The Essentialist Critique of Multiculturalism: Theories, Policies, Ethos

31 Pages Posted: 24 May 2014

Date Written: May 2014


One important critique of multiculturalism is that it promotes “essentialism”, reifying the identities and practices of minority groups. In Anne Phillips’ words, multiculturalism “exaggerates the internal unity of cultures, solidifies differences that are currently more fluid, and makes people from other cultures seem more exotic and distinct than they really are”. Multiculturalism has therefore become a “cultural straitjacket” rather than a “cultural liberator”, and requires “radical overhaul” if it is to serve emancipatory goals. In this paper I challenge this claim. The phenomenon of essentialism surely exists, but is multiculturalism really to blame? I argue that the essentialist critique conflates different issues, jumping from critiques of academic theories of multiculturalism to critiques of government policies to critiques of everyday street-level discourses of ethnic difference. Once we distinguish these different targets, the essentialist critique is less damning to multiculturalism than initially supposed. Indeed, we may find that the theories and practices of liberal multiculturalism, far from being the cause of the problem of essentialism, are a remedy to them.

Keywords: Multiculturalism; ethnic identities; essentialism; citizenship

Suggested Citation

Kymlicka, Will, The Essentialist Critique of Multiculturalism: Theories, Policies, Ethos (May 2014). Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Research Paper No. RSCAS 2014/59, Available at SSRN: or

Will Kymlicka (Contact Author)

Queen's University ( email )

Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6

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