Multiculturalism is a belief, ideology, movement, or policy that has several interpretations, but essentially advocates the peaceful coexistence of different cultural, ethnic, and/or racial groups within a single society interacting with one another on a mutually respectful, equal basis. Generally, nativists and those favoring assimilation oppose multiculturalism in any form, fearing its threat to national unity. Whereas proponents view multiculturalism as the foundation of a truly democratic society, opponents consider it as quicksand that will swallow up the core culture of the country.
Evolution of the Concept of Multiculturalism
Although a fairly new term coming into widespread public use in the 1980s, multiculturalism is actually a reformulation of the older concept of cultural pluralism, a term coined by Horace Kallen (1882-1974), a philosophy professor and immigrant from Eastern Europe. In the early 20th century, educator John Dewey and social worker Jane Addams both expressed concern about the loss of the cultural values of immigrants through assimilation. Kallen gave formal voice to their advocacy for cultural pluralism (the differences in language, religion, and value orientations) in an essay appearing in the Nation in 1915. Not until the early 1970s, though, did the concept gain widespread support, epitomized in the American Jewish Committee’s creation of the Institute on Pluralism and Group Identity. This organization held numerous conferences and workshops and published dozens of working papers, articles, and books.
In the 1970s, multiculturalists first advocated adapting school curriculum materials in U.S. history to include the contributions of non-European peoples. In an inevitable progression, next came efforts to reform all curriculum areas, from the early grades through college, as an all-inclusive recognition of U.S. diversity and to inculcate in students a greater awareness and appreciation for the cultural impact of non-European civilizations. The intent of this movement was to advance an expanded American identity that incorporated previously excluded groups into an integral component, both in heritage and in present actuality.
Some multiculturalists subsequently abandoned this integrative approach in favor of the maintenance of separate group identities. In doing so, they not only rejected a common bond of identity among the distinct racial and ethnic groups, but in advocating minority nationalism or separatist pluralism they also rejected compliance with the dominant culture as well. Not surprisingly, this position angered those already suspicious of unassimilated minorities and triggered in many a condemnation of multiculturalism as a threat to societal cohesion.
Types of Multiculturalism
Today, multiculturalists themselves are still not in agreement as to what they are advocating. Generally, they fall into one of three categories.
Generating the most controversy are the separatists. They promote maintenance of a separate group identity, resistance to assimilation, and maintenance of their own customs, language, and values. Because first-generation immigrants are commonly visible to the native-born population in appearance (clothing and/or physical features), language (accent and/or limited command of the host country’s language), residential clustering, customs, and parallel social institutions (e.g., churches, schools, social clubs, media), societal members often assume that they will remain a persistent subculture. Although most immigrant groups assimilate over two to three generations (race or religion may slow or prevent this process), contemporaries see only the present reality of a non-mainstream group in their midst. If that reality is mislabeled as a separatist threat, it can generate feelings of anti-multiculturalism.
At the other end of the spectrum, closer to the assimilationist view, are the inclusionists. Their position—comparable to the 1970s effort to include curriculum material about, by, and of non-European peoples—promotes a common identity but also a pluralist perspective by recognizing not only diversity within society, but also society’s multiethnic, multiracial heritage and ongoing derivative elements. Instead of allegiance to a specific racial and/or ethnic group, the emphasis is on a united cause through a shared identity and appreciation for the intermingling of cultures.
Falling midway between these orientations are the integrative pluralists. Using such metaphors as salad bowl, kaleidoscope, and symphony, these multiculturalists emphasize that the nation’s strength lies in its diversity, that the blends and contrasts of its different peoples generate a dynamic synergy in its culture, quality of life, and achievements. This viewpoint suggests that both society and all individuals benefit through cultural enrichment from the presence of diversity. Society can become more cohesive when its members find common superordinate goals without insisting on a loss of racial or ethnic identity.
Opponents of Multiculturalism
Those against multiculturalism usually express concern about one or more of its aspects: immigration, language, culture, and race.
Immigration. Large-scale immigration fuels the debate over multiculturalism perhaps more than any other element. The presence of newcomers dissimilar from the native population typically generates negative reactions that can range from suspicion and anxiety to outright hostility. Prompting this response might be resentment against the changing nature of society, fears about economic competition (jobs, wages), or increased social welfare costs borne by taxpayers.
Language. Newcomers normally speak their own language with compatriots and only slowly acquire mastery of the new language. In the United States, where most native-born Americans are monolingual, the presence of so many individuals with limited English proficiency—compounded by bilingual education and signs—raises the ire of many who insist on rapid assimilation. A good example is passage by 30 states of official English laws to reduce the language aspect of multiculturalism.
Culture. When people assume the homogeneity of their culture (even though most societies have heterogeneous subcultures), they have a sense of a national identity, a feeling that they share with their fellow citizens a commonality of values and practices. If too many others speak a different language, hold beliefs unlike theirs, and do not identify with or participate in mainstream social institutions, the native population fears a loss of social cohesion and national identity.
Race. Most difficult to overcome of all objections to multiculturalism is a growing presence of racial minorities, especially if it is a significant demographic change or occurs in a previously homogeneous region. Except for extremist group members, few talk openly about race in their opposition to multiculturalism. Yet racial bias is often a prime factor. Whether subtle or overt, peaceful or violent, racial animosities are another manifestation of opposition to multiculturalism.
The International Scene
Switzerland, never ethnically homogeneous, has long been the prototype of a multicultural nation. It has four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Rumantsch), is home to multiple religions, has a 20 percent foreign-born population, and its Cantons (cities) have substantial autonomy. Although all ethnic groups live a peaceful coexistence, in reality they lead parallel, separate lives, not ones within a fully integrated society. Its German majority (64 percent of the population) lives mostly in the northern and central regions; its dominant French minority (20 percent) are mostly in the western region; its Italian minority (7 percent) reside mostly in the southern region; and those speaking Rumantsch (less than 1 percent) live mostly in the southeastern region. English is the unofficial fifth language, both in the corporate world and in popular culture.
Recognizing the linguistic and cultural diversity among their indigenous, immigrant, and immigrant-descendant populations, both Canada in 1971 and Australia in 1973—two major immigrant-receiving nations—adopted multiculturalism as official national policy. Today both countries have the most fully evolved implementation of multicultural policies, but they also have numerous critics and organized opposition, leading both countries to temper their policies somewhat. For example, Quebec now uses the term intercultural instead of multicultural, and the Australian government in 2007 renamed its Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
With low birth rates and a growing labor shortage, most European countries sought foreign workers to meet their economic needs. Creation of the European Union (EU)—and the free movement of its citizens to live, travel, and work anywhere within its confines— led to its rapid adoption by most member states. However, a growing concern about unassimilated immigrant communities, particularly Islamic, led to reversals in official endorsement of multiculturalism. Denmark and the Netherlands recently returned to an official policy of monoculturalism (preservation of the native culture and exclusion of foreign influences). Other countries—notably France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have been considering similar reversals.
Elsewhere in the world, India—with its numerous ethnic groups descended from several ancient racial stocks—is one of the world’s most culturally, linguistically, racially, and religiously diverse countries. A democratic republic, its strong central government endorses a pluralist history, not a shared one, and its constitution officially recognizes 18 languages. Japan and South Korea are among the world’s most ethnically homogeneous countries, while others, such as China and Malaysia, are culturally diverse but their governments are striving to become monocultural nations.
- Hollinger, David A. 2006. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books.
- Kivisto, Peter. 2002. Multiculturalism in a Global Society. New York: Blackwell.
- Okin, Susan Moller. 1999. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Parrillo, Vincent N. 2008. Diversity in America. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Phillips, Anne. 2007. Multiculturalism without Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Taylor, Charles. 1994. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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