One major “opportunity” and one major “weakness”

My impression is that in our current Western narrative, the life of a non-Western multicultural person is defined either in terms of the victim or the perpetrator. For purposes of this article, I will define multicultural roughly as having been brought up in a context which is significantly different from the dominant culture in one’s society. Especially by the left and the progressives, these individuals are seen as discriminated upon, marginalized, unprivileged bunch of victims of the majority, capitalist, post-colonialist superstructure and so forth. And unfortunately, there is some truth to some of these accusations. But only some and to some extent. The right sees the problems of minorities as caused by a lack of integration and focuses on personal responsibility while failing to explicitly face issues that are systematic and unjust concerning these minorities.

This article is written mainly with the Dutch context in mind. My personal view in the last couple of years in the Netherlands has been that non-Western minorities, especially when they refuse to adapt, are looked down upon with some suspicion. Sometimes they are “guilty” until proven otherwise. With guilty I mean that they are seen as less developed, less intelligent, even more primitive. How do I know this? Well, I do not. But my belief is based on the many comments many highly educated Turks and Moroccans receive of being especially “well-spoken,” “intelligent,” and so forth compared to the peers of their group. As for my own ethnic identity, I am a Turk born in the Netherlands to relatively traditional parents.

Despite this introduction, this article will not be about politics or societal superstructures. It will be a personal account about the experience, potential, psychological and inherent problems facing those who have the non-Western multicultural experience in a Western society. I will do this be putting forward one major opportunity and one major weakness that potentially faces these individuals.

I want to continue with my personal account of things. I don’t think that the experience of these minorities or individuals within these groups is necessarily that grim for several reasons. Moreover, not all of these problems are sociological by nature. Some of them are highly psychological and inherent to being a minority person within a society with a different dominant culture. In this article I want to point to one major upside (‘’opportunity”) and one major downside (“weakness”) of being a multicultural person. Hopefully, this will help to see opportunities where they are shaded by the structural and inherent problems of being multicultural and also create sympathy with an aspect of multiculturalism members of the majority group are not necessarily exposed to. Finally, it is needless to disclaim that I speak for myself and do not necessarily represent a group, even though my strong suspicion is that my experiences are shared by many.

The upside

Yes, primary school and often even high school were harder in terms of language acquisition and perfection. We know that many Turks and Moroccans have a significantly smaller vocabulary than their native Dutch peers. On the other hand, they most probably know a different language and a different culture. This provides a major potential, at least for those who are able to see them. Many of these options are highly self-evident but remain important to mention. They are able to be a bridge between two cultures, in terms of direct translation and explanation and transliteration of differences. One becomes able to traverse between the norms, values, and symbols of both cultures. For instance, Muslims in Europe know that not shaking hands is actually a deed of respect and piety to many instead of a refusal to acquaint the other and their culture. You are able to expose these differences. This all occurs within the same society.

Being multicultural also opens doors beyond the society you live in. Imagine cultures all around the world to be nodes with (geographical) zones of influence. Roughly speaking we can say that Iranian culture is more similar to Anatolian Turkish culture than to Japanese. This means that if you understand this part of Turkish culture, you have an easier access to Iranian culture. I actually derived this from own experience when I was on a trip in Iran: it was easier for me to understand what people implied. This means that instead of knowing one node of culture and the cultures that are in its zone of influence, you have two nodes in the world. Your world of understanding is therefore expanded immensely compared to someone who has to work really hard to grasp another culture and language when they are older. The subtleties might still escape them. And who can blame them? Cultures are complex.

Finally, both the national and global opportunities the position of a multicultural provides can be monetized. In your own society and under equal circumstances, you are more likely to be appointed to stations where contact with many cultures is important. This can include translation work, the police, ministries of foreign affairs, journalism, teaching (some classes), and many more. Internationally, the examples become even more obvious. Businesses need to communicate with other businesses and prevent misunderstandings. Here is where the subtleties can kick in. Another potential is that there is often an economic asymmetry between any given two countries especially when they are distant. With asymmetry I mean that the Netherlands might need more engineers while they are overabundant in Ukraine. This means that if you are an engineer in Ukraine it would seems reasonable to move to the Netherlands. One major barrier is of course language and culture. Multicultural people have to worry less (they should not overestimate themselves on this point though) when they traverse between their country of “origin” and the country where they live or have been born.

The downside

Identity, identity, and identity. It does not matter how often I think about this word, it remains vague. The usual anchors of nationality, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, just don’t seem to cut it. Probably because as humans we fail to understand something as it “is.” We rather are inclined to see things through their parts and their functions. We are highly analytical, but who someone “is” is definitely not covered by the sociological use of “identity” (what about appearance, temperament, genetic mutations?) and even if all boxes were filled, we would still not grasp it. It is the fate we are not that unaware of.

I even think the persistence of the term “soul” in our highly materialised-scientific world view is an expression of this. We are not just our brains, we are more, we seem to believe. This issue is epistemological in its essence. A problem of what we can “know” and the claim we can make on knowledge about what “is” and in particular what a given person is: what is essential and what is merely an attribute? Anyways, before drifting away too much from the topic. The identity construct has a function in society, it helps us to meaningfully distinguish one person from another, it helps us to self-position and orient ourselves in life, and its helps others to create a somewhat predictable set of actions and norms which is essential to all social relationships.

My focus will be mainly on the latter point because it marks an ache that affects one of the most important aspects of one’s life: relationships. Humans are highly social beings within any metric of comparison I can think of. Okay, ants might still win, but it was never a competition in the first place (or was it?). Either most behaviours are correlational or they seem to be and expected to be in our daily experiences. With correlational I mean that we expect a person to have a personality that persists through the many situations one encounters. Someone who is kind-hearted is expected to be touched emotionally and perhaps express this after seeing a video of children in poverty. In psychology, this correlation is marked in terms of the big five personality traits (e.g. extraversion-introversion, neuroticism, openness). Someone who is open is expected to either be open to new experiences in terms of aesthetics (i.e. arts) or ideas (e.g. philosophy).

Cultures contribute to a large extent to the formation of behaviours and inclinations. But what happens if a multicultural person is trying to find his or her identity? Or if someone seems to be a patchwork of cultures where they are more culture X in some aspects and more culture Y under other circumstances? How is someone expected to reliably know what the other person will behave under some circumstances. One personal example is that I have taken many of the aspects of masculinity and pride as defined in Turkish culture. This means that I don’t accept certain jokes (e.g. mother or sister jokes) lightly and I am relatively very strict on exclusiveness in romantic relationships including potential flirtatious behaviour, and I feel a responsibility to protect my beloved ones from harm (to their pride and mine) in a way that even the threat of such a thing invokes immediate aggression in me. Again, it’s complicated and this is not the full list.

This means that someone who sees me, an open, cheerful, modern, tolerant, and welcoming person is intuitively assuming that these aspects are somewhat correlated throughout all aspects of my personality. But they might be surprised to find the patch of traditional Turkishness at an unexpected moment. This can feel alienating both to the multicultural person and the other individual. Communication is of course key, but we are bound to our own cultures when we try to understand other cultures so this is not a guarantee. And since this might push the multicultural person to repress their other side, be discriminated because of it, or make them feel uncomfortable or even disappoint others, I believe that this can be a highly detrimental aspect of being multicultural person in a society or community with an obvious dominant culture. In my case there is much anxiety connected to this, but I have decided to communicate this clearly and as soon as possible so others can make the decision about the future of the social relationship.

I do have some hope though conerning the last point. My experience is that native Dutch people who have lived around many people with non-Western background are more tolerant, accepting, respectful and warm towards these groups. Either these people move to those places because they are more open, or they become more open because they live together with these people. It could also be both. In the final two cases cases, there is hope. We might be able to make communication and understanding smoother by looking each other in the eye a little bit longer and see our differences in light of our common humanity. Accept the uncommon patches.

What are your experiences with the multicultural experience? Please do share below!