Liberalism addressed the issue of social discrimination by disregarding ascribed identities and extending the same rights to all people as citizens. Multiculturalism, in sharp contrast to this, argues that identical rights for all are inadequate for minimizing culture-based discrimination. What we require are special rights for identified minorities. The idea that citizens be differentiated on the basis of their cultural identity and that different communities may receive different rights as citizens of the polity is one of the defining features of multiculturalism, and it is expressed through the concept of differentiated citizenship.
The concept of differentiated citizenship rejects the liberal ideal of universal citizenship. Multiculturalism maintains that universal citizenship assumes that all people are alike. This assumption of homogeneity eclipses group differences. It calls upon the individual to leave behind their particular identities and see themselves only as citizens of the polity. In a society when some “groups are privileged” and others marginalized, this implies that the latter forsake their identity and take on the outlook and perspective of the dominant group-i.e., the majority community. At the same time, the nation of universal citizenship allows the “privileged group to ignore their group specificity”(young 1990:165). By enabling the norms and the point of view of the privileged majority to appear neutral and universal, this ideal perpetuates “cultural imperialism” (ibid.).
The idea of group-differentiated citizenship and rights is advocated to halt this process of assimilation by giving minority cultural communities rights that would enable them to protect their cultural against pressure of homogenization that come from the state and society. It rests on the belief that society comprises of many different cultural communities, but the state invariably privileges and endorses the cultural of one community, which is designated as the majority. Since this marginalizes and disadvantages other cultural communities,(the minorities), special rights may be extended to them. A distinction may, therefore, be made between citizens on the basis of cultural identity, and this is justified for ensuring equal treatment for all.