Friday, March 16, 2007

Multiculturalist Racism

Some critics of multiculturalism argue that minority communities should assimilate into the mainstream, surrendering their cultural differences for the sake of a unified, egalitarian society. This approach is adopted by the French Republic, which treats (in theory, if not in practice) all its citizens as equally French and equally deserving of rights. It claims to be indifferent to difference. Unfortunately, however well intended, the French integrationist strategy seems to have failed. Witness the racial tensions and the rise of the far right National Front. Moreover, it is surely ethically wrong and socially impoverishing to demand the conformity of minority communities. Why should they be required to give up their cultural uniqueness? Would not the abandonment of difference inevitably lead to a reversion to the stultifying, suffocating social blandness of the Macmillan and Eisenhower eras? I say: Vive La Difference!

Do members of these "communities" want their "cultural uniqueness"? Why assume that conformity to the mainstream culture is an imposition or represents the "stifling homogeneity, blandness and conformism of monocultural societies"?

This article is half reasonable, noting that some minority cultures are misogynistic, homophobic and generally oppressive, and suggesting that tolerance for cultural practices that violate individual rights is morally unacceptable. I certainly agree. But the chief argument against multiculturalism is not that minority cultures are inferior or that they suppress individual rights, but that they are assigned on the basis of bloodlines and lock individuals into cultures with which they do not identify or want to identify.

The linked article comes out of the UK. If I were a Swedish immigrant to the UK, and certainly if I were the child of Swedish immigrants, I would not want my fellow citizens to expect me to celebrate St. Lucy's day in a candelabra headdress or eat lutefisk. I'd want to be 100%, unhyphenated British, to identify completely with the land and history, the place that was my home. I'd want that not because the culture of my ancestors was in any way inferior or in any way oppressive--surely Swedish culture isn't--but simply because it wasn't what I was, because it wasn't me. I wouldn't want to be chained to my genetic "roots."

But, of course, if I were a child of Swedish immigrants to the UK, or the US, I wouldn't be chained to my "roots": as Big Bill Broonzy had it, "if you're white, you're alright." If you're white in a white country, ethnicity is largely a matter of choice, and the extent to which you identify with an ancestral culture is a matter of choice. No one expects Sarkozy, the child of a Hungarian immigrant father and a mother, of Greek-Jewish extraction, to make a fuss about his ancestral cultures: he is French and that's that. But if you're brown or black it's quite a different matter. You had better make noises about black or brown "pride" and do a bit of ethnic else you'll be stigmatized as "self-hating" or "inauthentic." If you're Barak Obama you had better visit your father's ancestral village in Kenya and do black, or you won't be elected dog-catcher.

No one seems to ask whether people want the "cultural uniqueness" ascribed to them on the basis of ancestry or appearance, or whether the expectation that they will conform in some way to their ascribed minority cultures might not be more oppressive than conformity to the majority culture. No one dreams of asking whether they want La Difference. Surely some do but some don't. The issue is not primarily whether some cultures are inferior or oppressive, but whether individuals should be locked into any culture, good, bad or indifferent, by bloodlines. What is offensive, and racist, about multiculturalism is the assumption that ancestral cultures, good, bad or indifferent, define who individuals "really" are, and the expectation that individuals will identify with them.

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