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The Multicultural Mask


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RACISM [image, unknown] The weapons governments use

The multicultural mask
Multiculturalism, said Salman Rushdie, ‘means little more than
teaching the kids a few bongo rhythms and how to tie a sari.’
Nancy Murray
explains why it may be dangerous, too.

FORTY years after World War Two, the European Parliament is inquiring into the groundswell of racism and facism afflicting many European countries. Many British people, including those who conscientiously try to keep themselves informed, might assume that this is another instance where their island has little in common with the continent.

They might ask-how could racism be on the increase in Britain. when black people are now so obviously and visibly accepted as part of things? Just look at television and the press, where their religious festivals, dances and recipes are now regular features, and at the ‘multicultural education’ being taught in schools. And look at all the money different groups are getting from councils for their own ethnic projects - is this the mark of a racist society? Far from ‘assimilating’ or ‘expelling’ black people, isn’t Britain accommodating them in a ‘multicultural’ society in which all can learn about and from each other?

So Thatcher’s government would have us believe. It has endorsed a multiculturalism which turns its back on economic and political issues and effectively denies that racism is out there, in the institutions and practices of white society. Instead, the multi-cultural approach maintains that the ‘problem’ is cultural or ‘ethnic’ identity. What is needed is mutual understanding and the acceptance of cultural diversity, and the road to this lies in the active cultivation of ‘ethnicity’. Black people should be given a high profile. Before long, exposure to cultural diversity will lead to white acceptance.

This stress on ethnic cultural ‘needs’ and identities has come to pervade every area of social policy - health, social work, the police, media, judiciary and soon. But it has nothing to do with fighting racism. At best, it might widen white horizons and lead a few individuals to re-assess old certainties. Meanwhile racism and the relations of power and exploitation remain untouched.

Behind the mask

Racism itself is not static and immutable, but takes on new forms and new virulence at a time of economic decline. This applies anywhere but is particularly true today in Britain. For despite the public image of Britain as a fair and open society, there is a resurgence of racist violence here, as in the rest of Europe, although the press takes little interest in it. In 1984 racial violence in Britain reached epidemic proportions, with thousands of black people being savagely attacked by organised gangs on the streets. and living in their homes in a virtual state of siege. The police response has been in many cases indifference, and in others open hostility. In fact, many black people being terrorised on housing estates have been afraid to call the police in case this led to their arrest and deportation. All too often it appears that the forces of law and order --police, courts, immigration department - see every black person as a potential ‘mugger’ or ‘illegal immigrant’, and that the fascists are not alone in working towards the goal of induced repatriation’ - making things so bad for black people that they will leave.

The dangers of multiculturalism

In at least four respects the multicultural approach has directly contributed to the resurgence of racist violence in Britain - and that means the violence practised by the system itself as well as by the thugs on the streets. First, it has diverted attention away from the racist nature of British society. While ethnic cultures are being celebrated, attention is being diverted from the ways racist institutions are being shored up, with ominous repercussions for black people. For instance, funding reggae groups and Asian black youth at the receiving end of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act or to the ‘illegal immigrants’ detected through sophisticated monitoring procedures. As the black activist A. Sivanandan has written: ‘Just to learn about other people’s cultures, though, is not to learn about the racism of one’s own. To learn about the racism of one’s own culture, on the other hand, is to approach other cultures objectively.’ (Roots of Racism, Institute of Race Relations, 1982).

Second, black activists have argued that multiculturalism is being used by the State against the united resistance of black people. Ethnicity has divided ‘black’ into Asian, Afro-Caribbean and African, and has slotted these into cultural containers which have nothing to do with the long and rich history of resistance made by black people in their mutual struggles against colonialism and racism in Britain. The ‘culture’ of multiculturalism has all the dynamism of a museum piece, to be preserved and wondered at, no matter how out of kilter with current social and economic reality. The customs and folkways which pass here for ‘culture’ are frozen out of time and place, stereotyped for white comprehension, and thus rendered harmless.

Third, multiculturalism hasfailedto check the increase of racist violence on the streets, and has helped fuel a so-called white backlash, creating conditions in which white! black class unity will be even harder to achieve. The high profile given ‘ethnicity’ has led to the belief that ‘ethnic minorities’, far from being the victims of racism, are being given special privileges in schools and housing allocations and that whites have to fight back to hold on to what is rightly theirs.

Finally, in place of the united and unrelenting struggle against racism, multiculturalism - by putting the emphasis on white attitudes and the ‘problem’ of black identity - has sponsored a wholesale turning inward to locate the source of the poison. A new medicine to be swallowed by individuals seeking a ‘cure’ has been imported from the USA and is now on offer to the police, teachers, immigration officials, prison officers, council officials and a host of workers in voluntary agencies. This tonic is called Racism Awareness Training (RAT).

The limitations of RAT

RAT does not speak to the needs of the many. Its practitioners tell participants that racism resides in the white individual, and to that extent it is a ‘white problem’. White people must learn to change their attitudes, and they can do this through group encounter techniques. They must learn how to be sensitive to ethnic needs and tolerate promotions of black people within bureaucracies. According to the practitioners of RAT, the solution to what they term ‘institutional racism’ is to put enough black people, and racially-aware whites, into higher-up positions and the racism of those institutions will vanish. But how would the structurally racist immigration system be changed by incorporating more black immigration officers., or by sending white ones on RAT courses? They would still have to administer the same laws.

Fighting racism

Change individual attitudes and racism will remain. For to be anti-racist, we must look beyond personal prejudice and the

celebration of ethnicity. We must look at the racism embedded in the historical process which made Britain the leading enslaver of men and territory - it lies there still, at the heart of its political economy and ideology. We must analyse clearly the way racism has changed its face and shape over the centuries and see today how a blatantly racist immigration system defines the nation for black people and, therefore, for whites. And then we must look farther afield, and understand that the continuing super-exploitation of ‘Third World’ peoples remains fundamental to the divisions of race and class which run like a seam through multicultural Britain.

The first step, then, is this: to see clearly that the problem is not black people and their identity and cultures but white society and power relationships. After that it is up to committed anti-racists to mobilise around specific cases - instances of deportation, of police brutality, of racist attacks - which can be turned into national issues around which strategic alliances can be built.

Racism and fascism are on the rise in Europe, and Britain is in the thick of it. At such a time we cannot afford the luxury of sitting around in groups, meditating on white guilt. Neither can we afford the fragmentation of our struggles into multicultural slots. Now is no time to massage the white psyche and publicise the black and think that this is solving the ‘problem’. Instead we must join together to tackle institutional racism head on, before the waves of reaction overwhelm us.

Nancy Murray works in London for the Campaign Against Racism and Eascism.

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New Internationalist issue 145 magazine cover This article is from the March 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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