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perils of multiculturalism

bbc asian network, 12 november 2003

What does it mean to be an anti-racist? I become an anti-racist because I thought it unjust that people should be treated differently simply because they happened to have a different colour skin. I still do. The problem of racism is discrimination; the solution equal treatment.

Today, though, to be treated differently is just what many anti-racists want. Rather than fight for equal treatment, anti-racists now demand respect for diversity. Where I've always wanted to be treated the same as everyone else despite my skin colour, people now want to be treated differently because of it. Britain has become a multicultural nation and the celebration of diversity is seen the best means of enhancing social cohesion and giving everyone a voice. 'It's good to be different' might well be the motto of our times.

Diversity, of course, has brought great benefits to Britain. Mass immigration has opened up British society, transformed its culture and created a nation far more vibrant and cosmopolitan than would have seemed possible half a century ago.

But diversity has become more than simply a way of describing the expansion of our experiences. It has also become a dogma about how we should live that has become as stultifying as old-fashioned racism - and often as divisive. Far from liberating us from racism, multiculturalism has become a trap, imprisoning people within narrow ideas of what their culture should be.

The Arts Council, for instance, recently launched decibel, its campaign for promoting cultural diversity. A noted Asian playwright recently wrote to me to explain what this means. 'As an Asian', he wrote, 'I am expected to write plays that deal with "the family". What I can't write about (as no venue will produce it) are plays that could be about anyone, but just happen to have British Asians in the leading roles.'

And completely out of bounds are issues that may interest him but have no 'ethnic component'. 'For example', he wrote, 'if I wanted to write a play say on a passion of mine, the moon landings, that would be totally unacceptable.' The result is that the British Asian artistic community is consistently held back and cutting edge challenging theatre viewed as the exclusive monopoly of whites.

Such ghettoisation has more serious consequences too - segregating communities far more effectively than racism ever did. Take, for instance, Bradford. From the beginnings of mass immigration in the 1950s racism has helped create deep divisions in the city. But it also helped generate political struggles against discrimination, the impact of which was to create bridges across ethnic, racial and cultural fissures. In response to the militancy of these struggles, the local council in the early eighties rolled out its multicultural programme, including a 12-point race relations plan which declared that every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city' had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'. Council funding became linked to cultural identity, so different groups began asserting their differences ever more fiercely.

The consequence was to strengthen the hand of the most conservative elements in the communities, especially the religious ones. It also helped entrench the divisions created by racism, and made cross-cultural interaction far more difficult.

Today, cultural segregation in Bradford has become so profound that the local education authority has started bussing children from all-Asian schools to all-white schools, and vice versa. The so-called 'Linking project' aims to break down barriers between children, many of whom have never interacted with a child from the other community. Half a century ago the American authorities were forced to bus black children to break the stranglehold of racism in the schools of the Deep South. Did anyone ever imagine that local authorities in Britain would be forced to follow suit in 2003 to break the stranglehold of cultural segregation?

The problem is that the quest for equality has been abandoned in favour of the celebration of diversity. Campaigning for equality means challenging accepted practices and believing in the possibility of social change. Conversely, celebrating differences between peoples allows us to accept society as it is - it says little more than 'We live in a diverse world, enjoy it'.

Diversity has become a meaningless mantra. So much so, that even the British National Party have become multiculturalists. According to the BNP 'races are neither equal nor unequal, but simply different'. What we need, it argues, is to preserve 'cultural diversity' – and that's why it fights for 'whites rights' and 'white identity'. It is perhaps the biggest indictment of the contemporary celebration of diversity that it allows an organisation such as the BNP to turn racism into a form of cultural identity.

The real question we need to ask ourselves is why we should value diversity. There is nothing good in itself about diversity. It is important because it allows us to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which are better and which worse. It's important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create more universal values and beliefs.

But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that multiculturalism attempts to suppress in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect'. The very thing that is valuable about diversity - the clashes and conflicts that it brings about - is what multiculturalists most fear.

Rather than cut ourselves off, each in our own multicultural ghettos, it would be far better to help build a dynamic common culture to which we all contribute and from which we all partake.