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Multiculturalism lite and right

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | September 2, 2010

The city in which I live is probably the national capital of multiculturalism. Its logo (shown here) displays four races in profile. (For sources of the logo, see this and that.)  An October holiday is officially listed as “Indigenous People’s Day” (aka Columbus Day). The University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, is probably the multiculturalism leader among the nation’s major research universities. For example, to graduate, a student must have taken an “American Cultures” course, one which presents the diversity of America and which explicitly reviews the experiences of three particular groups. (When I taught an American Cultures version of urban sociology, I included two-week modules on African-, Jewish-, and Mexican-Americans.) In class discussion, students display considerable sensitivity about and respect for multiculturalist ideas.

In the end, the commitment to multiculturalism here – and, I think, in most settings around the nation – is important, sincere, and commendable. But it is not that real nor very deep. It is multiculturalism lite, which is just about right.

Limits of a strong multiculturalism (I)

immigrants land in NY, 1880

Immigrants land in New York, 1880 (Harper's)

Definitions of “multiculturalism” range from describing to respecting to preserving the varied cultural heritages in a society. The U.C. Berkeley courses “focus upon how the diversity of America’s constituent cultural traditions have shaped and continue to shape American identity and experience.” But a strong version of this multiculturalism claim – that Americans’ ethnic heritages fundamentally shape their values and behavior – is wrong.

Berkeley students these days and, I suspect, college students most places typically emphasize differences among people by race and ancestry. Although the experiential differences among groups are real – there is no doubt, for example, that discrimination shapes the lives of minorities in America – their relative importance can be exaggerated. An elderly black and an elderly white grandmother have more in common with one another in experiences, concerns, and needs than either has with a twenty-something of the same race. Students, who often obsess about group differences in, say, clothes or music tastes, seem sometimes oblivious to the obvious.

More deeply, the elevation and romanticization of ancestral cultures that is part of a strong multiculturalism simply ignore the extent to which peoples from all over the globe have become thoroughly Americanized. This was true when the newcomers were “swarthy” Irishmen, Jews, Italians, and the like; and it is true today. (See, for example, this earlier post.)

I sometimes look out at a classroom full of incredible diversity – young people who are often but a generation or so removed from China, India, Thailand, Ghana, Russia, Mexico, and so on. Many proudly assert those heritages and the principle of preserving them. And then I ask them questions such as: Which of you believe that our society should be ruled by “one person, one vote”? That people should be able to speak their minds freely? That everyone should be treated equally by the law? That – and this one especially hits home – each person should be free to choose his or her spouse based on love for the other person (rather than being matched by parents)? Essentially everyone agrees with these propositions.

cartoon: "None but citizens... can be employed"

"None but citizens... can be employed"

I go on to point out that in the ancestral cultures from which almost all of them come these principles are absent. Indeed, they would be considered ridiculous in those cultures – and, by the way, in many of the cultures from which 19th-century immigrants came. The idea that the viewpoint of a peasant should count as much as that of a gentlemen, or that women could speak for themselves, or that hormone-driven young people should choose whom they will live with for life and who will enter their larger kin group – from an historical point of view, these are decidedly weird notions.

Yet, almost all the foreign-stock students accept these fundamental American values (and accept, of course, the more superficial aspects of American culture as well, such as clothing, music, language, and so on).

A further irony of the ethnic identity movement is that the very way multiculturalism activists proceed is rooted in American culture, not their homeland cultures. They use voluntary associations, often insistently running them in a democratic fashion, engage in political lobbying, hold “loud and proud” demonstrations, rely on individuals volunteering, and so on. This kind of ethnic mobilization is of course, totally foreign to most of the ancestral cultures; they are Anglo-American customs.

Limits of a strong multiculturalism (II)

Another strong version of multiculturalism is the proclamation of cultural relativism: All cultures are equally good and none should be favored, including modern American culture.

Few multiculturalists are serious about this principle, except in its most intellectual, classroom-debate form. They do not really abstain from judgment when it comes to, for example, treating women as chattel, forcing them stay in homes, binding their feet, killing them if they dishonor the clan, and so on – even if those practices are parts of traditional cultures. And they are not really neutral about higher caste people or feudal lords exploiting poor workers, nor about fathers selling their children as servants, slaves, or sex objects, nor about nomadic tribes making their livelihoods by pillaging agricultural villages – even if these practices have characterized these societies since “time immemorial.”

No, even multiculturalists abhor these practices because they violate a set of cultural principles that emerged over the last couple of centuries in one corner of the world, western Europe and its colonial offshoots, and are now enshrined in international organizations and official constitutions all over the world. The spread of equality and human rights values is a clear instance of cultural imperialism, one which even staunch opponents of western “hegemony” – especially them – embrace.

Multiculturalism right

Despite the romantic and polemical excesses of strong multiculturalism, most of the multicultural efforts at Berkeley and elsewhere are worthwhile; they are multiculturalism lite.

They educate students about the long history of American cultural diversity, about the particular experiences of heritage groups other than their own (or of just the English), and in the end promote that American value of mutual respect.

An anecdote: I once had a student in my “American Cultures” class who came to office hours after our module on Jewish-Americans. He was a recent transfer student from a junior college in East Los Angeles, an overwhelmingly Mexican-American area. He told me that he had really learned something new from that material, because before he had mistakenly thought that “Jews were white.”

What he meant, of course, was that he had considered them to be among the advantaged groups in society, in contrast to “people of color.” He had now learned that Jews in America had also encountered decades of opprobrium and discrimination. It is a small lesson, but one that expanded mutual awareness and respect – multiculturalism lite and right.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.