What Multiculturalism Gets Right

The diversity agenda is admirable even if it falters in its application.

Posted Dec 02, 2013

There is much to admire in multiculturalism. Its theories of power and stigma explain how groups define and enforce normalcy, allowing those with big hearts and open minds to learn how to direct themselves toward a more welcoming and inclusive stance.

Multiculturalism also gets it right when it insists on being a lens, rather than a topic, of analysis. We cannot hold our own values and priorities up for scrutiny unless we are aware of other, different values and priorities. Thus, it is an essentially multicultural task to expose our unexamined beliefs, and this can be done only by those who don’t share them. Multiculturalism also provides a useful lens for analysis in situations that do not automatically announce issues of race and sex and asks of them whether race and sex matter. Thus, when I am welcome to sit in a hotel’s garden to write, without producing a room key or other insignia of authorization, it is fair and often illuminating to ask if I would be treated differently if I were black.

Multiculturalism also gets right the way we harm ourselves by imposing normalcy and excluding what’s different. Socially, this attitude costs us a lot of good ideas and talent when the insightful and talented lack access to the metaphorical microphone of public speech. Multiculturalism teaches us that we exclude others not just through overt racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnocentrism, but also unconsciously when we do not take special steps to welcome those who differ from our local norms. The greatest musical talent of the last four centuries was not Mozart or Gershwin or Smokey Robinson. The greatest musical talent of the last four centuries was an Indian girl in Bombay who died hungry and outcast during childbirth at age 17, who never owned a musical instrument, whose quiet humming as she did her chores delighted those around her but otherwise died with her. Or it was a Cambodian boy or Chinese political prisoner or Bolivian man beheaded for harmonizing the national anthem—or whatever sacred cow Bolivians would have been killed for trying to improve. Getting the microphone to those with talent serves us all.

Beyond the social harms of exclusion, there are personal harms as well, when exclusion of parts of ourselves costs us pleasure and good ideas—you simply cannot have good ideas if you are constantly monitoring your thoughts for their acceptability, whether the monitoring be religious, moral, patriotic, or gendered. If you allow yourself to have only ideas had by a good Lutheran, a good person, a good American, or a real man, you will only have ideas that someone else has already had.

Multiculturalism also gets it right when it describes the validity of multiple perspectives (but I’ll soon write a post on how it tends to pervert this multiplicity). We all know that the rule against wearing white shoes after Labor Day is a socially constructed rule, but we are not always so quick to recognize social construction in other situations. People who speak only one language, for example, may not fully appreciate how arbitrary the assignment is of words to things, and they may fuse the word and the thing, responding to the former as if it were the latter. People who take umbrage at words, surely, are less likely to do so if they deeply appreciate the fact that the words that irk them are just words. A reactionary attitude to words chills free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Social practices that are not seen as socially constructed can become enshrined as the way of the world instead of as a social rule, especially when there is minimal acquaintance with alternatives. How we mourn, how we decline invitations, how we celebrate birthdays—these are all socially constructed, and one approach is not more intrinsically valid than another. Multiculturalism teaches us that our way of doing things is only one way of doing them. This opens the way to finding a different, more satisfying way of doing them. It opens the way for not being so concrete about what’s right and what’s wrong, in turn opening the way to individual liberty.

Multiculturalism is right about the importance of making sure diverse voices are seated at the tables where policies are crafted and norms are established. It made a big difference, for example, for the Supreme Court to seat a woman (O’Connor) and a black man (Marshall), not just for their input, but because the other justices knew they would have to defend their opinions face to face with a woman and a black man. Multiculturalism is wrong about selecting the categories that constitute diversity, and it’s blind to its own power agenda in defining diversity according to race and sex, but it’s right about the need for diversity. O’Connor’s presence made its biggest impact on sex discrimination cases, Marshall’s on race cases. Other forms of diversity are important for other sorts of cases, that is, for other sorts of policy-crafting and norm-setting. Generally, the voice that needs to be included is that of someone who identifies with whatever group of people will be disenfranchised or stigmatized by the new policy or the new norms.

Multiculturalism reminds us of the two great truths about humans (numbered for your convenience): 1) we are all the same; 2) we are all different.

Maybe it’s because multiculturalism gets so many things right that it feels entitled to ignore what it gets so wrong.

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