Multicultural versus Multiracial: What’s the Difference?

The term “multicultural” is commonplace. Google identifies 81 million references. The term “multiracial” while not rare, is less common, yielding 14 million Google hits. For those engaged in matters of racial justice and racial equity, it’s helpful to consider the meaning and usefulness of these two terms.

At the heart of the matter, this means comparing and contrasting the terms “culture” and “race.” That’s a matter on which even sociologists and anthropologists argue many different and often inconsistent viewpoints. There is no singular framework or clarity of vision that allow us to tease out all the differences.

Still, we at CSWAC can make some observations. Race is a social construct, and as with any social construct, it necessarily is given meaning through cultural processes. This does not mean, as some would say, that race is bogus or unreal. What is defined as real by a culture has real consequences. Money and religion are examples of two other social constructs that have had endless impact on human affairs. So, we cannot simply wish race away by denying its operation and citing the failure of science to locate it in biological processes.

Culture is a broader concept. It not only impacts and, for the most part, defines the specifics of race, but also gender, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity. And the list can go on. So, culture applies to many forms of social difference, along with hierarchies of privilege and oppression that accompany some of these differences.

To complicate matters further, race and ethnicity are difficult to separate at times. There are arguably examples of multiracial ethnicities, as is the case for many Latinx groups. There is also the case for multiethnic races. In fact, given the four-fold racial classification in common usage in the US (white, black, Asian, and Native American), each racial group contains representatives from multiple ethnic groups.

The academic arguments of what constitutes culture, race, and ethnicity are not easily resolved. These arguments are important at times, such as when questions on the US census are crafted. But at other times they obscure more than enlighten our everyday lived reality. To many Americans, the major “racial” groups are whites, blacks, Latinxs, Asians, and Native Americans. Leaving aside the finer points of naming each group (should we call them “whites,” “European Americans,” or “Caucasians,” for instance), these are the groups readily discussed and compared when we talk about race. As noted above, Latinxs do not readily fit with a more traditional definition of a single racial group. Some try to make sense of this by referring to “racial/ethnic” groups or, as we often do at CSWAC, “racial/cultural” groups.

So, back to the terms themselves: multicultural versus multiracial. What is to be gained by each, particularly in regard to working for racial justice and equity?

The term “multicultural” is often used as a stand-in for talking about different racial/cultural groups. This is commonplace in the social science literature. Social psychologists, for instance, have studied the impact of “colorblind” ideology and practices versus that of “multicultural” ideology and practices. “Multicultural” is the term of choice here. But when one reads the actual studies, the groups under study are whites, blacks and Latinxs. In other words, they are not studying various cultures in the broadest sense but rather focusing on race, or race/ethnicity if you will.

This practice extends into everyday usage. Indeed, “multicultural” has, in some settings, become a code word for race. This seems particularly true of settings in which white colorblind norms are operating. In such a setting, the naming of race is socially discouraged and the naming of whiteness is virtually taboo. In reality, if we are going to operate on racial structure then whiteness needs to be named.

The term “multiracial” places the emphasis on race. We prefer it in the case of doing racial justice and equity work for that reason. The term multicultural signals we are from different groups and we might, through process of intercultural communication, work out some common group understanding. The term multiracial focuses more clearly on the operation of race, and points to the necessity of seeing and addressing racial structure. After all, we do live in a racially structured society. If you don’t get that, then you have some work to do.

At CSWAC, we talk about building multiracial community. To us that means being intentional about acknowledging the reality of race in its many aspects, as a basis of privilege and oppression, as an indicator of culture and heritage, and as a major concern and preoccupation of many people working to foster a fair and just society in the United States.

We acknowledge there is value to the term multicultural, particularly when we are taking a more expansive view of social justice and anti-oppression work. And we believe strongly that we need to work with people by starting from where they are. If the term of use for race in your setting is “multicultural,” then we can begin there.

But we also believe that to do work for racial justice and equity with integrity, and to bring an anti-racist approach to these concerns, we need to be a little clearer about where our focus is.