I was chatting with some friends at the Urban Church conference last month when one of us said the word multiculturalism. I don't remember in what context, because more interesting to me was the comment of a passing acquaintance who, hearing the word, said with great emphasis and assurance, "Multiculturalism is not an issue but a fact. We already have multiculturalism!" Having said which she went off to wherever she was going, and our conversation was stopped cold. There is something about a clear assumption of rightness, a great assurance - but indeed this acquaintance always seemed assured of her rightness - that makes you think that the person must be right, too. If, as she implied, a truth so clear left nothing to discuss, we were left, indeed, with nothing to discuss. It has only been after a month of reflection that I have decided that there may be something to discuss after all. Lots of things are facts, but may not be, therefore, necessarily left to develop as they will without discussion and even argument. I can think, for example, of motorcycle gangs, the drug culture, perhaps even St. Patrick's Day parades. They are all facts of our existence. Whether or not multiculturalism is a similar fact may, however, also be open to discussion.
I am not sure that we always mean the same thing when we talk about multiculturalism. It may indeed be an answer, but it might be the answer to different questions depending on what we mean by it. What our acquaintance meant was the answer to the question, "What is the present state of our society, given that its population is made up of groups of people with different heritages?" If multiculturalism is the answer to that, then it is not anything new or different, except in the emphasis that we put on those differences. We have, as we have always had, a society with a dominant culture and many subcultures. The members of minority cultures succeed in relation to the greater or less degree that they buy into that dominant culture. So it is in America, and so it has always been. What has made the idea of multiculturalism an issue is the growing sense both among the members of the minority cultures and even the dominant culture itself, that such dominance leads to injustice and oppression.
There are a growing number of enclaves in our country in which success can be achieved without buying into the dominant culture at all - without speaking the language or adopting any of the customs. That is possible, however, only when an individual is content to have influence only in the small pond of that culture. I am thinking, for example, of the Cuban enclave in Miami, and Mexican ones in the Southwest. As a group grows in numbers, wealth and power, however, it is seldom content in its isolation, and will have to begin to come to terms with its surroundings. At the same time, some of the minority success achieved is only relative. Some of the success and power is simply in contrast to the grinding ignorance and poverty of those who, not a part of the dominant culture, find it difficult to be educated or employed. The dominant culture is still, mostly dominant. It is the government, the business, the power structure of everything outside the enclaves. It is English-speaking, capitalist, Protestant. It has internalized the values and systems of understanding of northwestern Europe. Not all who think and act in these terms have ancestors from that part of the world, but to be a successful part of American civilization you must still be in some degree a part of this culture. That is the fact that must somehow be dealt with whether we use the term multiculturalism or not. If that is what our acquaintance meant when saying that multiculturalism is a fact, it is an issue which must still be discussed because of the way it plays out in the lives of those who are not members of the dominant culture.
There is another way of defining multiculturalism however, as an ideal, in which we would speak of a society without a dominant culture, in which every subculture had equal access to education, opportunity, power and privilege. When I first began hearing the word used, it was primarily to describe what was at least considered to be the situation in Canada. They had, we were told, a truly multicultural society. Well, they have signs in two languages, French and English, but when I was in Vancouver where I never heard the French language spoken but heard many Asian people speaking in other tongues, I wondered why French was used and not Chinese or Japanese. We have recently seen that the theoretical biculturalism that makes the French and English of equal power does not obviate the strains of two cultures living together without a sense of true equality. Although the vote for separation failed, it was too close for comfort.
It was argued, too, when Canada was being held up as the ideal, that a part of Canadian multiculturalism was the equal access to power of various subcultures, but if their languages are not used and there is prejudice against various groups, although the Canadians tend to be much more civil than we, it seems to me to be only a matter of degree. There is also a dominant culture, whether it is merely English or is, perhaps, French-English, which does not hesitate occasionally to impose its values on subcultures. I think, for example, of a story I was told a few years ago by a Canadian minister of a protest organized by the Unitarian Universalist Association's social justice department against the Canadian government for its withholding subsidy monies from a certain Canadian Indian tribe. He did not support the protest - protested against it, in fact - because the reason for withholding the money was to put pressure on them to cease from buying and selling the women of the tribe and treating them like the slaves they were. I'll take the dominant culture's side on that one. By the way, you will probably be happy to the know that that particular member of the department of social justice is no longer a part of it.
The ideal of the kind of multiculturalism that has no dominant culture, though it doesn't even exist in Canada, does have a strong appeal. It is, I think, what people who don't think of multiculturalism as a fact but rather as a goal, have in mind when they speak of it: a nation in which all cultural groups are free to practice their own culture, have equal access to the corridors of power, and live together in peace and understanding. It does sound good. It is what I believe we are striving for when we have Black History Month, for example, as February is; when we mandate that every child in the Hawaiian Islands is to learn the Hawaiian language; when we have self-esteem workshops which concentrate not, as one would have supposed, on teaching an individual his or her own value, but the value of the contributions of the ethnic group to which the person belongs. We are trying to help people to feel proud of the cultures to which they belong and respectful of those to which they do not. It seems a highly laudable goal.
However, there is either something wrong with the method or its execution, because instead of bringing us together, such ideas seem to be driving us farther apart. Perhaps I am wrong to think that the ultimate goal should be to bring us together, and that, in fact, the desired goal may be in the process of being achieved, but if so, it is to make us a geographically defined group of mutually exclusive ethnic communities. The White Citizens Council came up with a map on which they indicated areas in which blacks, Latin Americans, Jews, Eastern and Western Europeans would live in separate pales. We reject that with loathing, and yet it seems to me that the ultimate end of this particular understanding of multiculturalism will do just that.
But say that we stop short of that, that we simply live the ideal as it is supposed to be being lived in Canada with its signs in two languages, yet still together in a single nation, it is simply impossible to fulfill it completely. Somebody is going to be left out, somebody is going to feel oppressed. We can have signs in French in Little Haiti, in Spanish in parts of Miami and the southwest and in several languages in the cities of the east, in Scandinavian in the North Central States, in the dialects of the various American Indian tribes wherever they are in the majority, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish on the West coast, leave out Spanish and add Hawaiian in our Pacific Islands, Jive in the inner cities, standard English dotted throughout - but in all of those places there will be a few people whose language is not on the signs, whose culture is not being honored. And if a single language is not spoken by all of those cultural groups, they will neither be able to work together nor learn from one another. We may not be geographically separated, but we will be as separate from one another as if we were. With such separation there will be increased suspicion and increased suffering. There will be no reason for the haves of any group to relieve the suffering of another, there will be no common good to be served. A common good can never be discovered where people are kept separate by language and customs, and are not taught of their common humanity.
Perhaps, though, there could be another definition of multiculturalism, one that would be the answer to the question, "How can people of different backgrounds, colors, religions, origins, and cultures live together in mutual respect and care, sharing our strengths and lessening our weaknesses and remaining one nation, indivisible?" My own hope is that that can be extended eventually to one world, indivisible. I have in the past borrowed from someone the image of a salad rather than a melting pot, in which each part keeps its individual (or in this case cultural) identity, while making up one delightful dish which without any of its discrete parts would be less appealing than with them. The present notions of multiculturalism seem to me to have the effect of keeping each ingredient of the salad not only discrete but separate - all the lettuce on this side, all the tomato slices on the other, the celery here, the mushrooms there, the onions way off to the side away from all the other ingredients. The challenge for us is how we can toss the salad without messing it up.
What we need to do in the process of tossing and serving is to find a mutually agreeable salad dressing, one which without hiding or changing the different tastes and textures will give us all a flavor in common. To be serious, in order to live together there are things that we must all begin to do and things that we must stop doing. We must, if we are members of the dominant culture, quit wallowing in guilt for the deeds of our ancestors and deal with the realities of the present day and present oppressions. If we are members of minorities we must stop picking the scabs of our wounds to keep them from healing, and deal only with the realities of the present day. We must remember that the history of humanity is that of tribes displacing and ruling other tribes, and there is not one of us whose ancestors did not do some of that. Never forgetting that, we must put it behind us and begin from where we are. We must agree first on a common language so that all of us can speak together without the sentimentalities of deciding that we should all learn to speak one or another of the minority languages. (Not that I don't think you should know more than one language, just that I insist that in one nation we should all know one language in common.) The practicalities suggest that it should be the language that most of us already know. There is precedent for this. Although India threw off its British oppressors it retained English as one of its official languages simply because that was the one that enabled its citizens to communicate with one another, since that was the one language that was known throughout the country. Besides our language, we must share common values whether they belong to what is now the dominant culture or not. (Western European values are not all bad.
Freedom and equality are two of them.) We must share respect for education, for differences, for honesty, for integrity, for justice, for dialogue.... I could go on, but we already know the kinds of values that will enable us to live in mutual support, and we must demand that where they are not, they must become a part of our common culture. They must be taught by our homes and our institutions whether those institutions are single or multi-cultural.
Beyond that there is one more thing that we must do. We must keep at the forefront of our understanding that our humanity transcends even the most cherished differences, that all of us love and desire, all of us make mistakes, all of us suffer pain, all of us die, all of us mourn, all of us feel joy, all of us matter. However different our cultures we are all brothers and sisters in everything that matters most. Such multiculturalism is not yet a fact. Perhaps it can never be made a fact, but it is that for which we must work, that ideal to which we must commit ourselves.