Defined by some distinctly hyphenated Britishness

September 3, 2004

Rumours of the death of multiculturalism are exaggerated and can alienate the very communities that must be brought into the mainstream.

In the 1950s, Britain's non-white ethnic minorities constituted only 1 per cent of the population. Fifty years later, they make up 9 per cent - about the size of Scotland - and are projected to become a majority in several English cities in the first quarter of the 21st century, including the most populous city of Europe, London.

Out of an immigration process that consisted primarily of importing labour for jobs in the British economy that white people did not wish to do, new communities have emerged that can and perhaps want to stay distinct. New cultural practices, especially to do with the family and religion, have become a feature of the British landscape and continue to shape the personal lives and relationships of even British-born individuals.

The imperial legacy has been both a source of racism and a source of opportunity for the easy acquisition and exercise of citizenship (for ex-imperial subjects), for political opposition to racism and for an ethnic-minority assertiveness, partly influenced by developments elsewhere, especially in the US. Ethnic identity, like gender and sexuality, has assumed a new political importance and, for some migrants and their descendants, has become the primary focus of their politics. While "ethnicity" is disdained on much of the European mainland, Britain is marked by an ethnic assertiveness that arose from feelings of not being respected or of lacking access to public space, and that consists of counterposing "positive" images against traditional or dominant stereotypes.

It is a politics of seeking not just tolerance of ethnic difference but also public acknowledgement, resources and representation. Indeed, resistance to racism has come to be seen as an almost necessary path to citizenship and a dignified integration into British society. Some of these identities are sustained by communal practices such as endogamy among South Asians, but also by sociopolitical conflict, evident at the moment in the case of Muslims. Hence, there is little erosion of group identification across the generations, though the kind of identity that is espoused varies, with "colour" having a salience for Caribbeans and religion for South Asians.

These identities persist even when participation in distinctive cultural practices is in decline. For example, compared with their elders, young South Asians are less likely to speak to family in a South Asian language, regularly attend a place of worship or have an arranged marriage. Yet they do not cease to identify with their ethnic, racial or religious group, though they may redefine what that group is (say, from Pakistani to Muslim).

Identity has moved from things that might be unconscious because they are implicit in distinctive cultural practices to conscious public projections and the explicit creation and assertion of politicised ethnicities. Shaped through intellectual, cultural and political debates, such identities are fluid and susceptible to change with the political climate, but to think of them as weak is to overlook the pride with which they may be asserted, the intensity with which they may be debated and their capacity to generate community activism and political campaigns.

These minority identities do not necessarily compete with a sense of Britishness, but have in fact been a means to integration, showing that integration can take different forms. Political mobilisation and participation, especially protest, has been one of the principal means of integration in Britain, with activists, spokespersons and a plethora of community organisations interacting with and modifying existing institutions as part of a two-way process of mutual education. In this way, public discourse and political arrangements are challenged but adjust to accommodate and integrate the challengers.

One of the most profound developments has been that "ethnicity" or "blackness" is experienced less as an oppositional identity than as a way of being British, and something similar is probably happening to "Muslim" at the moment. Caribbeans, who led the way with oppositional identities, are also ahead on the trend for hyphenated British identities. This is related to their high level of social mixing and the success they have achieved in popular culture. Yet, so far, it has brought them few economic dividends. This suggests that sometimes the best strategy is to delay assimilation until entry into a middle-class environment has been achieved - as British-born African-Asians and Indians, who are displaying high rates of intermarriage, have done. Similarly, the refusal of Pakistanis to assimilate into local white working-class cultures sustained their hopes of social advancement and produced a cohort of higher education entrants on a scale beyond the hopes the Government has for the white working classes.

What is important, then, is to recognise the existence in Britain of different kinds of multiculture, for example a mixing and style-setting hybridity and an ethno-religious communitarian development. Minority groups have their own distinct character and so are likely to develop distinctive forms of integration. No one form of integration should be elevated to a paradigmatic status, theoretically or in policy.

Rightwing commentators used to worry about the threat that non-white migrants and their descendants posed to Britishness. It is clear now that many in these ethnic-minority groups think of Britain, appropriately reimagined and restructured, as a unifying identity. It is in fact those groups that have a national-territorial base in the British Isles and a historical grievance with the British state who today most shrink from the label "British". While Pakistanis in Bradford have been coming to an understanding of themselves as British, it is some Scots and Irish - both within and outside their territorial nations - who are in denial about being British, who see one national identity as incompatible with another.

A characteristic of British culture, despite its insular self-image, is its readiness to borrow and mix ideas and influences, as supremely exemplified by the English language. The British, especially the English, may be less open to their European neighbours, but they are less hostile than most Europeans to multiculturalism and to inter-continental exchange. Hence today, London is not simply an English or a British or even a European city, but a world city.

Yet despite these integrative processes, there is evidence of continuing discrimination and institutional racism in most areas of society. Indeed, sometimes a reduction in one kind of racism is accompanied by an increase in another. There is accumulating evidence of differential prejudice and stereotypes, with anti-Muslim racism often unable in practice to disentangle itself from anti-Asian racism - this is the most salient and the one most likely to be found among intellectuals.

Religion, indeed, has come to have an importance not anticipated by sociologists, with their Anglo-American focus on "colour". At a time when a third of Britons say they do not have a religion, nearly all South Asians say they have one and an overwhelming majority say it is of personal importance to them. The presence of the new ethnic minorities is not simply changing the character of religion in Britain by diversifying it, it is also giving it an importance out of step with native trends.

Moreover, Muslim assertiveness runs against the grain of some secular and liberal sensitivities, although a close study of Muslim political claims making shows that it parallels arguments for gender or ethnic equality and so is no less derived from contemporary Western ideas about equality and multiculturalism than from Islam.

Some in the wider British public, including parts of the Labour Government, emphasise the plural and dynamic character of British society and speak of "rebranding Britain", of Britain being a mongrel nation (Chancellor Gordon Brown) and a chicken tikka masala-eating nation (former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook). But the Government does not speak in just one voice. From Home Secretary David Blunkett downwards, politicians across the spectrum say that Britishness is being challenged by the cultural separatism and self-imposed segregation of Muslim migrants and by a "politically correct" multiculturalism that has fostered fragmentation rather than integration.

This is the view of no less a figure than Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Yet pitting multiculturalism against Britishness is a phoney war. A sense of belonging to one's country is necessary to make a success of a multicultural society. But assimilation into an undifferentiated national identity is an unrealistic and oppressive policy. An inclusive national identity is respectful of and builds on the identities that people value and does not trample on them. At the same time, respecting difference and inculcating Britishness is not a naive hope, but something that is now going on and leads everyone to redefine themselves.

International terrorism and neoconservatism are putting extra strains on democratic, negotiated integration, but pessimism about British society's capacity to produce pluralistic (rather than assimilative) integration is premature. Talk of giving up on multiculturalism is unnecessary and can alienate the communities that need to be brought into the mainstream.

Tariq Modood is professor of sociology at Bristol University. His latest book, Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain , is published by Edinburgh University Press next February.

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