What is Multiculturalism?

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There are Distinctions Between Diversity and Mulitculturalism
So, some of you may have noticed, it was just election season on the Stanford campus. How exciting. Now, I know I’m a bit late on this one, but Aysha Bagchi wrote a [column](http://www.stanforddaily.com/2010/04/09/sense-and-nonsense-student-politics-depressing-isn’t-it/) that was in some ways critical of (and in other ways favorable to) the Stanford Review and its affiliates. Here’s the relevant portions, where she writes in regard to the ASSU elections:

All the fanaticism creates a moment of glory for organizations like The Stanford Review, elevated to a couple weeks of prominence where they can feel that no matter how few students traditionally follow their content (sorry, Reviewers), they can have a serious impact on campus elections. To their credit, however, groups like The Review illustrate the substantive debate behind the craziness, a debate that should be characterizing our elections, not just underlying them.

The Review is the cornerstone of the politically conservative camp that competes with our campus community centers’ favorite candidates in ASSU elections. Amid the gimmicks of campus elections, both camps fail to recognize the legitimate concerns of the other that would help create a meaningful political discussion.

The conservative camp does not see much value in promoting a culturally vibrant and diverse campus (at least not if it takes any money to do it). Their biggest failure is a failure to understand community centers except in terms of what they do for students at large, as if the only role of community centers is to create a more culturally diverse and vibrant Stanford for everyone. In this narrow view, community centers are seen as promoters of diversity at the expense of equality. I have heard multiple people question why there is no “White Community Center” or “Men’s Community Center,” as if this illustrates some inequity. The answer should be obvious; there is no genuine demand because the “cultural” group defined as white male students (or any other group that does not seek a center) already finds a culturally comfortable environment. We fool ourselves if we think that every member of a community center would feel equally comfortable on campus without that community and show a total inability to empathize and recognize the demands from equality for ensuring that no student feels culturally alienated. Each student should have the guarantee of a community, minorities included.

For starters, I like to believe we at the Stanford Review realize our unimportance extends unimpeded into election season–I could object to presuming to know the thoughts of people you haven’t spoken to on the matter, and worse, applying those thoughts across an organization, but that’s another topic for another day. And besides that’s not really the thrust of the piece.

The important section is third paragraph, which makes what she dismisses the conservative coalition’s commitment to diversity. This may be accurate (I don’t think it is though), but there certainly is room for appreciation of diversity within a more conservative framework and Bagchi does not put better arguments against multiculturalism on the table.

Multiculturalism and diversity are in no way synonyms. In contrast to the other option (university? Homogeneity is probably a better word), diversity of ethnicity as well as other forms (ideology, geography, economic status) does create a more vibrant campus where individuals from different backgrounds and ethnicities interact with each other on a regular basis. This exists to a degree on the Stanford campus, but I would argue that multiculturalism does a good deal to stand in the way of diversity.

A multicultural approach seeks to create communities that unite behind a unifying identity or philosophy, communities that emphasize their difference. It is easy to see why it appeals to the groups in question–at Stanford, this means ethnic and religious groups mostly–promoting a separate and distinct culture from the majority helps shrink the school and create pride in one’s differences rather than shame. But the problem with multicultural institutions such as El Centro Chicano and Ujamaa is that building pride in differences between African-Americans and Latinos and Native Americans and white students, minimizes the things that unify us.

Without a doubt, many students will vocally make the case that such institutions have helped them, and of course they are right. But on the whole, it seems likely that such institutions are harmful to interracial and interreligious relationships. Richard Wolin of The Nationsums up the arguments made by Stanford Prof. Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn in a book on the topic:

By encouraging “difference” among ethnic subgroups, multiculturalism ends up turning these groups into targets of resentment and thereby insuring their rejection by the majority culture.”

In any event, there is a legitimate argument to be had on the merits of multiculturalism, and whether it is preferable to trying to encourage a more integrated student body (I would argue not, but it is certainly reasonable to believe it is). So while it may appear operationally similar to philosophically oppose institutions that promote a group’s identity rather than an individual’s identity for more nuanced reasons than a simple distaste for or indifference to minorities, there is an important distinction that is all to often lost.

The argument here is not one for a “White Men’s Community Center,” but an (admittedly ambitious) effort to create a Stanford community where students do not need to seek out members of their fellow race in order to feel comfortable, but instead can empathize more readily with anyone.

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