Multicultural & Multiculturalism

Multicultural is a Twentieth Century term originally coined in Canada to denote

the phenomenon of people from a range of backgrounds and cultures living side

by side, and respecting each other’s differences. From the 1980s when it became

more apparent that more needed to be done to support and facilitate cultural

activity across the whole spectrum of the UK’s population, multiculturalism is one

of the ideas that was adopted by policy makers to frame thinking about the place

of cultural products that were thought to be outside of an indigenous British (or

sometimes European) tradition. Unlike diversity, multiculturalism never addressed

the full equalities agenda. It did not pursue representation on the basis of gender,

sexuality, ability or economic inequality; it only addressed race, faith, language and

ethnicity.

 

One of the challenges of multiculturalism as an idea is that it tacitly encourages

people to think of cultures as discrete and clearly defined entities that – even when

they mix – remain somehow identifiably separate. On one level, for multiculturalism

to work, you need to believe that there is such a thing as “British Culture”, “Black

Culture” or “Asian Culture” per se. The problem is that each of these cultures is

in itself a multi-culture, rather than a monologic narrative or homogenous set of

products.

 

Over the years, the policies of multiculturalism were viewed with suspicion. Some

feel that the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent polarisation of cultural discourse

sealed the fate of multiculturalism which was aligned with social division and a

kind of relativism that fostered ghetto like pockets where extremism could flourish.

It is notable that “multiculturalism” and “multicultural” are now almost absent from

policy discussions of culture, except where they are criticised or used as synonyms

for diversity (often the two things happen at the same time).

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