Thursday, September 29, 2005

the space of multiculturalism

Suprisingly, Islam-Online recently featured a piece called The Space of Multiculturalism by David Theo Goldberg which explores how different ideas about race and culture interact, especially in modern cities. But in capsule form:

what might “the multicultural” mean? Two versions are currently on offer. The first is a “descriptive multiculturalism” that at best grudgingly describes the increasing heterogeneity in most post–1945 societies as a result of global political economic changes and (in societies like Britain, France, the Netherlands, even Canada) the rapid migrations following the demise of formal colonial regimes in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.

The second is a “normative multiculturalism” that insists on cultural diversity and a proliferation (even relativism) of values at the expense of ideas of national cohesion and unified norms. This entails an acknowledgment, occasionally even celebration, of descriptive diversity on the ethno–racial register. It places “ethnic and identity politics”, claims for right and restitution, and cultural sensitivity at the centre of the political agenda.

“The multicultural” has been caught in an oscillation between these two understandings: description and prescription. It has come to represent the contest with the values, long considered settled, of presumed homogeneity. The scope of multiculturalism has thus remained confined by the historical period after the “birth of the nation”, and of the homogeneous kinship and familiality presumed to have arisen from it.

Multiculturalism, in short, is assumed to be what happened to nations once their essential purity was challenged by the influx of racial others. This is the stuff of histories racially conceived. Consider the longstanding requirement, only now eroding, that eligibility for German citizenship be restricted to those with “German blood”; or the purging of those deemed non–white from apartheid South Africa by restricting them to “homelands” or relocating them from urban to segregated residential spaces to maintain the fantasy of “original white” space.

The nature of the world is changing. And it seems like you either work with a realistic understanding of how things are different. Or you ignore reality and get swallowed up in the wave.

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