12 August 2009 **** Front page

Dilemmas of multiculturalism

By Laura L. Klure

In a recent article ("The gentle warmth of diversity"), Tapani Lausti considers the writing of Kenan Malik in the 2008 book Strange fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. The following comments are based, not on knowledge of the Malik book, but on recent observations in the United States, particularly in Riverside, California, and on news of other events.

Malik is correct that "multiculturalism" has been gaining influence in the U.S. In Riverside, for example, a Multicultural Council was created by the local Riverside Metropolitan Museum, to bring various ethnic groups into participation in the museum, and to celebrate their cultures. This has led to annual events in which ethnic foods, costumes, and music are displayed. Most participants would probably report that they felt these events were pleasant, and that the sharing was beneficial to the community. People moved happily along the street and sidewalks, enjoying sounds, sights, tastes, from other cultures.

But Malik contends that maintaining the differences between groups within society is not always beneficial. These differences can result from race, culture, or religion. Perpetuating the differences prevents blending, continues isolation, reduces sharing. Perpetuating the differences means encouraging different treatment of people of different races, religions. Should we not all be treated the same, by our government, by social institutions? Is "Affirmative Action" fair or unfair? Is it only right wingers who question the fairness of differential treatment?

What about the question of whether the wearing of complete head coverings should be allowed in schools? As a substitute teacher, this writer found it beneficial to see the faces of students, to better assess who they were and whether they were paying attention to the lesson. On various occasions I prohibited students from hiding their faces under "hoodies," sweatshirts with hoods. The hood wearers were often, but not always, Black or Hispanic males. Should head coverings be allowed for religious reasons? Need we be "tolerant" of a religion that subjugates and hides women?

Various ethnic groups in the U.S. were in the past subject to horrendous treatment and segregation. It is understandable that, to regain a sense of pride in their heritage, those groups want to celebrate their differences. For example, Native American tribes that were almost exterminated are today relishing the money they have gained from casino gambling in California. Some of the funds they've raked in are going toward efforts to preserve their tribal languages and cultures — occasionally to the point of ostracizing former "members" of the tribe, or creating disputes with nearby tribes. The mix of capitalism and multiculturalism is not always beautiful. But should a language ever be completely lost?  Is it important to maintain at least a record of all languages and cultures? How can a culture be maintained, if nobody celebrates it?

As a woman, I have never been a strong supporter of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (in Washington D.C.). I would rather see art created by women displayed in all art museums, based on a fair evaluation of the quality of their work. Yes, there was bias in the past, but how strong is that bias today? Do we need separate recognition? What about the National Museum of the American Indian?  Are sufficient Native American materials displayed in other museums? But does the existence of these separate museums mean that the "general" museums, the ones dominated by men and by the "mainstream" Caucasian cultures, are then free to be even more discriminatory? This seems to be one of Malik's points: that multiculturalism allows re-trenching of the elite. He contends it also empowers the "most conservative sections of minority communities."

Turning to the Black community for examples, one might ask where are the conservative sections of the Black community in the U.S.? The "Black church" is certainly one likely place to look. Some Black church members have joined with other conservative Christians in the fights against abortion rights and against gay marriage. In California they passed an initiative banning gay marriage (an issue still being contested in various U.S. courts). Are these conservative stands to be celebrated as reflections of Black culture, or are they lamentable erosions of liberal movements toward tolerance, choice, and human rights for all people? It has long been said that, "politics makes strange bed-fellows."  [C. D. Warner, My Summer in Garden (1871)]

Lausti is doing a very good service by promoting Malik's book and by talking about these complex issues. It is a time in the world economy, and in the relationships between peoples, when we all do well to question, to look at difficult issues — rather than continuing to slide downhill. The answers are not easy, but it is certain that the answers will not become apparent unless we ask the questions.


Laura L. Klure is an independent writer based in Riverside, California, USA. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications in the US. She is the author of two local history books, Let's Be Doers: A History of the YWCA of Riverside, California, 1906-1992, and California Electric Power Company 1904-1964: A Powerful Corporate Family, and has been involved in other major local history projects.

Visit the archive: Kenan Malik;
Multiculturalism and identity


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