Understanding multiculturalism helps promote integration of ethnic minorities

Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, is “Asia’s World City” because of its East and West interconnectivity, welcoming migrants from both Asian and non-Asian settings, consisting of 8 percent non-Chinese individuals (known as ethnic minorities). Most of the non-white ethnic minority population of Hong Kong consists of low-income South Asians and Southeast Asians. Based on the reports of some non-governmental organizations, some members of the ethnic minorities community reported that they had experienced discrimination on certain occasions (e.g., when opening bank accounts and taking public transportation). Additionally, some Hong Kong-based scholars have highlighted that current social policy in Hong Kong appears to be partially or completely different from Western-based approaches to multiculturalism, necessitating further examination to promote social inclusion of ethnic minorities to successfully achieve a harmonious Hong Kong society.

To fill this gap, as part of our research “Multiculturalism with Hong Kong characteristics: A qualitative study” ((2022). Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race. doi: 10.1017/S1742058X22000078), we conducted interviews with 20 educators and tutors from diverse ethnic backgrounds (ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese) working in charities and NGOs, to explore their perspectives in terms of multiculturalism in Hong Kong. Our study yielded three main themes as: 1) a general understanding of multiculturalism as diverse cultural/ethnic backgrounds, mutual understanding and acceptance, and inclusive social harmony and social justice; 2) perceptions of Hong Kong-based multiculturalism and the perceived hierarchy of ethnic groups; and 3) the main differences between Western and Hong Kong-based multiculturalism, including more acceptance of diversity in the West and geographic location. According to our participants’ sharing and our existing prior studies on the promotion of social inclusion of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, we observed the importance of incorporating social harmony (e.g., meeting the basic needs of individuals or groups rather than considering their differences, a prominent value in Chinese context), and social justice (i.e., prioritizing individualism and promoting ethnic heterogeneity, a prominent value in Western context). This study highlighted that both social harmony and social justice are equally important to successfully achieve social inclusion in Hong Kong.

The mid-19th-century philosophy of ubuntu epitomizes this exact sentiment. The defining phrase “I am because of who we all are” is based on Jacob Mugumbate and Andrew Nyanguru’s 2013 work “Exploring African Philosophy. The Value of Ubuntu in Social Work”, published in the African Journal of Social Work, and emphasizes the sentiment of “being self through others”. Its inherent values recognize and nurture a cultural attitude of dignity, harmony and humanity, so as to build and maintain a social fabric woven of the values of justice, mutual caring and inclusion. Thus, the principles of multiculturalism seamlessly dovetail into ubuntu.

The best possible solution to a challenge lies in addressing the root cause, rather than expending endless time, effort and resources to deal with the symptoms. And the way forward for us in Hong Kong to achieve an inspiring and benchmarking state of multiculturalism is to address the language quandary that appears to beset a large segment of Hong Kong’s children community that attends local schools. The concerns surrounding ethnic majority/non-English-speaking children struggling to master the language and those of the ethnic minority/ non-Chinese speaking children feeling deterred from mastering that language have been consistently mentioned over the years. These language barriers are owing to less-than-suitable pedagogical bridges to nurture the appropriate supportive environment for the young ones, thus actively contributing to lack of integration, inclusion or immersion, and from a very early age at that. The complete symmetrical interdependence between language and culture is undeniable. It is the cultural immersion that inspires multiculturalism at its grassroots level by facilitating human integration with and acceptance of each other by focusing on the differences that unite them, rather than exacerbate on the revelation of being different and disharmonious. Language-supported cultural immersion helps multicultural, multiethnicity, multibelieved people to appreciate that not only can they understand each other, but they can also celebrate their similarities, rejoice in each other’s uniqueness and benefit from learning from each other by educating each other.

To quote the very learned Mary Parker Follett: “Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.”

Dr Gizem Arat is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Lingnan University, who researches the promotion of social inclusion of diverse ethnic minority communities in Hong Kong and East Asia.

Manoj Dhar is co-founder and CEO of Integrated Brilliant Education, a front-line NGO providing equity based, inclusive and equal language-learning opportunities to Hong Kong’s underserved and educationally marginalized non-Chinese-speaking children.

Dr Narine N. Kerelian is an academic-year lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Santa Clara University, whose research examines multiculturalism, social cohesion and migrant/ethnic minority incorporation with a focus on Asia.