Multiculturalism and the Culture of Tolerance in the United States – Remarks on the Occasion of America Day at Táncsics Mihály High School

Mayor Péter Fenyves, Member of Parliament Gábor Törő, Ambassador András Dékány of the Ministry of Human Capacities, Principal Krisztina Birkás, Teachers and Staff, Students,

Jó napot kívánok!  Good morning!   Thank you very much for the invitation to join you today and for the very warm welcome to Mór!

Since 2008, the Ministry of Human Capacities and the U.S. Embassy have selected several schools around Hungary to organize “America Days.”  This program represents the excellent, ongoing cooperation between the United States and Hungary and highlights the importance of person-to-person exchanges.  My colleagues Maurice Pettiford and Yan Schall from the U.S. Embassy in Budapest and I really value these opportunities to share our experiences and thoughts about the United States, our people, history, and culture with students like you.

As Senator Fulbright, the founder of the U.S. Government’s most prestigious exchange program, the Fulbright Scholarship, once said, “Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.”

I thought about Senator Fulbright and this quote when I considered the theme you chose for today: Multiculturalism and the Culture of Tolerance in the United States.  Senator Fulbright meant that meeting someone from another country – face-to-face – is the best way to get to know not just another culture, but another person.  When you take the time to learn about someone else, to hear someone else’s perspective on life, you learn about the individual – the complex, nuanced person – and you see past stereotypes.

This is definitely a lesson that I’ve learned in my own life.  I grew up in the middle of America, near Chicago, but I went to university in the south, in the state of Virginia.  I studied politics and economics, and studied international relations for one year in rainy Scotland.  And after all of that, I found myself in sunny Los Angeles, working in television and the arts.  During my time in California, I volunteered for several social and environmental causes, which led me to public service and eventually here, to Budapest.

In all of my travels and interactions with people around the world, I’ve discovered a couple of things about culture.  First, culture can be a really big concept.  It can be the idea of an entire country, a community with a shared history stretching back hundreds of years.  But it can also be a very intimate concept, such as the traditions and practices unique to individual families.

For example, I’m sure that you have studied Thanksgiving, a holiday that really unites Americans and is usually associated with turkey.  But you might be surprised to learn that not everyone eats turkey.  We all still gather with friends and family to celebrate, but we each put our own twist on the occasion.  I’m sure that Maurice, Yan, and I each have with different influences on our holiday menus.

Those differences could be influenced by geography and location.  I’ve lived in many places around the world and I’ve seen how factors like weather, landscape, and population can influence the people who live there.  Even if you’ve never been to the United States, you can imagine that the tall buildings and busy streets of New York might influence the residents of the city differently than the sunshine, palm trees, and highways in Los Angeles.

But culture is also not a concept that can be contained by borders or DNA.  In every place I’ve lived, I’ve found people with whom I share something in common.  For example, I enjoy art – maybe some of you have seen the videos on our YouTube page for the Art in Embassies collection — and everywhere I go, I can find people who speak the language of art.  Artists can talk about the process of creating something, about the meaning of their works, about their artistic choices.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re in New York, L.A., Budapest, or Mór – we are a micro-culture, a community united because of our mutual interest and understanding of the process of personal expression.

Ultimately, I think this is the foundation of the culture of tolerance in the United States: Our ability to appreciate both a broad culture that unifies us as well as the special contributions that each individual adds to the mix.  In the past, America was described as a “melting pot,” where immigrants were somehow absorbed into the dominant culture.  Now, some might say it’s really more like a soup, with many ingredients working together to enrich the basic stock.

And this is evidenced in the results of a study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2015, which showed that immigrants to the United States are integrating into American society as fast and as broadly as ever.  But in the process, immigrants are transforming America, at the local level and beyond.  Soccer – or football as the rest of the world knows it — has become a major league sport, salsa now outsells ketchup, and the bagel has become more American than the doughnut.  As President Obama said in December 2015 when speaking at a ceremony to swear in new American citizens, “We can never say it often or loudly enough:  Immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America.”

President Obama, himself the son of a Kenyan immigrant, holds the highest office in the land.  Two children of South Asian immigrants — Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley — serve as the governors of their states.  More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first- or second-generation Americans.

There is another very important pillar of America’s culture of tolerance, the fact that in our democracy we each have a role in protecting and strengthening our society every day – whether your family has been in the United States 200 years or whether you are a first-generation American.  It’s the challenge of honoring America’s creed “E Pluribus Unum” – that, out of many, we are one.  It’s a challenge every day and for all of us to speak out when we see intolerance or injustice, when we see people pushed to the sidelines of society.  And it can be difficult.  The discussion can never stop.

This is a duty that I take very seriously not just as a U.S. Ambassador, but as an American citizen.  When I was working in television in Los Angeles, for example, I knew I had a great responsibility to showcase diverse cultures and stories, to help facilitate this discussion.  I’m proud that daytime television in the United States has long inspired debate about diversity in people’s homes across America.  Daytime dramas were some of the first shows to showcase recurring African-American characters, to explore interracial relations, and to discuss issues of sexual and gender identity.  And while not every American has the platform of a television show to generate and lead discussion, we each have the same responsibility to support our democratic ideals and to make the effort to understand each other, to look beyond stereotypes.

I’d like to conclude today with another quote from President Obama’s speech at the ceremony for new American citizens, as I think it really sums up what the ideals of multiculturalism and the culture of tolerance mean in the United States.  He called America,

“A place where we can be part of something bigger.  A place where we can contribute our talents and fulfill our ambitions and secure new opportunity for ourselves and for others.  A place where we can retain pride in our heritage, but where we recognize that we have a common creed, a loyalty to these documents, a loyalty to our democracy; where we can criticize our government, but understand that we love it; where we agree to live together even when we don’t agree with each other; where we work through the democratic process, and not through violence or sectarianism to resolve dispute; where we live side by side as neighbors; and where our children know themselves to be part of this nation, no longer strangers, but the bedrock of this nation, the essence of [the United States.]”

Thank you very much.