Challenges of Multiculturalism

This is the second of a three-part series entitled Understanding Multiculturalism.

By Latika Kumar

While the top cause of division and inequities in society are seen between the rich and the poor, according to a recent Ipsos Global survey, ethnic tensions follow closely behind (with 66% of Canadians reporting such tensions versus the Global average of 63%), followed by immigrant versus native-born tensions. Economic tensions are high, closely followed by ethnic tensions that are more pronounced in Canada than abroad; this is an interesting case in point, given how many immigrants move to Canada each year. In this article, I have tried to detail key challenges and roadblocks that need to be addressed with any multicultural mandate or society. Going back to the same research and other supporting studies, one could hypothesize that one of the true measures of pluralism reflecting biases and divisiveness in nation states and their communities, is economic inequities due to state policy.

A Muslim girl in Toronto protests the Muslim-immigrant-ban from the Trump Administration outside the US Consulate in Feb 2017.

According to Crawford Young’s paper Case-Studies in Cultural Diversity and Public Policy: Comparative Reflections, “Communal violence and ethnic cleansing are indeed possible outcomes of the immense complexity of human communities and the constantly evolving identity systems which shape their interactions.” Young goes on to state that specific state actions, perhaps in the name of nation-building, may create a sense of discrimination, marginalization, exclusion or oppression amongst particular identity groups. Perceived inequities of group shares in resource distribution and economic opportunity fuel the conviction that the state policy unjustly favours dominant groups. The US Trump administration’s Muslim-immigrant ban was one example I connect to this thesis, where the immigration policy was perceived as discriminatory by most, but reversed only when the current administration’s regime began in 2021.

State policy can in effect be made more inclusive through third-party legal interventions when collective effort is made to overturn the historic grievances of communal groups that were harmed in the past. However, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) emphasizes discretion in exercising the third party interventions in the  Conference Report: Ethnic Violence, Conflict Resolution and Cultural Pluralism, “External intervention is relatively unsuccessful where it attempts to define and enforce external solutions to the conflict, rather than to serve as a facilitator of negotiations between the combatants.”

A sociological perspective: The problems with multicultural societies need to be seen and addressed at an overall sociological level where it creates imbalances in society. Birds of a feather flock together is an adage that is true and natural to human nature, having need for security, comfort and freedom at a fundamental level.

For example, with increasing occupation of a vast majority of European countries by Muslims who are seen as different, there is evidence of dense multicultural communities mushrooming and a phenomenon of “ghettoisation” emerging as evidence of their clinging to each other to be seen as separate or different from the native non-Muslims. Entire areas in the UK like Birmingham, or in Berlin in Germany have whole communities existing separately, creating their own worlds within a space. This triggers and exacerbates “identity politics” feeding different worldviews within the same cultural milieu or environment sparking sporadically leading to flagrant interactions, situations and an only incrementally divisive existence.

Multiple languages and their semantics: The existence of multiple languages in a country does not ensure successful integration of multiculturalism. The schism exists because the unifying culture is on a basis of shared values and judgments; in fact, supra-identity and shared structure is diluted and questioned by the sheer co-existence of too many languages and dialects.

The symbolic “identity crisis” within immigrants: Language can be a very major contributor to this crisis as it obviates familiarity, belongingness through differently understood content and connotation; issues with seamless communication.

Behavioural differences are perceived as threatening to the dominant culture or groups whether this includes different customs, festivals, food habits, manifestations of culture, etc.

Diluted sense of belonging : A feeling of belonging allows communities to come together through trust and cooperation. Los Angeles is the prototype of the ethnically diverse American city. However, there are many of the minority groups vying for political and economic power and entire neighbourhoods of the city are embroiled in struggle, according to an article by Arthur Horton on “Multiculturalism and the New Understanding of Diversity”

“To promote peaceful relations between different ethnic groups in a diverse society, it is essential to provide the conditions that encourage all groups to feel a shared interest in the society as a whole – to support, in other words, the creation of a sense of civic identity. This identity cannot be forced on people, but they must adopt themselves. They are most likely to do so when they feel that their society respects and meets their common needs, including their need for a sense of ethnic identity.”

COnference Report- Ethnic Violence, Conflict Resolution AND Cultural Pluralism
 The vibrant Chinatown in Toronto, the capital of Ontario, is one of the largest Chinatowns in North America. It was initially developed in the late 19th century.

Effecting change can be slow especially when dealing or passing through multiple levels of government. Creating, facilitating and reinforcing the environment of openness continuously is a sine qua non for bringing about impactful changes through and within multicultural societies.

Latika Kumar is an independent research consultant at QuickFinder.

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