Multiculturalism ..

.. has had a bad press in recent years and, personally, I’m not surprised. 30 years ago there was a major debate on the Left and in the Labour Party as to which was the best approach to dealing with the racism endemic in this country, multiculturalism or anti-racism. I favoured the latter and this is why.

I love living in a multicultural and multi-ethnic country. It was part of our national DNA long before the slave trade made racism a necessary excuse for treating other human beings as beasts to be slaughtered or worked to death. As post-war immigration brought more and more of those formerly enslaved or colonised peoples to this country, racism fell out of fashion amongst most of the political class, with significant exceptions. Those immigrants brought as much of their home cultures with them as they could and this led to some frictions with the local populations. Likewise there were and are aspects of our ‘British’ culture that did not sit well with all those incomers. Multiculturalism was supposed to be the answer to this clash by suggesting that each community should live by its own values without interference, except where these broke ‘our’ laws. I shouldn’t need to list all of the times this has gone wrong, from female genital mutilation to ‘honour killings’ and child sexual exploitation. Those examples may seem to be one-sided but, interestingly, the authorities have had less difficulty in trying to suppress Afro-Caribbean activities like smoking ganja and shooting each other (there’s an element of cause and effect there – not the smoking but the suppression).

Consequently a parallel debate has arisen between ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’. Too many people think they mean the same thing but they don’t. Integration is a two-way process of people from different backgrounds learning to understand each other and live together. Assimilation means that the newcomers must become identical with the residents. Like the British did in India and Africa …

What the white British people needed to learn, and are still groping their way towards, is an understanding of their prejudices and how to deal with them. In a nutshell, when you hear the phrase “I’m not a racist but …”, you know that what follows will be a racist statement. It would be better to say “I am a racist but .. I’m trying to learn not to be one.” Meanwhile those new communities still clinging to their old cultures need to realise that, while they have a right to their own beliefs, in this country they do not have the right to impose them on their families or other members of their community. Tough lessons all round and a way to go but we can still do it.

RA 25.3.17

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