The limits of multiculturalism

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I stood at a crossroads in downtown Georgetown, the capital city of the Malaysian island of Penang. The singing call to prayer rang through the rows of shop-houses from the Islamic mosque in front of me. Across the street, chants and the smell of incense rose from a Buddhist temple. On yet another corner of the same crossroads, the bells of a Christian church tolled long and loud.

Malaysia claims to be proud of the peaceful multiculturalism that flourishes in its cities. But I came to realize that beneath the blending of various languages and faces and religions lies deep seated exclusions and inequalities. Now, two years later, I stand on a corner in the Twin Cities. People here also speak proudly of this city’s multiculturalism. Black and blonde hair, Asian and African faces, country music and hip hop, churches and head scarves all share the streets.

In between classes at the U of M, I like to sit in a coffee shop on Cedar Ave. to study. Looking up from my book, I notice that I am surrounded by a range of faces and languages, from Native American to Somali to Vietnamese. As I finish my coffee and return to campus, I seem to cross an invisible line. Sitting down in my class to learn about the structures in our society responsible for the inequalities between us, I once again look around me. Why is my classroom nothing like the café, just across the street? Where before I was one in an eclectic mix, why now am I part of a homogenously white, privileged crowd?

My generation has grown up hearing the words diversity and multiculturalism. These words and the movements that have used them have always striven for an ever more inclusive society, for more equality between everyone. It is evident now that these words have been taken away from us. They must be taken back.

As a high school student back in rural Minnesota, it was a given that each year we would all enjoy the school sponsored “Celebrate Diversity Week.” The token Hispanic student in my class would sit uncomfortably in the back of the room as we were told how there are many cultures different from ours, and how they are all to be celebrated. The teacher would announce, “and for tomorrow, I want everyone to bring an ethnic snack to share. Like tacos!!!” We had a great time, watching a foreign movie, and went home to our nice houses to tell our parents how great it is that we live in such a multicultural society. Why didn’t we ever wonder why that one Hispanic student went home to his family’s crowded trailer outside of town, telling his parents how bad the tacos are in Minnesota?

Despite the lip service that we pay to words like multiculturalism and the celebration of diversity, our real problems of inequality and exclusion continue to plague us. These words are nouns that represent ideas. They are not processes or actions in themselves. A policy of “celebrating diversity,” simply recognizing, pointing out the differences between us, is now getting in the way of true equality and inclusiveness.

The once pure DNA of these words has become infected with a virus, they have been corrupted. To paraphrase scholar Diana Fu, this is the same virus that has paralyzed our society for hundreds of years, “except this virus has mutated, become more insidious, adorned with words like multiculturalism and celebration of diversity.” This virus has worked to institutionalize the hierarchies and inequalities that block the path of Human Rights.

The ideas behind these words and the movements that spawned them are by no means bankrupt. Look at the amazing accomplishments of the civil and women’s rights movements. But we must take back these words. And the words must be joined by actions. We must pursue an agenda of Social Justice, an agenda of Human Rights, an agenda of inclusiveness for every person, not an agenda of “multiculturalism” or the “celebration of diversity.”
We must take back the words.

Ted Meinhover is a senior at U of M, in the Global Studies and Communications Departments, with a focus on Human Rights. He’s doing an internship at KFAI Radio. This is his first commentary, written and produced for “Catalyst:politics & culture”, Tuesdays,11am on KFAI, producer/host Lydia Howell.

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