Friday, 22 June 2018

What does it mean to be multicultural?

I recently saw an advert where the NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) was looking for "multicultural-looking" girls for an audition. This very strange use of the word "multicultural" (probably just a botched attempt at political correctness, a way to avoid saying "non-white") made me wonder: What does it really mean to be multicultural?


Some people, especially in the US, might perhaps read "multicultural" as a synonym for "multiracial".

Below is the FTDNA myOrigins map of my paternal grandfather, a man who has always identified as Norwegian and nothing else - not because he has anything against other cultures, but simply because he had no knowledge of ancestral roots in any other country or any other ethnic group. As you can see from his DNA results, not only is my grandfather not purely Norwegian; he is not even purely European. A small but significant portion of my grandfather's genes originate in Asia, and some of it even comes from as far afield as Oceania. Is my grandfather multicultural? Well, he is arguably multiracial to a certain extent. However, his newly discovered East Asian roots has not yet prompted him to start wearing hanbok, or to start eating sashimi for Christmas (unlike the customer who famously traded in his German lederhosen for a Scottish kilt after receiving his DNA results).

A more social-anthropological understanding of "multicultural" is more literal: A mixing of cultures, here referring to ways of life, belief systems, etc. - in short, what we're socialized into as children. This is a less essentialist understanding of culture than the "racial" one, and probably more in line with my grandfather's understanding of himself. Going by this social understanding of culture, we might say that my grandfather is multiracial, but not multicultural.

Family background

Or maybe he is multicultural after all? Even though he was not aware of any non-Norwegian roots before I started researching his genealogy, it turns out that he has Scottish, German, Danish, Finnish and South Sámi ancestors, all within the last 400 years. If we go by family background alone, I suspect most people will find that they have multicultural roots within the last few hundred years. Note that I say most, and not all, because I do know people whose known ancestry is fully Norwegian back to the year 1500!

Does having a multicultural family background mean that we ourselves are multicultural? If the family ties are close enough, the answer is obviously yes. For instance, if you have parents from different countries or even continents, then in my opinion you are undoubtedly multicultural. As you move backwards through the generations, it becomes less clear; does having a grandparent from a different culture (than your other grandparents) make you multicultural? How about a great-grandparent? Where does it "stop"? At what generational distance do you cease to be multicultural?

Even if your connection to a certain culture is distant in time and generations, it does not necessarily mean that you are unaware of it. Many of us with more distant mixed roots have heard stories about them, such as my own family stories of Romani and Russian ancestors. Today, my close family members all identify (primarily) as ethnic Norwegians, probably because we speak Norwegian and look like the majority population of Norway. However, it may very well be that certain non-Norwegian cultural beliefs and practices have been passed down to living generations. My maternal grandmother seems to have retained some traditional Romani beliefs concerning pregnancy and funerals. In that sense, we are in fact slightly multicultural although society tries to tell us otherwise.

Additionally, many of us also choose to reconnect with ancestral cultures which we encounter through genealogical research. I personally feel a strong affinity with my Forest Finn and African roots, which had been forgotten in my family.

Life experiences

Culture, however, is more than just family heritage. It has to do with the way we've grown up; the people we've known, the places we've lived, and so on. My father spent part of his childhood in Austria, and took with him parts of Austrian culture back home to Norway. He even went back to Austria to do research for his Master's degree. My childhood was certainly influenced by Austria. We would sometimes eat Austrian food, pastries and cakes (like KrapfenSachertorteApfelstrudel and Lebkuchen), there were Styrian flags and coats of arms, Tyrolean hats and Austrian Christmas decorations in our home, and my father - a lover of languages, and especially the German language - would practice his German at every opportunity. In my opinion, my father may well call himself multicultural in the sense that he has adopted elements of Austrian culture and added them to his Norwegian starting point. At the very least, he is certainly a cultural bricoleur.

Similarly, the experience of having spent a year in the United States when I was twelve years old has impacted my personality and worldview and made me a slightly different person than I would have been if I had never lived there. To what extent does that make me multicultural? How about my six months in Kenya after high school, or the fact that I'm currently living in South Africa with no concrete plans to settle in Norway after my PhD? The fact that I was baptized into the Lutheran faith, but left the Church of Norway when I was 18 and later converted to Tibetan Buddhism? The fact that my partner is a Black South African woman, herself multicultural with parents from two different African countries? A multiplicity of cultures is part and parcel of my existence.

These are my thoughts about being multicultural, based on my own knowledge and experience. The only conclusion I can draw from it is that multiculturality is a multidimensional spectrum. Multiculturality has degrees, and we are all multicultural to a greater or lesser extent. This is a necessary outcome of the fact that humans have been migrating and mixing with and borrowing from each other for tens of thousands of years. Even the most isolated uncontacted tribes of the Amazon forest - who might be deemed some of the least multicultural groups on the planet - have an ancestral history of migration; in fact, the migration of Native South Americans has been the longest one in human history!

We should acknowledge and celebrate our diverse heritage, because it makes life interesting (imagine if everyone had exactly the same lifestyle!), and, more importantly, because it ties us together as one human race.

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