Hybridity as a Response to Multiculturalism

by Stephanie Cawley


Hybridity, in Homi K. Bhabha’s formulation, can perhaps be best understood as an argument against the concept of western liberal multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, manifested as a celebration and encouragement of “cultural diversity,” suggests that “culture” for any given group is an object with clearly defined boundaries and traits that are long-standing, “authentic,” and easily observable. Bhabha explains, however, that this concept of an “authentic” culture, even in the context of a supposed celebration of cultural diversity or in an effort of colonial resistance, can be part of an imperial project that defines “other” cultures in a mythologized and often exoticized way, and part of a project that effectively provides the subaltern (the most oppressed groups) with an externally-formed identity, not with agency of their own.

To Bhabha and others, any conceptualization of culture as able to be reduced to a set of traditions drawn from the past ignores the complex systems of exchange and interrelation that stretch through history, and that also currently take place under systems of imperialism, cultural dominance. and globalism. This conceptualization of cultures as delineated by fixed boundaries also risks approaching essentialism, which claims that cultural differences emerge from biological differences between races, genders, etc. This essentialist viewpoint sees identities as fixed and emerging from biology, which generally leads to the reduction of a diverse group to a homogenized, monolithic mass. Such an understanding–again, even in the framework of perhaps well-meaning multiculturalism–does not work to politically overthrow the systems of dominance and inequality, and risks becoming an oppressive set of racist stereotypes.

Monument to Multiculturalism (Kuitenbrouwer)

Arguments against multiculturalism may seem surprising to the average Western reader, as multiculturalism is often presented in early education as a solution or response to racism. As Kelly Chien-Hui Kuo explains, however, multiculturalism “obscures the existing relationship of domination and power” (230). This means that in any society where certain cultures are privileged more than others (and this is essentially all societies), embracing a multicultural philosophy effectively attempts to negate these inequalities, rather than address them. Simone Drichel also explains that the white European culture usually presents itself as a non-culture because of its supposed rationality (593). The “cultures” of multiculturalism are usually marked as distinct or “other” from the white Europeans, thus perpetuating systems of inequality and subordination.

Bhabha argues that a new, hybrid conception of culture is necessary to develop a truly international culture, and to dismantle systems of cultural dominance, but he argues that this new concept should be centered around “cultural difference” rather than “cultural diversity.” Bhabha, drawing on post-structuralist theory, cites the inability of language to accurately represent the world, and therefore claims that “all cultural statements and systems are constructed in this contradictory and ambivalent space of enunciation” (208). For Bhabha, this space is a “Third Space” in between cultures that are often thought of as diametrically opposed. This space is a site where cultural differences can be articulated and postcolonial people have the possibility to renegotiate their own identities outside of externally-imposed binaries.

Works Cited

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