Born to a black immigrant Kenyan father and white American mother, had an Indonesian stepfather, schooled in South-East Asia, was born a Muslim, raised a Christian, and now American President. Who am I? No prizes for guessing right. If there’s anyone who personifies multiculturalism, it is Barack Hussein Obama. Although he is referred to as the first black US President, reducing his identity to his skin colour erases the journey of his parents and his growing up to become what he is today.
Barack Obama’s story tells us that the world is what it is today because of a very dense history of the intermingling of people from different civilisations and cultures, crossing man-made borders, redrawing them, and creating a hybridity so complex that searching for its origins might be futile. The histories of all countries in this world are multicultural in some way or other. The racial and ethnic similarities between people across continents speak of the great journeys that people undertook, sometimes for better prospects, and sometimes as slaves or indentured labourers. It is a history of the triumph of the human spirit that always wants to discover new lands, and also a history of grave tribulations where entire communities were displaced and evicted from their place of origin for a variety of reasons - slavery, maintaining racial purity, religion, conquest...
India is a plural and diverse country, so in addition to the usual mix there are Indian’s with distinct Negroid features, the Siddis, whose ancestors are from sub-Saharan Africa. While most were sold as slaves and taken to the American colonies, many were brought to India as well. They live in parts of Gujarat and Karnataka. In Mizoram and Manipur there are Christians with Mongoloid features called the Bnei Menashe tribe, who are originally Jews, many of whom have immigrated to Israel. More interestingly, a US court in a 1923 decision said that Indian Asians were of Caucasian origin (as Europeans are), except that they were not white. While the racial origins of peoples are contestable, these illustrations throw some light on the extent to which civilisations have mixed with each other through miscegenation.
The realisation that we can find more similarities than differences among disparately located cultures has become more apparent since we’ve begun to call the world a ‘global village’, interconnected not just by technology but also through history. Multiculturalism is the practice of keeping intact this history of exchanges across cultures and civilisations. It is premised on the principle of pluralism that supports cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity and works towards a rainbow society.
While there has always been recognition of this hybridity of cultures, the term ‘multiculturalism’ is of recent origin. Western countries like Britain, France, Canada, USA and Australia are the primary proponents of the practice of multiculturalism as official government policy. The concept was strategically deployed at a point when these countries required skilled and cheap labour from Third World countries, and one way of attracting potential immigrants was to project themselves as places that are tolerant of other cultures. The practice of multiculturalism was also emblematic of support for human rights of all people, especially cultural rights. In countries like the US, Canada and Australia, which have a big population of ‘native’, ‘aboriginal’ or ‘first nations’ communities, multiculturalism was an attempt at compensating for the historical wrongs committed against these peoples by European settlers.
However, there is a distinction between diversity and multiculturalism, although they are generally used synonymously. While diversity means the existence of plurality, multiculturalism is official policy that countries undertake to legally protect that diversity. For instance, the Constitutional declaration that India is a secular country is a practice of multiculturalism. Countries attain multicultural status in two ways: they either become ‘mosaic’ cultures, or a ‘melting pot’ of cultures. This is best understood by looking at Britain and the United States. Britain is a place to which people from all over the world emigrate to form a multicultural ‘mosaic’, where each community carries on with practices traditional to their culture though they are British citizens. In the US, on the other hand, a country made up of immigrants, people from other cultures embraced the American way of life so that cultural differences were amalgamated in the American ‘melting pot’. The British mosaic was wonderfully depicted in the film My Beautiful Laundrette and the recent bestseller Brick Lane by Monica Ali; and the American ‘melting pot’ was beautifully captured in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala or in the whacky Harold and Kumar films.
While multiculturalism sounds like a great idea, several incidents have revealed its not-so-rosy side. What began as a progressive practice of plural governance has, on several occasions, been turned into a practice of coercive assimilation. This is evident from the ongoing controversies around the wearing of the headscarf/veil or the turban in French schools and elsewhere, and the need to prove your ‘American-ness’ if you are a brown person in the USA. In India, the ongoing debate about having a Uniform Civil Code and separate educational institutes for minorities are incidents that rough out the smooth edges of the neat package of multiculturalism.
All of these indicate that multiculturalism today means: as long as you behave like ‘us’, you will be guaranteed your rights. For the brown/ black people from the Third World, entry into the ‘Western’ world as immigrants is determined by how well they can assimilate. It is ironical that while the ‘West’ strongly advocates the free movement of capital and goods across State borders, it seeks to restrict the entry of people.
With the multiculturalism plot having gone awry in many countries leading to a ‘clash of civilisations’ of sorts, ways are being explored to tap the potential of multiculturalism to play a powerful role in establishing tolerant and peaceful communities of diverse people. One such strategy is called Intercultural Dialogue and it is being heavily promoted by international communities like the European Union to work towards creating a diverse yet tolerant Europe.
While there is no internationally accepted definition of intercultural dialogue, the European Institute for Comparative Cultural Research provides a useful one which has transnational significance: “Intercultural dialogue is a process that comprises an open and respectful exchange or interaction between individuals, groups and organisations with different cultural backgrounds or world views. Among its aims are: to develop a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives and practices; to increase participation and the freedom and ability to make choices; to foster equality; and to enhance creative processes.”
Intercultural dialogue processes or encounters thus go beyond passive tolerance towards other cultures and are aimed at active dialogue through creative means about cross-cultural issues. Intercultural dialogue involves creative engagement that converts challenges and insights into innovation processes and into new forms of cultural expression.
But where does one engage in intercultural dialogue? The idea is to think of both conventional spaces like schools, universities, and other formal forums, but also unconventional spaces which need not even be physical, they can even be virtual. A challenge to creating spaces for intercultural dialogue is to make sure that such spaces are open, accessible, without prejudice, non-judgmental, non-adversarial and safe for whoever wishes to participate. Civil society organisations play an extremely important role in fostering spaces for intercultural dialogue. Youth engagement is pivotal to making these spaces diverse, vibrant and sustainable. Several peace initiatives by organisations like the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, which has conducted student exchange programmes between the two countries, has tremendously impacted the lives of young people to look beyond the diplomatic hostility. The arts, films, music and creative writing have been hugely successful mediums in suggesting that peace means the same to everyone and is a most missed experience in the lives of people on both sides of the border.
Intercultural dialogue is a small but effective means to realise the power of multiculturalism. Unlike government policies that can take years to implement and are often prone to being politicised, intercultural dialogue can be initiated by anyone who believes in the spirit of multiculturalism anywhere. All you need is to start a dialogue on diversity with anyone, and get more people to join in. The medium of dialogue can move from just talking, to singing to dancing – as long as it is about celebrating diversity and learning about our similarities and differences and respecting them. A rainbow world is not far away, but only if we want to paint it that way.