The concepts of cultural diversity and multiculturalism are often interchangeable in popular use. It is important to understand the distinctions between cultural diversity and multiculturalism. Our future relies on how we formulate our attitudes and put into practice our responses.
Some cultures are more characterized by homogeneity than others.
Cultural homogeneity could arise from living in an isolated area (often the result of geographical inaccessibility).
A blended homogeneous culture also can evolve where there is cultural diversity. I use to work with a younger version of the prison system, called, at that point, the California Youth Authority. The juvenile and young adult wards imitated the culture of their elders in the adult system. There were strict rules of conduct, particularly between races. Arms and necks bore tattoos reflecting allegiance to respective gangs, long before tattoos became socially acceptable outside of the prison. Hierarchies and dominance were established and a system of bartering was in place. Cultural diversity was suppressed to conform to the dominant culture, born of suspicion of authority, fear and survival. Some wards get so accustomed to this “prison culture” that they are not comfortable and cannot succeed when they are released to a culturally diverse society.
There are those who long for a return for homogeneity (or, at least, who yearn for an imagined uniformity from some idealized world from the past). Maybe homogeneity is not actually what they long for, but they remember the “good old days” when a dominant culture could set the rules and standards for society.
In this ever shrinking world we live in, cultural diversity is impacting society as never before. In now bygone eras in the United States, Immigrants had been expected to leave their cultures behind to integrate into established systems, such as the educational system. Now systems strive to accommodate the varied cultures of individuals they serve. Churches offer a potpourri of services, in different languages and wide-ranging expressions of religiosity. Even armed conflict, such as we are experiencing in the Middle East, force cultural adaptation.
A culturally diverse society may or may not be characterized by multiculturalism. The ism in multiculturalism indicates that it is a movement. Multiculturalism is a movement that acknowledges and endorses cultural diversity. What Anders Behring Breivik, and others like him, strike out against is not the reality of cultural diversity but the movement of multiculturalism. The “English-only” measures on the ballot also give some voters a chance to express their resistance.
As a cultural diversity trainer for my former organization, I never experienced the denial of the reality of cultural diversity but often ran up against resistance to the concept of multiculturalism, although they did not use these words. The opponents of multiculturalism have no issue with families and individuals maintaining their cultural identities. Rather, they argue that highlighting diversity focuses on the differences between people rather that their commonality, thereby fracturing a unified society, encouraging discrimination among races and cultures, and adding to the confusion of a well-ordered system.
Certainly, in a society characterized by cultural homogeneity, things can be ordered and counted; people more or less know what to expect; values can be clearly understood and consistently applied; communication is easier; individual worth is recognized apart from the group; society can strive for mutually worthwhile goals.
And cultural diversity is prone to be messy!
Race and culture are often interconnected. Racial hatred may have a lot to do with the resistance to multiculturalism. After all, it did not appear to be the integration of other particular cultures that particularly rankled Breivik; it was specifically the inclusion of the Muslim culture that provoked such a vicious response.
Race does not determine culture: people with white skin may be Celtic or Italian; Middle Eastern tribes may have developed separate cultural practices due to geographic isolation; Black people may speak English with a Caribbean accent; Islanders may have Spanish, Polynesian and/or Malay influences. It would be a mistake to make assumptions about culture based on race only.
One arena where multiculturalism finds its way into society is through the written word. Growing up in the United States, I was exposed to works by writers such as Ernest Hemmingway, Louis L’Amour, Colleen McCullough, James Caldwell, Harper Lee, Leon Uris. These and a host of other authors throughout generations broadened horizons, piqued curiosity, and broached compassion with a whole world of diverse cultures.
Easterners learned about Native Americans by reading the Western novels of authors ranging from James Fennimore Cooper to Zane Grey. Continental Americans felt the sting of sorrow as they read how fire demolished an enterprising female Chinese immigrant’s neighborhood in James Michener’s Hawaii. Californians felt pangs of guilt at the reception given to Oklahoma dust-bowl fugitives in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
Not to be ignored are the experiences of American soldiers and sailors in the World and Korean Wars. They found themselves sharing foxholes with others of races with whom they had little opportunity to acquaint themselves in the segregated societies back home. Their narrow worlds were expanded by the new cultures in the countries to which they were assigned, and they returned with romantic memories of the land they had visited.
The movie industry was happy to cash in on this fascination and curiosity with romanticized versions of the GI’s experiences overseas and the cultures about which people avidly were reading. (I can remember my sister and I being so enthralled with the movie South Pacific that we sat through two more showings of as my parents gambled in Reno!)
The way to multiculturalism, in part, was paved through introductory experiences, both idealized and vicarious.