Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Identity Against Culture: Understandings of Multiculturalism


In his far-reaching examination of multiculturalism, Kwame Anthony Appiah stresses the possibilities of maintaining a pluralistic culture of many identities and sub-cultures while retaining the civil and political practices that sustain national life in the classic sense. He begins with a discussion of what the word "culture" might mean, suggesting that "culture" and "identity" inevitably conflict in the emergence of the "individual."

He engages Charles Taylor's proposal that sub-cultural identity should be a matter of state maintenance, problematizing certain contemporary methods of teaching multiculturalism, suggesting instead a more inclusive cultural education for a pluralistic society than is usually achieved by teaching culture only to those who belong to a particular community. With the example of French Canadians he illustrates that the interests of cultural preservation would not be satisfied if the language and social practice of French Canada were to be preserved by a group of Polynesians living on a remote island in the Pacific. This would not be acceptable because a consistent issue in nationalism and cultural survival is the desire to transmit culture, values and practices from one generation to another, hence the importance of participation by the state's educational system in maintaining culture and cultural plurality.

Appiah warns against proscribing "correct" behavior to the life scripts of people whose difference--whether sexual, racial or national--has been constituted as part of their identity, since to do so would suggest the possibility of authentic and inauthentic life scripts and all the problems that attend like assumptions.

Appiah concludes by suggesting that the possibilities of having a common set of institutions and a common culture in addition to the pluralistic identities of an open society is the difficult goal towards which we must strive.

Commentaries by Jorge Klor de Alva (Ethnic Studies), David Hollinger (History) and Angela Harris (Law) draw out several of the themes suggested by Appiah's lecture.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View