In her 2004 book on multiculturalism, Haunted Nations: The Colonial Dimensions of Multiculturalisms, Sneja Gunew persistently refers to the term multiculturalism as a floating signifier. (1) While this notion of a floating signifier is helpful because it acknowledges different ways in which multiculturalism functions in specific contexts, it may be unhelpful when it floats so much as to lose any signification. While I identify myself as a postmodernist and, therefore, regularly resist universalist terminology, I find myself in a peculiar position of wanting to put limits on the term multiculturalism. (2) If multiculturalism can mean anything, then why is it important to analyze children's literature through the lens of multiculturalism, I wonder.
My response to this question stems from Stuart Hall's assertion that with the rise of multiculturalism comes the rise of racism:
it is worth identifying with one of the most difficult things to
comprehend nowadays about this society--the absolute coincidence of
multiculturalism and racism. Far from being the opposite ends of a
pole so that one can trade the rise of one against the decline of
the other, it seems to be absolutely dead central to society that
both multiculturalism and racism are increasing at one and the same
While Hall speaks about British society, this dynamic is not unique to Britain, if in fact, this claim that multiculturalism and racism are increasing in conjunction with each other is one that can even be supported. Rather, the link between race and multiculturalism is what is important for the purposes of this essay. I believe it is crucial to understand how race anchors multiculturalism in order to fight against racism.
In Race: the Floating Signifier, Hall defines race as a sociohistorical or cultural category, not as a biological, category, and I employ his definition in this article. Hall, following Appiah, emphasizes that the idea of race he deconstructs is not an anthropological and biological imperative based on skin, hair, and bone, but is rather a way of reading the body as text, and, in this case, as racialized text. He calls race a discursive category, a system of classifying difference, and he states that race works like a language. Hall believes that one of the most difficult, urgent, and important tasks is "to live with difference without eating the other." What matters to Hall, and what I am engaged with in this essay, is articulating a system of meaning by which difference is made intelligible. I believe that critical multiculturalism, which I define as a version of multiculturalism that is self-reflexive insofar as it examines how race underpins culture within narratives of multiculturalism, can be such a system of meaning, a system which allows one to recognize and to include racial difference into culture rather than to promote a multiculturalism that privileges homogeneity under a rhetoric of multicultural difference.
By reading children's literature via critical multiculturalism I suggest that readers will be able to flesh out ideologies of race that are being advocated and will, in turn, have a better understanding of the racial dynamics from which the literature stems. In the first part of this article, I argue for a critical multiculturalism that acknowledges and makes visible how race forms the foundation of multiculturalism. In the next section, I chart the field of multiculturalism and Australian children's literature and argue for the inclusion of critical multiculturalism as another aspect of this field. In the final part of this paper, I put this theory to work by analyzing Shaun Tan's picture book The Lost Thing and Ranulfo's young adult novel Nirvana's Children, which, I argue, are cautionary tales that bring to the surface the dangers--of exclusion and erasure, for instance--inherent in a multicultural society that fails to embody racialized others into a society in ways that neither erase difference nor default to a multiculturalism of tolerance. …