Multiculturalism, Diversity, and the Big City

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With my back to them at the street-side café I felt like a judge on “The Voice“, straining my neck for any hint of where they were from or what they looked like, resisting the urge to swirl around and start dancing on my chair. Truth be told my ears had perked up as soon as the trio plopped down at the table behind me, switching between topics like gentrification in Kreuzberg and the cultural difference between Kaffee and “coffee” as quickly as they were switching between German and English.

Voice #1: “I speak differently when I speak to you, or to Brits, or to other Americans. I’m speaking much slower right now and I explain things differently.”  Aha! A fellow American. Is she a teacher? Is this a language class? Wait, were you just speaking in English or German?” Hmm, maybe not a teacher. Did she also grow up with both languages? Is that a slight accent I detect?

Voice #2: “My name, Uyen… well for us the middle name is actually the main name, the name before that is just to make the name more beautiful. And my last name is unique, a combination of my mother’s and father’s names. Even my sisters don’t have it because the province where I was born doesn’t have the same rules like they do here.” ‘Uyen’… is that Vietnamese? Germany has laws about children’s names.. maybe she was born in Vietnam and then her family moved to Germany and her sisters were born here?

Voice #3: “In another language it’s always different, the, the… how do you say Betonung auf Englisch?” The others are struggling to find the translation, should I interject…? No that’d be rude, though maybe they’d appreciate the…

SLAM! Down went my button and I whirled around.

“Emphasis!” I yelped, nearly toppling over on the cobblestones. “Sorry… for, uh, listening in on your conversation,” I continued a bit sheepishly, trying to redeem myself, “It was just really interesting!”

Lucky for me they were not only open to the vocabulary assistance but also for a chat with the lady who’d been shamelessly eavesdropping on them (and typing up parts of their conversation, they’d later learn).  Ten minutes later it was clear that while my sleuthing wasn’t entirely off the mark, it wasn’t the whole picture either. Voice #1 belonged to Lea: originally born in Serbia but living in the US for most of her life, currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Work in Boston, but had spent a few years of her upbringing in Germany. Her German, just like mine, was fluent and almost accent free but peppered by the occasional grammar mistake or forgotten vocabulary word. Voice #2 was Uyen: Vietnamese-German (or German-Vietnamese) as I suspected. Born in Vietnam, grew up in Berlin, also currently studying. And Voice #3 was Nicole’s: A German also working toward her degree in Social Work. The three were in a class together but it wasn’t a language one. Instead they were enrolled in an international summer course called “Diversity in the Big City”. A course focused on diversity in urban environments for those working in social professions and partly financed by the Federal Foreign Office in cooperation with the DAAD, Germany’s Academic Exchange Service. The course examines diversity through four lenses: social participation, social structure and urban development, migration and integration, and education.

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This is one of those moments I wish Chancellor Angela Merkel had been around to see. Not that I think about Merkel all that often or necessarily consider her a fun café partner, but it would’ve been satisfying to show the politician who proclaimed that “multiculturalism has utterly failed” this positive example of multiculturalism in the everyday.

And there we go again with one of our favorite words, “multiculturalism”. If we were so inclined, we could spend this whole damn blog analyzing that term. We wouldn’t mind so much actually – Kelly can’t even use the term “culture” without first defining it and I could happily talk your ears off about the relationship between cultural capital and educational achievement. Thankfully we’re savvy enough to realize it wouldn’t make things very fun for all of you. Or would it? No, of course it wouldn’t. Moving on. But write us if it might.

To be fair, it’s pretty near impossible to create a definitive understanding of “multiculturalism”.  The word’s become increasingly loaded as countries face burgeoning levels of immigration and struggle to incorporate diverse populations within their borders. In turn it’s dissected by academics, used strategically to shape policy, and tossed around in the everyday. It’s elusive and as some like to call it, a “moving target”. Kelly hit the nail on the head in one of her posts and then bolded that nail so you’d pay attention: “The various meanings of Multikulti are just as ‘multi’ as the differences the word aims to describe”.

I think we can start by agreeing that there is a stark difference between saying you’re something and actually doing something. Sociology Professor and Harvard PhD Irene Bloemraad has packaged this difference into a neat little theory called “symbolic” vs. “material” multiculturalism. In other words, talking the talk vs. walking the walk.

The United States, for example, is all about symbolic multiculturalism. Whichever food related metaphor you prefer – “melting pot”, “salad bowl”, or “ethnic stew” (yup, people say that) – the country’s national identity is forever tied to immigration and diversity. Yet as Bloemraad rightly points out, the US’s support of multiculturalism is more social than political: the country embraces multiculturalism and individual expression but is not big on providing institutionalized resources toward integration and the political participation of immigrants.

Material multiculturalism on the other hand is the government stepping in and addressing immigrant integration in an institutionalized way. Merkel’s certainly right that Germany is far from being a beacon of multiculturalism, but let’s not ignore the positive “material” work the country has recently embarked on: integration courses, new citizenship laws, educational initiatives, etc. Lea, Uyen, and Nicole’s “Diversity in the Big City” course is another example of how a small effort can promote multiculturalism both symbolically and materially: creating a space for international students to study diversity is a symbolic acknowledgement that those working in social spheres should gain this perspective. Funding these courses through the government is a material backing of this acknowledgement.

Much work still needs to be done, and I’m the first to acknowledge that four highly educated women chatting diversity over cappuccinos is a far cry from the challenges many other groups face in regards to integration. But whatever “multiculturalism” is, may, or should be, it hasn’t failed. It’s a symbolic and material work in progress. Our work in progress.

– By Sophia Burton

The adorable café pictured above is called schönes café and is located in Kreuzberg’s Graefekiez. For more information on the “Diversity in the Big City” course and others run by DAAD, click here.

Non-professional photos by yours truly.


  1. I’m still shaky on the concept of multiculturalism and diversity, both in Germany and the U.S., Thank you so much for this article, though, especially that last paragraph. So often people (we) forget that privilege and (in)justice work in so many interconnected, complex ways, and shouldn’t be read just on (or primarily) ethnic/racial terms.

  2. Hi Charisma! Thanks for your comment, and you’re certainly not alone! Kelly and I also still struggle with our understanding of multiculturalism and this blog is a way for us to explore its different meanings. Your last sentence really brings out the point I was trying to make in this post, though. To say multiculturalism has failed is basically saying society has failed, in my eyes at least. Even if large immigrant populations aren’t in the picture there are various forms of dominant, non-dominant, and sub cultures within any community that society must navigate through.

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