By Ardain IsmaIt is very important to be culturally aware of the differences within a multiethnic society. A denial of the obvious differences can lead to major tensions. But how does one group of people come to believe that it belongs to a specific culture? Since we are living in a culturally diverse society, how and when does a child start to believe of himself or herself as Haitian, or Dominican, or Puerto Rican, or African-American? Lustig and Koester tell us that “our culture identity—the self-concept of a person who belongs to a particular cultural group—has a powerful effect on our intercultural communication,” which is in itself the circumstance in which people from diverse cultural backgrounds interact with one another. In a three-part series, Dr. Ardain Isma (left in the picture) attempts to shed some light on the very thing that strongly influences our values, our beliefs and ultimately our views of the world. This first part focuses on the general concept of culture. Why should different people be interested in one another? Why should harmony and cooperation not come naturally between reasonable adults? It is becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, for people to obtain what they need without reaching out to others whose ethnic and cultural backgrounds are different from their own. Poverty in underdeveloped and developing countries has created major migrations to industrialized countries of Europe and North America. Societies, especially in Northern Europe, that have been regarded for centuries as culturally homogenous are now becoming multicultural. Sweden is a good example.According to Katsiaficas and Kiros (1998), increasingly multiculturalism is becoming a reality of life in most countries around the world (p. 1). Despite these changes, many people resent the notion of cultural harmony that experts agree might be the best recipe for resolving ethnic, religious, and cultural tensions plaguing the world today. Intercultural contact, if allowed and promoted, could help prevent major catastrophes resulting from ethnic and cultural hatred. Culture is defined in anthropology as the patterns of behavior and thinking that are learned, created, and shared by people living in social groups. Culture distinguishes one human group from another and distinguishes humans from other animals. A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic system.Culture is the most important concept in anthropology, which is devoted to the study of all aspects of human life, past and present. Anthropologists commonly use the term culture to refer to a society or group in which many or all people live and think in the same ways. Any group of people who share a common culture and, in particular, common rules of behavior and a basic form of social organization constitute a society. Thus, the terms culture and society are somewhat interchangeable. Although many animals live in societies, such as herds of elk or packs of wild dogs, only humans have culture.Culture developed with the evolution of the human species, homo sapiens, and is closely related to human biology. The ability of people to form cultures comes, in large part, from their physical features, that is, large and complex brains, an upright posture, free hands that can grasp and manipulate small objects, and a vocal tract that can produce and articulate a wide range of sounds. These distinctively human physical features began to develop in African ancestors of humans more than 4 million years ago. The earliest physical evidence of culture is the crude stone tools produced in East Africa over 2 million years ago. Amirthanayagam (2000) calls for sociologists and other researchers to help find ways to create “a human community” (p. 3). He argues against the general perception that exposure to other cultures is sufficient to foster tolerance and advocates for cultural contacts under real and acceptable conditions in order to create harmony and mutual respect (p. 4). Ady (2000) further suggests that sociologists should not only evaluate communities according to their own experience but should try to understand what makes the community real to its inhabitants. This requires that they live the life of the community while not becoming part of it (p. 111). Understandably, cultural harmony may prove difficult to achieve without careful planning.Objectively, a multicultural society is often described as a society that is made up of people with many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. However, achieving a multicultural society might require more than just being at the same place and being culturally different. It also might require cross-cultural awareness. Katsiaficas and Kiros (1998) state that in the United States, the education sector (i.e., teachers and students) is facing a great challenge caused by the creation of huge “demands and expectations of a culturally and linguistically diverse society” (p. 6).The legal mandates for desegregation and integration have resulted in minorities such as Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians sharing many neighborhoods and schools with Whites. Given these changes, it might appear that this society is now practically multicultural. Taking a closer look, one might find that real multiculturalism has yet to happen in major parts of the country.Giroux (2000), echoing the sentiments of many, asserts that education ultimately will bring about effective multiculturalism and cultural awareness in this society (p. 62). Giroux added that education is thought to be the main reason for existence of the structural role of culture and the relationship between intelligence and power. During the process of education, “students not only gain a better understanding of culture but also are able to attain some degree of culture competence” (Kluver, 2000, p. 24). Pluralism, whether ethnic, cultural or racial, could bring conflict and disunity; however, if education is done properly, diversity may not be a cause for concern. Instead of the focal point for disunity and weakness, diversity may represent the main reason for strength, harmony, mutual understanding and respect. Instead of trying to suppress or eliminate differences, it might be wiser to seek coexistence of various cultural groups while preserving the integrity of each. Furthermore, eliminating cultural differences could result in destruction of the self at the individual level.Katsiaficas and Kiros (1998) point out that multiculturalism has existed since the earliest times and has contributed to the creation of contemporary civilization (p. 7). Although race and gender have been used to promote conflict, such differences will be unimportant in the future. On the contrary, they will represent the perfection of diversity. Instead of fearing diversity, we will come to understand the reality of a multicultural society and “to replace its suppression with an open minded and nurturing attitude” (p. 8). In order to achieve the glorious and beautiful multicultural societies that so many have dreamed of, the groundwork must be laid. The first step must be taken. Harmony must play a major role, even though it does not necessarily mean everybody agreeing with one another. To lose an argument is to fail to convince the other person that you are right and he/she is wrong; in fact, both persons may disagree without either being right or wrong.Contact between cultures could be analyzed from either a worldwide point of view or from an “interplay of subcultures” (Amirthanayagam, 2000, p. 1) inside the United States. Even though contacts between different cultures have dramatically increased over the last century, cross-cultural ignorance continues to play a major role in interfering with peace and harmony among people in contemporary life. As Amirthanayagam (2000) puts it, “ The literature of cross-cultural contact mirrors this situation well, since it embodies the actual processes of interaction, demonstrates in complex, multifaceted ways the harmonies and disruptions which are their consequence” (p. 2).The development of someone’s culture might have a great deal to do with ethnic affiliation. Most researchers believe that ethnicity could be used to identify groups or communities that are differentiated by religious, racial, or cultural characteristics and that possess a sense of belonging to a distinct group. A person could have problems later on in life if unable to integrate his/her original culture (subculture) into the accepted culture at large.This may explain why people from many different ethnic and culture backgrounds struggle to create a cultural identity that includes both their own cultural heritage and the established or accepted mainstream culture. The process of developing a cultural identity that integrates both the home and mainstream culture, although difficult, is critical. Understanding the process and makeup of “ethnic identification” could help control or stop many problems relating to identity confusion (Yeh, 2000, p. 165). To understand why cross-cultural awareness is vital for the continued progress of society, one might first have to understand the reality of ethnic identity and multiculturalism.(End of Part 1)Dr. Ardain Isma is the chief editor for CSMS Magazine and the executive director of the Center For Strategic And Multicultural Studies. He also teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at Nova Southeastern University. He is a novelist and the author of several essays on multiculturalism and Caribbean politics. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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