Multiculturalism represents the landscape of our community as human beings. It’s a bigger concept than diversity because its very meaning requires an open platform for embracing multiple cultures, ethnic groups, and ideologies within a society. Multicultural means many cultures operating in the same space. America, like other countries, is multicultural because different cultural groups maintain a meaningful co-existence within the span of 50 states. Even though there are decades of history where oppression, racism, discrimination and legislative restrictions affected one ethnic group over another, the cultural coexistence remains a vital link to our identity as Americans.
Multiculturalism demands that you coexist with others. In a truly multicultural society, one cultural group does not dominate another. The abundance theory is the prevailing rule, where society’s output is big enough for all of our cultures and ethnicities to be represented in an equally respectable manner.
We seem to fully embrace multiculturalism in food. Visit any mall or shopping center in any city or town and the food courts are populated with people from all walks of life. From soul food to Cajun cooking, to Chinese cuisine to Indian vegetarian dishes, a typical food court presents the best argument that cultural pluralism can yield good value to any consumer’s taste buds.
On the other hand, some aspects of multiculturalism are closely guarded and tolerated only to a point. It’s fascinating to watch professionals in the workplace celebrate the worthiness of multiculturalism on the job. One would think that the level of commitment to cross cultural causes would get packed up and taken straight home to share, just like that leftover shrimp fried rice gets taken home after the party at work has ended. Instead, far too often you witness the reinforcement of cultural silos as employees head to cars, buses, and trains to take them back to their neighborhoods that are all White, all black, all Hispanic, or mostly Asian. The social conformity of our neighborhoods provides the greatest opportunity for us to break through our comfort zones, venture out, and live among other cultures. It represents one of the central frontiers of true multiculturalism.
Diversity is an important byproduct of multiculturalism. It speaks to the segmentation of our societies and frames the very categories that define who we are as individuals and members of specific groups or cultural components.
I define Diversity from this perspective:
Diversity is understanding, appreciating and ultimately managing difference and similarities at the same time.
The emphasis is on the word AND. Diversity looks at both difference AND similarities, with one not being more important than the other. That’s where most people make a mistake by focusing on either one’s difference or one’s similarities without realizing that BOTH are in operation at the same time. For example, as an African American female, when speaking at conferences and meetings, I am accustomed to being “the only one,” that is, the only person of color either attending the meeting or speaking at the meeting. To focus on my difference from the rest of the conference attendees is only embracing half the experience. The other half recognizes that there are personal values, educational experiences, regional interests and industry issues that I share as similar points of intersection with those attending the same meeting. To just focus on my ethnic difference cancels out the rich value of those similarities of which I share in common with others.
Okay, let me explain it another way. Some years ago I traveled to Kenya for the first time. It was the trip of a lifetime for me. The minute I stepped off that airplane, pulled out my American passport and presented it to the customs officer at the Nairobi, Kenya Airport, my differences AND similarities were on full display with every other American on that plane. Some of the passengers had black skin like mine. My travel mates (now called the Kenya Sistahs) were also African American females. Some of the passengers were white Americans. Others were Hispanics while other were Asian Americans. There were Europeans, Asians, and Africans on the plane, too. So the differences were on full display from ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class. However, the similarities also represented this collection of travelers. I held an American passport, as did many others on the plane. And meeting other Americans on that maiden voyage trip to mother Africa was so very exciting, since we were all thousands of miles away from home, and it was comforting to connect with other ex-patriots from the States.
In diversity work, the similarities are as important as the differences.
Similarities are on equal footing with differences. That is so important to remember since there is an incorrect assumption that diversity is polarizing because it only focuses on differences at the expense of similarities.
You see it in families all the time. Brothers and sisters with the same biological parents, yet their values and opinions are as different as night and day. I see it in my own adult daughters, Michelle and Lorna. Their political, spiritual and economic opinions are very similar. However, their work habits, approach to preparation and personalities completely different.
The same is true for extended families, members of associations and corporate colleagues. Differences should be valued with the same level of importance as similarities. They represent a different slice of the diversity equation.
Take advantage of the countless situations that can frame your multicultural and diversity points of reference. It can become a lifelong opportunity for you to enhance your knowledge base while building cross-cultural relationships that can have a positive impact on your life.
Carole Copeland Thomas, MBA, CDMP, CITM is a Boston based speaker and consultant focusing on global diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. She has been featured in the New York Times, Boston Globe, WGBH Radio, Black Enterprise Magazine, and CBS-TV.
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Carole Copeland Thomas is a 27 year speaker, trainer and consultant specializing in global diversity, empowerment, multiculturalism and leadership issues.