Replacing ‘race’, historicizing ‘culture’ in multiculturalism - Alana Lentin

Replacing ‘race’, historicizing ‘culture’ in multiculturalism - Alana Lentin

Alana Lentin analyses the de-politicisation of racism via policies of state multiculturalism which gloss over racist premises, structures and institutions.

In the West, the first years of the new millennium are being marked by a growing public preoccupation with the supposed incompatibility of diverse groups of people, at both a global and a local level. The ongoing ‘war on terror’, launched by the United States and its allies in response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, is defined by a discourse that pits ‘civilizations’ against each other in a Manichaean struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘enlightened’ and ‘barbaric’. Likewise, at the level of western nation-states, problems such as the erosion of national identity, the lack of political participation, the decline of the welfare state and urban unrest have been put down to the allegedly unmanageable diversity of contemporary postcolonial, immigration societies. Commentators who have voiced fears about what they see as the over-extension of cultural diversity have linked them to a critique of multiculturalism, a policy of western nation-states that is now pronounced ‘in crisis’ by governments and thinkers alike. 1

In response, in countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, anti-racists have rushed to defend multiculturalism and denounce the return to assimilationist policies that is increasingly being witnessed, for example, under the present New Labour regime in Britain. 2 While criticism of the insistence on the primacy of ‘national values’ by current governments is crucial, the opposition made between multiculturalism and assimilationism in such critiques overlooks an important point. The policy of multiculturalism itself was not historically the outcome of the struggle by ‘minority communities’ for greater recognition, as is often supposed. 3 On the contrary, multiculturalism can be seen as an institutional policy that, by replacing an analysis of the link between racism and capitalism with a focus on the importance of cultural identity, depoliticized the state-centred anti-racism of the racialized in postcolonial societies. In order to conceptionalize the current debate about multiculturalism, which is far from being the first, 4
5 5 it is crucial to set its terms in a wider political-historical context: namely, the culturalization of politics that marks the post-war period in the West and the inextricable relationship this has with racism in the history of modernity.

Accordingly, I intend to look critically at one of the ways in which culture has come to dominate the language of politics in the post-war era, namely, by means of the struggle to eradicate racism in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I will look at one specific and central aspect of this ensemble of campaigns: the approach taken by UNESCO, which in turn informed the anti-racist policy of many western states. As was revealed by my research into the development of the discourse and practice of anti-racism in Europe6 the UNESCO approach also informs what can be thought of as the mainstream anti-racism practised by many in the anti-racist movement, governmental agencies, supranational institutions and NGOs. I suggest that a look at the history of this anti-racist project may throw light on the artificial nature of the divide between ‘race’ and ‘culture’, and influence the way we look back on the evolution of multiculturalism.

This mainstream and institutionalized approach to racism in the western societies of the post-war era is based on a belief that racism, propelled by aberrant extremists, comes from the outside to infect society. It therefore, to my mind, fails to place the racism of the postcolonial western world satisfactorily in the political and historical context of its evolution from the Enlightenment through slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust. As such, mainstream approaches often adopt a psycho-social attitude to racism, seeing it as the problem of pathological or ignorant individuals. Therefore, they propose individually based solutions, emphasizing the need to overcome ignorance through education and a greater knowledge of the Other. Finally, whereas they may admit the wrongdoing of governments, they avoid connecting racism with the historical development of the modern European state, thereby seeing racism as an aberration of democracy and the public political culture of the modern European nation-state. 7 Such a view contrasts strongly with the argument of those such as Hannah Arendt or Zygmunt Bauman, 8 and largely accepted by many theorists of ‘race’ and racism, that, far from being external to the capitalist liberal-democratic nation-state, modern racism was a consequence of modernity. In particular, the political conditions brought about by the institutionalization of nationalism in the modern European nation-state, the need for populations of these territorial units to be defined vis-à-vis external Others, made race-thinking politically relevant and, indeed, expedient.

Looking critically at the way in which the approach of western governments to tackling racism has evolved over time can help us to uncover the foundations of the ‘multicultural regime’. Multiculturalism may be thought of as being a regime because, in many ways, it has become an ideological straitjacket and critical distance from it has been all but abolished. As a policy, multiculturalism would have us see our societies as ‘race-free’ and culturally rich. However, with the commendable aim of shunning those who condemn societal diversity, it has become impossible to see clearly the artificiality of the divide between ‘race’ and ‘culture’ within official discourses that valorizes culture while—albeit strenuously—demonizing ‘race’. The emphasis placed on the difference between these two means of categorizing human difference often serves to mask the persistence of racism in what is widely believed to be a post-racial age. 9 Indeed, a multicultural approach to living together in the diverse societies of the post-war western world was built on ways of conceptualizing and suggesting solutions for racism that, by bypassing history and politics, enabled culturalist interpretations to come to the fore. We cannot, therefore, discuss multiculturalism historically without looking at how it evolved out of an increasing emphasis on culture as a means of bringing about a state of ‘racelessness’. 10

The culturalist approach to opposing racism becomes dominant precisely because it focuses on the need to find an alternative to ‘race’ as an adequate means of describing human differences. The antidote to racism, according to this thinking, is the denial of the viability of ‘race’ as a category and the introduction of alternative conceptual tools based on culturalized understandings, such as ethnicity or, more recently, identity. By concentrating on the need to replace ‘race’ at all costs, pro ponents of this form of anti-racism have denied the necessity of historicizing the emergence of racism, not as a mere pseudo-science, but as an ideology that came to dominate politics from the end of the nineteenth century until the Second World War.

This denial has led today to a failure to disentangle ‘race’ and state. Furthermore their interconnectedness remains largely obscured despite the introduction of affirmative action and quota policies in many countries and admissions of institutional racism, most significantly that following the 1997 Macpherson inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in the United Kingdom. 11 While we may accept that individual institutions contain racist elements or have even become steeped in a culture of racism, extending this to the idea that the state itself may be structured by racism is generally considered to be an extremist position. The success with which racism has been portrayed as a type of fungus that grows on the body politic means that we generally believe that, in a postcolonial, post-Holocaust era, racism has been expunged from the realm of the state and that any residues that persist lurk on the fringes of politics and society. For these reasons, campaigns against racism often focus on the activities of far-right groups and individual cases of racially motivated hate crime. While these should by no means be ignored, the constant identification of racism with the actions of the politically marginal enables the apparently more banal, everyday racism experienced by the racialized in all social, political, economic and private spheres to be played down. In addition, today, the increasing control over asylum and immigration has led to the criminalization of migrants and a public acceptance that their detention and deportation is necessary for the protection of national interests. Nevertheless, these state policies are accompanied by a declared commitment by governments to ‘tackling racism’, which brings about a situation in which—despite all evidence to the contrary—the belief that racism exists outside of the state and that, therefore, immigration policies are not racist but merely common sense has become ingrained in the contemporary western consciousness.

In order to provide a solid, historically grounded argument for my claim that multiculturalism emerges from culturalist responses to racism that depoliticize anti-racist discourses and obscure the link between ‘race’ and state, I will, first, offer a brief history of the so-called ‘UNESCO tradition’ at the core of culturalist anti-racism. I then go on to critique the idea that became prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, and that largely dominates thinking on racism in the West today, that a so-called cultural racism has come to dominate its biological predecessor and, more importantly, that its appearance is due to the diffusion of anti-racist, anti-colonialist and ‘minoritarian’ discourses in society. In conclusion, I discuss how the predominance of cultural interpretations of human differences and their official endorsement suppress state-centred critiques of racism that focus on ‘race’ as, above all else, a political idea that, chameleon-like, adapts itself to a variety of political circumstances.

The roots of culturalism: the UNESCO tradition

Martin Barker introduced the idea of a ‘UNESCO tradition’ of anti-racism in reference to the opposition to racism-as-science, one of the central principles of the anti-racism of the inter- and post-war years. 12 This branch of anti-racism, first promoted by anti-racist scientists and anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Julian Huxley and Otto Klineberg in the 1930s, was based on a belief in the necessity of defeating racism on its own terms, as first and foremost a science that could, therefore, be disproved. This approach, based on an a priori separation between ‘race’ and politics was considered by its promoters to be the most effective way of establishing the impracticality of racism as a system for making sense of human diversity.

UNESCO first brought together its panel of ‘world experts’ in 1950. Their meeting resulted in the publication of the UNESCO Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice which, having been updated several times, still serves as the basis for the UN position on racism. The Statement, as well as pamphlets on various issues related to racism written by the various members of the panel,13 formed the basis of the anti-racist policy of post-war international institutions, a policy that was also widely adopted by western governments. The Statement is well characterized by the key idea that emphasizes, as Ivan Hannaford demonstrates, that a distinction be drawn between ‘race’ and ethnicity: the former pernicious, the latter a supposedly benign means of categorizing human beings. This idea assumes that

all men belonged to the same species, Homo Sapiens, that national, cultural, religious, geographical, and linguistic groups had been falsely termed races; that it would be better to drop the term and use ‘ethnic groups’ in its place; that the ‘race is everything’ hypothesis was untrue. 14

The UNESCO project is mired in two problems, both of which relate to the argument being made here that culturalist approaches to explaining and proposing solutions to racism are inadequate because they avoid the political relationship of ‘reciprocal determination’ between ‘race’ and state. 15The first problem is that UNESCO aimed to tackle racism on its own terms, namely as a pseudo-science, reasoning that disproving the scientific validity of ‘race’ would lead to the demise of racism. Second, the project's authors (mainly the anthropologists involved) aimed to provide an alternative explanation of human difference to that of ‘race’ that would serve to rid the conceptualization of human difference, necessary for making sense of increasingly diverse populations, of the dangerous reverberations of race-thinking that were still sounding in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

In order, first, to disprove the validity of the pseudo-scientific concept of ‘race’ it was imperative for the UNESCO panel to diminish the significance attached to it. This aim nevertheless resulted in a view of racism that denied its effects on the state and politics, relegating it to the realm of misused pseudo-science. Point 3(b) of the 1968 version of the UNESCO Statement reads:

The division of the human species into ‘races’ is partly conventional and partly arbitrary and does not imply any hierarchy whatsoever. Many anthropologists stress the importance of human variation, but believe that ‘racial’ divisions have limited scientific interest and may even carry the risk of inviting abusive generalisation. 16

However, while the UNESCO project contributed to undermining the scientific credentials of the ‘race concept’, 17 it did not address the political implications of racism in the history of the West. It failed to deal with the important fact that, while race-thinking may have had its beginnings in the scientific or philosophical domain, it was through the medium of politics that it had been propelled to significance. For example, while the Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice recognized that the colonial ‘conditions of conquest’ contributed to racism, 18 this did not entail, in the analysis, any agency on the part of the colonialist state. Furthermore, while admitting the historically rooted, rather than natural or universal, origins of racism, the Statement does not expand on the precise character of these origins. On the contrary, it skims over the history of colonialism and the resultant ‘dependency’ of the colonies to claim that progress had since been achieved due to the inclusion of many ‘formerly dependent countries’ in international organizations. 19 The formulation of the Statement ignores the power relations between large and small, western and ‘developing’ states that still define the workings not only of such institutions, but also of the neo-colonial dependency that persists despite the official withdrawal of western rule.

The second problem in the UNESCO approach relates more directly to the history of how culturalist explanations came to dominate understandings of human difference and be posed as the solution to persistent racism, interpreted as an irrational prejudice between groups of culturally different human beings. The UNESCO panel, in particular the anthropologists who dominated it, wished to replace ‘race’ as a theory of human difference with ‘culture’, seen as a non-hierarchical, and thus more suitable, means of conceptualizing diversity. The culturalist interpretation of difference emphasized in the Statement is epitomized by the following assertion:

Current biological knowledge does not permit us to impute cultural achievements to differences in genetic potential. Differences in the achievements of different peoples should be attributed solely to their cultural history. The peoples of the world today appear to possess equal biological potentialities for attaining any level of civilization. 20

UNESCO wanted to be able to answers questions about why human groups differed from each other in appearance, in traditions and in levels of ‘progress’. This was perceived to be even more necessary as the immigration to Western Europe of non-Europeans meant that indigenous populations were, many for the first time, coming face to face with Others whom they often considered racially inferior or, at the very least, dangerously unfamiliar. The concern at this time with ensuring that racism should never again ‘raise its ugly head’ in places where the assumed homogeneity of national identity was being transformed by the arrival of newcomers is directly associated with the subsequent development of the multiculturalist ideal as a principle for coping with the diversity of contemporary western societies.

The main proposal made by UNESCO, and most forcefully by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his short book Race and History, 21 was that human groups could be divided according to cultures that were relative to each other. The relativity of culture eradicated the hierarchical implication of ‘superiority’ and ‘inferiority’ built into the idea of ‘race’. Therefore, Lévi-Strauss and UNESCO insisted on the replacement of ‘race’, as a way of categorizing human difference, with ‘ethnicity’ or ‘culture’. Racism, too, was therefore replaced by the term ‘ethnocentrism’ which Lévi-Strauss thought more adequately described the intolerance between different cultural or ethnic groups; this was considered to be almost inherent in groups and, therefore, more benign.

The idea that each culture contributed ‘in its own way’ to humanity as a whole countered the widely accepted belief that a hierarchy of ‘race’ divided Europeans from non-Europeans. Lévi-Strauss celebrated the diversity of humanity, demonstrated by what he called the ‘distinctive contributions’ of each cultural group. 22 He claimed that the different levels of progress of such groups could not be attributed to any innate differences. Rather, progress comes about as a result of interaction between groups. The historical chance that led to the onset of modernity taking place in the West meant that the other cultures that rubbed shoulders with the Occident experienced more rapid progress. Those that remained isolated did not. In the culturally relativist framework adopted by Lévi-Strauss, which so greatly influenced the UNESCO approach and which formed the basis of the multiculturalist approach to the ongoing discrimination of non-Europeans in western societies, the differences between human groups were seen as fortuitous and almost arbitrary.

By so forcefully making this point, Lévi-Strauss rightly critiques a Eurocentric notion of progress, which he sees as emerging from the evolutionist idea that all cultures are merely stages towards a single model of humanity epitomized by the West. Rejecting the idea of ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’ cultures and the ideal of assimilation, Lévi-Strauss proposed that the only means to curb ethnocentrism was through the greater exchange of knowledge between different cultures. This interculturalist objective underpins the anti-racism that dominates the policy of international institutions, such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe, to this day.

There is a twist, however, to Lévi-Strauss's celebration of cultural diversity and his advocacy of greater intercultural knowledge. The anthropologist claimed that the ideal of a ‘world civilization’, based on what he described as a fact of cultural diversity, would only be worth pursuing if each culture were to retain its originality. The more different the cultures involved were from each other, the more fruitful the intercultural communication. However, the only way to ensure diversity was actually to enforce the stratification of human groups according to colonialism's class hierarchies. As multicultural society became a reality, Lévi-Strauss feared that cultural diversity would become a thing of the past. This extreme approach to the idea of cultural diversity, as something static within which cultural groups would ideally remain hermetically sealed despite the fact that they would increase their knowledge of each other, reveals the problems associated with anthropology's involvement in the search for solutions to the ongoing problem of racism. While certainly no longer universally the case, the legacy of the anthropologists’ role in colonialist regimes and their contribution to an exoticizing and reifying view of non-European cultures cannot be completely overlooked.

The UNESCO tradition that developed out of the contributions of thinkers such as Lévi-Strauss overlooked the complexities of such arguments and, indeed, later elaborations of them, such as Lévi-Strauss's own re-evaluation of Race and History in his essay entitled ‘Race et Culture’. 23 The approach it outlined was based on three fundamental principles that formed the basis of the proposed solution to the persistent problem of what now had become known as ‘ethnocentrism’.

  • Because ‘race’ has no scientific validity, it should be replaced by ‘culture’ or ‘ethnicity’, and the notion of racism by that of ethnocentrism;
  • the benefits of cultural diversity should be promoted as a means of enriching society; and
  • greater knowledge of other cultures among western societies should be encouraged in order to bring about awareness of the ‘fact’ of cultural diversity on a global scale and to combat the inclination of ignorant and prejudicial human beings to adopt ethnocentric attitudes.

There are three main problems arising from this package of solutions proposed by UNESCO that have a direct bearing on the way in which multicultural approaches to racism have affected the politics of anti-racism specifically and the lived experience of many racialized people in western societies more generally. First, by proposing that racism is a misconstrued attitude based on misleading, pseudo-scientific information, the UNESCO approach implies that it can, therefore, be overcome at the level of the individual without questioning the role of the state. This approach forms part of what is today a widespread attitude to racism, one that characterizes analyses of institutionalized and state racism as the paranoia of ‘minorities’ or the extreme left. Racism, from this commonsense perspective, is the pathological problem of ignorant individuals who ‘know no better’, an analysis based on an in-built class stereotyping that equates racism mainly with working-class ignorance. This interpretation of racism psychologizes and individualizes it, making it impossible to propose political analyses or solutions. Therefore, slavery, colonialism, the Holocaust and contemporary discrimination against immigrants can only be interpreted as aberrations and not as political components of modern nation-states.

The second problem entailed in the UNESCO project is that to propose ‘culture’ as an alternative to ‘race’ does little, contrary to the belief of those such as Lévi-Strauss, to refute the widely accepted view that groups are organized hierarchically according to levels of progress. While theoretically accepting the validity of ‘different but equal’ cultures, the transposition of this principle into anti-racist action was nevertheless accompanied in practice by paternalism because, as Lévi-Strauss himself observed, the principle of cultural relativism could only work if ‘cultures’ were kept in isolation from each other. Once populations moved, they were naturally influenced by living in a new society and interpreting its codes for themselves on the basis of their own lived experience. However, when non-white, non-European populations were confronted with racism in the western societies to which they had come as immigrants, they were often confronted with the fixed anti-racism of the local left that assumed that, as newcomers, immigrants lacked knowledge about the workings of the society and would require guidance before acquiring political and social maturity. This was a particular problem in the early anti-racism of the white left in post-war Europe, which allied itself with the romantic figure of the anti-colonial freedom fighter but found it difficult in practice to make political space for immigrant activists in the metropole. On the contrary, the idea prevailed that white people had a duty to help new immigrants, producing a paternalistic attitude that reproduced the idea of western superiority over so-called Third World backwardness.

Finally, the idea that people can be assigned to different groups according to culture is powerless to avoid the essentialism implied by ‘race’. Whether or not it is as pernicious as an idea, culture is no less reifying. Here we can see the direct link to the critique of multiculturalism that has often been formulated. Multiculturalism has been accused of seeing cultural groups as internally homogeneous and static, and of being unable to make room for the necessary hybridization that comes about as populations originating in various parts of the globe share space in the urban metropole. 24 Moreover, the homogeneity of culture is almost always evoked by members of the dominant culture in reference to that of so-called minority groups. In such a schema, the dominant culture is rarely scrutinized, but merely accepted as the norm. Therefore, it is common to hear references to ‘ethnic’ food and music on the assumption that this only refers to what does not originate within the national space. While it is less frequent for what are considered to be cultural characteristics to be put down to genetic differences, there is a tendency to talk in stereotypes about ‘Muslim values’, ‘black attitudes’ or ‘Asian work ethics’. Such stereotyping of groups, many of whose members have lived in western societies for several generations, belies the influence that common living in multicultural societies has on everyone. The persistence of racism that often consists in the ghettoization of racialized groups should not be confused with the common perception that ‘minority groups’ naturally choose to live in cultural enclaves. The frequency with which such attitudes are expressed strengthens the suggestion I am making here that the shift from ‘race’ to ‘culture’ or ‘ethnicity’ is little more than a cosmetic one in terms of the impact it has on the actual experience of racism.

Cultural racism, identity politics and the misconstrual of authenticity

The culturalist approach epitomized by the UNESCO tradition has dominated ideas about how to interpret and propose solutions to racism in the post-war western world. Beyond this, it has also contributed to a belief, which came to prominence in the 1980s, that anti-racism could be held responsible for the emergence of a new culturalist racism, heralded by groups on the far right such as the French Front National. However, while it is true, as several commentators have pointed out, 25 that the language of cultural relativism was adopted by the far right in an overt effort to shun blatant racism in favour of a discourse of cultural incompatibility, it is mistaken to attribute the diffusion of culturalism itself to the rise of identity politics. What I am suggesting is that commentators who have proposed that the call for the recognition of the cultural specificity of ‘minority’ groups in western societies is a process that originates at the grassroots, with the marginalized or racialized themselves, have failed to historicize adequately the way in which multicultural approaches to targeting discrimination have evolved. As I demonstrated in the previous section, culturally based explanations of human difference and culturalist solutions to racism emerged out of an elite project, piloted by the United Nations and legitimized by renowned academics. To blame the racialized for the culturalization of politics and the resultant depoliticization of anti-racism is to misunderstand the origins of the culturalist project and to disregard the choice often faced by black and ‘minority ethnic’ anti-racists, from the 1980s on, between adopting the language of multiculturalism or ceasing to be socially and politically engaged.

The idea that the culturalist approach to the fight against racism has contributed to the rise in acceptability of the discourse of the far right originates with the idea of a new cultural racism. The ‘new racism’ is epitomized by the idea that cultures should be seen as separate but equal. The translation of this in far-right, nationalist rhetoric is that each culture deserves its own homeland in which its members can live undisturbed by others. Publicly, proponents of this view claim that, just like Europeans, immigrants too would be happier ‘at home’, in their ‘natural surroundings’. The idea of a new racism was first proposed in 1981 by Martin Barker in his analysis of the relationship between Thatcherism in the United Kingdom and the rise of sociobiology as a means of proving the incompatibility between the inherently different ways of life of British people and ‘immigrants’. The new racism was based on the idea that ‘it is in our biology, our instincts, to defend our way of life, traditions and customs against outsiders’. 26 Barker insisted, however, that culturalism was an elite discourse that infected the racist politics of fringe groups from the top down because it had been legitimized by both the governing Conservative Party and by key thinkers in the academy.

In contrast to Barker's perspective, cultural, or so-called differentialist, racism was analysed in a very different way by Pierre-André Taguieff. Taguieff proposed that the success that cultural racism had enjoyed in appealing to the French public in the late 1980s, as seen in growing support for the Front National, was due to anti-racism, which he saw as having been propelled by anti-colonialists and the far left. Taguieff suggested in several works on the nature of anti-racism that anti-racists had been responsible for creating the language used to such effect by the racists of the Front National. 27 The diffusion of the discourse of cultural relativism has, according to Taguieff, directly enabled the resuscitation of a far-right politics whose association with the distasteful history of European fascism had led to its previous decline.

Taguieff is a self-styled French republican thinker whose more recent work has targeted Islam in France as the carrier of a ‘new Judaeophobia’ that poses a threat both to Jews and to the principles of laicité upon which the French state was ostensibly founded. 28 Therefore, while professing his commitment to fighting racism, he opposes what he sees as the ‘communitarianization’ of anti-racism, namely, the association of the opposition to racism with the experiences of the targets of racist discrimination. His stance is one commonly adopted in France whereby anti-racist principles are established by reference to a public political culture that upholds the belief that the French state is foundationally anti-racist. This form of anti-racism, practised by organizations such as SOS Racisme and the Ligue contre le racisme et l'antisémitisme (LICRA), is referred to as ‘generalist’ because it seeks to appeal as widely as possible to the general public, and therefore refuses to be seen as associated with what are written off as being the ‘particularist’ concerns of racialized people. As was pointed out in an interview with a representative of SOS Racisme:

From the moment that we would rely on a communitarian model, we would lose all our power and all our force because we wouldn't be speaking to everyone's hearts. We would not be speaking to 60 million people, we'd be speaking to the victims concerned. And the victims concerned are not the majority of the activist force. 29

Taguieff blames anti-racism for the emergence of culturalist racism. He ignores the heterogeneity of anti-racism. Rather, he identifies it wholly with the actions of the extreme left and those whom he sees as being anti-western, epitomized by anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon. Furthermore, he proposes that cultural relativism has destroyed any chance that the struggle against racism—associated exclusively with the activities of the far right—might succeed. Cultural relativism is seen as stemming from the insistence of those of non-European origin on creating exclusivist communities that threaten the secular and assimilatory ethos of French republican political culture. Nowhere does he admit the possibility that the ‘ghettoization’ and ‘communitarianization’ that he sees as so damaging may not have been the outcome of a choice made by those of immigrant origin in Europe, but rather the result of the state racism that persists despite official endorsements of equality and meritocracy and a publicly professed commitment to ‘weeding out’ racism.

The possibility of blaming racialized ‘communities’ for the diffusion of the language of cultural racism is founded on a purposeful misreading of the development of culturalism, which was top-down and not, as Taguieff would have it, bottom-up. This misreading is based on a view of identity politics that claims that political action by ‘minority groups’ is solely founded on a need for the culture of each ‘community’ to be equally valorized in a diverse society. The ‘politics of recognition’ are based, 30 it is claimed, on the significance of authenticity as a means both for establishing internal cohesion within a given ‘community’ and for seeking legitimacy in the public sphere. Like Taguieff, Charles Taylor sees Fanon's thinking as fundamental to notions of authenticity and recognition. Taylor's misreading of Fanon is a useful example of how culturalism came to be associated, not with the elite anti-racism of the international institutions, but with the self-organized anti-racism of the racialized in the postcolonial West.

Taylor bases his view of identity politics on what he claims to be a search for authenticity in the process of throwing off domination. And he attributes the concept of authenticity in the contemporary world to Frantz Fanon. Fanon argues that the main weapon of colonization was the imposition of the image of the colonizers on the subjugated so that they were no longer recognized—even by themselves—outside of a view of them constructed by their oppressors. 31 Ignoring Fanon's grappling with the ontology of black people's existence in Black Skin, White Masks, Taylor dwells on Fanon's justification of violence in the process of decolonization in The Wretched of the Earth. During this period, Fanon's writings emphasized the assimilation of the culture of the oppressor as characteristic of colonization and the creation of the ‘native’ by the settler. He calls for the effects of colonization on the colonized to be consciously reversed through the shattering of the self-perception of oneself as subjugated resulting from oppression.

Taylor confuses his own view of the ideal of authenticity as a model for society with Fanon's advocacy of violence as a necessary stage towards the achievement of national self-determination for the colonized. He then links this artificial connection to his theorization of contemporary identity politics. By doing so, he purposefully avoids the very strangeness of Fanon's situation: a Martinican who had elected to fight for Algerian liberation from French rule, under which his own country had elected to remain. Taylor's view that Fanon's appeal to authenticity is a foundation of present-day collective action by ‘minority’ groups for recognition skims over the vital fact that, for Fanon, the achievement of national liberation must eschew any appeal to ethnicity or ‘race’. Fanon recognized how nationalism comes to rely on racism when he remarked that the ‘racial and racist level is transcended’ in an Algerian nation that must emerge on the basis of will and consciousness and not on the grounds of shared ethnicity. 32 The openness of Fanon's vision of the membership of a new self-determined nation opposes the essentialism of the authentic identity that Taylor claims it is necessary to construct for the achievement of equal recognition.

Taylor fails to read Fanon's own ambivalent relationship to the authenticity claims made by the advocates of negritude. Ultimately, Fanon sees negritude as a transitory stage in the process of decolonization but not as an end in itself. Such an authentic identity cannot be sustained because to do so would be to belie the extent to which the ‘Negro’ has been brought into existence by the white man. The impossibility therefore of ‘returning’ to a precolonial authenticity is evident in Fanon's explanation of his condition: ‘I wanted to be typically Negro—it was no longer possible. I wanted to be white—that was a joke.’ 33 Fanon's negritude is a pragmatic position bound up more with a concern for making the Black visible as such, independent of the white gaze. However, it is clear that, for Fanon, visibility is of little use without self-determination, not in the individualist sense applied to it by Taylor but as a process of freeing a people from colonial rule. As David Theo Goldberg notes, ‘being recognised, whether as self-conscious or as Other, and thus being visible, requires that one be outside the Other's imposition, free of the Other's complete determination’. 34 Therefore, the recourse to authentic negritude can be a first step towards humanizing the colonized by making them visible. Its necessity, however, can begin to be reconsidered once self-determination is established in order to create a new politics that, as Barnor Hesse suggests, 35 particularizes Eurocentric universalism by constructing itself in opposition to it.

Culturalism and the depoliticization of anti-racism: contemporary effects

The history of anti-racism in Europe reveals that the political project of those facing racism that attempted to ground itself in a Fanonian commitment to lived experience as a key to interpreting racial domination has always faced suppression. This has come both from the right and from those generally on the left who have looked for anti-racist responses in western public political culture and denounced the self-organized anti-racism of the racialized as ‘communitarian’, ‘particularist’ or ‘culturalized’. I have attempted to show that a culturalized view both of the interpretation of racism and the solutions proposed to it was a top-down project that was then misinterpreted as emerging out of identity politics as a search for authenticity. This reading ignores the fact that, with the diffusion of multicultural policymaking, political demands in reaction to racial discrimination could only be framed in a culture-oriented language that sees intercultural knowledge as the key to combating so-called ‘ethnocentrism’. Politicized approaches that stress institutionalized racism and that look to ground the anti-racist project in the lived experience of racism's targets have been seen as counter-productive to the aim of creating a generally non-racist society.

What have been the repercussions of the dominance of culturalism and the concomitant marginalization of self-organized, state-centred anti-racism? First, the replacement of ‘race’ with ‘culture’ has done little to counter the idea that humanity is organized hierarchically. This is due to the fact that difference has been culturalized by Europeans and imposed on others as a means of coping both with the recent history of the West and with the diversification of its societies. As such, like universalist values, cultural difference is theorized in relation to a European standard that escapes the relativization that it proposes for others.

Within the logic of multiculturalism, the members of non-white and/or non-European cultural groups are generally thought of as internally homogeneous. Members of these purported cultures are essentialized as such. This essentialization often acts like racialization: so-called minorities are pigeon-holed and as a result rendered invisible. Once an individual has been assigned to his/her cultural group and tucked away at the fringes of society (both metaphorically and often geographically), any sense of hybridity or heterogeneity is lost.

Many theorists, artists, musicians and writers have emphasized the fluidity of cultural identities. Yet, without challenging the underlying reasons why culture dominates our understandings, this is unlikely to have a significant impact in the realm of politics and policymaking. Thinking culturally about difference is the default position for not talking about ‘race’ and avoiding the charge of racism. But this very need for such a substitute covers up the fact that the hierarchy put in place by racism has been maintained. It no longer exists as blatant persecution. It is more ambivalent. It can continue precisely because it has been deleted from official discourse. The ultimate signal that it has been rejected is the fact that it has been replaced: ‘benign’ culture has taken over from virulent ‘race’.

Nevertheless, racism persists. And this is even admitted by elites. Their response is also formulated in terms of culture. Multiculturalism, interculturalism and diversity management have, over the years, been different ways of talking about the same thing: how to ‘integrate’ difference and curb the problems that it may lead to. However, it is now increasingly obvious that culturalist policies have not brought about the end of racism. This is because neither multiculturalism nor its updated version—interculturalism—questions the very reason for the focus on culture.

People targeted by racism generally see through the idea that recognizing cultural differences, providing for them and encouraging others to learn about them will bring an end to discrimination. At local, national and European levels, virtually the only anti-racist projects that receive funding are those that mobilize culture under one form or another. Mainstream anti-racist organizations propose that culture is the best way to break down barriers and increase tolerance. They thus organize concerts of so-called ‘ethnic music’, food festivals and even intercultural football matches. As my research revealed, in Italy, for example, groups such as the Roma or Senegalese communities are invited to share their food and music with local Italians as a way of bringing ‘cultures’ together, despite the fact that some of them have lived in Italian society for up to two decades. As one of my British interviewees from the Campaign against Racism and Fascism pointed out in a comment made about the problem of receiving financial support for anti-racist activities:

I don't think we got any money from the European Union at all … what was funded was not anti-racist work. It was cultural work, multicultural work. The best way to get funding was multicultural work, not stuff that was going to be critical of state institutions. 36

There is a widely accepted perception that culture is inherently devoid of politics. It is therefore possible for states, supranational institutions and private bodies close to them to promote anti-racist initiatives without calling into question the participation of state institutions in racist discrimination. Even the admission of institutional racism by the Metropolitan Police in the United Kingdom following the 1997 Macpherson inquiry has primarily engendered policies of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversification’ within institutions that fail to transform the culture of racism by which they are structured. Indeed, these policies fail to scratch the surface to reveal the often deeply racist premises on which these institutions have been built.

There is an idea in our multicultural societies that it is futile to historicize the development of the concepts we take for granted. Instead, we can revel in our cultural richness, ignoring all those for whom the official embrace of diversity makes little difference to their daily lives. The story of how the potentially liberating, political tool of culture was harnessed in the aim of bypassing ‘race’ and the real effects of racism may assist us in the vital project of rethinking multiculturalism at a time when it is being challenged by those on the political right who seek to replace it with policies that emphasize the primacy of national identity. Rethinking multiculturalism must not mean an acceptance of the new assimilationism that, as Arun Kundnani rightly points out, 37 seeks to impose the symbols of patriotic allegiance on populations for whom, happily, the need for a strong nationalist identity has been progressively being eroded. It should rather signal the necessity of challenging classifications that would not have been chosen by those they aim to describe. This may pave the way towards questioning the way in which notions of identity and belonging are conceived, by whom they are developed and for what purpose: not only in theory but in political practice.

  • 1. See, for instance, David Goodhart, ‘Too diverse?’, Prospect, February 2004.
  • 2. Arun Kundnani, ‘Rally round the flag’, IRR News (online news network), 7 April 2004, available at (viewed 1 August 2005).
  • 3. Cf. Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2004).
  • 4. Cf. Paul Gilroy, ‘The end of anti-racism’, in James Donald and Ali Rattansi (eds), ‘Race’, Culture and Difference (London: Sage 1992).
  • 5. Alana Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe (London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press 2004).
  • 6. Alana Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe (London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press 2004).
  • 7. In my theorization of anti-racism, I used John Rawls's concept of ‘public political culture’ to describe the way in which the various discourses of anti-racism position themselves in relation to the state (Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe). According to Rawls, public political culture is a set of ‘familiar ideas’ that ‘play a fundamental role in society's political thought and how its institutions are interpreted’ (John Rawls, Justice and Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2001), 5–6). I argued that anti-racist principles may be seen as belonging to a wider set of principles contained in the public political culture of western, liberal-democratic nation-states. The extent to which anti-racists adhere to or critique these notions informs us as to their stance on the relationship between ‘race’ and state.
  • 8. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1966); Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press 1989).
  • 9. David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell 2002).
  • 10. David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell 2002).
  • 11. William Macpherson, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, Cm 4262-I (London: Stationery Office 1999).
  • 12. Martin Barker, ‘Empiricism and racism’, Radical Philosophy, no. 33, Spring 1983, 6–15.
  • 13. Leo Kuper (ed.), Race, Science and Society (Paris: UNESCO Press and London: George Allen and Unwin 1975).
  • 14. Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press 1996), 386.
  • 15. Etienne Balibar, ‘Racism and nationalism’, in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso 1991), 37–67.
  • 16. ‘UNESCO Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice’, Current Anthropology, vol. 9, no. 4, 1968, 270–2 (270).
  • 17. Elazar Barkan, ‘Race’, in Theodore R. Porter and Dorothy Ross (eds), Cambridge History of Science. Volume 7. The Modern Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003).
  • 18. ‘UNESCO Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice’.
  • 19. ‘UNESCO Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice’.
  • 20. ‘UNESCO Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice’, 270.
  • 21. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (Paris: UNESCO Press 1952).
  • 22. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (Paris: UNESCO Press 1952).
  • 23. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Race et Culture’, in C. Lévi-Strauss, Le Regard eloigné (Paris: Plon 1983).
  • 24. Cf. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, Racialised Boundaries: Race, Nation, Gender, Colour and Class and the Anti-racist Struggle (London and New York: Routledge 1992); Gilroy, ‘The end of anti-racism’.
  • 25. Pierre-André Taguieff, La Force du prejugé: Essai sur le racisme et ses doubles (Paris: La Découverte 1989); Pierre-André Taguieff (ed.), Face au racisme, 2 vols (Paris: La Découverte 1991); Verena Stolcke, ‘Talking culture: new boundaries, new rhetorics of exclusion in Europe’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, no. 1, 1995, 1–24.
  • 26. Martin Barker, The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe (London: Junction Books 1981), 23–4.
  • 27. Taguieff, La Force du prejugé; Taguieff (ed.), Face au racisme, vol. 1: Les moyens d'agir and vol. 2: Analyses, hypothèses, perspectives; Pierre-André Taguieff, Les Fins de l'antiracisme (Paris: Michalon 1995).
  • 28. Pierre-André Taguieff, La Nouvelle Judéophobie (Paris: Milles et une nuits 2002).
  • 29. Quoted in Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe, 185.
  • 30. Taylor, Multiculturalism.
  • 31. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press 1963); Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (London: Pluto Press 1967).
  • 32. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 108.
  • 33. Fanon, Black Skins, White Mask, 132.
  • 34. David Theo Goldberg, Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America (New York and London: Routledge 1997), 81.
  • 35. Barnor Hesse, ‘“It's your world”: discrepant M/multiculturalisms’, in Phil Cohen (ed.), New Ethnicities, Old Racisms (London : Zed Books 1999).
  • 36. Quoted in Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe, 289.
  • 37. Kundnani, ‘Rally round the flag’.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
May 9 2012 19:41


  • Even the admission of institutional racism by the Metropolitan Police in the United Kingdom following the 1997 Macpherson inquiry has primarily engendered policies of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversification’ within institutions that fail to transform the culture of racism by which they are structured.

    Alana Lentin

Attached files


May 10 2012 15:43

i have read this before, Alana Lentin is bloody great.