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Multiculturalism: Navigating the spaces between Ethnicity, Identity, and Diversity using Cultural Intelligence

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When I think about the kind of work that I do for CORE in centres, schools, clusters, as well as with other education partner agencies, I more often than not end up talking about culture. Initially, my role as Senior Advisor Pasifika focuses on Pasifika cultures in relation to raising the engagement and achievement of Pasifika learners in Aotearoa. Now this role has expanded to include multiculturalism.

What has helped me to explain how to go about doing this (the engagement and achievement part) has been by looking at multiculturalism as a lens, as a way of thinking about, discussing and understanding our connections with the rest of the world.

Having grown up in Auckland, I have always heard the term multiculturalism bandied about — by far the most multicultural city in Aotearoa. The all-girls high school I attended would proudly tout at the top of each school newsletter that “We are a multicultural school.” If the high school music groups were any indication of that claim, it quickly verified it — as we had girls from every colour hue under the sun, with as many different accents as you could imagine.

What has changed since then is how multiculturalism is now seen on a global scale, particularly with how we understand what it means to participate in the world as a global citizen and to be culturally intelligent.

Dyne, Ang, Koh (2009) discuss a framework called Cultural Intelligence, that originated in North America, and is widely used by corporate businesses as a way to connect with potential trade partners in the Asian market. This framework can also be applied in other fields or disciplines such as sociology and education. The basic premise is that, in order to obtain cultural intelligence, you must observe and follow four stages:

  1. Metacognitive cultural intelligence
    You have the awareness to start thinking about identifying the gaps in your knowledge about how to connect with people of cultures other than your own. You can be conscious of cultural protocols of others but not yet know how to proceed.
  2. Cognitive cultural intelligence
    Once you have identified what the knowledge gaps, you set about addressing sources that you will access to help you gain cultural intelligence. At this stage, you are able to discern between cultural similarities and cultural differences by making comparisons, attempting to have to understand in your sight, particularly when you are engaging in intercultural interactions. You are able to articulate your understanding of culture in speech and action.
  3. Motivational cultural intelligence
    Now you have identified the actions that you need to take, what will inspire your move to make it happen? This stage suggests that you are able to motivate yourself to address the cultural differences of others by trying to make sense of those differences, by trying to understand what those differences mean for you, and to inform how you can learn more about others.
  4. Behavioural cultural intelligence
    You follow through with your agreed actions by motivating yourself either extrinsically or intrinsically to learn about, connect, understand and truly engage with cultures other than your own. This will help to inform the ways in which you present your ‘culturally intelligent self’ to others. This means you have ‘fluency’ in verbal and non-verbal cues and you are quite confident in being able to connect with others irrespective of their cultural background. This is the optimum level of cultural intelligence.

The following infographic illustrates how I see multiculturalism in various stages, shifting from one section to another based on the research I have read, my background in Anthropology, and the professional learning opportunities that I have engaged in with educators and leaders, as well personal cultural interactions.

Multiculturalism infographicImage concept: Manu Faaea-Semeatu
Infographic design: Shannon Vulu


Ethnicity has always been tied to race, a classification system that helped to label groups of people with its origin based in human biology.

The Ministry of Education uses ethnic labels when reporting on achievement data. Asian. Pasifika, NZ European, Māori, African, and Other are generic labels used which don’t accurately capture anything meaningful about the students in our education system. So why do we still label and categories our learners in this way?


The most critical stage for me is the middle section – identity.
I am suggesting here that it can be seen as a dual process within itself

  1. Identity construction — where an individual chooses to construct their cultural identity based on their ethnicity or not. This process can be incremental and iterative and take a long time for an individual to negotiate and navigate, based on variables such as influence, environment and nurture within their cultural contexts. I see this as a very fluid space that is never set.
  2. Identity formation — once an individual is confident in their identity construction they reach what I call identity formation. This to me seems like a fixed state where they are happy to show people of other cultures that this is who they are, they can articulate and justify the decisions they have made to identify how they want to be, who they want to be and why they want to be.

Of course, there is scope for people to move back and forth between the two processes. As we grown and learn, mature in our cultural thinking and find out things that we would like to adopt as part of our cultural identity, then we will revisit the identity construction area – to continue to build, add more layers, refine the cultural thinking that was set in identity formation, test and check our assumptions before confirming our agreed set of values, customs, traditions and beliefs again.

The identity section is a move beyond thinking about culture as ethnicity or being race based. This notion is something that I see centres, schools, clusters struggle to understand about the multicultural students in their centres and classrooms; that their ethnicity or possibly the negative stereotypes and the deficit theorising that has been historically associated with their cultures, does not define who they actually are.


One of the three big ideas of the Future-Focused Education report (2012) by Bolstad & Gilbert is diversity. The use of diversity in this context focuses on the ability for education and those involved in it to be aware, engage and achieve diversity of thought, knowledge and application so that we are equipped for the future.

But the context in Aotearoa shows a particular separation between international students and domestic students. I think about this in terms of the traditional view that refugees, immigrants and foreign fee-paying students are often typically labelled as representing diversity. But this broad generalisation doesn’t take into account the reality of the diversity that exists in Aotearoa for its domestic students.

Some examples of the factors that help to define diversity amongst this group include:

  • students with multiple ethnic backgrounds
  • students born in Aotearoa have parents or grandparents are from other countries
  • students not having access to their heritage language/s

Being able to respect, acknowledge and engage in the multicultural interactions would do well to adopt the framework of cultural intelligence as a method to transform their current multicultural interactions.

Key questions to consider:

  • How do we move past recognising and labelling people based solely on their ethnic backgrounds?
  • How can we have shared understandings about ethnicity, identity and diversity without losing the essence of the people who embody these and live through these multicultural realities?



Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., & Koh, C.K.S. (2009). Cultural intelligence: Measurement and scale development. In M.A. Moodian (Ed.), Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence: Exploring the Cross-Cultural Dynamics within Organizations (pp. 233-254). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.