A Critique of Multiculturalism

Who defines the parameters for what counts as a cultural identity? And who is then forced to fit inside the box?

On Monday evening, as part of the Curious Public series, we held a community conversation about multiculturalism. But not just a conversation, it was principally an intentional critique of the status quo. Canada is a nation that has multiculturalism baked into its legislative framework, and we are actively encourage, especially at a national level, to celebrate multiculturalism as a key feature of ‘Canadian identity’.

But do we collectively ask the right questions? What are the negative impacts or side effects of multiculturalism? Whose agenda does it ultimately serve? Does the Canadian experience multiculturalism deserve all the national fanfare it receives?

You know that experience when you walk away from a conversation and say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll never be able to think about that issue the same again’? That was me after this chat. It was mentally disruptive. Provocative.

Thanks so much to the panel: Raghad El Niwairi, Marie Fiedler, Leroy Hibbert, Jasmine Jasani (@_jasminejasani), Tanaz Javan (@JTanaz), and Heenal Rajani. Thanks for devoting your time, mental energy, and bringing your stories and experiences to this discussion.

For extra context, here are some of the points we set out as possible avenues that the panel might explore. Obviously, we only had time to touch on a few of these points, but I include them here for further reflection and consideration.

  • Multiculturalism as legislative policy that (inadvertently?) excuses/denies lived experiences of racism. For example: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear someone said/did that to you. But don’t worry, they’re just one ‘bad apple’: Canada’s not racist, we’re a multicultural society!” Does the act of ‘legislating tolerance’ encourage us take it for granted? Does declaring ourselves to be multicultural incentivize us to shrug off racism?
  • Multiculturalism as directing a performative role/function in society. Both in the anecdotal sense that “Where are you from?” becomes a standard line of exchange when conversing with a “visible minority” (i.e. positioning ethnicity and origin as primary social markers for non-predominate group members) and also in the sense that multiculturalism defines “normative” cultural functions. Does multiculturalism define “visible minorities” as a political identity and assign this identity with specific cultural roles? If so, then whose agenda does multiculturalism serve?
  • Multiculturalism as a pathway to Amartya Sen’s idea of ‘plural monoculturalism. In this sense, does multiculturalism reify the concept/myth that society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures that dance around each other? We want to consider the tendency of multiculturalism to “essentialize” certain cultures or cultural traits and subsequently “tokenize” them or their representation. Does multiculturalism play a subversively isolating and ‘siloing’ role on society?
  • Multiculturalism as a political construct with minimal bearing in reality? For example, professor Anton Allahar’s argues that “Canada is not a multicultural country, it is a multi-ethnic country that is monocultural.” Who defines the parameters of ‘culture’ in multiculturalism when it is the law of the land?
  • Multiculturalism as relegation. Does multiculturalism ultimately devolve into a political framework defining “diversity” in such a way as to ultimately juxtapose “Western, Judeo-Christian, white culture” versus a conceptual hybrid/amalgamation of all other cultures? (“Dear white people, you are no less ‘ethnic’ than any other people.“) And in doing so, does this construct subsequently retrench the privilege of white identity? “So ‘diversity’ becomes a way to reassure whites of their place”,  as Sisonke Msimang describes?

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