Why I... believe academics should take a lead in the debate on multiculturalism

April 23, 2004

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, earlier this month called for the abandonment of 40 years of multicultural policies in Britain. In this he is not alone. An all-party report to the Dutch Parliament recently concluded that multicultural policies pursued for the past 30 years had failed. The authors argued for greater efforts to encourage immigrants to learn Dutch.

Throughout a European Union of 375 million people, there are increasing signs of anxiety regarding the presence of some 12 million Muslims. The collective response has been to query the wisdom of multiculturalist policies. UK academics could take a leading role in the subject in Britain, but how much attention are we giving to the debate? The significance of ethnic diversity is frequently on university agendas when the issue of access is discussed. In addition, many job advertisements welcome applications from ethnic minorities, but what is our real understanding of the concept?

It is usually assumed that multiculturalism of necessity encourages separateness, but this is an old-fashioned interpretation of the process.

Multiculturalism is a model of integration that permits recognition of sameness as well as difference. Proponents of multiculturalism argue that non-recognition of difference, such as the French ban on emblems of religion in state schools, will inevitably generate disharmony. A multicultural British society does not deny its Britishness but allows for British Asians, British blacks, British Chinese and so on. In Northern Ireland, there are additional tensions between notions of Irishness and Britishness, and a new research project at Ulster University's Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages is exploring the extent to which diaspora communities locate themselves on a British-Irish axis of identity.

Phillips argues for a model in which everybody is integrated into British society, but his definition of Britishness is primarily Anglocentric, with a strong emphasis on Shakespeare and the common currency of English.

English is a global language, but British culture is hardly confined to this. It incorporates recent immigrant cultures, including those of Afro-Caribbean, Chinese or Indian origin, alongside "traditional" cultures such as those of the Welsh, Irish or Scots Gaels, not to mention the diversity of English culture itself. Many UK universities already study culture (albeit with different approaches) in departments such as anthropology, cultural studies and sociology, and some eminent academics have made significant contributions to our understanding of contemporary Britishness. What is needed is an interdisciplinary, holistic approach to the complexity of narratives of cultural identity and their impact on British sociocultural landscapes. A significant departure in that direction was made with the 2001-03 Economic and Social Research Council seminars in European ethnology, coordinated by the University of the West of England.

The study of British culture in UK universities should include a focus on contemporary English culture, which to date has not developed a strong academic profile. Moreover, the academic debate on multiculturalism cannot be confined to the integration of today's immigrants into English/British society. Academics engaging with the study of traditional cultures in Britain need to overcome their intellectual insularity and engage with issues of contemporary interculturality. Phillips argues for an integrated society in which everybody is equal, but what does equality mean? Equality cannot be equated with cultural homogeneity. By all means tell young Muslims in Britain that they are British, but do so in the recognition that contemporary Britishness is changing and will never again pass the "cricket test". Nowadays a preference for chicken tikka masala is a more valid indicator of Britishness.

Máiréad Nic Craith
Professor of Irish culture and language
Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages
Ulster University

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