Multiculturalism has had a place in the social sciences for many years, but currently (in 2020), there is a push for multiculturalism to be the premiere ideology in the social sciences.
While this sounds good on the surface, the problem is that ideology is inherently contradictory to the aims of science. A book that I just finished reading, Craig L. Frisby’s (2013) Meeting the Psychoeducational Needs of Minority Students: Evidence-Based Guidelines for School Psychologists and Other School Personnel, tackles the problem of implementing ideological multiculturalism into one branch of the social sciences, school psychology.
Four types of non-ideological multiculturalism
The most fundamental problem is defining multiculturalism. Frisby (2013) described four types of multiculturalism that are often present in American culture: Boutique, Kumbayah, Light-and-Fluffy, and Bean-Counting Multiculturalism. Each of these seems like “multiculturalism,” but is actually consists of merely “going through the motions,” often unthinkingly.
Boutique Multiculturalism involves sampling products or learning the basics about other cultures. Eating at an Indian restaurant, watching a samba performance, or assigning a child to read about another nation’s Christmas customs are examples of Boutique Multiculturalism. These exercises consumers about a small figment of a culture without engaging with the people who belong to it.
While Boutique Multiculturalism prevents a full understanding of another culture, it is not the most shallow type of multiculturalism. That designation belongs to Kumbayah Multiculturalism. In Kumbayah Multiculturalism, everyone basks in every cultural group’s differences, and tensions and disagreement melt away as everyone respects one another.
It sounds great, but Frisby described the real problem of Kumbayah Multiculturalism:
Because Kumbayah Multiculturalism has never existed anywhere on the globe in real life, it must be artificially manufactured in visual images promoted by advertisers. . . . It has become standard protocol . . . to feature groups of camera-cute children smiling, hugging, playing, and laughing together, all of whom represent a United Nations isual array of racial and ethnic diversity.Frisby (2013, p. 18)
Kumbayah Multiculturalism is shallow because it is manufactured and fake. Real intergroup harmony work, and misunderstandings often occur. Some differences are irreconcilable, and it may be necessary for a community to prioritize some values over others.
A similar type of multiculturalism is what Frisby (2013) calls Light-and-Fluffy Multiculturalism. In this type of multiculturalism, the philosophy of diversity is elevated scrutiny through the use of sloganeering. Light-and-Fluffy Multiculturalism shields itself from criticism by bombarding the public with platitudes like, “Teach tolerance,” “We all smile in the same language,” or “Celebrate our differences.”
Frisby (2013, p. 19) sums up the purpose of the strategy:
. . . the ultimate objective of Light-and-Fluffy Multiculturalism is to avoid any penetrating analyses or discussion of harsh realities that might be upsetting to audiences, or at least might cause them to think about things that they would prefer not to think about. Influential political constituency groups must not be angered, and care must be taken to ensure that opinions/viewpoints are monitored and drained of any insights or information that is too controversial for mass consumption. Light-and-Fluffy Multiculturalism sees little need to bore audiences with the specific details of how multicultural principles are actually implemented . . . or analyses of whether they actually work as they are supposed to. All that is necessary is to endlessly receive, or at least encourage allegiance to, hackneyed platitudes, soothing bromides, and feel-good pleasantries.Frisby (2013, p. 19)
Finally, Bean-Counting multiculturalism is the act of measuring an organization’s diversity (in terms of race, sex, or other characteristics) to determine whether there are “enough” people from underrepresented groups. This is often done in response to government mandates or to prevent a discrimination lawsuit. Once numerical targets are met, the organization does not need to worry about diversity again.
All of these types of multiculturalism are easy to see in American society, but none of them constitute a full-blown ideology. They are shallow ways of understanding multicultural issues. Indeed, they can even prevent intercultural understanding. On the other hand, what Frisby (2013) calls Quack Multiculturalism is a complete ideology that propagates itself at the expense of truth.
Quack Multiculturalism is the name given to a particular brand of multiculturalism that promotes falsehoods and distortions, yet amazingly continues to be promoted as received wisdom . . . It is not–as many would presume–a science, nor does it necessarily represent “best practices” . . .Frisby (2013, p. 14)
According to Frisby, as an ideology, Quack Multiculturalism must exaggerate its own importance, oversimplify life’s complexities, and enforce conformity to continue its existence. As an ideology, it is based on dogmas that are unquestioned among adherents and proselyted to outsiders. These dogmas include:
- The “group identity doctrine” that people can be reduced to the identity groups (defined by race, sex, social class, sexual orientation, etc.) that they belong to.
- The “difference doctrine” that groups are so profoundly different from one another that interventions, assessments, and/or environments must be tailored to each group.
- The “equity doctrine” of believing that equal outcomes among different groups is the natural state of a just society and that any disproportionalities or inequities (e.g., in income, disease, educational outcomes) must be the product of discrimination or mistreatment.
- The “inclusion doctrine” that being sufficiently diverse is a noble goal in and of itself, and that it can/should supersede other goals (even if an organization was originally created to meet those other goals).
- The “sensitivity doctrine” that members of dominant groups are morally obligated to alter their language and actions to avoid hurting the feelings of people who belong to historically marginalized groups.
- The “sovereignty doctrine,” which is that minority groups can autonomously establish their own standards of behavior, even if they are maladaptive or deficient. Moreover, members of minority groups, solely because of their group membership, are authorities on diversity issues, and majority groups and organizations must defer to their “expertise.”
These doctrines, because they are not based on scientific research, inevitably produce logical contradictions. For example, organizations started by or largely run by majority groups are told that they must actively work towards diversity, but organizations created by minorities are not under such obligations. There are frequent calls for a “conversation about race,” but that conversation must be stopped when it turns to facts that are unfavorable about minority groups (e.g., crime rates). The ideology tells people that all cultures must be respected and tolerated, but it then becomes paralyzed when some cultures oppress or harm women or minorities within their own control.
These contradictions are why Frisby (2013) calls this Quack Multiculturalism: like medical quackery, Quack Multiculturalism is based on inherently bad ideas that can cause harm to its adherents. Lowering admission standards at universities, segregated work trainings, and other implementations of Quack Multiculturalism actually spawn division and foster stereotypes. This is also why ideological multiculturalism is so easy to mock:
I have only summarized pieces of Chapter 2 from Frisby’s (2013) book. Frisby is excellent at efficiently exposing the problems with Quack Multicultural ideology and its corrosiveness to minorities and society. The book is worth reading just for its scathing analysis of multiculturalism. Everything else in it is gravy. (How many books have a glossary worth reading?)
The only major disadvantage of the book is that it is focused on school psychology. While that is understandable, given Frisby’s goal of discussing empirically supported strategies to help minority children academically, he has plenty of material to create a penetrating analysis of Quack Multiculturalism in society at large. If he published such a book through a popular press, it would make a big splash and gain a Sowell-like following. Frisby has the potential to make an important contribution to the modern discussion about how to build a well functioning diverse society.
Frisby, C. L. (2013). Meeting the psychoeducational needs of minority students: Evidence-based guidelines for school psychologists and other school personnel. John Wiley & Sons.