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Why multiculturalism has failed

Article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

September 15, 2006

NOTHING is for ever. Progressive ideas that are right, bright and appropriate at one historical moment can, in time, fade and decay or become defensive in the face of further progress. I believe this is what is happening to policies promoting British multiculturalism today. We urgently need ties that bind – and multiculturalism isn’t delivering them. It risks building barriers between the different tribes that make up Britain today, rather than helping to create a new shared sense of Britishness.
Few would deny there has been progress on race relations in recent years, but racism continues to blight many lives. I feel profoundly British, but experience has taught me to put a bucket of water under the letterbox when I go to bed and, just last week, a London cabbie refused to let me into his taxi because of the colour of my skin. I have fought against racism for three decades, and will always support uncompromising action against overt and hidden discrimination. However, our multicultural policies, with the emphasis on ethnic monitoring and on special provision for black and Asian communities seem increasingly divisive and irrelevant to a new generation of young people, and are out of touch with the way our world has moved on.
We do not have the optimistic and integrated society we all hoped for. It is not just Scottish and Welsh nationalism that threaten British identity. In these post-devolutionary times, multiculturalism is pitting all communities against each other. People who used to think of themselves as black are now retreating into tribal identities – demanding attention and resources for their particular patch. White people have no stake in multiculturalism, either – it is seen as something that black people do. The English are understandably disgruntled that their ethnicity is denied while all other identities – Welsh, Scottish, Hindu, Caribbean and the rest – are celebrated. Young white kids celebrate Diwali in schools without any sense of how it links to their own identity.
The cloak of multiculturalism has been worn by those with no interest in integration. Treating black people differently has enabled white institutions to carry on as if nothing substantive has changed since the arrival of the Windrush from the West Indies. As long as “ethnic minorities” were given some money and space to play marbles in the ghetto, nothing else needed to happen. Whether you look at the BBC or the top FTSE companies, the multicultural answer has failed to transform anything very much. Talking to the teenagers who have grown up with multiculturalism, I found that many young people – black, Asian, white and mixed race – are impatient with the whole ideology. They reject the traditional categories which multiculturalism tries to shoehorn them into.
Their notions of diversity go way beyond a love of curry. Although most feel connected to the values of their parents to some extent, their identities are changing in unpredictable ways. Young white men absorbing urban black ways of life (Ali G is really out there), and young Asian girls refusing forced marriages, show how cultures cannot remain static or settled whatever purists may wish. A young black man said, simply: “I think this kind of thinking is for sad old people.” A young Asian man was equally scathing: “Multiculturalism is a boring word. It is grey and small and domestic. It does not include Europeans. It does not include internationalism. It is like an old cardigan knitted out of different coloured scraps of wool.”
Others felt that multiculturalism merely has pernicious effects. Some community leaders use it to justify human rights abuses in their own backyard. Police and social workers are often reluctant to intervene where they suspect domestic violence, in case they are accused of racism. An Asian girl I interviewed said she was “treated like a Paki” both by white people and by her own family who forced her to marry a man who then repeatedly raped her. She said: “Their multiculturalism is just a cover. Some Asians use this to hide what they are doing to the girls in the community. Leaders and politicians let them get away with it.” So, whose multiculturalism is it, anyway?
The out-of-date term “ethnic minorities” is an obstacle to integration. It is based on the ludicrous assumption that there was once a large, homogeneous, white “majority” surrounded by “ethnic minorities” who were just too strange for words. These measures are even less defensible in a complex, diverse society grappling with devolution, globalisation and integration into Europe, American domination, collapsing values and fragmentation at every level.
My criticisms – which are outlined in After Multiculturalism, published this week – have nothing in common with the views of those who resent these policies because they regard this as a white Christian country that must resist diversity. More than ever we need a national conversation about our collective identity. We need to concentrate our energies on the ties that bind us and use this to create a new British identity. Diversity is an inescapable condition of modern life and respect for this is essential. That respect will have to apply to everyone, black and white. But respect for different ways of life cannot be allowed to destroy any sense that we live in the same country.
Once multiculturalism has been laid to rest, we can concentrate on developing a strong, diverse British identity rather than retreating into ever-smaller tribes.

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