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Who defines multiculturalism?

Updated Thursday, 3rd August 2006

Journalist Sunder Katwala wonders who decides what multiculturalism looks like.

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Enoch Powell, outspoken critic of multiculturalism

Segregation and rioting in the northern towns; post-9/11 fears of both fundamentalism and Islamophobia; council seats for the BNP. It is never difficult to argue that the race relations glass is half-empty.

But headlines will always stress flash points over the complex, everyday story of how we live together. If there is a strong whiff of nostalgia in the Jubilee air, we can also celebrate the transformation of our country in our times.

For most modern Britons to choose to go back to that tight-little inward-looking island, with its narrow class-bound culture and quite terrible food, would be a deprivation far outstripping anything on offer in the Big Brother house. And it is only in the period since the 1977 Silver Jubilee that multi-ethnic and multicultural Britain has finally ceased to be a contested issue and become a settled social fact, which most Britons believe has enriched their lives.

Yet somehow our debate on multiculturalism lags behind. We have, in the way we talk about race, inherited too much baggage from the long adjustment to post-war immigration – largely understood and discussed, however erroneously - as a first encounter between an homogenous white majority and new, quite alien cultures.

This was an era of managing, and usually fearing, difference. Some believed it was not too late to turn the clock back and repatriate these unwelcome new social problems. Still more feared that the strange sounds and smells of multiculturalism would somehow swamp and diminish the British culture.

Those days have gone, even if we hear the odd echo in our punitive asylum debate. Obviously, there is nowhere to send second or third generation Britons "back" to. But it is not simply that, nor that apocalyptic predictions – whether "rivers of blood" or racial strife after September 11th - have not been realised.

The most significant change is recognition of the concrete, positive gains from diversity, demonstrated in many of our most cherished national institutions today - the National Health Service, the BBC, our global football culture. Even the gradual decline of the Asian corner shop, as another generation makes its own choices, is reported as the passing of part of the traditional British way of life.

Yet many still discuss our multicultural society in terms of "immigrant communities" and "the host culture", and what "the ethnic minorities" think – in a way that regards them as outside and separate from the mainstream. 

The major report on The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, published by the Runnymede Trust identified a problem of "multicultural drift" - that we have too readily believed that the mere fact of ethnic diversity would deliver a multicultural society, and so failed to have a grown-up national conversation about who we are today.

Yet the new debate the report wanted to kick off was drowned out, on its publication, by an ill-informed "Is British a racist word" furore. Some blamed a post-MacPherson report backlash from the Right. But that was not the whole story. The report's analysis of Britishness was flawed - in a way that offers important lessons for those who wish to rethink the nation.

The Runnymede report argued correctly that the national story needs to be re-imagined and retold: today's popular thirst for history is well on the way, demolishing the idea that diversity somehow stepped off a boat in 1949. But there was also a fatal hesitation about whether, or how far, Britishness was useful.

To argue, as the Runnymede report did, that "Britishness is not ideal, but at least it appears acceptable, particularly when suitably qualified? Black British, Asian British and so on may be to choose a hyphenated Britishness containing the intonation "not really". Confidence to drop these qualifications may increase among third and fourth generation Britons.

To talk of Britain's "ethnic minorities" in the aggregate is to invite the question, whose multiculturalism is it anyway? No "ethnic minority" view can unite the experiences of over 4 million non-white Britons across differences not just of ethnic origin but gender, class, culture, politics and so much else.

While Indian children top education league tables, Afro-Caribbean kids are ever-more likely to be excluded from schools. Afro-Caribbean women earn more than their white counterparts, while Britons of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are disadvantaged on every level. Britain's Chinese communities are so often invisible in national debates about race - while being slightly better off than Britons as a whole.

But if it makes less sense today to talk undifferentiatedly of "Asian" and "black" Britons, that does not necessarily mean that we want to think of ourselves primarily as Jamaicans, Somalis, Sikhs, Gujeratis, Bangladeshis and so on. The danger is of a retreat to ever-more narrowly defined ethnic enclaves - each then articulating a distinct claim to recognition and a share of resources.

Too often, the politics of multiculturalism have seen Britain's traditional political elites taking the easy option and seeking out their counterparts within ethnic communities. The claims of "community leaders" to speak for whole populations needs to be interrogated. While the Runnymede report warned of these dangers and stressed the importance of a shared society creating "ties which bind", its central metaphor of Britain as a "community of communities" could in fact encourage the trend of disaggregation. "Communities" are themselves diverse and contested. The identities we are born with and those we choose vary and overlap. Any federation of ethnic communities would contain boxes far too neat and tidy for many people to fit into.

We need to imagine a less cautious, more vibrant multiculturalism than we have had in the past. We need to stop, at last, thinking about multiculturalism as a question of immigration and to start thinking about it as an issue of how we define citizenship together.

That might well involve rethinking institutions - for example, changing the honours system so that we no longer honour our leading citizens in the name of an Empire that no longer exists. But these changes need to grow naturally from the lives we lead and society we live in. Too conscious an act of "re-branding" will seem a top-down imposition of something artificial. The task is to engage with and pluralise the national symbols – to make them represent the assets of the nation today - rather to scrap them in favour of something entirely new.

Although it grew out of Britain's global links, British multiculturalism has been something of an insular, island affair. A more open, global multiculturalism might make the living links between citizens here and other countries an important asset for Britain in the world. It might even have something to say about that other great debate of national identity and destiny - about Europe - from which ethnic minority Britons have been so notably disengaged. But we will not find this new multiculturalism by seeking to create and protect our own tribal mono-cultural spaces.


That would be to suggest that multiculturalism is something for us ethnic minority Britons alone, leaving the other diverse, multi-faceted 93% of white Britons out of the task of defining the modern face of our new nation.

This article was first published in 2002


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