As the United States—and much of the world—becomes more ethnically diverse, how can we all get along? For many, the obvious answer is multiculturalism, the belief that respecting cultural differences can create a more just and equitable society for all.
But new research provides evidence that promoting this philosophy can be highly problematic. In a sad irony, it finds exposure to a multicultural mindset prompts people to inflate the importance of race, bolstering the assumption that individuals can be fundamentally defined by their skin tone.
"Well-intentioned efforts to portray the value of differences may reinforce the belief that fixed, biological characteristics underpin them," writes a research team led by psychologist Leigh Wilton of Skidmore College.
"Multicultural philosophies, which stress the strengths that cultural variation can provide to society, may reinforce beliefs" that racial differences are deep-rooted and unalterable, the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Wilton and her colleagues describe two studies, the first of which featured 165 Rutgers University undergraduates. Each read and thought about one of three 200-word essays they were told were excerpted from the university's long-term strategic plan.
One version used multicultural language, including "We value the identity of each group, and we recognize its existence and its importance to the social fabric." Another used color-blind language, including: "We must look beyond skin color and understand the person within, to see each person as an individual who is part of the larger group." The third did not address race or culture.
All then completed a "race essentialism" scale, which was designed to determine the degree to which people feel race is unchangeable and biologically determined. Using a one-to-seven scale, they reported their level of agreement or disagreement with such statements as "I believe physical features determine race"; "No one can change his or her race—you are what you are"; and "It's easy to tell what race people are by looking at them."
The researchers report that the students who had been thinking about the concept of multiculturalism and how it pertains to their campus reported higher levels of racial essentialism. Thinking about racial and cultural differences fed the idea that they are somehow determinative.
This finding was replicated in a second study featuring 150 American adults recruited online. Once again, those who read an essay "valuing differences between diverse groups" had greater racial essentialist beliefs than those who read a different essay "emphasizing similarities among diverse groups."
Even more problematically, "participants expressing greater racial essentialist beliefs were less likely to believe racial inequality is a problem in need of change." As the researchers note, this makes sense, in that if "inequalities are rooted in real, unchangeable differences in racial groups," there's no point in addressing them.
"We do not mean to imply that multiculturalism should be universally discarded," the researchers stress. "Neither multiculturalism nor color blindness offers a simple panacea for improving diversity."
Rather, they point to the promise of polyculturalism, which another research team defined as "the belief that cultures change constantly through different racial and ethnic groups' interactions, influences, and exchanges with each other, and therefore are dynamic and social constructed rather than static."
"Although polyculturalism recognizes group differences," Wilton and her colleagues write, "it construes cultural groups as interdependent, as opposed to separate entities that must be bridged." In other words, it recognizes differences but stresses fluidity, which could short-circuit racial essentialist thinking.
Given the huge role racism and xenophobia are playing in our current-day politics, finding effective ways to discourage stereotyping could not be more important. In some contexts, multiculturalism may be a useful tool, but this research makes it clear it can backlash.
People must be educated to realize there is a difference between respecting someone's race and culture, and assuming they can be defined by it.