On 12 March 1983 A Sivanandan, one of the sharpest minds on the British left, gave a talk at the Greater London Council Ethnic Minorities Unit Consultation on Challenging Racism. "I come as a heretic, as a disbeliever in the efficacy of ethnic policies and programmes to alter, by one iota, the monumental and endemic racism of this society. There is nothing wrong with multiracial or multicultural education as such … But [it] has become the vogue … Government monies for pluralist ploys – the development of a parallel power structure for black people, separate development, Bantustans – a strategy to keep race issues from contaminating class issues."
The left has long had a critique of multiculturalism. While Tories were still arguing for Nelson Mandela's imprisonment, there were progressive voices debating its inadequacies, limitations and potential. The notion that those who attack it today, in Britain or elsewhere, are slaughtering a holy cow is laughable.
But Sivanandan was contesting something definite, whereas the target of the more recent onslaught is vague. Over the last decade multiculturalism, like political correctness, has come to mean whatever its opponents want it to, so long as they don't like it. Usually, the policies and dilemmas referred to are difficult to fathom or entirely invented. Ill-defined, the term is much-maligned – a lightning rod for the majoritarian impulses, cultural anxieties, economic insecurities and nationalist mythologies of the 21st century. Its contemporary critics keep telling multiculturalism's supporters to admit it has failed, without identifying what "it" is and who ever supported the lampooned version they present.
In this debate there are two types of multiculturalism: one rooted in fact, the other in fiction. The multiculturalism of fact is the lived experience of most people in Europe and the world. Cultures are dynamic, and emerge organically from communities. None exist in isolation or remain static. So the presence of a range of cultures in Britain or anywhere else is not novel, but the norm.
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March 16, 2011
Posted by Annalee Davis