A multicultural society

Stabroek News
May 12, 2000

Guyana is a multicultural society in which several religions are practised, a wide variety of foods is consumed, different styles of clothing are worn, at least on some formal occasions, and there are differing lifestyles. Indeed there can be few societies in the world today that are not multicultural, given high levels of emigration.

In many cases there are dominant cultures within which minority cultures are accommodated. Theorists have pointed out that there can be a large number of attitudes to multiculturalism ranging from what has been called the Tebbit view, after a prominent Conservative politician in the United Kingdom, which is that immigrants should broadly accept the mainstream culture and should not, for example, support another sports team when it is playing against England, what might be called the assimilationist view, to the liberal view that though immigrants must accept the laws of the land (and even there accommodations have been made, for example, to allow Sikhs not to wear hard hats in factories) and some aspects of the dominant culture they are broadly free to adopt and practise their own lifestyles. There are many permutations within these parameters.

But that is not our concern today. What we wish to discuss is an insight provided by Mr Gilbert Ahnee, an editor from Mauritius, at the recent Third Annual Caribbean Media Conference. Mr Ahnee said that in a multicultural society we must do more than accept multiculturalism as an abstract ideal, we must seek to become multicultural ourselves by making every effort to understand and even attend and practise the culture of the other ethnic groups. This, he suggested, would give us a much broader depth of understanding that would make us less intolerant and less liable to fragment under pressure.

It is a noble ideal. Many of us are severely culture bound, a habit partly inherited from the former imperial power which was notoriously not adaptive to the other cultures it encountered in its colonial exploits (Noel Coward's Mad dogs and Englishmen immortalised this attitude) and to this day many even of the educated classes in England are monolingual. It is a view of the world that is limiting and locks us in to certain assumptions. There can be no doubt that we would benefit from the effort to have a better understanding of those with whom we live and work every day, to go beyond the stereotypes (most of them negative and, again, inherited from the imperial power which had at best a patronising view of its subjects and their capacities) and to learn something of the background culture of their homelands, which though much attenuated here because of the long colonial experience still provides many valuable insights into the way they now are and the possibility of a greater understanding.

At another level, there are our Spanish, French and Dutch speaking neighbours from whom we are virtually isolated, our primary links still being historically conditioned.

The idea of a personal multiculturalism is a fascinating one that can be pursued in many ways. It can certainly usefully form part of the ongoing debate in the never ending search for adjustment to and accommodation of each other and each other's lifestyles.