from educational Horizons Spring 1993

The Limits and Possibilities of "Multiculturalism"
1999 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/20/18


mul-ti-cul-tur-a-lism n. slogan, any specific definition of which lacks consensus.

This imaginary definition captures the central problem with "multiculturalism." Presently, it is little more than an ill-defined will-o'-the-wisp that deludes or misleads while luring us into a trap.

To be sure, mindless chauvinism and knee-jerk negativity toward anything or anyone different has bred more misery than any of us can contemplate. And the best possibility of "multiculturalism" is that in carefully adjusted amounts it helps us limit this sort of hatred and intolerance. A bit too much "multiculturalism," however, and we are headed down the same road to disintegration as Yugoslavia.

However appealing "multiculuralism" might be as a slogan, it has severe practical limits. Let's explore some of them. Discussing the thrust of this column with a friend, he immediately volunteered the following. A quarter of a century ago he was growing up in a largely Italian-American working class section of Baltimore. Because he liked school, succeeded in his studies and enjoyed reading, he found himself the subject of merciless bullying and relentlessly negative peer pressure. So pervasive was the anti-intellectual attitude of the community that when a competitive full scholarship was offered to young people from this particular area, my colleague, who had persevered in his interests, won it by default. There were no other applicants!

I asked my friend, "What would have happened to you had an emphasis on "multi-culturalism" further legitimized the community's hostility toward learning?" He readily responded, "I imagine I would have begun selling numbers, or even become a gang member. And I suppose, if I was lucky enough to avoid involvement with organized crime, I would have ended up as some of my relatives did, secretly expressing their anger by urinating in the pizza sauce of a local restaurant where they had found marginal employment."

Anti-school attitudes are common in many ethnic communities. For instance, we are all aware of the difficulties serious students experience in many African-American neighborhoods. Earnest scholars are often accused of "acting white." And there is plenty of "encouragement" (read coercion) to forget school and just "hang" on the corner. What are we to make of this in the context of "multiculturalism?" Shall we, in our desire to accommodate or celebrate other cultures and other ways of life, embrace this value? Should we smile benignly at kids who are just "kicking back" and "being cool?"

Or what about cultures where corruption is a serious issue? A front page article in the Philadelphia Inquirer once described how many Italians have become concerned about Italy's national character. It seems that bribes have become a part of everyday life in Italy, not just in politics. Italians complain that this trend is making life in Italy more and more unpleasant. We all know that bribery is not unique to Italy. Corruption is a way of life in many cultures. Does "multiculturalism" require us to celebrate, or at least wink at, such behavior if it is transplanted from foreign soil?

There is also the matter of the treatment of women. A recent episode of the real action T.V. show "Cops" featured a domestic disturbance. The "cops" arrived to find an enraged and bloodied Latino woman and her teenage daughter confronting the woman's battering, common-law husband. The husband readily confessed to having thrashed his wife, explaining that she had not prepared his dinner for three days running and that in his culture of origin, this negligence required a beating. Failing to do so, he explained, would emasculate him. The beaten wife called the police at the insistence of her Americanized daughter, who had convinced her mother that no woman should ever endure such abuse. Wife beatings are an accepted part of many civilizations. Does "multiculturalism" require us to accept or even celebrate this fact? And if school officials helped the daughter redefine how women should react to beatings, was this a disservice to her, her mother, or even her father?

France recently had a national fracas over another "multicultural" matter affecting women. African immigrants had brought their practice of clitorectomy with them. When French authorities learned that an immigrant woman had had her 13 year-old daughter's clitoris excised so that she would never experience sexual pleasure, they arrested her for child abuse. Tribal members were furious, alleging that the French authorities were destroying their culture. Would "multiculturalism" require them to take no action or even to celebrate this mutilation?

In India it is common for pregnant women to have ultra-sound testing in order to determine the sex of the unborn. Females are then aborted because they are unwanted. How about arranged marriages or the fact that some languages (like Korean) have female deference built in? Are these the sorts of things we want to hold most worthy or should we give precedence to the emancipation of women?

We need also to consider intolerance. Many cultures partially define themselves via traditional conflicts with, and intolerance of, others. Is it acceptable for Palestinian-Americans to define themselves in terms of antipathy toward Jewish-Americans or vice-versa? And what about the anti-Korean feelings of some African-Americans? Is the destruction and looting of an estimated 5,000 businesses justified if black L.A. street culture endorses it? Consider also the bigoted intolerance of religious extremists like David Koresh. Did "multiculturalism" require us to celebrate the Branch Davidian's dogmatic exclusionism? Did it require us to honor Koresh's sexual claims on all the women (and post eleven year old girls) in that community?

Does "multiculturalism" include an appreciation of the Skinheads or the Klan? Shall we be charmed when Vietnamese-Americans express hatred toward Cambodian-Americans or when Korean-Americans define themselves in terms of their contempt for Japanese-Americans? This sort of intolerance is a common feature of many of the world's cultures; and it is a particular feature of such truly "multicultural" places as Yugoslavia.. Yet such intolerance destroys the very tolerance that makes "multiculturalism" possible. How shall we reconcile this contradiction?

Even relatively tolerant cultures reject members of other cultures in order to preserve their own integrity. Consider the Jew who views marriages to non-Jews as a "problem." It is a "problem" from the standpoint of perpetuating Judaism. But intolerance toward someone whom one's daughter or son might truly love is also a problem for most of us who place a high value on our common humanity. Shall we celebrate such exclusionism in order to honor human differences? Should Jews give up being Jewish in order to embrace "multiculturalism?"

We also should remember that, as the old saying goes, "What is sauce for the goose, is often gall for the gander" For example, at North Carolina Central University, the oldest state-supported black public university in the nation, student responses to multicultural initiatives were broadly negative. Fully 74% of the students polled said they were "somewhat" to "greatly concerned and disapproving" of the university becoming more racially/ethnically diverse. Many indicated they were opposed to "anyone other than African-Americans," which means excluding even Africans. Enthusiasm for Black colleges would seem a logical outgrowth of "multiculturalism." How, then, shall we understand the fact that they seem to harbor and possibly encourage the very exclusionism "multiculturalism" seeks to avoid? Perhaps by considering that any far-reaching "multiculturalism" could well be self-defeating. After all, once we are all divided into little in-groups, who will be left to urge inclusivism?

"Multiculturalism" is easy if we avoid the tough issues. Just stick to relatively trivial things like the Frugal Gourmet's celebration of ethnic foods or everyone's wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. Then conflict is minimized. Try to go beyond that, however, and the slogan soon slams against the sort of limits illustrated above.

There is much to be gained by trying to learn from cultures different from our own. And this is true even if such openness is only a one-way street. But we risk national unity if we continue to play with "multiculturalism" uncritically. The sloganistic and essentially mindless (or merely opportunistic) definitions of the day lead inevitably to disunity and acceptance of nearly everything. And if you allow all, you stand for NOTHING.

See also,
Multiculturalism and the Problems of Immigration