The two sides of diversity

When I heard that on April 13th and 14th, M.A.I.E., an educational NGO, organized a conference about diversity and new minorities1 in Bucharest, I was immediately interested because ‚diversity‘ has long been a topic for me at home, too: Berlin often presents itself, particularly to the outside world, as a ‚multicultural‘ city and thus capitalizes on diversity, while the actual struggles of old and new minorities for recognition and equal access to resources can only be overlooked when you live in the affluent – and predominantly white – outer districts in the south of town. In the past years Berlin has seen refugees building a protest camp on Oranienplatz (a central square in Berlin-Kreuzberg) and, as the numbers of newcomers grew, hundreds of them were standing in line for an appointment at the registration authority for days in the bitter cold.

‚Diversity‘, that’s what I learned also simply by being a feminist – is a double-edged sword: It can be understood as a tool to achieve more equality in a society where individuals are subjected to a system of hierarchical differences, but it can also be the mere adding of ‚colorful spots‘ to the otherwise ’neutral‘ canvas of a city – and in the latter case, inequalities tend to persist.

So, I was interested in how the topic was discussed in Bucharest and, in fact, I found both understandings of diversity at the conference.

On one side, there were presentations that painted a fairly harmonious picture of successful cohabitation, showing photos on which you could see people in traditional gear performing traditional dances. They mostly dealt with the relationship between the majority population and Romania’s 19 officially recognized ‚old minorities‘, and the way they did this left me with a certain unease. It quickly became apparent that this was because they were lacking a historical analysis: While several speakers pointed out that Bucharest’s ethnic composition changed significantly over time (2,36% of Bucharest’s inhabitants identified as part of a minority in 2011, as compared to 22,39% in 1930,see), they didn’t elaborate why and how these changes happened. This would point to the history of the Holocaust in Romania, but also to the marginalization of minorities during the Ceauçescu regime. I was also surprised not to find a presentation specifically dedicated to the Roma.

On the other side, many presentations did promote an understanding of culture that was much closer to my own anthropological perspective: culture as dynamic and complex, and identities as constructed, relational and unstable. Of course, this doesn’t make things easier. Or, as Christian Sørhaug, a fellow anthropologist from Oslo, put it when I had the opportunity to talk to him over lunch: Anthropologists come and make everything complicated. In this regard, I appreciated the input by Alina Constantinescu of the British Council who talked about categories that cut across ethnicity and nationality, like disability and sexuality.

Ultimately, I enjoyed those presentations the most that came from speakers directly involved in building more inclusive structures, like Cătălina Murariu and Alina Constantinescu, who have put together a guide for teachers who want to include lessons on citizenship, migration and asylum in their teaching. I myself, who was educated at a fairly conservative high school, didn’t reflect on my own citizenship status until I went on to university, though I wish I had started that process much earlier.

And of course I appreciated all the ‚hard facts‘ the conference provided me with: concrete figures about the access to health care, education, employment and housing for migrants and refugees as well as information about non-discrimination and legal representation. Instead of summing up what I’ve learned, I’d rather link to the respective resources that speakers presented at the conference here and here. They shed a light on the material conditions of diversity – and that is what I think the debate should be about. They are relevant for cultural policies, too: as the context in which cultural projects operate. ‚Diversity‘ is designated as one of the main objectives of the cultural policy as laid out by the Ministry of Culture. But since diversity can have different meanings, one has to ask and clarify exactly which definition is meant, since this can alter the strategic approach altogether.


1. “New Minorities”, in this context, means the immigrants who came to Romania after 1990.

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