Multiculturalism Essay - Critical Essays




Late-twentieth-century literary, pedagogic, and social movement.

A literary and social ideology that presupposes that all cultural value systems are equally worthy of study, multiculturalism has permeated numerous aspects of American life since the 1960s. Growing out of the civil rights and feminist movements and reflecting America's increasingly pluralistic, multiethnic society, multiculturalist ideals have influenced literature, art, popular culture, media, education, and legal and social policy. In response to greater globalization, and due to the questioning of the entire concept of assimilation, the social model for American society has shifted away from the image of the “melting pot”—according to which minorities gave up their individual identity to integrate fully with general society—and moved towards a model where unique ethnic identities remain intact and contribute to the greater good.

While educational curricula have adjusted to mirror a less Eurocentric worldview and to compensate for the lack of attention paid to non-Western cultures over the past century, critics have begun debating the problems inherent with institutionalizing multiculturalism. For example, some have argued that the pendulum has swung too far, resulting in the unwarranted dismissal or ignoring of scholarship from Caucasian academics as well as multiculturalist-driven syllabi that routinely attack aspects of Western civilization. Other commentators have suggested that the categories of multicultural study have become too rigid and deterministic, defining groups of writers too narrowly and without taking into account individual talent and independence of mind. The very notion of defining population groups primarily by ethnicity continues to be argued, with pundits noting the wealth of inconsistencies and discrepancies inherent in such forms of classification. Certain scholars have additionally observed the repression, or even suppression, of academic dialogue on certain topics—for example, racism and the cultural role of Jews—that have been deemed too inflammatory or problematic within a multicultural context.

Critical discussion of multiculturalism has been augmented by the increased need for international communication and mutual understanding in the modern world. Several of the more extreme varieties of multiculturalism have been softened through academic practice and experience—many literary critics have called for a return to the evaluation of works of literature solely as works of art, rather than as reflections of a particular culture. Others have continued to voice their dissatisfaction with the slow progress of multiculturalism, emphasizing that the changes instituted in education, art, and society remain superficial at best.

Representative Works

John Alberti, editor
Canon in the Classroom: The Pedagogical Implications of Canon Revision in American Literature (criticism) 1995

Rudolfo A. Anaya
Bless Me, Ultima (novel) 1972

Charles Bernheimer
Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (criticism) 1995

Hami K. Bhabha
The Location of Culture (criticism) 1994

Neil Bissoondath
Selling Illusions (criticism) 1994

Lil Brannon and Brenda M. Greene
Rethinking American Literature (criticism) 1997

Roger Daniels
Coming to America (criticism) 1990

John Ellis
Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (criticism) 1997

Louise Erdrich
The Antelope Wife (novel) 1998

Bruce A. Goebel and James C. Hall, editors
Teaching a “New Canon”?: Students, Teachers, and Texts in the College Literature Classroom (criticism) 1995

Avery F. Gordon
Mapping Multiculturalism (criticism) 1996

Carl Gutiérrez-Jones
Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano and Legal Discourse (criticism) 1995

Hena Maes-Jelinek, Kirsten Holst Petersen, and Anna Rutherford, editors
A Shaping of Connections: Commonwealth Literature Studies—Then and Now (essays and criticism) 1989

Günther Lenz and Peter J. Ling, editors
TransAtlantic Encounters: Multiculturalism, National Identity, and the Use of the Past (criticism) 2000

Lucy R. Lippard
Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (criticism) 1996

John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, editors
Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays (essays and criticism) 1996

Trinh T. Minh-ha
When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics (criticism) 1991

Satya P. Mophanty
Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (criticism) 1997

David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, editors
Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (criticism) 1996

David Palombo-Liu
The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions (criticism) 1995

William S. Penn, editor
As We Are Now: Race and Identity (criticism) 1997

Salman Rushdie
Haroun and the Sea of Stories (juvenilia) 1990
Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (essays and criticism) 1991

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
The Disuniting of America (criticism) 1992

Leïla Sebbar
Le Chinois vert d'Afrique (novel) 1984

Ronald Takaki
A Different Mirror (criticism) 1993

R. V. Young
At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education (criticism) 1999

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Stephen J. Whitfield (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Whitfield, Stephen J. “The Mystique of Multiculturalism.” Virginia Quarterly Review 72, no. 3 (summer 1996): 429-45.

[In the following essay, Whitfield traces the evolution of multiculturalism as a field of academic study within the disciplines of history and literature since the 1950s, identifying several theoretical discrepancies and inconsistencies in multicultural scholarship.]

Little more than a century ago, the Atlantic Monthly published a poem entitled “The Unguarded Gates” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, one of those authors whom a Tammany Hall wit was fond of dismissing as “name-parted-in-the-middle aristocrats”:

Wide open...

(The entire section is 5830 words.)

Jeanne J. Smoot (essay date May 2000)

SOURCE: Smoot, Jeanne J. “Multiculturalism, Censorship, and the Postmodern Assault on the Canon: Classical Answers to Contemporary Dilemmas.” Comparatist 24 (May 2000): 30-8.

[In the following essay, Smoot examines several of the dominant theories which helped multiculturalism reshape the literary canon in higher education in the United States.]

If we accept the simple premise that what we read influences who we are, then curricular matters in general and the concept of a canon in particular have profound political implications. Almost any dictator seeks to restrict what his subjects read, to control the flow of information, ideas, and philosophies. A free society,...

(The entire section is 4617 words.)

Laurie Grobman (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Grobman, Laurie. “Toward a Multicultural Pedagogy: Literary and Nonliterary Traditions.” MELUS 26, no. 1 (spring 2001): 221-40.

[In the following essay, Grobman explores how multicultural literature has—or has not—been integrated into the teaching of modern literary theory, commenting that, “[w]hen we allow and encourage our students to consider a text in its many literary and nonliterary traditions, we bring students into the debates of multiculturalism.”]


Over the last two decades, coincident with the broadening of the literary canon, multicultural scholars...

(The entire section is 6910 words.)

Bonnie TuSmith (essay date summer 2002)

SOURCE: TuSmith, Bonnie. “The Significance of the ‘Multi’ in ‘Multiethnic Literatures of the U.S.’” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2002): 5-14.

[In the following essay, derived from a lecture delivered at the 2001 MELUS Conference, TuSmith challenges teachers to deal directly and frankly with the issue of race and racial identity in teaching multicultural texts.]

“She starts up the stairs to bed. ‘Don't get me up with the rest in the morning.’ ‘But I thought you were having midterms.’ ‘Oh, those,’ she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly, ‘in a couple of years when we'll all be atom-dead they won't matter a bit.’” Some of you...

(The entire section is 3821 words.)

Criticism: The Effects Of Multiculturalism On Global Literature

Hazel Rochman (essay date March-April 1995)

SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. “Against Borders.” Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 2 (March-April 1995): 144-57.

[In the following essay, Rochman explores how multicultural literature can introduce readers—particularly young adults—to a diverse range of cultures, transcending social, political, and personal barriers.]

If anyone had told me when I was growing up in South Africa that I would be living in Chicago one day and writing about multiculturalism in children's books, I would have thought they were crazy. I thought my place was really off the map; nothing could happen there that would interest the rest of the world. And I thought there was nothing connecting us. My...

(The entire section is 5102 words.)

Paul Michael Lützeler (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Lützeler, Paul Michael. “Multiculturalism in Contemporary German Literature.” World Literature Today 168, no. 3 (summer 1995): 452-58.

[In the following excerpt, Lützeler argues that multicultural studies in Germany and Europe have been largely underdeveloped, noting several German authors who have composed works within a multiethnic context.]

A striking feature of today's culture debates is the postmodern criticism of the Modern, of the dire consequences of the Modern, of the frequently catastrophic burden of the legacy of their conceptualization of progress. This criticism, which can also be perceived as self-criticism of the Modern, is expressed in...

(The entire section is 4319 words.)

Qun Wang (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Wang, Qun. “‘Double Consciousness,’ Sociological Imagination, and the Asian American Experience.” Race, Gender & Class: Asian American Voices 4, no. 3 (1997): 88-94.

[In the following essay, Wang examines the theme of personal identity in several works by Asian American writers, noting that the characters' emotional turmoil often stems from their struggle to harmonize two different social roles.]

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter...

(The entire section is 2594 words.)

Cyril Dabydeen (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Dabydeen, Cyril. “Places We Come From: Voices of Caribbean Canadian Writers (in English) and Multicultural Contexts.” World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 231-37.

[In the following essay, Dabydeen comments on the works of several multiethnic Caribbean Canadian writers, analyzing how their unique cross-cultural perspectives are changing the body of Canadian literature.]


The recent special “Canadian Caribbean Issue” of Descant (Summer 1998) suggests a journey and a maturing of Canadian literature in terms of the latter's flexibility and capacity to be all-embracing, without undermining Canada's identity;...

(The entire section is 5315 words.)

Criticism: Multicultural Themes In Specific Contemporary Works

Caroline Clifford (essay date October 1994)

SOURCE: Clifford, Caroline. “The Music of Multiculturalism in Leïla Sebbar's Le Chinois vert d'Afrique.French Review 68, no. 1 (October 1994): 52-60.

[In the following essay, Clifford discusses the treatment of “les croisés”—characters who belong to more than one culture—as depicted in Leïla Sebbar's Le Chinois vert d'Afrique.]

Set in the present-day France of the increasing cultural tensions between immigrants and French de vieille souche, of the rising popularity of the Front National, and of a perceived need to defend French cultural purity, Leïla Sebbar's novels give a voice to the Beur children and other croisés growing up...

(The entire section is 4304 words.)

Deborah Bowen (essay date July 1997)

SOURCE: Bowen, Deborah. “Spaces of Translation: Bharati Mukherjee's ‘The Management of Grief.’” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 28, no. 3 (July 1997): 48-60.

[In the following essay, Bowen evaluates how the protagonist of Bharati Mukherjee's short story “The Management of Grief” functions as a bridge between Indian and Canadian society by employing a new language of hybridity that takes into account universal human emotions.]

The word “translation” comes, etymologically, from the Latin for “bearing across.” Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always...

(The entire section is 4897 words.)

Theresa M. Kanoza (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Kanoza, Theresa M. “The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya's Multi-Culturalism.” MELUS 24, no. 2 (summer 1999): 159-71.

[In the following essay, Kanoza identifies parallels between Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, arguing that Anaya's multicultural style embraces Indian myth, biblical references, and echoes from the traditional literary canon.]

In Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya presents a world of opposites in the New Mexican village of Guadalupe. The parents of the young protagonist Antonio have strikingly different temperaments, as dissimilar to each other as the backgrounds from which they...

(The entire section is 5599 words.)

Jonathan Little (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Little, Jonathan. “Beading the Multicultural World: Louise Erdrich's The Antelope Wife and the Sacred Metaphysic.” Contemporary Literature 41, no. 3 (fall 2000): 495-524.

[In the following essay, Little focuses on Louise Erdrich's treatment of culture and personal identity in The Antelope Wife, characterizing Erdrich's depiction of both as fluid and continually evolving.]

In his recent study of multiculturalism, philosophy, and identity, Satya P. Mohanty criticizes the debilitating insularity of identity politics on the one hand and liberalism's universals on the other. Mohanty charts a postpositivist space between these two positions that...

(The entire section is 11876 words.)

Andrew S. Teverson (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Teverson, Andrew S. “Fairy Tale Politics: Free Speech and Multiculturalism in Haroun and the Sea of Stories.Twentieth Century Literature 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 444-68.

[In the following essay, Teverson explores Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories as “a complex allegory that emphasizes the importance of exchange between different cultural groupings,” comparing it with such works as Arabian Nights, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.]

Jacobites must speak in children's rhymes,
As preachers do in Parables, sometimes.

Pynchon (350)

Late in...

(The entire section is 9088 words.)

Further Reading


Alaimo, Stacy. “Multiculturalism and Epistemic Rupture: The Vanishing Acts of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Alfredo Véa, Jr.” MELUS 25, no. 2 (summer 2000): 164-85.

Alaimo discusses the theories of Gómez-Peña and Véa, Jr. regarding the perspective of the “subject”—or “Anglo consciousness”—toward the object, or “the Other,” in multicultural studies.

Carpenter, Carole H. “Enlisting Children's Literature in the Goals of Multiculturalism.” Mosaic 29, no. 3 (September 1996): 53-73.

Carpenter explores ways in which children's literature serves to “colonize and politicize” readers and...

(The entire section is 504 words.)