction. Arkansas data company Acxiom denounced the bill as a “disgrace” that detracted from the “forward thinking” nature that Arkansas has been working toward. Walmart also condemned the bill, saying that it was a bad reflection of the values and “spirit of inclusion” found within Arkansas. Walmart senior director of communication Lorenzo Lopez said that “while HB 1228 will not change how we treat our associates and operate our business, we feel this legislation…sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state.” In part because of the public statements of major state employers, HB 1228 was withdrawn and replaced by a compromise bill.
Arkansas also has a vibrant grassroots multicultural movement among residents, with members of many different cultural backgrounds celebrating their heritage throughout the year. At the start of spring, Hindu students at UA observe Holi, a festival of colors, by tossing dyed powder or water into the air and enjoying Indian music and food. Muslim communities across Arkansas celebrate various festivals such as Eid al-Adha, at which they gather for a halal potluck and games. Muslim students of Saudi Arabian, Indonesian, and Pakistani background at UA celebrate this holiday with cultural presentations about the meaning of the holiday, as well as the different ways the holiday is traditionally celebrated. Various communities in Arkansas hold food festivals, such as the International Greek Food Festival (the largest ethnic festival in Arkansas), featuring Greek cuisine, an Old World market, a Greek grocery store, and three days of live entertainment.
Although there remain some tensions between the different cultures found within the state, efforts are being made around the state to increase cultural understanding. Multiculturalism in Arkansas contributes to the cultural heritage of the state and provides an opportunity for people of Arkansas to celebrate their differences.
For additional information:
Arkansas Diversity Council. http://www.arkansasdiversitycouncil.org/ (accessed August 21, 2015).
Arkansas State University Multicultural Center. http://www.astate.edu/a/multicultural-center/index.dot (accessed August 21, 2015).
Bentonville Film Festival. http://bentonvillefilmfestival.com/ (accessed August 21, 2015).
Rosen, Marjorie. Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009.
Rushe, Dominic, and Jessica Glenza. “Walmart Attacks Arkansas Religious Freedom Bill for Sending ‘Wrong Message.” Guardian, March 31, 2015. Online at http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/mar/31/walmart-arkansas-religious-freedom-bill-sends-wrong-message (accessed August 21, 2015).
University of Arkansas Diversity Celebrations Calendar. http://hr.uark.edu/working/diversity/index.php (accessed August 21, 2015).
University of Central Arkansas Office of Diversity and Community. http://uca.edu/diversitycommunity/ (accessed August 21, 2015.)
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Last Updated 7/10/2017
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