Grouping people according to their "historical" cultural identity is both divisive and dangerous. Migration is about change, not ossificationby Mike Phillips / September 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…