Mythology of Multiculturalism

In many schools where I’ve worked, diversity is valued. This means that in conversations about the culture of the institution, choices about which students to admit and which potential faculty to hire, diversity is often sitting at the table. It makes itself known by logging how many people of color might be in the group, how many women, and, very rarely, if anyone identifying as anything other than hetero or ably bodied. is at the table. Rarely do we ask why representatives from certain social categories are desired. I raise this question not to derail the conversation or to promote dominant cultural space through some sort of fantasy of meritocracy but to truly ask for what purposes are we seeking ethnic diversity (and almost always the diversity is in the name of ethnicity, not able-bodiedness, for example). Is it about the benefit of the work or is it about presentation of the institution? Sometimes the only way to know is when the professed function/purpose (a better culture) crumbles under the pressure of the unresolved issues lying underneath. This is the pattern starting to emerge within workplaces and national rhetoric about multiculturalism

The values associated with America are the land of opportunity, democracy, freedom, and somewhere in there is the idea that this is a country of immigrants. Built by immigrants, founded by immigrants, embracing immigrants. It’s a mythology whose surface you need not even scratch to see layers of complication, contradiction and outright lies. There is, of course, the fundamental silencing of the Indigenous peoples erased, literally, figuratively and bodily, from the occupation of this earth by migrants from European nations. But I’d like to think a little further about this idea of welcoming all different kinds of peoples, particularly in the name of multiculturalism, which goes hand in hand with this ethic of diversity.

Multiculturalism is the idea that a society desires, values and perhaps even thrives on different cultures in the same setting. It’s the spirit in platitudes like, “Variety is the spice of life,” and metaphors equating the United States with a melting pot and Canada with a mosaic (all you literacy educators out there, check out Allison Skerrett’s comparative analysis of these metaphors). It is a value that has circulated in the atmosphere of many economically advanced post-industrial capitalist nations like the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Canada. However, it has been largely mythology, one that was easy to maintain with anecdotes of opportunity and achievement (Oprah, Sotomayor, JayZ, Obama, etc.). The mythology is beginning to fray under the increasingly undeniable reality of racially minoritized immigrants who bring with them their nonEuro-centric practices like quincañeras, burkas, Kreyole, and kim chee. All of this tends to be fine and well for the established citizens of a nation if they enjoy these practices as occasional opportunities to consume other cultures. It’s more comfortable as a backdrop to the central cultural practices that can be leveraged through consumer choice of when and where it is experienced. In the U.S., this means that kim chee is fine as long its smell does not permeate the boundaries of the consumer’s choice and seep into shared personal spaces of streets, trains, and office cubicles. And when one culture’s practices more directly contradict with the ascribed and maintained values of the established culture, well, it’s not pretty.

Lessons from the U.K.

In the U.K., the undeniable rise of xenophobia is taking shape through Islamaphobia. As noted in Lauren Collins’ piece in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Immigration is more acute in Britain than in any other European country. The Muslim population, in particular, has increased by seventy four percent since 2001 (German Marshall Fund). As Collins writes, “The newspapers are filled with stories about the loss of the British way of life, with halal meat and niqabs as its despoilers.”

In the wake of this change in cultural, racial, and religious demographic, leaders have revoked a once staunch value for multiculturalism. Last year, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, resigned that the nation’s residents attempts to live alongside had “failed, utterly failed,” (Merkel, in Collins, 2011). This year, Nicolas Sarkozy started a national debate on Islam when he stated, “The truth is that in all our democracies we’ve been too concerned about the identity of the new arrivals and not enough the identity of the country receiving them.” As unexpected as it might be, I actually find Sarkozy’s comments to be brazenly honest. Albeit distasteful and self-serving, but far more honest in the desire for self preservation than a surface support of multiculturalism that is, at its core, relies on connected mythologies of manifest destiny, discovery, and merit.

The mythology of multiculturalism was never about plurality as much as it was about a pretty face to display to reflect partial truths shifting demographics. When those demographics shift to an extent and depth that it threatens the core set of practices held by a sanctioned and established population (they didn’t buy the kim chee but they can still smell it), the surface rhetoric is a quick casualty, and we can see that happening in Europe and here.

In education, we have embraced multicultural education as a way of ‘dealing with’ the demographic rifts and distances between a largely White female upper middle class teaching profession and the low-income youth of color in public schools. But this has largely happened through a smattering of ‘multicultural literature’ in a more established canon. How a text can be multicultural is beyond me, but this labeling speaks to the core value of a backdrop and periphery of diversity flanking a central core culture, in this case White middle class culture, as in the Great Books. The mythology of multicultural education is just that because education has remained largely a dominant cultural enterprise, one now marked by privatization and profits by publishers and hedgefund managers than anything remotely resembling democracy.

On this 4th of July, I hear the songs of patriotism and nationhood. I’m dubious. To my ear, these songs are sung in the same key of melting pots and mosaics, a key with that when performed clangs with flat, off-tune but undeniably piercing tones of a thinning mythology. But while I’m dubious, I’m also strangely optimistic. It might be easier to talk about what we actually mean by diversity when the diversity has made us uncomfortable, even threatened us. The conservative right has already answered those questions with a resounding xenophobia and dismissal of diversity. Maybe the next time I ask why we want a ‘diverse’ pool of students, colleagues, etc., I will be met with more than the sound of crickets and eyelids blinking.

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