Grouping people according to their “historical” cultural identity is both divisive and dangerous. Migration is about change, not ossification
Encountering younger black people who regard themselves as activists of one kind or the other, I’ve become accustomed to hearing the mantra: “Nothing’s changed.” How would you know? is my instinctive, irritated response. But I tend to keep that thought to myself, because while a great deal has changed, we are still living with a confused and potentially damaging welter of ideas about race, ethnicity and identity.
Today, any person’s identity is, of course, determined by the people they know, the circumstances they encounter and the different kinds of knowledge they acquire. With the ongoing revolution in global communications, and the unprecedented levels of migration and travel, no one can be a simple and irreducible unity. Inevitably, then, national identity and national self-image are constantly changing, and British citizenship is now a political formula that has outstripped ethnicity and racial origins.
On the other hand, in the long 20th-century battle against the ideologies of empire, black and Asian activists were concerned with mapping the outlines of “authentic” national identity, whose health could be determined by the extent to which it resisted the influence of “alien” and dominant cultures. In Britain, largely in reaction to the racism directed against migrants, activists began to echo this trend, pegging assertions of dignity, self respect or even humanity to a newly-recovered memory of exclusive and uncorrupted cultural origins: “roots.”
So far, so good—only the real lives of migrants are very different. The “blackness”’ of the diaspora, and the activist arguments about an “uncorrupted” identity or connections with cultural roots, have only tenuous links with our day-to-day lives. Authentic historical identities are beside the point in most people’s life and work. The typical migrant, instead, survives by operating several different selves at once.
Yet the very policies designed to recognise and value citizens’ identity are still in many ways influenced by 19th century ideas about ethnicity. It is commonplace, for instance, to be told that a child with a dark(ish) skin needs to be acquainted with his or her “own culture,” even when it isn’t clear what that might mean. The more we know about the science of genetics and the history of humankind, the more obvious it is that race itself is a more or less meaningless category (see “Black Men CAN Swim” in Prospect’s August issue).
Ironically, over the last decade or so, as the label “race” began to be discredited, the word “culture” has been pressed into service as a surrogate for all the familiar old attitudes. Figures like the previous mayor of London, Ken Livingston, decided that multiculturalism would be the political strategy to solve all the problems of migrant and British identity. But multiculturalism offered different meanings to different people. Even the right-wing and racist parties, staunch opponents of what they might have described as “race-mixing,” recognised the advantages of a multicultural arrangement in which each “culture” could maintain its exclusivity behind various social and political barriers.
Multiculturalism, therefore, had made life easier for a number of institutions and authorities—if only because it allows connections between social, political and economic conditions to be sidestepped. Meanwhile the interests and aspirations of the ethnic minorities have invariably been ignored. Even worse, the fact that multiculturalism is now integral to the right-left divide in British politics has spawned its own pattern of damage. In my own experience of discussing funding and sponsorship, or reporting on the progress of cultural projects and programmes, it is clear that subsidies and patronage, especially in the context of local authority funding, may now depend on which side you’re on.
In an argument reminiscent of the Bigendians and Littleendians in Gulliver’s Travels, the struggle for official support among competing (and arbitrary) groups has sparked off intense division and backbiting—decimating a generation of black and Asian leadership, and suppressing intelligent debate about political directions among migrants. This is perversion of multiculturalism. Instead of promoting freedom of expression, it has become a gold standard of political conformity—operating most effectively as a weapon for chastising individuals who break ranks. When, a couple of years ago, my brother Trevor Phillips, then chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, half-jokingly remarked that he wouldn’t be offended if an old lady in some small town described him as “coloured,” the multicultural establishment exploded in self-righteous rage—a person who could say this, thundered Ken Livingston’s race spokesman, was “unfit for office.” Yet Phillips’s only crime was his refusal to obey every tenet of multicultural dogma, based as it is on ideas of permanent victimhood and perpetual (racial) conflict.
The problem with this version of multiculturalism is that it sees cultures as autonomous and isolated from each other in history. Our experience as migrants, Londoners and Britons tells us something different. The natural tendency of different cultures throughout history has been to interact and achieve a synthesis. Yet multiculturalism, as defined by the British left-right framework, drags us into generalised conflicts on the basis of the historically illiterate proposition that our enemies’ enemies must be our friends.
At the same time, if everything concerning identity and culture is mobile, how are we to preserve the self that we value? How are we to hand on to succeeding generations the heritage that we understood to be ours as we grew up? The short answer is that we can’t. Change is inevitable and attempting to preserve heritages, cultures and values unchanged will be a guarantee of their loss. In other words, it’s time to rethink the festivals, carnivals and the memorialising in favour of exploring our real experience over the last 50 years. If nothing changes it will be because we, ourselves, have willed it.
Other articles in Prospect’s special feature on the failings of multiculturalism today:
Lindsay Johns on dead white men
Tony Sewell on education
Swaran Singh on psychiatry
Sonya Dyer on the arts
Munira Mirza on her hometown of Oldham