The DNI Journal
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Fall 2004

Is Multiculturalism Another Symbol of The Emperor's New Clothes?

by Paul D. Christiansen, Ph.D. & Michelle Young

Remember the fairy tale about the ruler who had such a passion for fashion, that he became a willing victim of two con men? Rather than having the emperor think they were fools, nearly everyone in the kingdom went along with the scam of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Everyone except a child, that is.

In a way, the banter surrounding words like multiulturalism, globalism and internationalism is similar to the story. We humans have big egos, and many of us toss words around without fully grasping their meanings. If this sounds like you, don’t worry. You’re not alone!

In 1994, Publisher’s Weekly carried Michel Thomas Ford’s “The Cult of Multiculturalism,” an excellent article about publishers’ views of multiculturalism in children’s literature. Even most publishers seem to have a gap in understanding the words. Many see these buzzwords of the Nineties as an opportunity to focus on a particular race or ethnic heritage. How we define the buzzwords themselves sets the stage for the development of attitudes which will eventually be displayed in our behavior patterns.

For the sake of simplicity, this month’s column will focus on the definition of multiculturalism, but whether we call it multiculturalism, globalism or internationalism, the most important key to understanding will be to reach beyond easily-played semantic games.

Ask yourself-honestly-what you’re doing with the words themselves. If you’ve been developing definitions to justify inappropriate thoughts, attitudes and behaviors, you may be displaying patterns that demonstrate a tendency to misuse or abuse historical facts. People who fall in this category generally want others to believe they have everyone’s best interests in mind, but somehow their own prominence and personal gains usually outweigh any real help they claim to be giving the others in their midst. Unfortunately, the fallout from this kind of behavior fosters a polarization rather than a uniting of everyone involved. Feeding people false information, no matter how flattering it seems, will not help people in the long run.

What many people refer to as multicultural, Dr. Christiansen refers to as polycultural which simply means many cultures. He defines multicultural as a way of believing, thinking and acting which treats other people regardless of cultural differences with respect and appreciation of who they are as individuals. Dr. Christiansen’s research (1975) brought out a second factor: that people are people, and, as such, we need to form relationships on an individual rather than on a group-to-group basis. People aren’t labels, classifications or categories that fall into blanket terms of race or ethnic structures. Yet all too often, a teacher can be heard to say, “This is my Mexican (Indian or some other racially-or ethnically-identified) child.” And although this teacher may not harbor any negative attitudes about one of these labeled children, the process of categorizing will eventually create a separation that will be perceived as an act of racial or ethnic discrimination

On a more generalized, group level, the practice of highlighting individual cultues or races during specific months of the year, as is done in the United States, carries similar dangers. Although folks may have good hearts in their wishes to recognize people of a particular ethnic, cultural or racial background, this practice is perceived as another form of segregation, often at the cost of friendly relations between the recognized group and the rest of the people.

Most of us remember when the history books themselves related incomplete histories based on the achievements of one racially-identified group of people. In their effort to right these obvious wrongs, historians scrambled to develop new history books that highlighted the achievements of all. Unfortunately, too many of the new books became old history books with plugged-in punch lines about this or that culture, resulting in easily warped histories. From the historical perspective, it really shouldn’t matter who our ancestors were in terms of their value and worth as individuals. Yet because these books have been developed into categories where people have been trapped into negatives and positives, we’ve developed a type of caste system that frequently lends itself to stereotyping. We’ve all seen these things occur in the study of Germany and its people, for instance. History must be founded on truth and its facts substantiated.

In today’s world, we’ve seen enough problems related to beliefs that ones performance establishes ones worth, especially in terms such as children’s feelings of love, self-esteem and acceptance based on academic, sports or personal disciplines. When we compound these problems with a false sense of multicultural thought, we build great barriers between groups of people and play into the hands of supremacist groups. From the educational perspective, if we aren’t willing to address history based on accuracy, our attempts to establish multicultural endeavors in our communities, workplaces and schools should be abandoned altogether. Anything in between would be conducive to a far more dangerous living, working and educational environment.

History can and does repeat itself, but how do we recognize the patterns if we haven’t laid the foundations for accuracy? We need to right the wrongs of the past, recognizing the achievements of all people throughout the year. Rather than focusing on achievements separated into categorically-identified groups of people.

Tossing the words around and toying with the pretense of being multicultural merely sets the stage for the scam in which we’re all made the fools. By accepting the responsibilities for disseminating truthful history and substantiated facts, we can and will have a more positive world for all.

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