Thursday 12 November 2015

Multiculturalism supposes Monocultures...Yes?

I am not at all surprised by this news story as I know strongly anti-EU young Poles. Knowing that in the past 300 years their country has been divided between three European super-powers and then wiped off the map by Germany and Russia for the duration of the Second World War, and then had its borders indelibly altered by the Soviet Union, Poles are not really very happy when foreigners--let alone the Germans--tell them what to do. Why they joined the EU in the first place is as yet a mystery to me.

I see that the marchers carried banners reading "Poland for the Poles"; if 50,000 Englishmen marched with banners reading "England for the English" the rest of England would faint with horror. However, there are a lot more non-English in England than there are non-Poles in Poland. There are, as yet, very few non-Poles in Poland, and at least 50,000 Poles want to keep it that way.

What does it mean to be Polish? But what does it mean to be Scottish? And this is a more pertinent question for me, not only because I live in Scotland, but because I grew up in multicultural Toronto and was taught a mild form of multicultural ideology at school. I resented having to pretend I was something I was not--Irish or Scottish or German--or to rack my brains for some dish sufficiently ethnic and interesting to bring to Multicultural Day. ("Bannock!" my mother would unhelpfully yodel.) However, multiculturalism before massive Islamic migration was mostly about food and national dress brought out on special occasions, not gross violations of non-Islamic belief about women fully participating in social life by daring to show their faces. Et cetera.

The mild food-and-clothing multiculturalism of my childhood presupposed actual, definable, and usually stereotyped monocultures. To put it bluntly, to be Scottish meant to be white and porridge-eating. Your national pastry was shortbread. Your music involved bagpipes. To be Irish meant to be white and potato-eating. Your national pastry was soda bread. Your music involved flutes. (Deedle-deedle.) To be Polish meant to be white and cabbage-roll eating. Your national pastry was pierogi. Your music involved accordians. To be Italian meant to be white and pasta-eating. Your national pastry was cannoli. Your music involved "That's Amore".  And so on.

Great was the dismay of my college's Italian Club circa 2000 when a pair of Italian-speaking South Asian siblings turned up. Unlike the vast majority of the members of the Italian Club, they had been brought up in Italy. They were Catholics. They identified as Italian and so sought admittance to the Italian club. But they were brown, browner than Italians usually are, and their arrival shocked the third-generation Italian-Canadian members brought up in Canada by second-generation Italian-Canadians. Sadly their discomfort made the siblings uncomfortable, and so they moved on--unlike the Italian Club.*

When I was in my second-generation Italian-Canadian-dominated high school, it was not exactly a secret that a large number of their parents would have fallen down and died had they brought black boys home to meet the family. When I am in Rome, I hear black children speaking Italian and see dozens of Africans in the area around the main train station. Africans sell fake designer bags on Rome's bridges, and South Asians work in its restaurants. While the Italian birthrate continues to be dismally low, Italy is becoming increasingly multicultural. As Italy becomes multicultural, how will "Italian" be defined ?And if "Italian" identity is up in the air, what will become of Italian-Canadian identity? Will Canada's multiculturalism be entirely based on nostalgia for the past?

In terms of European immigrants to Canada and their descendants, I would say so--unless millions of of European immigrants abandon Europe to live in Canada: white flight on an unprecedented scale. However, in terms of more recent immigrants--Somalis and Pakistanis, for example--it is now possible--thanks to cheap airfare and telecommunications--to live in two countries at the same time. The Italian-Canadians of my generation were cut off from daily contact with Italy until, roughly, the year 2000. (Personally I did not have daily internet access until 2002.) The most recent mass-migration of Italians to Canada was in 1950, so fifty years created an Italian-Canadian culture incredibly old-fashioned by 2000's standards.

In the 1980s, it was fashionable to cudgel one's brains and demand "Just what is a 'Canadian' anyway?"  Multiculturalism was the answer. I was brought up to believe that whereas the United States was "a melting pot", Canada was a bright mosaic of different, but distinct and definable, cultures. However, as Europe becomes less European, the European bits of the Canadian mosaic may become meaningless, based in a vanished past. Canada is going to have to assert something a little more forceful than "multiculturalism" if it is going to successfully resist the challenges and tensions brought by Islamism.

Meanwhile those stubborn Poles are determined to stay white, Christian and Polish, and the Eastern Europeans are also refusing to go into that good European melting pot-mosaic. I am curious to see if they succeed. Of course, if they don't bother to have children, they're just as doomed as the other European ethnic groups. Whoever has the most children wins.

*B.A. and I have been watching a cooking/travel show hosted by an Italian gay guy. He tells us that the most important part of Italian culture is food, and I shriek at the TV that it is family. In my Italian-Canadian dominated youth, the most important part of Italian culture was LA FAMIGLIA. Saying it was not family but food would have been an unthinkable and shameful cultural heresy. Of course, that was in Toronto. Come to think of it, two of my best pals have married Italian-Canadians, and family there is STILL more important than food.


  1. A second-generation Italian friend of mine posted this on his Facebook page. I thought it made some very interesting evolution-of-culture observations. Your post seems to be musing along similar lines (though you have a different conclusion in mind).

  2. I shall have to read it. I suspect, however, Toronto's Italian-Canadians have evolved differently from New Jersey's Italian-Americans. For one thing, people from one region in Italy tended to settle in one region of North America; for example, half of Racalmuto in Sicily eventually moved to Hamilton, Ontario.

  3. I shall have to read it. I suspect, however, Toronto's Italian-Canadians have evolved differently from New Jersey's Italian-Americans. For one thing, people from one region in Italy tended to settle in one region of North America; for example, half of Racalmuto in Sicily eventually moved to Hamilton, Ontario.

  4. It amuses me to think that my 22-year-old self might have encountered your 12-year-old self back in North York in the early 1980s, when I was living on campus at York University and there was only one bus servicing the area between the campus and the last subway stop. Don't remember its number...

    Alias Clio

  5. As I was on York University main campus on Saturdays for my ballet class from ages 7 until 14, we certainly may have seen each other!

    1. I have a memory, at once powerful and vague, of riding that bus to the subway station (the one for York Mills? not sure any more) when it was full of young Catholic school girls in very short plaid skirts. Most of them were very obviously of Italian descent, and had eyelashes so long that they must have clouded their vision.

      Alias Clio

  6. If those plaid skirts were blue, those were my fellow Abbey students! (If I was 12 at the time, I was among them 2 years later.) Woot! The amusing thing about our shockingly short kilts is that in my day we were mostly prudes and would have been utterly shocked and insulted to tears if someone had told us we looked horribly immodest. The worst insult at school was "putana", and obody was a putana just for wearing a short kilt! Everybody wore short kilts! Heaven only knows why, but as many girls who could manage it wore their kilts super-short. I usually wore blue tights with mine--in the winter at any rate.

    With my uniform I wore a trio of purple eyeshadows and mascara, or a trio of grey eyeshadows and mascara. I also had a terrible 1980s haircut. Ah, the 1980s!

  7. I suspect that there were a good many rolled-up waistbands among the shorter-kilted girls. I don't remember what colour the kilts were; certainly some were blue, but I seem to remember some Black Watch varieties and a few Stuart tartans among them.

    The early 1980s saw the first wave of nostalgia for the early-to-mid-1960s. It was partly a cyclical thing (fashion trends tend to take 20 years or so to recycle), and partly a response to the murder of John Lennon in 1980, or so I imagine. That's why short skirts became so fashionable at that time. The nostalgia was very much for the English, mod 1960s, not the peace-and-love Californian variety.

    Alias Clio


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