01 February 2008


There's an interesting discussion going on over at the alt.usage.english newsgroup.

Don Phillipson, of Carlsbad Springs, Ottawa, Canada, asks:
Citations are requested for the first uses of "multiculturalism" by governmental officials or politicians in Europe (inc. Britain) and the USA, preferably with enough context to indicate the meaning of the noun (or adj. multicultural.)

My tentative thesis is that this word entered contemporary politics in Canada (Multiculturalism Act 1971) and was then taken up in Europe (by Britain and by other countries that operate in French, German, Dutch, etc.) where its meanings were different: and ultimately in the USA where meanings were different again, whence it returned to Canada to function in ways unforeseen in 1971.

Most obviously, as legislated in Canada in 1971, "multiculturalism" had nothing to do with race (skin colour) or with immigrants. (It was a strictly local response to Canadians of "other ethnic groups" who told the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism that, because their ancestry was non-French and non-British and they did not see themselves as either "English Canadians" or "French Canadians," they were apprehensive that public anxiety about B&B topics should not mean they were "second-class citizens. The largest language groups voicing this concern were German, Polish and Ukrainian: i.e. the people were all "white" and mostly Canadian-born.)

In Europe e.g. Britain, "multiculturalism" was associated less with long-recognized white "races" (e.g. Scotch, Welsh, Irish) but with first-generation immigrants from Asia and Africa i.e. "visible minorities." In the USA "multiculturalism" was subtly different again, because there were new "visible minority" communities (e.g. from Korea and SE Asia) but also long-settled Hispanic and black communities. Most obviously, the largest visible minority in the USA was black Americans who had been settled in America for 200+ years and who had recently been engaged in the
Civil Rights movement, a significant social revolution.

Thus the "multiculturalism" associated nowadays with all-black US TV situation comedies is substantially different from that of (say) Turkish or South American
communities in Europe: and wholly different again from the concerns in 1971 of Canadians of Greek or Portuguese or Lebanese ancestry: and the word today in Canada is powerfully guided by American ideas based in demographic features that do not occur in Canada (i.e. the concept has completed a circle, during which its
meaning has changed.)

In order to test this thesis, it would be useful to have citations of the first official uses of the word "multicultural" in various places, e.g. Britain, Denmark, the USA, as well as current meanings.

My response:
I'm unable to give any "official" citations, though I'll note any if I find them and report them.

A purely impressionistic observation (from reading newsgroups and other electronic forums) is that in South Africa it tends to be primarily descriptive (South Africa is a multicultural country) and multiculturalism is the state of being multicultural, whereas in the USA and UK it seems to be regarded as prescriptive, since many people seem to object to multiculturalism.

To this South African, at least, objections to multiculturalism sound racist, and a demand for a return to apartheid thinking, which was the idea that a multicultural society was highly undesirable, and that therefore different ethnic/cultural groups MUST be separated, and could not possibly live together, be educated together, or marry each other.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on the matter? What do "multicultural" and "multiculturalism" mean to you?


Magotty Man said...

I like the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive multiculturalism. The former can (not necessarily) descend into another 'social engineering' project however, and as such can be problematic.

Steve Hayes said...


One of the problems with seeing it as prescriptive is that it is very difficult to determine what is being prescribed -- which I suspect is why Don Phillipson asked the question in the first place.

And that's why I prefer to stick to the descriptive meanings -- far less ambiguous.

Matt Wardman said...

My impressions is that in the UK you have both prescriptive and descriptive uses, the prescriptive tending to be politically driven. The latter can be either due to a need to appeal to particular "communities", perhaps where votes are influenced by community leaders, or to a need for "partners in the community" to deal with.

Matt Wardman


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