EVERYBODY IS THE CENTER

When I described Germany as monocultural, a German friend of mine corrected me: ‘Germany is multicultural, not monocultural. We have people from all over the world.’


Being used to more diversity in America, I couldn't possibly think of Germany as 'multicultural' and had to clarify for myself what we mean by a 'multicultural' society. At a first glance, it was true that diversity was a precondition for making a society ‘multicultural’. One could not describe a homogenous setting as ‘multicultural’.


But then I realized that the presence of diversity wasn’t the only condition for making a society ‘multicultural’. What distinguished a monocultural society from a multicultural society was the center-margin relationship. Multicultural society is where there was no dominant group that is considered the center, who could claim ownership of the society, whereas in a monocultural society, there clearly was a group who was considered the center, who were 'really from here.’ In a multicultural society, ‘the center versus margins’ relationship between the majority and the minorities was ‘de-centered' into making everybody the center.


This distinction reminded me of a palpable shift I experienced moving from the homogenous setting of the New Jersey suburbs where I grew up to my university campus in Philadelphia where there was diversity. In the homogenous setting of the New Jersey suburbs, there was a clear sense of who was the center — the white majority — and who were on the margins — a handful of minorities. But on my university campus, there was no longer the sense of who was the center and who were on the margins, but everybody was the center.


I attributed this not only to the presence of diversity on campus, but a strong ethos of egalitarianism and inclusion that my university consciously generated by making everyone feel that they were the center. Whatever race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion you were, you could be yourself without having to hide the truth of who you were. Difference was no longer perceived as an outlier, but a value to be celebrated and appreciated. There were thousands of student organizations to choose from and if you didn't find a group that you felt a sense of belonging to, you were encouraged to start one in a spirit of entrepreneurship. Steeped in this spirit, I stopped viewing myself as a 'minority' — a stranger standing on the margins looking in.


Despite obvious variations in the degree of diversity and the center-margin dynamics in different settings across America, the society as a whole was considered 'multicultural' because there was no dominant group who was considered the ‘center’ — who could claim ownership of the nation and say they were ‘really from here.’ But when it came to ethnic nations, there was clearly an ethnic group tied to the nation who could claim ownership of the nation and say they were ‘really from here.’


Even when an ethnic nation indeed was ‘tolerant’ and ’inclusive’, it was the dominant group who granted the attitude of tolerance or inclusion to the minorities, who remained at mercy of the dominant group to be tolerated and to be included. This was different from the society as a whole upholding the values of tolerance and inclusion, under which everyone was subjected to, with no group granting any other group anything, or any group remaining at mercy of any other.


So when the European leaders, including Sarkozy, Merkel and Cameron in 2010 declared that ‘multiculturalism has failed' in Europe, they couldn’t have possibly meant that the European societies ever tried to become ‘multicultural’, because there was no attempt at shifting the center vs. margin relationship between the majority and the minorities to make everybody the center. There was clearly the sense of who was the center and who remained on the margins of these societies — who remained at mercy of whom and to whom the country belonged. The dominant majority still occupied the center, and the minorities still the margins.


Charles Taylor captures the center-margin relationship between the majority and the minorities in his essay Multiculturalism or Interculturalism? in what he calls a 'normalization of hierarchy’:


A multicultural challenge arises when this culture defines certain sorts of people as enjoying the status of fully normative citizen while excludes others from this status. This arises, for instance, when people of a certain historical descent are accorded, in virtue of the historical origins of the society, the status of fully normative citizen or member, while people of other origin are viewed differently. But the issue doesn't have to turn on culture in this historical sense. We can also have this imbalance in a society where women are excluded from certain roles, or are treated differently than men when they occupy these roles. Or when people of a certain sexual orientation are discriminated against.


He goes onto observe:


Of course, this kind of inequality can exist for a long time in a society without this being seen as a problem. Hierarchies are often 'normalized' in this sense, even in democratic societies. It may be the general consensus that women have their 'place' and shouldn't aspire to operate outside it; or that this society has as basic purpose the preservation of a certain historic culture, and that thus full members of this culture have a privileged position within it. For the sense of multicultural challenge to arise, this normalization has to be put into question, has to be seen as a denial of equality, which is one of the crucial values of a democratic society.


But what if the majority felt they had the 'right' to be the center, since it was 'their' country?


It was a contradiction for a society to preach the values of 'equality' and 'inclusion' and stand up for women's rights and gay rights, and not see that the center-margin relationship between the majority and the minorities as a ‘problem.'


I wondered if the demolition of hierarchy and de-centering of power between the majority and the minorities could only be accomplished by the push from the bottom, by the minorities demanding the right to be the center, since, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” ‘it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.’


Having to leave the task of de-centering the power up to either the majority or the minorities perhaps was already a problem, rather than everybody choosing to create a society in which there was no dominant group who could claim the center and no group remained at mercy of any other, because they believed in this vision of society based on shared values of equality and inclusion.


There was a dominance of influx of Latinos in America who are projected to become the ethnic majority by 2045. But any one group becoming the ‘majority’ by number was not to ‘threaten’ the sense of American identity nor the current white majority, because being the majority or the minority by number didn't connote the center-margin relationship in America.


But I could see how the white supremacist movement resurfacing in America was exactly the symptom of some whites feeling 'threatened' by losing their dominance, or wanting to reclaim the lost dominance of their past. From having made a progress into making everybody the center, America was on the verge of retrogressing back to the center-margin relationship of the past.