The many meanings of multiculturalism

If you put the German word Multikulti into Google Images, the many different representations, interpretations, and applications of the word appear in a humorous montage only the inter-webs could produce. Multikulti is often translated as ‘multicultural’, but the German word tends to imply an air of controversy, in contrast to its more benign English equivalent. The sociopolitical debates surrounding Multikulti explain, in part, the somewhat obstruse myriad of images an image search produces.

Children with varying skin tones and hair textures playing together, ethnically diverse adults holding hands on a lawn, differently colored chess pieces dotting a globe, or – my favorite – a cartoon depiction of Multikulti individuals against a backdrop of the percentages of Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund, people of immigrant origin, in Germany’s largest cities. As pictured below, this depiction includes a rosy-cheeked Muslima, a darker-skinned boy holding a German flag, and… a brunette wearing a thick, gold necklace.

The various meanings of Multikulti are just as ‘multi’ as the differences the word aims to describe.

The public

On the streets of Berlin, in the local paper, in the city’s stuffy U-Bahn cars, the picture is not any clearer.

A sign reading “Multikulti party catering” swings from a Senegalese food cart at the Bergmannstraßenfest, which serves up heaps of thickly-sliced fried plantains with the salmon-colored, German version of Cocktail sauce. “Multikulti in Schöneberg” is the title of a recent newspaper article on real estate development, with dark-haired children frolicking on a sidewalk as its featured image, no blonde-haired children in sight. And in Neukölln, a ‘Multikulti shop’ is a place where one can find party hats and exotic party favors, as overheard from an elderly woman speaking to her friend on the U7 line.

Pale sauce on bananas, brunettes, “wild” party attire: is this what diversity looks like?

Multikulti has absolutely failed”, Chancellor Angela Merkel infamously remarked in a 2012 speech. These words were planted within an integration discourse just learning to deal with real, long-lasting immigration, rather than the comings and goings of guest workers.

But the tone has since changed. Multikulti is no longer a pejorative and no longer an excuse to ignore certain policies that have isolated immigrant communities from the greater population.

In fact, Angela Merkel largely reversed her position at the beginning of 2015, echoing the words of former President Christian Wulff in saying “Islam is, without a doubt, a part of Germany“. With this powerful (and controversial) statement, the head of the conservative CDU and of the Republic demonstrated an act of including and embracing the dominant Other in German society.

The real and perceived meaning of the term remains just as nebulous now as it was in 2012, however, despite steps taken to classify Multikulti as an issue of Islam or Muslims being accepted in a traditionally Christian country.

In the airwaves of Berlin, the word Multikulti is used as one might use ‘diversity’, or perhaps even just ‘different’ or ‘differences’. It is sometimes used without comment or value-judgment. Yet it can also be used to draw lines in the sand between integration (read: assimilation) and segregation (read: parallel societies). As if any process were ever so clear and immediate!

But when is such a word political and when does it just refer to ethno-cultural, religious, or phenotypical differences?

Take the Multikulti breakfast, for example – derived from the Google Images search alluded to at the beginning of this article. According to Google’s algorithm, a “Multikulti breakfast” is eating Vegemite with maple syrup. Simply put: something a little different from somewhere a little further than Cologne, Munich, or even Rostock, could pass as Multikulti. And is there anything political about Vegemite or maple syrup? Would this leave a different impression if these two things were, say, Zatar or Tahini?

The personal

I spoke to a friend with whom I studied Social and Cultural Anthropology here in Berlin about what the word Multikulti means to him.

My friend and former classmate is young, German, queer, well-educated, well-traveled, and curious about the many different cultures and norms that surround him in a big city like Berlin. He lives in what is called the Afrikanisches Viertel or African Borough in Wedding, a Northern district of Berlin populated largely by immigrants and the working class. He also spends quite a bit of time in Neukölln, the district branded with Multikulti as both claim-to-fame and scandal.

“Close your eyes and think of Multikulti.” I asked him. “Now open them. What do you see?” I was hoping that such an exercise would work a bit like an image survey of the web, assembling a lovely decoupage of different ideas and popular motifs with the speed of a mouse-click.

“I just think of Multivitaminsaft, multivitamin juice. It just sounds like putting together a bunch of different pieces,” then branding the whole jar with a catch-all phrase for society’s use, he continued.

“Do you see Multikulti in Wedding?” I ask. Wedding has a high and growing number of non-German residents, both in terms of citizenship and place of birth. “No, because it just exists. So, I wouldn’t call it Multikulti per se. It isn’t hyped up yet, like it is in Neukölln. Since everyone is moving to Neukölln, it’s become Multikulti. I also think of Karnevalder Kulturen. Packaged things, really, presented to be something other than what they really are.”

In other words, Multikulti refers to packaged diversity, rather than the real stuff. The real stuff doesn’t need external PR, or so goes this logic.

Multikulti, the catch-all term for dealing with difference: Its meaning depends on whose mouth delivers it, which spaces enclose it (or do not), and in which situation such a word is flung into the public or personal realm.

And that is just the tip of the Vegemite-syrup-breakfast sandwich.

Understanding Multikulti is situational, buried in context and everyday life. It is a filler word, one to be picked up and laid down in places where our language fails to grasp the complexities of urban encounters and differences, of challenging and playful collisions.

Before any more political discussions continue as to whether Berlin as a city will ‘fail’ because of its Multikulti character, perhaps we should confirm just exactly what this Multikulti is to us, to voters, to residents, to admirers, to little children appearing in articles for or against a concept they may have never even heard of. This is a concept, Multikulti and multiculturalism, which, as our societies embrace difference as more the norm than the exception, might become irrelevant.

Kelly Miller is a founder of Collidoscope Berlin, where this article was first published.

Add Row