Mike Phillips in Prospect:
Authentic historical identities are beside the point in most people’s life and work. The typical migrant, instead, survives by operating several different selves at once.
Yet the very policies designed to recognise and value citizens’ identity are still in many ways influenced by 19th century ideas about ethnicity. It is commonplace, for instance, to be told that a child with a dark(ish) skin needs to be acquainted with his or her “own culture,” even when it isn’t clear what that might mean. The more we know about the science of genetics and the history of humankind, the more obvious it is that race itself is a more or less meaningless category (see “Black Men CAN Swim” in Prospect’s August issue).
Ironically, over the last decade or so, as the label “race” began to be discredited, the word “culture” has been pressed into service as a surrogate for all the familiar old attitudes. Figures like the previous mayor of London, Ken Livingston, decided that multiculturalism would be the political strategy to solve all the problems of migrant and British identity. But multiculturalism offered different meanings to different people. Even the right-wing and racist parties, staunch opponents of what they might have described as “race-mixing,” recognised the advantages of a multicultural arrangement in which each “culture” could maintain its exclusivity behind various social and political barriers.
Multiculturalism, therefore, had made life easier for a number of institutions and authorities—if only because it allows connections between social, political and economic conditions to be sidestepped. Meanwhile the interests and aspirations of the ethnic minorities have invariably been ignored. Even worse, the fact that multiculturalism is now integral to the right-left divide in British politics has spawned its own pattern of damage. In my own experience of discussing funding and sponsorship, or reporting on the progress of cultural projects and programmes, it is clear that subsidies and patronage, especially in the context of local authority funding, may now depend on which side you’re on.