All culture is multicultural

Every culture is the product of mixing and blending. That doesn't make multiculturalism comfortable, but without new ideas, music, and tastes, humanity would stagnate.

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    The Monitor's Scott Baldauf with young friends in Eldoret, Kenya.
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We couldn’t describe the world very well without using shorthand. All of us talk about Americans, Asians, Africans, and Europeans, for instance, as if they had common beliefs, tastes, and values.

It’s the same with nations and their subdivisions (Californians, Iraqi Kurds, Upper East Siders, Manchester United fans). But the more closely we look, the more we see how hard it is to generalize.

In his five years reporting from Africa for the Monitor, Scott Baldauf has gotten to know an amazingly diverse continent. As he points out, it is tempting to speak of Africans as “one people, with a common history.” Though African-consciousness leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and Marcus Garvey emphasized Africanness in the fight against colonialism, local identity has always been a much more powerful magnet.

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Ethiopians, for instance, occupy a big chunk of the continent, but don’t necessarily see themselves as Africans.Not only that, but in today’s global village, even local identity can have surprising variety. As Scott put it in a recent e-mail: “In South Africa, people tune into Nigerian ‘Nollywood’ soap operas, even if they don’t understand the Yoruba language. In Kenya, people dance to Congolese rumba music, even if they don’t understand the lyrics in Lingala. I once asked a Zimbabwean journalist friend to name his favorite musician, hoping to get ideas of which Zim musicians I should listen to. ‘I love Kenny Rogers,’ he told me. ‘My dad loved Crystal Gayle,’ he added.”

The point is that every culture is multicultural. Its members may have common accents and language and generally enjoy the same music and food, but they are constantly trying to differentiate themselves. And they are constantly adopting, discarding, and sampling ideas and trends that move in next door or that sail in on the trade winds or pop up on the Internet.

A Los Angeles food truck owned by a Mexican-American chef does huge business with a menu of sushi and Cuban sandwiches. German and Chinese athletes vie on the hardwood in a Dallas basketball arena. Tango gets a techno/classical/hip-hop make-over by the Paris-based mixmasters of the Gotan Project.

That’s the fun part. Not all cultural mixing is pleasant for all people, however. In recent years – especially in the difficult decade that has coincided with the “war on terror” – some people have understandably been uneasy encountering values and customs that seem aggressive and intolerant. No matter how preposterous are the assertions of a few violent provocateurs who call for a “global caliphate” or turning Europe into “Eurabia,” the fears they have planted have had an effect.

In the aftermath of the awful mass murders in Norway, Norwegians and other Europeans are taking stock of an anti-Islamic, antimulticultural backlash that has developed in recent years. Cultures that were long isolated – some that were historically at war – are now living side by side. In Norway, for instance, immigration has doubled in the past 15 years.

Change is not always easy or inherently good. Wanting to moderate it or even hold it back is legitimate, too. All indications, however, are that cultural mixing will continue, if not accelerate, so patience and forbearance will be needed all around. Assumptions about what people believe based on what they look like or where they were born can be easily pierced.

Like a Zimbabwean who loves Kenny Rogers, the only way you can really know what someone likes or believes is by listening.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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