Never have Europeans discussed immigration so intensely as right now, what with thousands of Syrian refugees waiting at EU borders for the member countries to decide their fate. Beyond the political issues, questions of cultural integration emerge more and more often.
Culture.pl interviewed Mariusz Gałczyński PhD, an expert on multicultural education at Canada's McGill University, and discussed his belief that peaceful co-existence in a culturally-diversified society is possible.
Could you introduce us to the concept of multicultural education? Does it apply to culture per se only, or also to other diversities such as gender or sexual orientation?
M.G.: Multiculturalism is an ideology that advocates an awareness of and respect for diversity not just in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion, but also in terms of gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, class, and any other politicized difference. All of these aspects contribute to our identities and shape our worldviews, but they are political because they represent power relations embedded within society. If we consider how we use the term “different” (different from whom/what? Different in what way? Different from whose perspective?), we can begin to see how people who fit in with societal norms have been granted the privilege to dictate what is considered normal and what is something else, the “other.”
But multiculturalism reminds us that we are one society, one country, one world – in each case, one entity that is made up of the plurality of our differences. And if we want all our citizens to be treated justly and to have equitable opportunities for democratic participation, then we have to safeguard their right to be different.
Multicultural education applies the ideology of multiculturalism to schools – where teachers, as figures of power, underpin the politics of difference in how they teach, what they teach (or don’t teach), and how they interact with their students. Within every classroom, the recognition of difference is crucial because it affects how students think of themselves, how they learn, and, as a result, their potential to achieve. The goal of multicultural education, ultimately, is to ensure that all students are empowered to think critically and participate with confidence as informed citizens, both in and beyond the classroom.
Poles, due to our country’s troubled history, have a prolific tradition of firmly preserving Polish culture and language whether or not they have had to live as emigrants or under the occupation of another country. Do you think that economic immigrants have a similar right to preserve their culture in its original form? How would you align this with host countries’ usual expectation for them to blend in culturally and linguistically?
I don’t think that commitment to preserving ethnic culture and language is uniquely Polish, though our history of surviving the nearly 150-year Period of Partitions is pretty remarkable – especially in terms of the artistic achievements by Poles during that time, whether they were living under occupation, in exile, or abroad.
But yes, I do think that economic immigrants have the right to preserve their cultures because host countries are inviting them to join their citizenry. Countries like the United States and Canada have long been reliant on the contributions of immigrants, and now this is happening much more in Europe as well. Let’s not be naïve and think that immigrants are being “allowed” to come to their host countries; in most cases immigrants are recruited, as economies of countries with dwindling birth rates need immigrants to sustain themselves. Immigrants often take on lower-wage jobs, and they pay taxes to support social programs. If host governments didn’t need immigrants, would they choose to let them in? I would argue that immigration is really based on mutual understanding that these people who have uprooted their lives to come support the economy of their new country are invited to come as they are, with the promise of eventually being recognized as citizens, as equals. I don’t think any part of this social contract requires assimilation.
What’s most important to understand in all this, however, is that culture is not static. It changes over time. “Polishness”, for example, is different now than it was ten years ago, or before the fall of communism, or before World War II. Elements of our culture may seem like they stay the same, but everything slowly evolves – even traditions, food, music, language. I was in Poland this past summer and so many times I shared a laugh after getting called out for using idioms that faded out of usage after the ‘80s (when I moved to the States).
In any case, I think that the technological revolution has really changed the realities of immigration. Recent immigrants don’t need to worry as much about preserving the culture of their homelands as previous generations did because they can still be connected to them. Now we can read Polish news from a variety of sources online. We can watch Polish shows or clips on YouTube. We can download Polish music on iTunes. In my case, I’ve noticed that my Polish language skills have even improved! But all of this is relatively new – just five years ago Poles abroad didn’t have such broad access to contemporary Polish culture.
It makes sense why previous generations of immigrants held on their culture as if it were frozen in time – for them, it was. And we can see this exemplified in the Polish diaspora in North America: “Polonia” certainly represents a different conception of Polishness than Poles currently living in Poland do. But I suspect this will change with younger generations.
As for societies who accept new immigrants, I also think there is much less expectation for cultural or linguistic assimilation than there was historically. I like that you called it “blending” in your question because that implies that both immigrants and the host society change together. Along the way, we develop hybrid versions of own identities and of cultures. And as globalization forces us all to change the way we think about the world, it makes less and less sense to conceptualize nationality and ethnic identity in terms of finite borders or as checklists of shared traits.
Do you think that because of the progress of globalisation, every society will sooner or later become multicultural? Is multiculturalism inevitable?
Multiculturalism is inevitable in every society because every society is already multicultural. No matter how homogenous a culture seems, there is heterogeneity among people that makes them different from one another. But political factors skew how societies recognize difference: Which differences do we notice instinctively? Which differences are too different? Which differences affect people’s everyday interactions and compound to have profound effect on their life chances? This is why it is important to realize that multiculturalism goes beyond ethno-racial and religious diversity – because gender, sexuality, class and (dis)ability are cultures of difference too.
Ultimately what we mean by saying that societies are becoming more multicultural, then, is that we are becoming increasingly cognizant of how we interact with one another. Will there still be places in the world that are not multicultural? Well, yes, but relatively speaking. Political realities may dictate non-recognition or repression of certain aspects of difference, but individuals will still embody the spectrum of cultural differences. Essentially, a government that refutes multiculturalism is an oppressive regime. To envision culture as uniform is an antiquated and obstinate way of understanding the world.
Do you think homogenous societies, such as Poland’s, can safely accept a big group of immigrants at once? What do you think are the most crucial points in making it safe and successful?
Despite how common it is to perceive Poland as an ethnically homogenous society, such a label is deceiving. As far as I can tell, this concept of homogeneity stems from international comparisons of ethnic and linguistic diversity. But even if Poland ranks among the least heterogeneous countries in terms of these factors, it is not a monolith. Nor has it been monolithic historically. So if media reports of Polish xenophobia are to be believed, then perhaps the education system has not been doing enough to nurture critical thinking. I think that incorporating anti-bias approaches into the curriculum is an important, long-term strategy to help Polish society become more inclusive.
As for more immediate action, pro-immigrant groups in Poland might want to follow the lead of grassroots organizers in places like Iceland. Last week, author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir’s Facebook campaign ‘Syria is Calling’ (a response to the Icelandic government’s willingness to accept only a handful of refugees) caught worldwide attention after an outpouring of support from Icelanders. And a quote from Bjorgvinsdottir went particularly viral: "Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children's band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host." Clearly, such a statement was able to humanize immigration in a way that promoted empathy among Icelanders. Those who are working to improve tolerance and social justice in Poland need to make appeals to Poles in the same kind of way.
Earlier you asked me a question with reference to Poland’s “troubled history”. If we look back on our own history as a struggle to protect our human dignity, surely we can be moved to empathize with immigrants who seek asylum as a means to restore their own dignity. With such understanding, there is no humane rationale to justify why the Polish government would have a policy to only accept Christian refugees, for example. Do you need to be Christian to be human? No, all humans deserve dignity. So if Poland has resources to help, then let’s help whomever we can – regardless of any hyperbolized differences. As Maya Angelou articulated, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
You can follow Mariusz Gałczyński on Twitter
Interview by Wojciech Oleksiak on 10th September 2015.