The Humor of Multiculturalism

The Sanctuaries
Dec 23, 2016 · 4 min read

What laughter means and why it matters

It was very clear that the congregants had never heard hip hop in church before. Perhaps they had never heard it performed live, ever. So lucky for them, then, that their first exposure to this art form would come through The Sanctuaries.

Osa and Ben were ready. They took to the stage and began to freestyle. As the congregation began to clap along, the joyousness of the moment was so much that I stopped my background vocals and burst out laughing.

Laughter, by the way, is how I express awe and delight at this universe. I didn’t plan it that way, of course — I think that’s just how laughter is.

For my part, the most delightful experiences I have had in The Sanctuaries have been when boundaries have been breached with joy. And when those boundaries are cultural, all the better. More than anything else, cultural diversity is at the heart of my life, and work. It is invigorating, inspiring, beautiful. It’s also pretty hilarious. Humor is, for me, a defining feature of a multicultural life — just as much as the qualities we talk about more often, such as empathy, understanding, and respect.

Humor is, for me, a defining feature of a multicultural life — just as much as the qualities we talk about more often, such as empathy, understanding, and respect.

These are the foundation of coexistence, to be sure, but the devil (or the God!) is in the details. And details are where the humor often lies.

Multicultural living, and multicultural dialogue, is filled on a daily basis with petty and/or game-changing contradictions. The list of such differences can go on and on. To name a few: The fact, for instance, that in one society, it is socially unacceptable to drink, while in another it is socially unacceptable not to. That some people mention God in daily conversation all the time, while others will socially quarantine you if you do. That pre-marital romance is verboten in some cultures, while in others you will be teased mercilessly if at age eighteen, you have not yet had a girlfriend. And what about our tastes in art? Some people cringe at the sound of choral music, and others can’t abide the sounds of hip hop. We have developed such a wide variety of ways of living in this world. And all too often, we have developed an irrational distrust of those who live differently.

We have developed such a wide variety of ways of living in this world. And all too often, we have developed an irrational distrust of those who live differently.

Perhaps the motivations for such distrust run deep. After all, these “details” are in fact the things that define our daily lives, and we have learned to take them quite seriously. They are, in many cases, what protect our sense of order in this world. But when you are at the intersection of cultures, you learn to take these contradictions with a grain of salt (or chili, or sumac, or adobo, if you prefer).

In multicultural settings, we are faced with a clear choice: We can either despair at these profound contradictions, or we can laugh at them. Being “multicultural,” whether as an individual or as a group, means that we have to figure out another way, beyond the cliques that are often mislabeled as vast “cultures.”

Embedded within every society is a tradition of tolerance, of diversity and of joy. And many of the most culturally vibrant societies have achieved impressive degrees of coexistence by prioritizing joy in the face of violence and division. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the societies of the Caribbean, which have been at the receiving end of unspeakable violence throughout the centuries, have also produced some of the most joyful art in the world.

As members of The Sanctuaries and residents of Washington, DC, we have the opportunity to participate in a similar tradition — of offering alternatives to the divisions and abuses that all too often define life and policy-making in this city. Multicultural communities like ours have a great deal to offer Washington, which is diverse but not all that mixed, polite but not particularly embracing of cultural variety. And I would say that joy is an essential element of the bonds we form, and the art we create.

And I would say that joy is an essential element of the bonds we form, and the art we create.

Washingtonians have plenty of reasons not to laugh (don’t get me started), but we always have the choice: to despair, or to laugh. In the tradition of societies the world over, let us choose joy over division, and embrace the perplexing and comical messiness of the multicultural process.

I promise that we’ll be giggling in the end.


Priya Parrotta Natarajan is a musician, scholar, and founding leader of The Sanctuaries, a diverse arts community with soul committed to social change. She is also the author of The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World: The Greater Caribbean. Visit her personal website.

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