Saturday 9 October 2010

Rethinking Black History Month?

It's October again and time for, let's be honest, an increasingly uncomfortable Black History Month. For me, it's become uncomfortable because it has become inextricably linked to the ever-louder voices against multiculturalism.

It cannot be an accident that the cover feature of the October edition of Prospect magazine is 'Rethinking Race: Has multiculturalism had its day?". This edition uses the device of commissioning four 'non-white' commentators  to 'question the assumptions of some official anti-racism" - this device supposedly giving more weight to their arguments which cannot be so easily dismissed as "ignorant, naive, or unwittingly prejudiced". The writers are Munira Mirza (adviser to the Mayor of London for arts and culture), Tony Sewell (former teacher, now consultant and director of a charity), Swaran Singh (professor and consultant NHS psychiatrist) and Sonia Dyer (artist, writer and commentator).

Rather than racism, for different combinations of these writers, it is class and socio-economic group which are more potent causes of disadvantage (eg. Dyer on artistic success); for others it is an inherited and liberal-encouraged culture of victimhood (eg. Sewell on why black male pupils don't succeed) and for others it is the immigrant experience itself (e.g. Singh on high rates of mental health amongst black people).

If some people are a bit cautious about embracing such writers and views, something which Mirza herself acknowledges (she puts it down to the dominance of a 1980s anti-racist mindset), it is because there is an unease about declaring too soon 'the end of racism' (a la Daniel Bell's 'The End of Ideology'). Whilst arguing that racism is not what what it used to be ('Race is no longer the disadvantage it is often portrayed to be', Mirza), some of these writers warn against "a new kind of racialising", one which is paternalistic and where one's ethnicity is stressed all the time, for good and bad.

The "depend on yourself and get on with it" attitude is one which appeals to me. It's what our immigrant parents did after all. And so whilst I agree with some of the sentiments in the Prospect feature - much progress has unquestionably been made - I do question whether we might be in danger of throwing our the baby with bathwater. Another problem for me is taking a position on multiculturalism. It's something which I've always thought I was in strong favour of. Yet those who want to call the 'end of multiculturalism' seem to be working to a different definition of it, and come from a variety of perspectives, some pretty unsavoury. This captures a problem - what exactly do we mean by multiculturalism? A BBC piece here captures some of the varying definitions.

If I take one of the least left-leaning of the commentators in that BBC article, Ruth Lea, and use a definition which she'd support:
"...where people have their own cultural beliefs and they happily coexist - but there is a common thread of Britishness or whatever you want to call it to hold society together".
then I think I'd be pretty happy with that - and find no problem with celebrating different cultures.

I leave you with the beginnings of my BHM post last year:

"Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Black History Month: Good or bad thing?

October heralds the onset on Black History Month in the UK. This month (or so)-long collection of events, talks, and performances started in the UK in 1987 but has its roots in the American beginnings of this event launched in 1926 as Negro History Week.

Some knee-jerks leap in each year with the reaction 'what about white history month'? This gang are usually synonymous with those who think that all immigrants are getting houses, jobs, benefits etc... Are they kidding? We live in White History Life. Turn to the History Channel, look at the overwhelming majority of any school syllabus, look at government funding of the majority of cultural and artistic organisations look at politics, look at...need I go on? And maybe that's to be expected, that's life, life is eurocentric - or at any rate, those with power are. But when some small-minded people object to one measly month of wonderful activities, mostly for families and many for free, then I've got to defend BHM.

BHM also has its detractors from the 'liberal centre/left' who argue about the further 'ghettoisation' of black people, and that such demarcations continue to mark black people out as different and maybe detracts from where the real fight is - for example, see Deborah Orr's scathing piece a while ago in the The Independent ('Why we should bin Black History Month: It's wrong for all the reasons that multiculturalism more generally is wrong')........."   Click here to read the rest of this post.

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