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Culture and Race

Culture and Race

Our contemporary celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, and avowal of identity politics have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, modern democracy. Yet despite embracing many of its values, we have at the same time become wary of multiculturalism in recent years. In the wake of September 11, 2001 and the many terrorist attacks that have occurred since then, there has been much debate about the degree of diversity that Western nations can tolerate. In Multiculturalism and its Discontents, Kenan Malik looks closely at the role of multiculturalism within terrorism and societal discontent. He examines whether it is possible—or desirable—to try to build a cohesive society bound by common values and he delves into the increasing anxiety about the presence of the Other within our borders. Multiculturalism and its Discontents not only explores the relationship between multiculturalism and terrorism, but it analyses the history of the idea of multiculturalism alongside its political roots and social consequences.

The excerpt below focuses on Kenan Malik’s take on culture itself and what it implies to most – the roots of the latter leading inevitably but eerily to racism.

‘It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group,’17 Israeli sociologist Joseph Raz has written. This has become a common view in many multiculturalist claims. But what does it mean to be fully integrated? If a Muslim woman rejects sharia, is she demonstrating her lack of integration? What about a Jew who doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the Jewish state? Or a French Quebecois who speaks only English? Would Galileo have challenged the authority of the Church if he had been ‘fully integrated’ into his culture? Or Thomas Paine have supported the French Revolution? Or Salman Rushdie written The Satanic Verses (1988)? 

Part of the problem here is a slippage between the idea of humans as culture-bearing creatures and the idea that humans have to bear a particular culture. Clearly, no human can live outside culture. But then no human does. To say that no human can live outside culture is not to say, however, that they have to live inside a particular one. To view humans as culture-bearing is to view them as social beings and hence as transformative beings. It suggests that they have the capacity for change, for progress and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue. To view humans as having to bear specific cultures is, on the contrary, to deny such a capacity for transformation. It suggests that every human being is so shaped by a particular culture that to change or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Jewish or Bangladeshi ancestry somehow makes a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of Jewish or Bangladeshi culture. This would only make sense if Jews or Bangladeshis were biologically distinct—in other words if cultural identity was really about racial difference. 

The relationship between cultural identity and racial difference becomes even clearer if we look at the argument made by many multiculturalists that minority cultures under threat must be protected and pre served. If a ‘culture is decaying,’ Israeli sociologists Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz argue, then ‘the options and opportunities open to its members will shrink, become less attractive, and their pursuit less likely to be successful.’18 So society must step in to prevent such decay. Kymlicka similarly argues that since cultures are essential to peoples’ lives, where ‘the survival of a culture is not guaranteed, and where it is threatened with debasement or decay, we must act to protect it.’19 For Taylor, once ‘we’re concerned with identity’, nothing ‘is more legitimate than one’s aspiration that it never be lost’.20 Hence a culture needs to be protected not just in the here and now but through ‘indefinite future generations’. 

A century ago, intellectuals worried about the ‘degeneration of the race’. Today we fear cultural decay. Is the notion of cultural decay any more coherent than that of racial degeneration? Cultures certainly change and develop—a point few multicul turalists would dispute. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an iden tity to be lost? Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’.21 The character can change but such changes are only acceptable if the existence of that cul ture is not threatened. But how can a culture exist if that existence is not embodied in its character? 

By ‘character’ Kymlicka seems to mean the actuality of a culture: what people do, how they live their lives, the rules and regulations and institutions that frame their existence. So, in making the distinction between character and existence, he seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For, if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish—they would always exist in the activities of people. 

If a culture is not defined by what its members are doing, then by what is it defined? The only answer can be that it is defined by what its members should be doing. African American writer Richard Wright described one of his finest creations, Bigger Thomas, the hero of his 1940 novel Native Son, as a man ‘bereft of a culture’.22 The Negro, Wright argued, ‘possessed a rich and complex culture when he was brought to these alien shores’.23 But that culture was ‘taken from him’. Bigger Thomas’ ancestors had been enslaved. In the process of enslavement, they had been torn from their ancestral homes and forcibly deprived of the practices and institutions that they understood as their culture. Hence Bigger Thomas, and every black American, behaved very differently from his ancestors. 

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Slavery was an abomination and clearly had a catastrophic impact on black Americans. But however inhuman the treatment of slaves, and however deep its impact on black American life, why should it amount to a descendant of slaves being ‘bereft of a culture’? This can only be if we believe that Bigger Thomas should be behaving in certain ways that he isn’t, in ways that his ancestors used to behave. In other words, if we believe that what you should be doing is defined by the fact that your ancestors were doing it. Culture here has become defined by biological descent. And biological descent is a polite way of saying ‘race’. As American literary critic Walter Benn Michaels puts it, ‘In order for a culture to be lost [. . .] it must be separable from one’s actual behaviour, and in order for it to be separable from one’s actual behaviour it must be anchorable in race.’24


17 Joseph Raz, Ethics in the Public Domain: Essays in the Morality of Law and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 162.
18 Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz, ‘National Self-Determination’, Journal of Philosophy 87(9) (September 1990): 439–61; here, p. 449.
19 Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, p. 83.
20 Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’, p. 40.
21 Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, p. 104.
22 Richard Wright, ‘I Bite the Hand that Feeds Me’, Atlantic Monthly 155 (June 1940): 826–8; here, p. 828.
23 Ibid., 827.
24 Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism and Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), pp. 120–1.

ISBN: 9780857421142

Pages: 96

Publication Year: January 2014

Rights: UCP

Format: Paperback

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