Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Safeguarding Multiculturalism


**Disclaimer: I generalize quite a bit in this piece about Germans and Americans. I am well aware that my generalizations do not fit everyone and I can find examples on both sides of people I know that do not fit into the descriptions offered. So before you would like to object that not all Germans are cold or selfish for example, I can say, I wholeheartedly agree with you and know many Germans who are both warm and generous. I am talking about how the culture in general is perceived by immigrants as I spent three years integrated into different immigrant communities (Latino, Turkish, Armenian, Iranian, Moroccan, Syrian, West African, former Yugoslavian) in Germany. So this is my very personal experience of attitudes I encountered within these various communities.**


Author Homa Sabet Tavangar of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World, recently wrote an article for Good.is on how to save multiculturalism, which seems increasingly under attack. It’s a great article with useful suggestions to expand your family’s diversity. Just like in her book, she is practical in her ideas and full of great examples. You can read her article here. (We also recommend her book but that’s a subject for another day).


The debate that is often in the news, about the failed multicultural policies of many European countries, is one that interests me since I lived as an immigrant in Germany and about 80% of my friends there were also immigrants; out of that 80%, about half were Arab and Muslim, which is the group that most European countries attribute to their failed policies.


As an American, I always thought it was fascinating that second generation immigrants in Germany identify themselves by their family’s country of origin, even though they were born in Germany and hold German passports. Friends of mine whose parents had even been born in Germany, still identified themselves as Turkish or Moroccan for example. Almost every time we were together, the topic of Germans and German society came up. Everyone had examples of what they perceived was “wrong” with the society, and we were quick to define ourselves as different from Germans; they were the “other” or “them.” We were unified, despite our diverse backgrounds, in not wanting to be identified as German. Also interesting is that no one, not one single person, could imagine growing old in Germany, even if they had been born there. Why is that?


From what I observed, there is a certain coldness in German culture and directness of the people that alienates immigrants. In my opinion, it isn’t so much that most Germans feel antagonistic towards immigrants (although sure, many do), like so many Americans, but more that the culture’s walls are less porous, harder to scale as an outsider, so the society is perceived as unfriendly and selfish. It is easy to feel lost in the shuffle and retract into your own, separate community. Germany is a hard country to integrate into, which for me was because I never mastered German, but most of my friends spoke fluent German, went to German schools, held jobs in German companies, and still did not feel integrated or German at the end of the day. It was always us vs. them.


In the U.S., everyone I know who came to the U.S. as a child, sometimes as old as even 12, or is second generation, identifies as American, together with their family’s roots. While I dislike speculating on experiences that are not my own, the sense of belonging seems comparatively stronger in the U.S than Germany, even if American immigrants feel torn in their identity or antagonistic toward America. (Important to note: there is a distinct difference, however, I have observed among immigrants who come to the U.S. as adults – their experience is usually quite different and they usually always have a longing for home. But even most children born to immigrant parents in Germany did not identify as German.)


Yet despite the broader definition of who is American, there is still the us vs. them current in the U.S., which is particularly acute against Muslims now, but it manifests itself differently here. The interesting paradox is that Germans generally in my opinion (and yes it is hard to generalize) are less racist then Americans; I believe this has a lot to do with German history and the genocide which has made Germans very sensitive in this respect. So while the culture is initially harder to integrate into, the attitude is less bigoted. In the U.S., the culture is comparatively easier to integrate into (although by no means easy), perhaps because there are so many different cultures and the U.S. has a long history of multiculturalism, yet there is more racism. Perhaps the more multicultural a society becomes, the more of a backlash that forms every step of the way. One step forward, two steps back. I don’t really know the answer; it’s something I’m thinking about and would love to hear everyone’s ideas about as well. I don’t necessarily think we are in the midst of a new phenomenon but more a continuation of the same battle the U.S. has always fought, just with different targets.


The backlash is always exacerbated by the media frenzy that seizes on people’s misgivings and reservations and turns them into fear then hatred. If Fox News, or any one news channel for that matter, is your only source of news, it is understandable how your views of the world can be shaped. Already distorted truths get converted into blatant lies. Propaganda about how immigrants take “our” jobs and drain our economy, despite the enormous body of economic evidence to the contrary, or about how Islam is a religion of extremism and violence and all Muslims are secretly plotting against America becomes widely accepted. Us vs. them gets reinforced. The more cynical among us can also think us vs. them is carefully manufactured by manipulative politicians who divert our attention away from our real economic and political problems by scapegoating the minority. And then there are other contributing factors as well: history, inequality, education.


I love the practical examples Homa gives in her article to encourage multiculturalism. I can’t stress number four enough: “Expose your family to music, film, literature and sports from around the world.” If you can’t travel, you can still see the world through movies and books. My most recent example, which I posted about on Facebook, is a book by Meera Sriram, Dinaben and the Lions of Gir. The book is about an ethnic group in India called the Maldharis who share the land with nearly extinct lions. My family has never been to India, nor do we have much of any connection to it. However my girls absolutely love this book and know all about the Maldharis, even that they live in Gujarat. My oldest child is only four. I couldn’t place Gujarat on a map if you had asked me before reading this book. Kids absorb things so much faster and without preconceptions like we do. It’s amazing to watch this process.


I would add a sixth item to Homa’s list as well, not so much in the way of expanding your family’s diversity but protecting multiculturalism. Stand up when you see acts of ignorance or injustice. This ranges from the small things like my colleagues at work making mildly disparaging comments about Ramadan due to their own ignorance, to big things like blatant racism. We sometimes watch the show “What Would You Do” on Friday nights, which is a show I like as it gives you insight into how many Americans think (of course it’s just a small slice since the examples come from one place and are not comparative across communities). The experiments dealing with race/religion/ethnicity are always the most interesting to me because they reveal the biases and prejudices that pervade America. There are always people who stand up and say something, but usually they are far fewer than the people who stay quiet. Teaching my kids to speak their mind and not be quiet when they witness prejudice or injustice is something that is important to me, and the best way to teach is, of course, by example.

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Stephanie is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent. She has two Moroccan-American daughters (ages 5 and 6), whom she is raising, together with her husband, bilingual in Arabic and English at home, while also introducing Spanish. After many moves worldwide, she currently lives in Berkeley, California.

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