Tag Archives: individual identity

Re-Conceptualizing Multiculturalism in Terms of Diversity and Individual Identity

In a blog in January, I (Clive) argued against teaching multiculturalism in a way that leads to Ishrad Manjistereotyping, thus undermining students’ individual identity and well-being. In interviews this weekend after giving the 2014 Bluma Lecture, author and NYU professor Irshad Manji spoke eloquently of the dangers of a misguided approach to “multiculturalism,” expressing preference for terms such as “diversity,” “global citizenship,” and “individual identity.” In the Toronto Star she said:

Multiculturalism is about preserving a group mindset, which amounts to labelling. Diversity, on the other hand, is about…different points of view…. If you listen seriously to a new generation of Torontonians, multiculturalism’s time is done. Enough of hyphenated identities. The next stage in our city’s evolution is this: global citizenship. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/03/07/qa_irshad_manji_on_multiculturalism.html

Manji would like to see more emphasis on individual identity. In the Globe and Mail she commented:

[Mr. Trudeau] basically said national unity must be founded in one’s own confidence in one’s individual identity and from that we can begin to engage with others…. We don’t have that kind of multiculturalism today, in my view. What we have is more a fear of engaging based very much on feeling intimidated that I’m going to say something wrong or that somebody is going to be offended.

She is especially concerned about the impact of prevailing approaches to multiculturalism on vulnerable community members, notably women and children. In the Star she stated that “the vast majority of the world’s known cultures are patriarchal,” and in the Globe she said:

By giving rights to cultures, not just to individuals, what we wind up doing…is giving more power to those who are already powerful within certain communities. We give them more power to dictate what customs are to be respected and which customs are untouchable. The next time you’re told you must respect such and such a custom, ask yourself, “What does my respect for this custom do for the most vulnerable in that community?” And the most vulnerable tend to be women and children.

Whether or not the term “multiculturalism” has outlived its usefulness is something we should ponder; and if we’re too afraid to say it has, we prove Manji’s point. But whatever words we use, we can support Manji’s approach in teaching and teacher education by stressing the diversity and power differences within cultural communities, the commonalities across communities, and the importance of individual identity and well-being.

Just Call Me Paul: The Ethnicity Saga Continues

On Monday I (Clive) shared my previous blog on multicultural education and stereotyping with my social foundations class. This proved to be a great literacy activity on blogging as a writing form that both teachers and students need to master, one that helps us clarify our ideas and make our communication more precise. It also renewed our conversation about how to approach ethnicity in the classroom. We went round the whole class, each person commenting in turn on the blog. No one chose to pass and everyone was interested in what others had to say. A couple were struck by my profile of “Mike”: they had no idea that people of Irish and Scots background might look down on each other. On the whole people liked the blog, but they continued to refine points and add personal stories.
We heard a new story of complex ethnicity from a class member of Indian ancestry who grew up in Madagascar, lived in a French-speaking environment for several years and became fluent in French, spent time in India where she was told she spoke Hindi with an accent, and then moved to Canada where she hopes to teach French as a second language. What is her ethnicity?
Then on Tuesday the wonderful personal essay “Just Call Me Paul” appeared in one of our local newspapers. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/changing-my-name-doesnt-mean-im-betraying-my-identity/article16406166/

G. Paul Sileika’s grandparents migrated to Canada from Lithuania over 50 years ago. In the 1970s when multiculturalism was on the rise his parents decided to give him a name that “reflected their ancestral origins.” They named him Gintaras and called him Gint for short. With rich humor, no self-pity, and trenchant common-sense he talks about the impact of this decision on his life. The whole article is well worth reading.

 

What struck me especially was how he felt his identity was lost. “Before I can even begin to build rapport with someone or connect on a common interest, my name catches his or her attention. Before I can share my personal story one is already written for me.” Because the name was unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce correctly (the “G” is hard), many called him “you” or simply nothing. Long after finishing university he finally decided to switch to using his middle name – Paul – and hasn’t looked back. He says he believes in multiculturalism and is proud of his heritage, but wants to go by Paul in informal contexts and G. Paul in formal ones; if anyone asks what the G. stands for, he’s “happy to tell them.”

 

Of course, although you can change your name you can’t change your accent or physical appearance. But Paul’s story illustrates well how we should often move beyond such markers, rather than dwelling on them unduly – as so often happens in multiculturalism classes. While prejudice and discrimination must be studied in depth and actively opposed, there’s so much more to a person than the ethnicity of their parents and grandparents. We must also explore and celebrate their constantly emerging individual identity, of which their complex ethnic identity is just one part. Otherwise, like Paul, much of their identity may be lost.

 

 

Multicultural Education that Avoids Stereotyping

Stereotypes are the main basis of prejudice and discrimination; yet multicultural education often reinforces stereotypes. How to resolve this problem?
My (Clive) social foundations ITE class this year is a dream come true: bursting with talent; an extremely diverse group but with a strong sense of camaraderie; full of fun but serious about learning to teach well. On Monday we had the second of three classes on inclusive education, with a focus that day on multicultural education. It was a wonderful session. Every student participated, and many spoke openly about their own racial and ethnic background. For example:

  • Jim: Identifies as Black, born in Canada, of Caribbean ancestry, not tall enough to play basketball well, doesn’t like rap music.
  • Janni: Born in Canada; her parents are of South Asian ancestry but grew up in South Africa and talk often about their life in that country.
  • Sandi: Parents of Indian background, most of her schooling in Germany, often refers to herself as Tamil Canadian.
  • Ali: Identified by others as Black, ½ Somali, ¼ Italian, lived much of his early life in Saudi Arabia before his family moved to Canada, family is Muslin but he isn’t really religious.
  • Mike: Born in Canada but of ¾ Irish and ¼ Scots ancestry, classical musician, worried in school that when teachers saw his Irish name they would look down on him.

Given this ethnic complexity in today’s world, how can we take the common approach of talking about ethnic groups and resolving to respect the people who belong to them? In what sense do students have an ethnic identity? True, people differ a lot, but their differences rarely run along ethnic, racial, or religious lines. The differences within such categories are much greater than between them. A large proportion of a person’s identity comes from individual qualities, as advocates of differentiation and multiple intelligences have said for some time. Ethnicity is important and should be respected, but individuals have complex ethnicities and draw on each facet in distinctive ways.

As the discussion unfolded, we came to the conclusion that in school we should focus largely on: (a) historical and current cases of bias and discrimination and their enormous human cost; (b) the positives of being inclusive; (c) the limits to ethnic and racial labelling; (d) commonalities that cut across sub-groups; and (e) the importance of individual identity.

At a personal level, many students seemed relieved at the thought that they could develop their own identity and didn’t have to fit a standard ethnic identity. I think many school students would feel the same way, and adopting this approach in the classroom would strengthen community and individual self-esteem.