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On Sunday, October 17, 2010, the Associated Press reported that Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, defined multicultural efforts in the country as a failure.
It is interesting to consider the point of view in these comments, to consider the ethnocentric bias in the statement. The idea that building a multicultural society “has failed” shifts the focus away from the people who have worked to construct it.
It might be more accurate for Chancellor Merkel to say something like: Germany’s leadership has failed in building a multicultural society. Or what if she said: Germany has failed our immigrant populations for five decades. Or possibly: I have failed to lead Germany toward a multicultural society.
The question of failure begs the question: Whom has it failed for? In this case, it seems that a multicultural society has failed for Merkel and a number of her followers. Do we know if the multicultural German nation has failed for its immigrants, many of them Turkish?
What Merkel appears to mean is that Germany never really wanted a multicultural society after all. If Germany had wanted it to work, Merkel would not be saying that Germany has lied to itself about the role of immigrants in German society. Did Germany really believe that, after establishing a system that brought immigrant labor to the country, the immigrants would eventually go away?
Europe’s position on this matter is particularly unique. As the idea of a “unified Europe” comes closer to fruition with the development of the European Union, independent nations have had to start operating as “member states.” What happens to strong cultural traditions that have historically been reinforced by national boundaries? Over the past forty years, the world has become more closely connected due to economic factors and technological advances, both of which have changed the speed and efficiency of travel and communication.
Since the 60s, businesses in the United States and Europe have sought sources of cheaper labor. They found this labor in two primary ways: 1) Production moved to other countries like Mexico, China and Vietnam, and 2) Cheap labor was imported in the form of immigrants, both legally and illegally.
In the United States, immigrants have been key ingredients in the cultural fabric of the United States. The process of acculturation, however, has a history that goes back to the early 1600s – a history that begins to divide people according to skin color, providing systems of privilege to “white” populations. While the Italians, Germans, Irish and English eventually “melted” into a white, American race, the same was never possible for the Navajo, Chinese, or Mende.
Immigrants in the United States – The Arizona Parallel
Arizona is grappling with the same questions for many of the same reasons. Governor Brewer’s comments parallel those made by Chancellor Merkel, though Governor Brewer is forced to criticize President Obama and Federal immigration policy while attempting to change police tactics at the State level. The discourse, however, is the same.
Arizona has a history of inviting immigrant labor – both legal and illegal – to the state for economic reasons. It’s simple. Businesses increase profit when labor is cheap. At the same time, many view immigrant populations as a kind of invasion. In this light, Americans are telling immigrant laborers: We want to make money off of you, but please don’t stay.
Multiculturalism in Arizona is being threatened by a mindset that is divisive, rooted in fear, and prevalent because of America’s history of racism. The targeted immigrant population in Arizona is comprised of people primarily from Mexico, Central and South America. Immigrant networks often maintain the Spanish language and they tend to create cultural enclaves based on a shared sense of identity. A big part of that identity is based on what American culture tells them: You are a minority. You will never be an American until you speak English, and speak it properly. And most importantly: You are inferior as a race, as a person of color.
In a recent response to the passage of Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “Abominations such as Apartheid do not start with an entire population suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here. They start with generalizing unwanted characteristics across an entire segment of a population. They start with trying to solve a problem by asserting superior force over a population. They start with stripping people of rights and dignity – such as the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – that you yourself enjoy. Not because it is right, but because you can. And because somehow, you think this is going to solve a problem.”
In Arizona and Germany, the danger comes with writing and enforcing laws because those in power can, not because it is the right thing to do. And this is how racism truly operates. It is much more than discrimination. It is the use of power and privilege to oppress the rights and way of life of other people, primarily those with visible ethnic differences.
The Problem of Proximity
And so the question being asked: Does multiculturalism work? The answer to this question will depend on the frame of reference of the person answering. The question itself is divisive, directing the answer toward a “yes” or “no” conclusion. In some ways, the answer is irrelevant. What we should be asking is: What will it take for the multicultural approach to work?
Failure is not an option. We already live in a multicultural world that is growing closer together. It is bound to make us uncomfortable. It is also inevitable that we will become more aware of the communities that help shape us. In today’s world, it means that Arusha, Tanzania might have as much relevance to someone even if they were born in Madrid, Spain and raised in Seattle, USA.
This rapidly changing world is redefining the concept of place. Boundaries are dissolving, and our ideas about nationalism and community are being reshaped, transforming our identities in ways we don’t entirely comprehend. It means that our differences will rub against each other with more frequency, they will become more apparent and create new challenges. It also means that individuals are beginning to identify with borderless communities that some describe as “The Emerging Face of a Nationless World.”
There was a time when the boundaries of culture were more accurately defined by the boundaries of a nation. Those days are coming to an end, forcing us to deal with the problem of proximity using tools that help us understand the complexity of human interaction, intercultural needs, and intercultural communication. What are our options if we do not attempt to continue to work toward a culture of respect that evolves as cultures commingle?
A Call for Art
Every action, every opinion, every human being, every life, every perspective, has a story behind it. We must examine the plot, the setting, and the characters. We must examine the way the story began, and start to examine its potential end. Immigrants in Arizona and Germany, immigrants everywhere, are people with needs, wants, families and personal histories. They leave their homes for multitudes of reasons. Many are able to adapt to new cultures, others are not.
Let’s begin to make creative, generative choices. Let’s write an inclusive narrative that breaks down barriers instead of building new walls. Let’s examine feelings of hatred and fear for what they tell us about ourselves, and how they influence our communication.
Some say multiculturalism has failed, but it seems our efforts have only just begun. Artists and creative thinkers must help shape our reality by being in tune with our emotional environment, personally, communally, and in today’s world, globally. What can artists and creative thinkers do to inform our communities, inspire our leaders, and shape our realities? Write, draw, paint, compose, perform, teach, sculpt – choose your medium – and let’s find out.