We all need to belong somewhere in this world. As humans, we need a place where we feel at home, and, as the theme song of Cheers used to put it, where everybody knows your name. That can be confusing, if you live in more than one world. Where is home, if being multicultural feels like life as a commuter between cultures? All of them shape you, in different ways, and all have a claim on your heart.
Tolerance means empathizing with others who are culturally different. What if they and you are one? Being multicultural is more intimate and ambiguous than tolerance, and that makes some people nervous. True enough, we enjoy fusion music and cuisine and spiritual retreats. We blend spices grown in far separated forests, and experience meditative silence in the Tibetan Buddhist Native American Sufi Christian contemplative tradition. This thought is comforting and hopeful for some; for others, it may elevate their anxiety. Carrying the spirit of multiculturalism into daily life is a challenge. If we know our way in both the bayou and the French Quarter, we may be fluent in more than one culture, and not fully at home in either. Our world is fragmented, and claiming dual citizenship sometimes gives you outsider status in both. Claiming more than one faith is bound to get a puzzled look, and maybe rejection as an apostate. We are generally expected to stay put in the traditions of our families. There is not much tolerance for ambiguity.
Sometimes, though, we’re born into multiculturalism, if our families have blurred ethnic boundaries. Marrying out of the fold is a time honored act of nonconformity, claiming one’s unique journey, and it sometimes carries a cost. Multiracial children are often expected to choose a pigeonhole for themselves, or have one assigned, in a display of great foolish arrogance, because society wants to know which stereotypes to apply. What is a child of two cultures to make of the world, when each ancestral culture has different standards of attractiveness, or of how to choose a partner, or of success in life? Even more perplexing, each group makes rules about who is an insider and who an outsider, subject to negative talk. Where would the child of Romeo and Juliet fit in at holiday time? To be multicultural is to get them both, not necessarily to always like them equally, and to be constantly inventing the world. Sadly, the difficulty of it is often given as a reason for people to separate themselves. Actually, being multicultural is a strange sort of gift.
Who knows better how to navigate cultural unease? Experiences of not belonging are everywhere. Imagine the workday of an intuitive, right brain thinker in corporate America, or a structured, left brain thinker at a music festival, or the family non-fan of sports on Superbowl Sunday. In our politically polarized nation, common ground is hard to find, and conversations increasingly wary. When we feel vulnerable, we want our allies to be easy to recognize, and our adversaries more so. If we need cultural conformity, in order to feel safe having coffee and conversation, we’re all in trouble. Being multicultural may end up being the most critical survival resource of our era.