A Problematic Multiculturalism (yeah, yeah, a Star Trek Post) 22 July 2006Posted by Todd in Commentary, Race & Ethnicity.
At the risk of revealing my total nerddom (for those who don’t know already that I’m addicted to the Sci-Fi channel and regularly play Dungeons & Dragons), I’ve been watching Star Trek Voyager on DVD (thanks be to netflix.com!) with my best friend. [In my defense, I’m not as nerdy as these people or these…seriously, I’m not!]
Anyway, in an episode I watched last night, one of the subplots was about B’Elanna (the fetching half-Klingong/half-Human to your left) grappling with her Klingon heritage and trying to decide whether or not she was going to honor a particular Klingon ritual of getting poked with pain sticks after eating a scrumptuous blood pie. There are a series of scenes where crewmates try to convince her to go through with the ritual.
What prompted this odd and meandering post on my blog was the arguments her crewmates used to push her into the ritual. One crewmate argues, “But it’s who you are!” and another says, “You’ve been running away from who you are your entire life.” The problem here is that this kind of sentiment is at the heart of racism itself. Taking a step back, racism is the belief that a certain (arbitrary) set of physical attributes is connected to a corresponding set of personality and cultural attributes; racism assumes that this connection is biological, inherent, and essential to the individual; and racism finally assumes that an individual’s culture and personality are visible on their bodies for everyone to see. To say this another way, racism believes that cultural and personal characteristics are biological and inborn. Thus, in a racist paradigm, B’Elanna must undergo a Klingon ritual because it is who she is — despite the fact that, in the story, she was raised on earth by her human father.
We live in a nation (indeed in a world) where people are migrating at a rate heretofore unknown and where people in every country in the world now have contact with people who are both physically and culturally different. This has been an increasingly important dimension of human life over the last 500 years following the spread of European influence around the globe and colonization and intermixing of cultures. Today, technology allows migrant groups to maintain connections to their ‘home cultures’ and to resist cultural integration and to even build stronger ethnic boundaries around the world. In a pluralistic democracy, this has necessitated the various theories of multiculturalism, especially in Europe, North America and Australia. The problem comes when trying to figure out how to organize a society that respects cultural diversity without becoming a society that requires cultural diversity.
The common way that we talk about multiculturalism is in terms of “identity” (it’s who you are) and we commonly draw ethnic boundaries based on the relationship between identity and cultural practice through creation of ethnic normatives (e.g., Latinos speak Spanish). These boundaries are drawn both within and without ethnic groups. The problem is that by attaching the cultural practice to the identity, it ends up essentializing the practice, that is, it makes racist claims. Multiculturalism has the weird effect of helping us to see external racism (it’s obvious to when a white person tells a black person that they can’t dance ballet because they’re black) while blinding us to multicultural racism that seeks to maintain cultural difference (it’s less obviously racist when one Latino says to another that they are ‘traitors’ because they can’t speak spanish). In our well-meaning efforts to allow people the right and ability to create and practice whatever culture they want, we inadvertantly end up reifying racist boundaries.
B’Elanna isn’t biologically connected to a ritual or cultural practice. She is who she was raised to be and who she choses to be. Traditions can be important identity markers, but they are by their nature cultural boundary markers. And cultural boundary markers in a free society must be porous and permeable. Culture is a choice, not a biological destiny. The tension in a pluralistic democracy is that white boys listen to hip hop, black folks own mansions, Asian Americans become Shakespeare scholars, and Latinos run for office wearing American flag lapel pins. The ethnic boundares in practice really are fluid and porous. But the social costs of crossing the boundaries in any direction can be high (loss of identity, loss of community, loss of family), becauase we nostalgically cling to our racist assumptions.