Multiculturalism

‘Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. ’- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

In Kafka’s world there were really two ‘Jewish questions’. The first was external, asked by the Gentiles, and is familiar: ‘What is to be done with the Jews?’ For which the answer was either persecution or ‘toleration’, that vile word.’ – Zadie Smith, ‘F. Kafka, Everyman’

‘It is dangerous to live in a secure world.’ – Teju Cole, Open City

The last decade has witnessed the strengthening of a ‘multiculturalism has failed’ narrative, seconded by any statesman worth their electoral salt (see Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy). Whilst some date the advent of a ‘multiculturalism crisis’ discourse as a post-9/11 development, this periodisation remains simplistic, eliding the broader nationalist sentiments ascendant across contemporary Europe. Namely, absorbed into this populist rejection of multiculturalism is not only a rampant Islamophobia – where Muslims are rendered a ‘suspect community’ and placed at the centre of various ‘moral panics’ – but also a more diffuse fatigue with immigration and the many diversities (‘multiculture’) increasingly prominent in various European cities.

Consequently, understanding how multiculturalism’s putative failure is rallied to encapsulate these multiple racialised anxieties requires a more nuanced understanding of what precisely is being rejected by politicians, pundits, policymakers and everyone in-between. It is this unpacking of what is meant by multiculturalism which my own chapter in The State of Race looks to address.

It argues that crucial to the populist rejection of multiculturalism is a ‘thinning’ of what it might stand for in the first place – where it is read only as ‘tolerance and ‘cultural rights’. Of course, as many influential writers have already made clear, there is already a well-recognised political conservatism to any simple appeal to tolerance given that the prevailing political hierarchy is reinforced in the very act of distinguishing those who tolerate from those who are to be tolerated. There is no dissolution of the distinction between insider and outsider but instead, the outsider remains a negatively coded, undesirable entity, awaiting interrogation and verdict. However, it might be argued that not only is a bracketed ethics of tolerance politically compromised, but, more tellingly, the casting of multiculturalism as only tolerance is the very definition which allows for its public, majoritarian rejection.

To put it boldly, does the term tolerate remain intelligible if it concerns only the ‘special interests’ of those subjects whose representational cues, as fundamentalists, criminals and welfare dependents remains entrenched and prominent? Does the term remain applicable if multiculturalism comes to be framed as the accommodation of illiberal and work-shy (or overly desperate workers – depending on the brand of multicultural excess one subscribes to) peoples and thereupon, necessitates the loss of ‘our’ most cherished political norms, economic stability and national integrity? Multicultural tolerance, if that alone, is evidently not about the recognition of others, as it only recognises such figures in the form that they are already intelligible; as Others and the pathological attributes that the popular imagery tied to these groups invoke.

What becomes silenced here is the capacity to challenge these popular representations. This vacating of what might be called representational critique (a commitment to confront the pathologisation of minority groups and migrant experiences) is what makes possible the rejection of multiculturalism whilst concomitantly laundering racist representational frames. The multicultural crisis narrative – a belief that minorities and their less than ideal ‘cultures’ have been recklessly indulged – situates minorities and their excessive attachment to a problematic group ‘culture’ at the explanatory centre of any number of social ills: be it security and crime, unemployment and welfare-dependency, or even democratic deficits, the collapse of the Welfare State and the alleged erosion of trust. At the same time, the absence of representational critique retrenches cultural explanations when accounting for the very real exclusions which many minority and migrant people continue to encounter, both economically and in everyday civic life: e.g. the fault of their inadequate black and Muslim parents, the fault of the music they listen to, or the fault of the gods that they might pray to.

It is in turn literature (and the popular arts at large) which has a pivotal role to play in retrieving a multiculturalism which is politically potent. When best rendered, literature captures the multiple flows of diversity alongside the multiple flows of exclusion which characterise the contemporary western city. But doing so requires, in the first instance, a concerted move away from tired East-West, culture-clash storytelling, notwithstanding the all too easy publication opportunities which such exotic tropes promise. It is crucial that literature reveal the fiction of such unimaginative motifs, and, instead, profile the very real marginalisation and hardships otherwise obscured by this mystifying cloud of ‘culture-talk’. Equally, such a move can return the literary gaze to social relations as opposed to discrete, impossibly sealed ‘ethno-cultural’ communities. Herein, whilst rightly avoiding simplistic sentimentalising around the wronged and the wrong, literature should and can draw attention to social relations where one person’s/group’s marginalisation is also another’s privilege.

Sivamohan Valluvan, ‘The Status of Multiculturalism’, from the State of Race

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