Books interview: Rita Chin

The professor of history discusses the ‘crisis of multiculturalism in Europe’

August 10, 2017
Rita Chin

What sort of books inspired you as a child?

As an infant, I came to the US from Malaysia. Books were a way to access the world beyond my limited horizon, to glean a sense of “American” life and popular culture. I read anything to help fill in the gaps, from Little House on the Prairie to the novelisation of Star Wars.

Your new book explores ‘the crisis of multiculturalism in Europe’. Which books first attracted your attention to such debates?

One was David Hollinger’s Postethnic America. It provided an intellectual history of multiculturalism in the US, teasing out different approaches to diversity. Hollinger positioned himself as a defender of cultural diversity, but one acutely aware of how ethnic identification can slide into essentialist forms of ethno-racial belonging. Already in 1995, though, he dismissed multiculturalism as too imprecise to sort out the tensions between relativism and ethnocentrism. In its place, he proposed the concept of the “postethnic” to emphasise the cosmopolitan, voluntarist and affiliated nature of group membership. But “postethnic” didn’t seem satisfying to me as a way forward. For one thing, it didn’t acknowledge how important strategic essentialism remains as a political tactic for people who face discrimination or violence because of their ethno-racial categorisation. More importantly, it never gained traction in public debate – perhaps because, as with the term “postracial”, ideas of ethnicity and race are deeply embedded in ideology, policy and group dynamics and thus can’t simply be wished away. For better or worse, multiculturalism still serves as the fraught touchstone for these crucial discussions.

Where can one find the best analysis of the concept and ideals of ‘multiculturalism’?

A useful introduction is George Crowder’s Theories of Multiculturalism. It examines universalist, relativist, liberal and cosmopolitan perspectives, as well as the contributions of leading figures in these debates.

To which texts should we be turning to try to build a better Europe, now multiculturalism has allegedly failed?

The question of how people of different ethnicities, cultures and religions build societies together is notoriously difficult, but we might start by trying to understand European states’ policies on immigration/integration over the past half-century. Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad offers insights into the pitfalls of 1980s-1990s British state multiculturalism. Robert S. Leiken’s Europe’s Angry Muslims describes the effects of discrimination, social isolation and economic inequality on second- and third-generation Muslims.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

My son loves poetry, so I gave him a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

I’m starting a new project on the invisible labour of female migrant domestic workers in post-colonial Europe, so Catherine Choy’s Empire of Care – about Filipino nurses in the US – is on my desk.

Rita Chin is associate professor of history at the University of Michigan and the author of The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History (Princeton University Press).

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