Multiculturalism and Literature

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Sociologists first used the phrase “the melting pot” to describe the inclusion of many cultures in one homogeneous group. The melting pot theory, however, was soon challenged as incorrect as a description and as biased in its intent. Various groups decided that they wanted to maintain, rather than diminish, their cultural distinctions. African American and Native American writers in the 1960’s and after especially rejected the idea that the United States and Canada were or should be melting-pot societies. Their rejection was reinforced by immigrants or children of immigrants in the 1980’s and 1990’s who produced literature that is critical of the theory. A major objection is that melting implies the merging of cultures and the loss of differences. Another objection is that the melting pot’s idea of merging into one culture does not allow for the creation of new social systems to which all contribute. Instead, the melting-pot model continues the dominance of white, Anglo culture over smaller cultural groups, thus submerging differences. In the cases of distinct cultural groups and immigrant communities, merging into one culture means the loss of one’s unique history, heritage, and cultural products.

A response to this concern has been pluralism. Pluralism is descriptive of differences but does not necessarily connote anything positive in difference. The word “multiculturalism” is often used by scholars and popular writers to indicate that a variety of cultures that maintain their differences within a social group is functional for the total group. More specifically, the maintaining of this variety is perceived as a counteraction to melting, merging, or dominance. Multiculturalism is considered a means by which differences can be appreciated, with each distinct culture contributing toward the whole. The concept of multiculturalism is adverse to the notion of a melting pot, and it is more positive about difference than pluralism. Multiculturalism values diverse identities of peoples and presumes the possibility that diverse groups can interact positively.

The United States and Canada are examples of multicultural societies. The two countries’ multicultural status is explained in general literature such as Vincent Parrillo’s Diversity in America (1996) and Stephen Castles and Mark Miller’s The Age of Migration (1993). Neither country is unique in being multicultural. Nations such as Israel or Brazil or Jamaica all acknowledge how different cultural groups within them can be positive for the larger societies. American culture is dispersed globally, and with that dispersal there is recognition of the value of varieties of social groups, each with their own cultures, offering alternative cultural products within the same social order. Multiculturalism and its practical effects are the consequence of categories besides ethnicity. Multiculturalism allows for difference among such groups as age groups, sexual preference groups, class and economic stations, religious orientations, professional and work obligations, and educational statuses. Each group may develop a culture that offers unique values, lifestyles, and artifacts (material products). As Roosevelt Thomas argues in his book Beyond Race and Gender (1991), multiculturalism cannot be limited to the cultures that are produced by groups with different historical and geographical backgrounds.

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