Boutique multiculturalism is the multiculturalism characterized by its superficial or cosmetic relationship to the objects of its affection. Boutique multiculturalists admire or appreciate or enjoy or sympathize with or (at the very least) “recognize the legitimacy of” the traditions of cultures other than their own; but […] the boutique multiculturalist resists the force of culture he appreciates at precisely the point at which it matters most to its strongly committed members […] — Boutique Multiculturalism by Stanley Fish
I am not fond of this essay by Stanley Fish. It’s too self-important, stuffy and faintly condescending. But the phrase “Boutique Multiculturalism” got my attention — it’s a useful term.
“Culture” is kind of a useless word. It’s a catch-all frame that manages to dilute an entire community’s (an entire nation’s) experiences, ideas and politics into a monolith which can be suitably consumed by (mostly Western) people. The concept of ‘Boutique Multiculturalism’ perfectly captures my unease at western gaping of other cultures — the spectacle of the curious, uninformed anthropology student (study abroad and expand your horizons!) As if a big reason behind the existence of the world’s cultures is to enlighten and give texture to the lives of Western, privileged societies.
Even as I enjoy the ambiance and theater of an Ethiopian restaurant, I am aware of something voyeuristic at play. There’s something ready-made and easy about how “different cultures” are experienced in America. This packaged experience feeds the awkwardness (and racism) of expecting communities to constantly present their lives as pieces of “culture” for the consumption of the majority.
The concept can also be expanded to include political discourse — “Boutique Politics”. We pick and choose what issues we care about from a menu marketed to us via flyers, social media tools, television. After which, there is a series of online activities to do — sign petitions, blog, share, link and if we are very daring — make statements using the facebook profile picture, status updates.
The particulars stop short of engaging with actual people, learning more about the struggle or coming to terms with any contradictions or nuances which might demand more time (and headache) than clicking the mouse.
I am not interested in debunking the legitimacy of social media tools — entire revolutions have been instigated by these tools. But the ease and flippancy of our new strategies has allowed a kind of laziness and opportunism to enter political discourse (I suppose these things are not new, did not start with social media). There comes a point when activism and struggles of social justice becomes chic and part of a larger project in self-image creation.
There is a difference between people using tools to spread ideas and give voice to communities versus engaging with politics for the purposes of ensuring one’s participation in the current trend (ex. knowing the meaningfulness of wearing a hoodie for justice). The former inspires resistance and solidarity while the latter nurtures cynicism and apathy.