What is Multiculturalism?

While the term multiculturalism may have attained a standard of ubiquity in our everyday lives, you might be surprised to know it means more than you believe.

The watered down version of this term is often employed with many cultural subgroups in the United States—from African Americans to Women—who nonetheless hold most or all features of a cultural identity in common. Below, we'll explore the finer points of the term and seek a greater comprehension of how it might be employed.

Brass Tacks and Other Philosophical Underpinnings

It's far more than simple toleration or permission granted to a specific group to practice non-mainstream ritual or custom. Multicultural theory refers most often to the open and positive acceptance of marginalized peoples within a larger context. It denotes inclusion of these groups or individuals in the ritual and practice of a larger cultural sphere, without exception.

While it also refers to accommodation on the individual or group level, allowing non-language speakers to participate in educational or civic activities, it's a dynamic philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that it "is a body of thought in political philosophy about the proper way to respond to cultural and religious diversity." Mere toleration of group differences is said to fall short of treating members of minority groups as equal citizens. If this is the case, to whom does multicultural philosophy apply? How marginal are marginalized cultures? Who is included in this consideration?

Inclusivity vs. Exceptionalism

While many might equate this term with the politics of difference, and hence argue that these groups simply want special status, it's important to recognize the difference. Marginalized groups aren't seeking exceptional status, simply the same respect and rights accorded to a mainstream group. Many of these groups are ethnic or religious minorities—e.g. American or European immigrants, Basque, Catalans, and indigenous peoples around the world.

This multicultural approach is intended to remediate political, social, and economic disadvantages that marginalized groups experience as a direct result of non-mainstream beliefs or ethnic affiliations. In fields such as library sciences, related theoretical approaches are applied to place indigenous or marginalized narratives on equal footing with culture-dominant literature. Many might discount this effort as superfluous, but the stories we first encounter help us to shape our worldview, establish ideas of good and bad, and determine how we interact with others.

Pedagogy is another important realm in which we will encounter multicultural theory. Utilizing familiar tropes and concepts with students who do not speak the dominant language of a country can assist them in acquiring skills, concepts, and the foreign language with greater ease. In order to accomplish that, teachers must both know and understand the themes with which they work. Moreover, they must place equal value upon them, rather than seeking to inculcate a static cultural value system, as has been attempted in the past with Indian Schools in the United States.

While this theoretical approach has many opponents who claim it is an attempt to infer special status upon marginalized groups as a cause celebre, it also has many staunch defenders. It calls into question the unseen privilege with which so many in the United States live, and it offers a valid foundation upon which to build a more equitable society. Multiculturalism isn't a single concept, but an evolving body of theory that touches upon many relevant aspects of our daily lives.

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