Race, Identity and Belonging - fresh perspectives from Soundings

Guy Aitchison on Race, Identity and Belonging introduced by George Shire (with contributions from Bilkis Malek, Ejos Ubiribo, Paul Gilroy, Patrick Wright, Roshi Naidoo, Tariq Modood, Zygmunt Bauman, Nira Yuval-Davis, Amir Saee and Farhad Dalal).

(Soundings 2008, Race, Identity and Belonging, 138pp)

This collection of recent essays challenges dominant assumptions on race and identity in modern Britain.

In recent years it has become fashionable to declare that multiculturalism is dead. If there was ever a turning point in public debate it came with the "race riots" in Northern cities in 2001 and the attacks of 9/11. It wasn't long before critics from both left and right were rushing to denounce multiculturalism as a failed experiment which had permitted the seeds of fundamentalism to grow and encouraged segregation, animosity and mutual misunderstanding. The London bombings of 2005 put the last nail in the coffin of multiculturalism and the relaxed pluralist Britain of the 90s was no more. Or so we're told.

The "death-of-multiculturalism" narrative is recycled so often in various forms by media commentators and vote-hungry politicians that it has become something of a cliché. The BBC's "White Season" is the latest contribution. Its recent revisionist documentary on Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech had the aim of being "provocative" but in reality conformed to the same narrative, implying Powell was right to predict mass immigration would lead to division and violence (other documentaries in the series apparently display the same blinkeredness). When an idea enjoys this level of acceptance it's important to challenge it; and that's exactly what the contributors to Race, Identity and Belonging aim to do.

The book brings together a collection of recent brief essays on race and identity in modern Britain published in the quarterly journal, Soundings. Topics range broadly; from institutional racism and cosmopolitanism, to English identity, melancholia and Black youth crime; but what all share is a willingness to deconstruct and challenge the lazy narratives we fall into when discussing these topics.

Paul Gilroy makes a powerful case that our current anxieties over heritage and identity are less a response to intrusive and disruptive immigration, Powell's "alien wedge", than the product of neo-liberalism and our own particular historical circumstances. The causes lie in "de-industrialisation and de -colonisation, in increased inequality and insecurity, in privatisation, and in the regressive modernisation" begun under the Conservatives and enthusiastically continued by New Labour. Immigrants and asylum seekers have been thrown into these forces and held responsible for them. It's no accident that the working-class whites treated like anthropological curiosities by BBC interviewers express the same worries and concerns you'd expect to hear from Blacks and Asians in the same economic position. Gilroy warns against a retreat to post-imperial "melancholia" which makes sense of Britain's "perennial organic crisis" purely in racial and national terms and assigns to the British the role of victims in their own colonial history. He finds hope in the spontaneous and unappreciated emergence of "conviviality" in public life. In articulating their strongest desires for freedom and relief from Guantanomo Bay, he tells us, released British Muslims told interviewers that what they really craved was a packet of Highland Shortbread Biscuits! In such ways conviviality defies fixed and simplistic cultural distinctions.

Other essays in the collection offer a similar rebuke to easy "clash of culture" narratives. Tariq Modood offers an understanding of political multiculturalism as the embodiment of three ideas: Equality, Multi and Integration. While Equality expresses the idea that minority groups should not be relegated to the private sphere but play a role in the structuring and definition of public space, Multi involves recognition that these groups do not represent a dualistic black/white but a plurality of ethnicities of different socio-economic classes. The Integration he favours does not mean a return to the one-way assimilation policies of the 60s, where "they" must become sufficiently like "us" to become British. Instead he favours an interactive idea of integration that involves continually "rethinking what it means to belong to this society, to be part of this country, to be British." Modood shares Gilroy's concern that to try to "fix" culture to arrive at a settled national self-understanding risks creating a static identity, a mere "specimen behind glass". Do our politicians understand this? Brown's proposals for a Museum of Britishness and a national statement of values don't offer much hope.

In trying to "fix" Britishness, Brown surely has one eye on resurgent English nationalism and accompanying demands for political recognition; themes explored by Patrick Wright in his essay on the life and work of G.K Chesterton. Wright opens with Chesterton's famous lines: "Smile us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget. For we are the people of England, that have never spoken yet." Although written over one hundred years ago, for many, including members of UKIP, the Countryside Alliance and the Campaign for an English Parliament, these words still capture an important truth about the English and their relationship with an over-bearing British state. For Wright, it is this defensive posture that has given Chesterton's Englishness a persistence that Orwell's invocations of smoky towns and bicycling maids lacks:

"It finds its essence in that sense of being opposed to the prevailing trends of the present. It's a perspective that allows even the most well-placed man of the world to imagine himself a member of an endangered aboriginal minority: a freedom fighter striking out against "alien" values and the infernal works of a usurping state."

Chesterton's "secret people" were real ale drinking Anglo-Saxon men, "slow but steadfast, unschooled but instinctively wise." He took issue with the imperial cosmopolitanism of Kipling as well as the joyless and meddlesome Fabians and their campaign against alcohol. But although we might feel attracted to this attempt to dissociate England from the organisational efficiency of the British state, warns Wright, Chesterton's remains a "thoroughly defensive definition of Englishness." His "secret" England polarises the past from the present and produces a "kippered England in which the very thought of difference or change is instantly identified with degeneration, corruption and death."

Like many of the better essays in the collection, Wright's challenges the reader to think about the appropriate way to understand identity and change in an age of global mobility and transnational identities. Zygmunt Bauman and Nira Yuval-Davis warn of the perils of a now trendy "cosmopolitan" politics that tries and fails to transcend place but is only available to an elite few. A dialogue between Ejos Ubiribo and young black men on their experiences of gun crime suggests that social and material deprivation, rather than Blair's "cultural" diagnosis, explains the current crisis.

The ten essays in this collection are brief and easily digested at around ten to twenty pages long. Together they provide a much needed corrective to the prevailing scepticism that a pluralistic, tolerant and democratic British society is possible.