The Problems with Multi-culturalism

In Canada, multiculturalism has become the primary referent for what we like to think of as our pluralistic, accepting, or, at least, tolerant society. And yet, the category itself doesn’t get much critical analysis. In the last few years of my work I have seen a few take-downs of this concept and I am generally convinced that though the term played its part in a more intolerant past, the term today may be holding us back from solving many problems. Over at Restructure! there is a post quoting Dr. Sunera Thobani and her critical stance on multiculturalism:

I think multiculturalism has been a very effective way of silencing anti-racist politics in this country. Multiculturalism has allowed for certain communities—people of colour—to be constructed as cultural communities. Their culture is defined in very Orientalist and colonial ways—as static, they will always be that, they have always been that. And culture has now become the only space from which people of colour can actually have participation in national political life; it’s through this discourse of multiculturalism. And what it has done very successfully is it has displaced an anti-racist discourse.

I have my own critiques as well:

1. Multiculturalism assumes stable, static, cultural boundaries. In its attempt to say different cultures are part and parcel of Canada, it also solidifies these into unwavering essenses.

2. It follows from this that culture becomes policed. It brings in the spectre of “authenticity”, and in practice only serves to contrast them against Canadian society at large–whatever that is.

3. Multiculturalism doesn’t reflect the reality of cultural play. Cultures are constantly shifting and in continual dialogue. Indeed, the category of culture itself is problematic. Where does one culture end and another begin? There is no such thing as cultural borders… rather, what seems to be the case is highly diffuse conglomerates, networks, inroads, borrowings, synchretisms, nostalgias, romanticisms, appropriations and rejections, comparisons, culture-trolling, and so on.

4. Finally, this term doesn’t do justice to the lived experience of Canadians who often have to negotiate multiple complex and dynamic cultural forms and identities.

h/t: Missives from Marx


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2 Responses to “The Problems with Multi-culturalism”

  1. Dominique Millette Says:

    This is thought-provoking and relevant. It reminds me of the debate surrounding cultural fusion (is it appropriation or isn’t it) and biracial identity. Apparently one must choose a single category on certain census forms. And the point you make about traditionalism being a badge of “authenticity” is also very important, since yes, all cultures evolve over time.

  2. fuzzytheory Says:

    Thanks! I think there is this tension we are feeling today between “owning” one’s heritage or oppression versus the realities of the intersection of complex identity formations. So, yeah, you are right that all cultures change over time, and I think this tension I speak of impacts how people interpret “their” “culture” and what they choose to hold on to.

    From another viewpoint, I think the term culture is actually one of, if not THE, fundamental basis for modernity. There is this discourse about barbarity in the global scene, the prime example being religious fundamentalism. But if we look at this more closely, we see that fundamentalism is like any other modern phenomenon. The binary of tradition/modernity is mobilized and people pick and choose what is ok to innovate on what “traditions” must be kept–keep in mind, usually those traditions they speak of are actually reconstructions and innovations in and of themselves.

    So, interestingly, I actually think the concept of “culture” is itself an ideological tool used for all sorts of discursive purposes, for good or ill, in all sorts of ways. The policing of “authenticity” is a very common one.

    What do you think?

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