Multiculturalism: An Impossible Dream?

This is the first of the series is dedicated to “Understanding Multiculturalism”.

By Latika Kumar

Why Multiculturalism?

Multicultural societies are increasingly being studied by economists, politicians and social researchers—their importance stemming from an increased immigrant head count around the world and in Canada. Such immigration and global exodus is triggered by varied external political, social, economic and geographic factors. Immigration in recent times has acquired a whole new set of challenges and opportunities with the pace of how technology unites us today, i.e., businesses are growing and thriving because we are all technologically connected giving us common goals of achieving growth and success.

Countries encourage immigration to facilitate trade and/or reflect political leanings, and openness to immigration is often perceived as a measure of openness to the world. An organized effort to incorporate multiculturalism in Canada has helped create and develop labour resources and human capital with immigrants who add value to Canada’s economy, while also improving the overall fertility rate in the country. 

Another factor that influences a country’s readiness for a more multicultural world in “the West” is the “aging natives”, significantly so in Europe, where there is a clear need to bring in global youth to sustain the region’s leadership position economically, socially, and strategically.

Migration continues to occur out of pressurized circumstances including internal strife in the migrants’ countries of origin enabling an interesting symbiosis of migrants looking for secure lives and career opportunities abroad and the developed world in need of these culturally-mixed diverse-skilled human resources.

As more countries attempt multiculturalism, we need to study this conglomerate of multicultural societies, to better answer the cons of amalgamation and assimilation and understand the frictions and conflicts that come from diversity. These could manifest as (not so ) random acts of racism, politically-led racist agendas, or other ethnic tensions that emerge from being in a mixed society. These issues if not addressed continuously exacerbate into unaddressed issues and long-festering wounds, which only lead to continued cultural separatism that snowball into more dangerous conflict in the long term that disrupts civil society.

What do they mean by Multiculturalism?

Before addressing the challenges and gaps in multiculturalism, let us try and understand what it means. I turned to cultural theorists and scholars Song, Banks, and Hofstede to understand the existing definitions.

Banks (1999) called it cultural pluralism: The metaphor of the melting pot is no longer functional. We have to switch to either the toss[ed] salad or the stew. It allows us to focus both on the differences in the ingredients while at the same time the beauty (or nutritive-value/healthiness) of the whole.

A study done with teacher candidates defined the concept of culture agreed on the conventional elements such as shared values and judgments, supra-identity and shared structure. The teacher candidates described multiculturalism as cultural difference, ethnicity, diversity of language and way of life, coexistence without marginalizing others, knowing each other, and establishing empathy as the richness of the social structure.

You have to find out whether a certain characteristic of a person (programming of the mind) can be attributed to an individual or to the person as part of a certain culture.”

Complexity of Multiculturalism

It is seen that these definitions show similarities with the generally accepted definitions of multiculturalism. However, the complexity of reaching an understanding of the concept is stated by Hofstede in no uncertain terms: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.” As Hofstede explains, the term culture goes much further: “Culture consists of the unwritten rules of the social game. It is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.” In simple words, culture connotes different nations, different genders, different ages. But it is more complicated than that: you have to find out whether a certain characteristic of a person (programming of the mind) can be attributed to him or her as an individual or to the person as part of a certain culture.

It can be useful to suggest a shared definition (a simplistic one) of multiculturalism and its key features. Song believes that, “multiculturalism is a body of thought in political philosophy about the proper way to respond to cultural and religious diversity. Mere toleration of group differences is said to fall short of treating members of minority groups as equal citizens; recognition and positive accommodation of group differences are required through group differentiated rights,” (Song 2010).  

However we may define multiculturalism, be it circumscribed through differences in ethnicity, religion, migration, language, gender, sexual orientation, et al, one insight that emerges is the need for understanding, sensitization, and practical approaches in the tackling of conflict or differences that arise from such diversity and in continuously evaluating its outcomes. We need to gather and blend varied efforts towards integration of multicultural societies and assess their impact in the long run , addressing the “natives” as importantly as the “immigrants” in the fabric of social acceptance and change.

Above all, honest and unbiased policy initiatives in government, academia, educational institutions, civil societies and governance bodies would be most critical for them to go beyond just “symbolism or symbolic change” to result in “real change-oriented outcomes”, benefitting all co-existing multicultural communities.

The title of this series is “Multiculturalism: An Impossible Dream?” because we have a long way to go before “cultural pluralism” evolves into a positive sentiment globally, with decreasing trial, tribulation and strife that mixed-communities are experiencing openly, and not-so-openly,

Latika Kumar is an independent research consultant at QuickFinder.

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