Umbrellas of Multiculturalism

Vincent N. Parrillo: Umbrellas of Multiculturalism

This is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Diversity in America, 4th ed., by Vincent N. Parrillo (Paradigm Publishers, 2013). All rights reserved.

Multiculturalism is taught in academia, debated in government, promoted by ethnic leaders, reported by the media, and discussed among the citizenry. Few are indifferent to a subject with so many proponents and opponents. Some see multiculturalism as the bedrock upon which to build a society of true equality, while others see multiculturalism as a sinkhole that will swallow up the very foundation of American society.

At its very core, the pro- and anti-multiculturalist debate is a polarization of the centuries-old dual American realities of pluralism and assimilation into competing forces for dominance. As this book has shown, pluralism has been a constant reality in the United States since colonial times, and assimilation has been a steady, powerful force as well. There have always been both assimilationist and pluralist advocates, as well as both nativist alarmists and minority separatists.

Resentment and hostility about multiculturalism result from several factors. Rapid communication and televised images have heightened public consciousness of the diversity within American society, but without placing it in the continuity of the larger historical context. Government policies and programs, particularly those dealing with bilingualism, become controversial when viewed as more than transitional aids by both pluralists and assimilationists. Vocal advocates for each position arouse strong feelings in their listeners in suggesting an "either-or" stance of supposedly diametrically opposing forces.

What raises reactions toward multiculturalism to a firestorm level are still other factors. First are the radical positions either anti-immigrant or racist, or else anti-white male or non-integrationist. Another is revisionist history or literary anthologies that downplay "DWMs" (dead white males) or else western civilization, and heavily emphasize women, people of color, and nonwestern civilization. Add furor over political correctness--whether in the guise of speech or behavior codes, curricula offerings, or selective emphases. The result is controversy of a (dare I say it?) white heat intensity.

Multiculturalism is a stance taken by pluralists. Does that mean it imperils the process of assimilation? The answer is, basically, no, but the explanation is a complicated one. Multiculturalism . . . is a newer term for cultural pluralism, not a new phenomenon. Large foreign-speaking communities, foreign- language schools, organizations, and houses of worship, even pluralist extremists, are not new to American society. Is, then, the new version not to be feared any more than its precursor, or is this more than a "new suit"? Is this thing we call multiculturalism a clear and present danger? Before we can address this concern, we need to understand exactly what multiculturalism is.

Multiculturalism does not mean the same thing to everyone. Even the multiculturalists do not agree with one another as to what they are advocating. Before we can address the advantages or disadvantages of a multicultural society, therefore, we need to understand these differing viewpoints.

The Inclusionists

During the 1970s, multiculturalism meant the inclusion of material in the school curriculum that related the contributions of non-European peoples to the nation's history. In the next phase multiculturalists aimed to change all areas of the curriculum in schools and colleges to reflect the diversity of American society and to develop in individuals an awareness and appreciation for the impact of non-European civilizations on American culture.

Inclusionists would appear to be assimilationists, but they are more than this. Assimilationists seek elimination of cultural differences through loss of one's distinctive traits that are replaced by the language, values, and other attributes of mainstream Americans. Although inclusionists share assimilationists' desire for national unity through a common identity, they also promote a pluralist or multiculturalist perspective. This finds expression by recognition of diversity throughout American history and of minority contributions to American art, literature, music, cuisine, scientific achievements, sports, and holiday celebrations.

In the 1990s, this viewpoint has perhaps found its most eloquent voice in Diane Ravitch. She too emphasizes a common culture but one that incorporates the contributions of all racial and ethnic groups so that they can believe in their full membership in America's past, present, and future. She envisions elimination of allegiance to any specific racial and/or ethnic group, with emphasis instead on our common humanity, our shared national identity, and our individual accomplishments.

Inclusionist multiculturalists thus approach pluralism not as if it were groups each standing under their own different-colored umbrellas, but of all sharing one multi- colored umbrella whose strength and character reflects the diverse backgrounds but singular cause of those standing under it together.

The Separatists

The group of multiculturalists who generate the most controversy are those who advocate "minority nationalism" and "separate pluralism." They reject an integrative approach and the notion of forming a common bond of identity among both the distinct minority groups and mainstream Americans. Instead of a collective American national identity, they seek specific, separate group identities that will withstand the assimilation process. This form of multiculturalism is the most extreme version of pluralism.

To achieve their objective and create a positive group identity, these multiculturalists seek to teach and maintain their own cultural customs, history, values, and festivals, while refusing to acknowledge those of the dominant culture. For example, some Native Americans raise strong objections to Columbus Day parades, while Afrocentrists downgrade Western civilization by arguing that it is merely a derivative of Afro-Egyptian culture, a claim by the way that is not historically accurate.

Separatist multiculturalists do not want to stand with others under one multi-colored umbrella. Not only do they wish to be under their own special umbrella, but they want to share it only with their own kind and let them know why it is such a special umbrella. One may walk the same ground in the same storm, but shelter is to be found under a group's personal umbrella.

What particularly infuriates the assimilationists about the separatists' position is their concern that such emphasis on group identity promotes what Arthur Schlesinger calls "the cult of ethnicity." In The Disuniting of America (1991), a book widely discussed in both Europe and North America, Schlesinger warned that the Balkan present may be America's prologue.

It is precisely that devastating warfare in the Balkans between Bosnians, Croatians, and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia that has prompted so many voices in Canada, Europe, and the United States against multiculturalists who espouse separate pluralism. The "balkanization of society" is the most common expression that critics of multiculturalism use to suggest the threat to the social fabric supplied by a divisive policy promoting group identity over individual or societal welfare.

When Hispanic leaders from groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) insist upon "language rights," the maintenance of the Spanish language and Latino culture at public expense, the assimilationists warn of an emerging "Tower of Babel" society. When Afrocentrists such as Molefi Asante and Leon Jeffries emphasize the customs of African cultures over those of the dominant culture, their stress on African ethnicity provoke disapproval from critics such as Schlesinger who complain that they drive "even deeper the awful wedges between races" by exaggerating ethnic differences. . . .

The Integrative Pluralists

In 1915, Horace Kallen used the metaphor of a symphony orchestra to portray the strength through diversity of American society. Just as different groups of instruments each play their separate parts of the musical score but together produce beautiful music of blends and contrasts, so too, he said, do the various populations within pluralist America. Kallen's idea of effective functional integration but limited cultural integration, however, was essentially a Eurocentric vision and reality. People of color were mentioned only incidentally and were typically not allowed to sit with, let alone join, the orchestra.

Harry Triandis not only added an interracial component to this view of integrative pluralism in 1976, but he also suggested the majority culture is enriched by "additive multiculturalism." By this he meant that one can get more out of life by understanding other languages, cultural values, and social settings. He hoped for society becoming more cohesive by finding common superordinate goals without insisting upon a loss of black identity, Native American identity, Asian or Hispanic identity. Arguing that mainstream Americans, secure in their identity, need to develop new interpersonal skills, Triandis maintained that the essence of pluralism is the development of appreciation, interdependence, and skills to interact intimately with persons from other cultures. He added:

The majority culture can be enriched by considering the viewpoints of the several minority cultures that exist in America rather than trying to force these minorities to adopt a monocultural, impoverished, provincial viewpoint which may in the long run reduce creativity and the chances of effective adjustment in a fast- changing world.

This argument of cultural enrichment from diverse subcultures found another form of expression in Beyond the Culture Wars (1992) by Gerald Graff. He suggests that exposure to differing cultural views will revitalize education by creating the dynamics of dialogue and debate. As Socrates once encouraged his students to search for truth through intellectual clashes, so too, Graff maintains, can multicultural education help students overcome relativism and become informed about different positions.

Ronald Takaki echoes Graff's idea by recommending that the university become the meeting ground for different viewpoints. American minds, he believes, need to be opened to greater cultural diversity. American history, like America itself, does not belong to one group, says Takaki, and so a change in the status quo is needed. Instead of a hierarchy of power headed by a privileged group, greater cross-cultural understanding and interconnected viewpoints are necessary.

Integrative pluralists envision a multitude of distinctive umbrellas each containing a different group, but with the umbrellas' edges attached to each other, so that collectively they embrace everyone. Guided equally by the many handles of the interconnected umbrellas, one can look around to see where another group is coming from within the framework of the whole.