openDemocracyUK

Racism has just taken on different forms

Despite all of the claims of enthusiasm for multiculturalism, there is still an expectation that one culture will dominate others in western countries.

Timothy Smith
28 March 2014

French pupils protest against the school turban ban/sikhiwiki.org

400px-Sikhs_against_French_turban_ban.jpg

French pupils protest against the school turban ban/sikhiwiki.org

In his recent attack on Islam, Boris Johnson made the bizarre claim that ‘’ There is built in to the British system a reluctance to be judgmental about someone else’s culture.’’ Boris Johnson went on to claim that our cultural sensitivities and acceptance in Britain is the reason why we have failed to ‘tackle the evils of Female Genital Mutilation’ and is also why radicalism exists among Muslim communities. This statement is bizarre as the derision of Muslim communities is a perfect example of how intolerant British society can often be towards other communities. In fact, despite numerous policy initiatives to incorporate migrant communities into British society research conducted by RAND has shown that intolerance is still high in Western Europe.

Governments have consistently struggled to deal with the rising number of immigrants since the fall of the colonial period and in the aftermath of World War Two. Politicians such as those associated with the BNP, UKIP or the Tory’s, as well as the right wing press, tend to bemoan a loss of British identity which has resulted from high numbers of immigrants living in the UK. Ordinary British citizens (Native Britons) tend to favour policies that directly assimilate ethnic minorities, feeling that those who dress and speak differently are isolating themselves.

One such article in the Daily Mail commented ‘Walk into Ealing Hospital and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a foreign land’ with most patients from India or Poland. This clearly shows that the author is unhappy with a loss of whiteness, rather than just being upset at a loss of British culture. Although, British culture can arguably be equated to ‘whiteness’ and ‘white’ values.

The failure of government policy to effectively deal with the increasing diversity of Britain has been part of the problem. Multiculturalism and its success have been greatly debated in recent years, but if we look at it deeply we can see how it was never likely to foster tolerance and diversity.

Lord Parekh, who was an architect of Labour’s multiculturalist policy, said Multiculturalism basically means that no culture is perfect or represents the best life and that it can therefore benefit from a critical dialogue with other cultures.’’ The problem is that there is an underlying assumption that British cultural is superior to others, rather than there being an acceptance of a plurality of ideas and cultures. Non-western cultures are routinely presented as backwards and development (both personal and at a national level) is often equated with westernization. Islam for example is regularly associated in the press with extremism, abuses of women’s rights and homophobia. It is presented as an anti-western culture, whilst non-western cultures are typically portrayed in the media as being backwards and uncivilized.

Multiculturalism has presented itself as ‘natives’ engaging in light cultural voyeurism, letting communities don traditional dress for their yearly Diwali party for example, but, then having an expectation that people will go back to conforming to British ways of life, dress and thought, putting their traditional clothes away until next year’s celebration, as soon as the ceremony is over.

Britain/Europe and secularism

This has become a typical theme in western Europe. Tolerance of other communities is on the condition of assimilation and shifts in cultural patterns, rather than there being an acceptance of different cultures, languages and ways of dressing. In France this represents itself in the form of aggressive secularism which has led to the banning of the Niqab and also bans on religious clothing or symbols in schools, which includes the wearing of turbans for Sikhs. There has also been legislation tabled that forces the removal of turbans for Sikhs for official ID cards and at passport control. Essentially one can only get a passport or official ID card if they are completely assimilated, without any religious clothing and are in essence a brown Frenchman.

France’s attempts to legislate on peoples dress clearly takes away people’s choice, something acknowledged by the United Nations who ruled France’s decision to force the removal of turbans was an infringement on Sikhs freedom of religion. Using the rouse of security in the case of photographs for ID cards with the Sikhs and under the false pretence of feminist liberalism in the case of the Niqab, the French have been launching a full-scale assault in diversity. Despite equality (egalite) being one of the three pillars of the French revolution and a national French motto, there is clearly no equality, unless one is to conform to French customs and culture.

Whist the UK do not attack the issue with the same degree of aggression in terms of legislation, there are similar debates played out in the media regarding dress and cultural choices, that are reflective of societal trends. Some media outlets for example suggested that Britain should follow France and outlaw the Burka and or Niqab with Boris Johnson suggesting it should be banned in schools.

Such secularism as presented in France and to a lesser degree in Britain are intertwined with liberal ideas that are in fact a progression from Christian and Jewish monotheism, as pointed out by Nietzche. The result is that any adoption of western secularism subtly forces Christian values onto citizens, rather than actually moving away from religion full stop and promoting equality. This means that western values are asserted above other cultural values and that secular societies do not accept a plurality of ideas and culture. Liberals in Europe will deride ‘militant Islamists’ for forcing their way of life on other people, yet they do the same, cutting people off economically and socially if they do not conform to European cultural norms, in this case through conversion to European dress (ten Sikh children have been expelled from French schools since 2004 for wearing the turban, whilst more have had to drop out).

Failure to conform often leads to a feeling that certain groups are not doing enough to integrate. The case of Muslims in the UK is an interesting one as despite 83% of Muslims stating they are proud to be British, only 28% of Britons believe Muslims actually want to integrate into British society. Much of this is down to a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Muslim culture which is presented as being incompatible with western liberal values. But, even in spite of this, there is still derision of cultural dress, such as the description of the Niqab as a ‘pillar box.’ People who dress differently can be stared at or generally seen as those who refuse to integrate or simply bullying at school.

Racism still persists it has just taken on different forms. Whilst ethnic minorities can gain positions of power, they are ethnics who have usually lost their accents and don western clothing and behave in what is perceived to be a western manner. These people are lauded as success stories of multiculturalism, they’ve assimilated and have done well.

Sayeeda Warsi for example wore her traditional dress (shalwar kameez) for the first cabinet meeting, but it appeared more a one off photo opportunity than something that would be a regular occurrence. Of course it is her prerogative to dress as she pleases, but the point remains that it is unlikely that a woman who wears traditional dress on a regular basis would ever be able to reach that position of power. In fact the very description of her dress as ‘traditional’ arguably presents it as backwards and romanticizes the outfit as exotic rather than accepting it outright. The press made a point of noting that it was different, rather than accepting the diversity of dress. Only through full integration is it possible to rise the ranks of Britain’s elite power structures, failure to do so leads to vilification and isolation.

An appreciation and understanding of diversity

The problem is that attempts to integrate immigrants have regularly failed. Multiculturalism is indicative of the sort of cultural voyeurism cited earlier, rather than a true acceptance of plurality and diversity. Assumptions of cultural inferiority underpin negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities living in Britain.

The answer might lie in a greater acceptance of people’s diversity and a greater understanding of the rich cultures people can bring to Britain. Policy makers seem desperate to make everyone look and dress the same, speak the same language in the same way. There simply is not an appreciation of diversity but an intolerance that underpins secularist ideologies and has caused the failing of multiculturalism. Instead plurality should be a key policy goal, although it is not politically desirable to acknowledge this given how many political points can be scored on immigration and related race issues. Unfortunately the right wing press dictate the agenda, rather than sensible, thought out analysis that could prevent a continuing intolerance and move towards a more pluralistic and equal society.

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