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This fresh approach to achieving racial harmony is showing promise

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Psychology lecturer Kumar Yogeeswaran is researching the effectiveness of “interculturalism” as a potential intervention for intergroup conflict.

I was dining at a plant-based eatery recently when one of our party noted that because most restaurants he visited catered mainly to omnivores, he wasn’t used to having any menu choice except “the vegetarian option”. First World problems?

It was one of those work dinners where you take a visitor out after they’ve given a talk. In this case, it was senior psychology lecturer Kumar Yogeeswaran from the University of Canterbury. He introduced the work he’s been doing that – in basic terms – looks at how we can all get along. It’s is a particularly pertinent issue, given recent local and world events, and against a background of increased migration.

Yogeeswaran has been researching the effectiveness of “interculturalism” as a potential intervention for intergroup conflict. His starting point has been a review of all research on assimilation, colour-blindness and multiculturalism as potential interventions.

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I’ll summarise the point by paraphrasing US authors Bernard Whitley Jr from Ball State University and Gregory Webster from the University of Florida.

Assimilation is the idea that we’ll all get along if people who come into our country throw off their cultural and ethnic trappings and do their best to look like the host culture, so we all, in effect, look and act the same. If we’re bananas and you’re watermelons, you have to learn to be bananas, then there will be no more difference-based arguments.

But Whitley and Webster show this doesn’t reduce prejudice. In surveys and laboratory experiments, assimilation is associated with more prejudice. I’ve always been a little cynical about assimilation, because it puts the onus to change on the people who are “not us”, and we don’t even have to think about what’s going on.

What about “colour-blindness”? This hasn’t been a big talking point in New Zealand, but it has attracted a fair bit of attention elsewhere in the world. It stresses that underneath our superficial differences (such as skin colour and religious observances) not only are we all more like each other than different, but also we’re uniquely different. So, we might be bananas or watermelons, but we’re all fruit underneath.

Kumar Yogeeswaran. Photo/Supplied

It turns out that pushing colour-blind ideology does have a tiny effect on prejudice, but it’s problematic. It glosses over the reality that, although we are all human, there are huge inequalities that affect people’s lives. International rankings show that people like bananas more than watermelons.

Then there’s multiculturalism: the idea that we’re different from one another, and that we should hang on to and embrace those differences, while working alongside one another to make the world a better place. We can be a banana and watermelon fruit salad!

Whitley and Webster give us some hope here, because people who endorse multiculturalism are notably less prejudiced, and interventions that promote multiculturalism do reduce prejudice. But not to the same extent everywhere. The benefits of multiculturalism are just half as strong in the US as they are in Europe, which suggests it’s not a magic bullet.

Enter “interculturalism”. Yogeeswaran sees this as the next step in a push towards reducing cultural and race-based isms. Multiculturalism seems a good starting point, because it recognises that everyone brings something to the table, but it also allows an out. People don’t have to change if they don’t want to, and if change means being more tolerant, there’s no pressure to do so.

Interculturalism is the idea that the whole can be stronger than the sum of the parts if we work together to take what we have and forge a new identity. Early evidence suggests this has huge promise, but it will require effort. Let’s get together and make a smoothie.

This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.