There’s a lot of debate circling around multiculturalism right now. Recently, Europeans and even some Americans have begun to doubt whether multiculturalism is really the answer and have even claimed that the entire system has “failed”. Some have called multiculturalism “the death of diversity“, while others believe that it signals the end of patriotism. But, what is multiculturalism all about? What is it not about? And how can we use multiculturalism to benefit diversity and awareness across the globe?
What is Multiculturalism?
Most would agree that multiculturalism is the acceptance and inclusion of a multitude of cultures. But it’s so much more than that. Unlike diversity, which acknowledges the variety that exists in culture, language, skin color, etc., multiculturalism aims to embrace and preserve these differences as part of both our national and individual identities. The term implies the simultaneous mixing of cultures, but it also demands that we preserve the individuality of each. This is a counter to assimilation, which dictates that we must blend into the dominant culture and give up most or all connections to our individual ethnic identities, heritage, language, traditions and so much more. Instead, as multicultural individuals, we choose to keep each of these elements as part of our greater identity. Who are multiculturals? Anyone can become a multicultural individual, simply by choosing to wholeheartedly embrace a variety of cultures. Most often, multiculturals are multiracials, multilinguals, expats and individuals who live near cultural borders, but there are a number of ways that one can identify as “multicultural”.
What multiculturalism is not.
Multiculturalism is not a “melting pot”, it’s not a pie to be divided up in ‘shares’ between cultures and it’s most definitely not an excuse to attack individual ethnic groups for seeking solidarity amongst others like themselves. Becoming multicultural does not mean that we can’t identify with specific heritages, but instead, entitles us to identify in multiple ways. We can be simultaneously Muslim, African, Irish and Latino…while speaking Portuguese and French. That’s the beauty of multiculturalism. Contrary to popular belief, one culture does necessarily “dilute” the other, nor does embracing multiple cultures automatically promote the loss of a solitary patriotic identity. We may move more strongly towards one element or another, but ultimately, as multicultural individuals, we create situations in which all of our cultural learning can be celebrated and acknowledged. In effect, individuals can choose to define themselves by more than one label. We are not simply Americans, but instead we can broaden our labels to fit the ways we identify socially, amongst our peers. It is our right to identify as we choose and to embrace multiple factors that contribute to our overall identity. Embracing this right is multiculturalism.
Learning through multiculturalism
Some are skeptical about multiculturalism and might not see how it could have an impact on racism, but in contrast, many others see it as a huge opportunity for learning. Living in a multicultural community puts us in direct contact with a variety of cultures and traditions. This direct contact, in addition to our multiple identities, can help to break down barriers between ethnic groups and allow us to dismantle the stereotypes that build road blocks between us. As most of us know, racism starts with a stereotype. But understanding our differences and similarities can prevent us from buying into those “single stories”. The stories that alienate us from each other and make “their” realities seem less like “our” realities. Instead, we can choose to learn about each other and grow. Multiculturalism presents a great opportunity for this.
To understand how stereotypes operate and why they can feed into prejudice and racism, check out this amazing video by one of my favorite authors and speakers, Chimamanda Adichie.
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