Monday, December 7, 2009

Multiple dimensions of "Multicultural"

That's a word we use a lot today. In some cases, it applies to the people like me who used to be called "mixed race" or, in the nineteenth century, "half breeds"--people whose genetic heritages clearly broke ranks with accepted systems for categorizing ethnic groups. In a more significant sense, however, it applies to almost everyone now that we've learned that genetics are not the core of cultural.

Here's a quick list of ways in which you might find consider yourself multicultural. Are you:

1) Multi-mythic?
-Societies can probably not exist without underlying myths and values to guide and bind them, to make their members intelligible to each other. But do you come from a background in which you've inherited multiple sets of sometimes-compatible, sometimes-competing myths? My best friend used to say all of America is this way: a weird combination of inherited Roman and Jewish values that don't always fit together quite right. People invested in other mythic sets add to the mix in important ways.
Myths here don't just mean millennia-old stories, by the way. Any set of culturally defined values and ways of explaining the world count.

2) Multi-culinary?
-Eating in a restaurant that includes a country name may make you more culturally aware, but it doesn't make you multicultural. Feeling a deep emotional connection to foods from different traditions you make at home might, especially if someone in your family used to make them for you. You almost certainly count as multicultural if your neighbors or visitors have smelled your home and thought you cooked weird.

3) Multi-lingual?
-It's hard to study another language without better understanding something about at least one of its accompanying cultures. But, like restaurants, just studying fits more into cultural awareness than being multi-cultural. When you start thinking of words from another language on a daily basis though, chances are that language is becoming another cultural dimension for you. This is particularly true if these words are coming to you for reasons other than communication: when you start thinking in another language's words b/c they are comfortable in some way, that language is probably becoming part of you and not simply a skill you can use at your discretion.

4) Deeply emotionally connected to multiple places?
-Culture seldom exists without a strong connection to surrounding physical spaces. Even when we're long gone, the idea of certain physical spaces captures our imaginations in a more-than-casual way. Part of a multi-cultural experience, I think, is having more than one set of such places with powerful associations, places that you feel are inexorably connected with who you are.

5) Multiply isolated?
-Real multiculturalism will inevitably involve some feelings of distance and isolation. Maybe you don't drink alcohol at times when everyone around you is doing so. Maybe you try to share something, but no one can understand what you're talking about. Maybe you don't try to share something because you're pretty sure that if you do, no one will know what you're talking about. Maybe your looks mean something very different to the people around you than they do to you.

This list is by no means complete in describing what culture is or what it means to be multicultural, but I think it's a fair way to start talking about how cultures have multiple dimensions, and how many people are far less uni-cultural than they assume.

What do you think? Is this a good way to talk about multicultural experiences? What should be added or modified?

How does your experience interact with the above points?


  1. I wonder if we use "multicultural" as a term so often now because it sounds respectful. It seems complex, interesting, and exotically educated--as though a "multicultural" individual has heightened awareness. There is definitely academic privileging of "multiculturalism." However, I think it's also a way for people to distance themselves from the Other. We feel like that person, story, or culture is so interesting, but we can stay at a safe distance. If we realize that "multiculturalism" is not the same as "primitivism" or "Otherness," perhaps we can ethically approach the Other without intellectual curiosity--but rather with compassion and genuine interest.

  2. Yeah, totally, I've been thinking about this a lot, living abroad and all. Like even though I don't have Thai blood, I live here, I have a family here, and that's gonna be a part of me forever. So I'm culturally going to be a little bit Thai, too. But am I really multicultural or just living one type of new culture?

  3. Like in German class in UA, we take pride in Deutschland and have like showdowns with the Spanish students.


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