Lublin, Poland (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What does diversity mean?

There are different ways of being multicultural

Walking down the streets of Lublin on a recent holiday in Eastern Poland, listening to Jewish music whilst snacking on Georgian khachapuri, chatting to a Ukrainian waiter and catching snippets of conversation in Belarusian, I realised how strange it is that we have somehow managed to conceive of diversity as a Western concept. Multinational corporations wave a flag to show off their virtue, or alternatively use it as a cudgel to punish those whose behaviour is not virtuous. We have taken something that emerges organically from cultures on all continents, intermingling around frontiers, peripheries and liminal spaces, and adapted it, of necessity, to a postcolonial world of large-scale cross-continental migration and major metropolitan centres.

We have taken something which is felt, then written it into law in a neat, orderly fashion at odds with the messiness of the concept. The diversity of radical cultural difference speaks boldly: this is who I am; by law, I am your fellow. This is necessary and important — but in following this concept of diversity, we have left behind a gentler one. The diversity of slight cultural variation flirts with the unconscious mind, hinting at familiar sights, sounds and smells — something almost recognised, but half-forgotten. It is an invitation to come and explore, an intrigue to be chased and followed, in the following of which we forget ourselves, our pride and our concerns, and lose ourselves in embracing the other.

The multiculturalism of adjacent cultures is born of discernible points of shared interests, values and aesthetics, which allow for the exploration of diversity at a more leisurely pace. It is a necessary complement to the multiculturalism of stark diversity — as mastery of the former tends to make one radically better at the latter. Our having a global metropolis as our capital city has contributed to the creation of a British concept of diversity as built on intense competition for employment, housing and resources — and the need to equalise opportunities within this impossibly competitive environment.

The aggression in Ukraine has miraculously precipitated something benign

In our eagerness to ensure that the cut-throat competition of urban living is judged fairly, we have forgotten the places on the periphery where diversity has more space to roam. Meanwhile, on the continent, the aggression in Ukraine has miraculously precipitated something benign: a renewed mixing of cultures on the borders of the Western world once also identified as the EU’s “External Frontier”. President Zelenskyy has awarded the title of “Rescuer City” to regional centres across Poland, including Lublin, Rzeszow, Przemysl and Chelm, as well as the much larger capital cities of Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, highlighting the role these centres have been playing as they welcome Ukrainian refugees. President Duda, meanwhile, has presented Zelenskyy with Poland’s highest state award, the Order of the White Eagle.

It is true that close encounters also come with familiar cultural tensions born of centuries of shared history. At the start of this year, Ukrainian celebrations of the 114th anniversary of the birth of nationalist leader Stepan Bandera were strongly condemned by the Polish Government. Bandera, seen as the father of Ukrainian nationalism, allied with Hitler in June 1941 after the German invasion of the USSR, and his policies were at least as openly anti-Polish as they were anti-communist. Bandera’s nationalism, born of a resentment of centuries of Polish rule as well as more recent Soviet influences, is seen by the Poles as directly responsible for the ethnic cleansing of up to 100,000 Polish civilians in Galicia and Volhynia in 1943–44. This included the infamous violence of “Bloody Sunday” on 11 July 1943, when Ukrainian insurgent fighters murdered Poles at prayer in local churches. This destruction of church communities and buildings was carried out with the express intention of extinguishing any future claim Poland might make to Ukrainian lands on the grounds of cultural affinity. In 2016, the Polish Sejm passed an Act of Parliament declaring the massacres an act of genocide. In 2022, Poland publicly criticised the appointment of Andrij Melnyk as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, due to his denial of Bandera’s responsibility for the massacres. In January of this year, a social media post depicting General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, leader of the Ukrainian armed forces, under a picture of Bandera was taken down following criticism from Polish officials.

Poland and Ukraine are able to carry out this conversation whilst remaining close allies because they have sufficient cultural commonality, sufficiently aligned geostrategic interests, and sufficient constancy in their relationship as nations to prevent each country painting the other as the consistent “villain” of its own history. Living for centuries in close proximity on a single continent means that empire-building happens not in far-away lands in which atrocities become so distant that full awareness of their implications may be suppressed. Instead, the immediacy and the close inter-connectedness of the parties involved mean that essential discussions must be had when they arise. Relationships are built and rebuilt anew around a constantly-evolving set of external challenges, clashing ambitions and shared hopes for the future. A country may withdraw from a remote colonial possession with severe consequences, but it cannot uproot itself from its own soil and walk off to find better neighbours. The continental concept of diversity is much easier to understand by analogy with the complex history of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, than by a post-colonial exploration of what London did to Saint Lucia.

We go to the peripheries of our own world

As Lublin — the site of the Act of Union which created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 — once again becomes a cultural melting pot, we are reminded that one crucial kind of diversity is born of a shared desire to resist injustice alongside those who embody the values we cherish. It’s not necessarily about trying to find a fair solution to an impossible choice between 300 equally-qualified candidates for a big-city corporate job. It emerges instead from a conversation with a cleaning lady who left a job as an engineer in Ukraine, whose son is on the front line of 2023. It arises from admiration for the grace and fortitude with which she does her work — out of a dignity, strength and adaptability also known in the Windrush generation.

Having confronted the lessons of previous centuries, where do we go next on diversity? We go to the peripheries of our own world, to find out what is to be learned there. In the words of 19th century Polish poet Stanislaw Jachowicz — repeated so often that they have turned into an aphorism: “You praise the foreign, forget your home, you know not, truly, what you own.” The poet was seeking to encourage pride in the richness and diversity of his own nation, over the import of foreign, Franco-German ideals of “high culture” and a “correct” way of doing things. His message rings true at a time when global corporate monoculture is starting to dictate how diversity should be explored.

We rediscover one great meaning of that concept by travelling to the borders of Devon and Cornwall, where the bus service doesn’t run, and so one walks if one doesn’t hitch-hike; by eating in a Northern Irish fish-and-chip shop with bullet holes in the walls; by visiting a Welsh miner’s cottage, a Glaswegian backstreet, a Hebridean fishing village or a Yorkshire moor, where the same language is spoken with a different directness, and a conversation with a stranger can teach us as much about embracing others as any corporate slogan.

Our multiculturalism is still the chilly one of an urban society seeking redemption for the past. We should strive (yes, take actual action) to transform that into a curiosity about others in the present — into an eagerness to learn those small quirks of culture that we can follow boldly upstream to the sources, wherever those may be. Let us employ a quiet sort of everyday thoughtfulness to help us understand where each of us comes from and where we are all going, together.

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