Column: Multiculturalism is not diversity

There is a tendency among the administration and the programming organizations on campus to settle for multiculturalism instead of diversity.

It is easy to mistake being multiculturalist for being multicultural, and even easier to prefer the comfort of multiculturalism over the challenge of diversity. Sometimes the differences are subtle, but multiculturalism is merely the pale reflection of a truly multicultural environment. Duke can, and must, be multicultural. It cannot afford to be multiculturalist.

A truly diverse, multicultural environment is a constant challenge. Different cultures produce people with different ideas about foundational principles. In this environment, every belief, every generalization is constantly challenged by people who think in a fundamentally different way. Discomfort is the primary product of diversity and conflict its primary symptom. It is valuable for its result, not its own sake. Minds educated in a truly diverse environment are strong because they have faced challenges and have defended their principles against fervent opposition.

Multiculturalism is not about a multitude of cultures. It is about one culture--its own. It values being culturally hybrid for its own sake, rather than as a result of exploration and education. Multiculturalism happens when the differences between cultures are treated as trivial, when diversity is reduced to spicy foods and interesting dances. Cultural extravaganzas, international dinners and other forms of entertainment are its primary products.

Multiculturalism is fun and easy. It is brightly colored and highly entertaining, and never offers a challenge to its own meta-critical perspective. The stories, so keen on being diverse, end up sounding the same, because they adhere to pre-approved archetypes. To fit into a multiculturalist environment, you simply need a story about your cultural hybridization or oppression.

There is no room for conflict in a multiculturalist environment. The suggestion that another culture has problems, that it contains principles that perpetuate violence or inequality, is taboo. Disapproval is strictly forbidden. All our differences can be resolved with enough dialogue, preferably with catered ethnic foods. I suggest that cultural differences run deeper than a panel discussion can address, and that the multicultural movement, for all its buzzwords, does not provide us with the tools for dealing with the conflicts of true diversity.

Multiculturalism is not necessarily a bad thing. Diversity can be fun as well as challenging, and the differences between cultures can provide great entertainment. Presentations like Lunar New Year and Awaaz are some of the best events on campus. Problems arise, however, when multiculturalism is mistaken for diversity, leaving us with entertainment without challenge and spectacle without substance.

In our fervor to create an environment where true cultural exchange is possible, we must be careful not to fall for the reductionist trap of multiculturalism, substituting egg rolls for an understanding of Asian culture, and forgetting the inherent tokenism in the concept of an "international dinner." When we allow entertainment to replace understanding, we undermine the very purpose of having opposing points of view. When diversity is treated as an end unto itself, it becomes meaningless, and often descends into a sort of self-parody that would be funny if the multiculturalist dogma allowed for irony.

So, next time you are presented with the opportunity to attend cultural programming (and it will happen often), ask yourself whether the program will present a worldview that will force you to assess your own assumptions, defend your principles and learn from the conflict, or whether it will simply dazzle you with spectacle and send you home amused and unchanged. If it is one of the second type, enjoy yourself, but don't allow these diversions to replace the challenge true diversity provides.

Because of the astonishing prevalence of multiculturalism, you might have to search fairly hard for some actual diversity. You'll know it when you find it, because your basic principles will be challenged, you will disagree with people around you on a fundamental level, and chances are there won't be a spicy ethnic dish in sight. Real diversity is harder to find than an international dinner or a panel discussion, but do not allow your education to slip by without it.

Russell Williams is a Pratt juinior. His column appears every third Wednesday.


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