Multiculturalism or what really is this diversity thing?

As this is a learning journey, there is always the risk you read something that changes you views / previously held beliefs and makes you rethink. A new colleague introduced me to the writing of Kenan Malik yesterday. He has some interesting ideas on multiculturalism and why both sides of the debate are wrong.

Malik notes a serious flaw in the debate; that it fails to disconnect the lived experience of diversity from multicultural policy. The first is something we should celebrate whilst the second has been somewhat of a disaster.

One of his key arguments is that multicultural policy has exacerbated divisions based on race or other defined characteristics. In a drive to respect all difference we have ossified certain differences. That the very categorisation of certain characteristics essentially creates them as fixed aspects of identity. The example Malik uses is political representation of minority groups in Birmingham, England. The groups chosen to represent their communities were divided along race/ religious lines. In order to access funds and have your community voice heard you would have to use your most relevant group. Only of course no group speaks for the entirety of any community. The Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities were represented by a Muslim group, but what if you were a Pakistani atheist or Christian or Hindu and so on; you get the idea. The result is a gradual move towards identifying with a particular group in order to fit it and secure your own identity. This to me seems to undermine diversity and difference not celebrate it.

Malik highlights the inherent tension then for equality. “Equality cannot be relative, with different meanings for different social, cultural or sexual groups. If so it ceases to be equality at all…” (Malik 1998) It rather leaves us in the same absurd situation that George Orwell highlighted in Animal Farm, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Whose equality is better? Does religious equality trump sexual equality or vice versa? The current passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in England and Wales is a good example of how easy it is to get tied up in knots with our current multicultural policies. In order to maintain both religious freedom and freedom for sexual preference we get the legalisation of gay marriage as long as religious groups don’t have to do it. Which begs the question, either gay marriage is a societal value which we respect or it isn’t? Instead we have a fudge which fails to answer the question. We sort of respect gay marriage unless you don’t and then that is OK as long as it is a religious belief and not some other sort of belief which is prejudiced.

So how might this effect us on the individual level? For me, there is one single object which highlights the problem; the equalities monitoring form. Such a form asks for certain characteristics, all of which are social constructs, and offers limited choice as to the options we are allowed to identify with. We are so used to them that we probably don’t think much about filling them in but I suspect that over time they have subtle effects on our concept of our own identity. When I tick the white, british box I am forced to reaffirm my British nationality. The form is saying to me “remember you are British” or to others “remember you are Black African” and so on. We think the form reflects who we are. That it is a simple measure of an objective reality instead of it actually creating our identity and defining us in ways we might not want it to.

And why these certain characteristics. Why does what I do in the bedroom matter but my choice not to kill and eat animals doesn’t? (and before you jump on me for being racist, homophobic or anything else. Let me be very clear. I fully support diversity and equality but I think the way we go about it is wrong. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would discriminate against another for the colour of their skin or their sexual preferences.)

Identity is a complex and shifting aspect of our lives. It changes over time. Yet multicultural policies seem to assume immutability. In my research, I wanted to collect demographic information (although now I am not so sure of that idea) but I did it in a way that for gender and ethnicity there was no choices. There was just a blank box that allowed the participants to put whatever they wanted to in order to define their own identity. The result, every single one of them listed a category from an equalities monitoring form! Even though none of those categories were present on the form. That just demonstrates to me how pervasive this official categorisation has become. How strongly it seeps into the rhetoric of diversity and colours notions of our own identity.

So to action, well firstly I think a personal boycott of forms that expect me to categorise myself by predetermined categories. On a more serious level, I would be intrigued to know if anyone has already tested the hypothesis about whether removing the categorisation of people can actually start to eliminate inequality. I know psychologists have discovered the ‘stereotype threat’ effect (The comment section of my previous post has a link to an excellent talk explaining this.) I wonder how much this plays out in educational inequality. What this means for my own research into educational inequality I still need to reflect further upon. The research seems to show race / ethnicity is a factor but now I wonder if it is a factor because we have made it a factor by placing so much emphasis of differences. And how do we solve the inequality? Does the act of actually researching BME attainment and completion rates actually end up perpetuating the inequality or making it worse by once again emphasising crude categorical differences? Even though I have tried my hardest to make sure it is not about crude categorisation of people yet the BME / white division is exactly that.

On a personal level, I am still left pondering a question posed to me two months ago. I had been talking about my work on my course and a fellow student made a key observation. She asked “what colour her skin was?” A seemingly simple question which I couldn’t answer. Do I base my answer on her religious affiliation which is often tied to ethnic affiliation? Do I base my answer on actual colour and if I do is my view of any colour actually accurate? By answering the question, I would be imposing my view of her identity. It gets to the heart of race and ethnicity for me. I can tell you my identity but I refuse to let that define me (Yes I know about the invisible white knapsack but this post isn’t about power inequality but about how we view identity and difference.) and I refuse to impose your identity onto you. Naive maybe but I can always hope for a better more equal world.

References:

Malik, K. (1998) ‘race, pluralism and the meaning of difference’, new formations no.33, available online http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/new_formations.html [accessed 19th April 2013]

Orwell, G (1945) Animal Farm

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