How multiculturalism fails immigrants

Prospect Magazine

How multiculturalism fails immigrants


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

  1. October 3, 2010

    Ben (Australia)

    Ha. Ha. You raise some good points. Where for example does a bisexual biracial person fit into all of this? Group identity politics can be very confusing and divisive.

  2. October 7, 2010


    Although I accept that it usually does, multicultural need not refer exclusively to skin colour. Thus it may refer to one culture that champions a literate society, another that emphasizes links to the past, a national approach, an international one, equality as an end in itself, individuality, a religion, a racial group, etc. A person is likely a member of more than one group. Diverse and co-operative, pleasant and idealistic, nothing wrong with that.

    When competition rather than co-operation is emphasized, the picture is unlikely to be so rosy. Some cultures will be the better organized and better defined groups, and compete most successfully for attention, resources, etc. It will not be in their interests to blur the distinctions, and as they are the more successful groups, they will likely prevail. The “culture” becomes irrelevant to the strength of the lobby group.

  3. October 12, 2010

    jim evans

    Multiculturalism is an oppressive concept cooked up in the USA to make sense of their culturally diverse society.
    What it means for indigenous Brits like me is that foreigners are free to arrive here with their entire extended family and live a live of relative luxury while those who are born here are obliged to work and pay taxes to keep them.
    As if that wasn`t bad enough these incomers are also free to pursue their irrational fascist religious and cultural practices without modifying them to fit in with western civilisation and our secular scientific ways.
    Enoch Powell was right…it`s just a matter of timing… but eventually the capitalists liberals and socialists will ensure that those rivers of blood flow….but,as ever, their consciences will be clear and white as snow while those who they corner into extreme measures will carry the can.

  4. October 13, 2010

    tempo dulu

    multiculturalism is a failure but it’s not easy for migrants to make the change from their original culture to the new, host one. But it should be much easier for their children.

  5. October 14, 2010

    Jabez Foodbotham

    The photo at the head of this article tells it all, doesn’t it.
    The poor Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants who once lived in this place, before they moved on to better things, would not have put up a sign reading Backsteingasse, although anti-semites might have daubed such on the wall to emphasize and mock the alien nature of the then current inhabitants.
    But now the multicultural local council will put up a nice enamel sign to send the same message. Here be Aliens.

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Mike Phillips

Mike Phillips is a writer and broadcaster 

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