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Africa Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism And Culture

Any discussion of multiculturalism must include a definition of culture since multiculturalism literally refers to a plurality or a multiplicity of cultures. In this regard, culture refers to the collective material and nonmaterial accomplishments of particular groups, their ways of doing things, and the manner in which these patterns of behavior are transmitted from one generation to the next. A basic truism about culture is that it is never static. In this respect, multiculturalism has to accommodate changes if it is to remain relevant. This is very difficult though because multiculturalism tends to reify culture and freeze people into cultural particularisms on the assumption that certain people need to be treated differently because of their separate cultures. This is problematic because culture is then defined as an immutable entity based on primordial origins, and becomes a biological given rather than learned forms of behavior and creativity. Exemplifying this conflation of race and culture, Paul Kelly insists that the movement of "white European immigrants … and … the movement of non-white [sic] populations" (p. 2) lie at the heart of the reality of pluralism. Put bluntly, it is extremely difficult to emphasize cultural difference without also essentializing culture and ethnic identities, sometimes even understood in racial terms. Once group identities are politicized it is virtually impossible to avoid packaging people in different categories and ensuring that they remain in their designated spaces. K. Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutman distinguish between cultures and identities but lament that "ethnic identities characteristically have cultural distinctions as one of their primary marks" and "in the United States, not only ethnic but also racial boundaries are culturally marked" (p. 89).

There are many other philosophical and political criticisms of multiculturalism, both as a concept and as a practice. In the first instance, the tendency to categorize people in this manner may lead to greater stereotyping, particularly if special treatment (for example, affirmative action in employment appointments) is expected. While multiculturalism pays a great deal of attention to recognition, it does not accord the problems of redistribution equal weight. In this sense, it does not deal adequately with the ways in which class intersects with other forms of differentiation. Since differences in people almost always imply differences in power and wealth, there is a great challenge for multiculturalism to recognize these inequalities in ways that do not entrench or solidify them, but simultaneously to appreciate that these inequalities are real in their consequences for many people. In this regard, there is a powerful argument that multiculturalists have retreated from economic struggles in favor of cultural struggles for recognition (Fraser).

Probably the greatest challenge for multiculturalism is how it can encourage cultural difference without promoting cultural chauvinism and its counterpart, xenophobia. Its insistence on cultural difference and separation makes the quest for equality elusive because of the reality of cultural hierarchies. The celebration of difference that it advocates rests awkwardly next to the reality of persecution, exclusion, and stereotyping. Thus, when people are recognized, it is their individual identities that should be recognized and not some preconceived caricature of who they should be or how they should behave because of their membership in a particular group. According to Brian Barry, for example, multiculturalism tends to conflate descriptions about the reality of cultural diversity with prescriptions of commitment to the program of normative multiculturalism (p. 22). Finally, there is the problem of how individual human rights can be protected in the context of such a pervasive emphasis on group rights, which raises the fundamental questions of identity and of choice. If cultural difference is so rigorously imposed, then it leaves little room for individual choice. Thus, one of the major issues around the concept of multiculturalism is how it meshes with individual rights because it so clearly emphasizes the recognition and rights of a collectivity. If identity is socially derived from particularistic cultural experiences, then it amounts to an ascribed status that allows for growth and development within the limited purview of the community.

Insofar as multiculturalism refers to the value of cultural tolerance and to the celebration of diversity, it has made a positive contribution in broadening narrow horizons and exposing people to the wide range of cultural heritages. However, multiculturalism in the sense of politicized group identities is problematic from the point of view of individual human rights in democracies because treating groups equally is much more difficult than treating individuals equally.


Alexander, Neville. An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Natal University Press, 2002.

Appiah, K. Anthony, and Amy Gutmann. Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Barry, Brian. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001.

Breytenbach, W. J. "The Protection of Minority Rights in Africa." In Intergroup Accommodation in Plural Societies: A Selection of Conference Papers with Special Reference to South Africa, edited by N. Rhoodie and Winifred C. Ewing, London: Macmillan, 1979.

Fraser, Nancy. "From Redistribution to Recognition: Dilemmas of Justice in a 'Post-Socialist' Age." In Theorizing Multiculturalism: A Guide to the Current Debate, edited by Cynthia Willet, 68–93. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Kelly, Paul. "Introduction: Between Culture and Equality." In Multiculturalism Reconsidered, edited by Paul Kelly, 1–20. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2002.

Kuper, Adam. Culture: The Anthropologists' Account. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Richards, Audrey I. The Multicultural States of East Africa. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1969.

Taylor, Charles. Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Zewde, Bahru. Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Addis Ababa University Press, 2002.

Fred Hendricks

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Africa Multiculturalism - Multicultural Problems In Africa, Multiculturalism And Culture, Bibliography