Kenan Malik is a veteran anti-racist. In this strident and intelligent Channel
4 documentary, he traces the birth of multiculturalism back 20 years, to a
period during which he and his peers fought the National Front.
As Malik rightly insists, the troublingly counterintuitive concept of 'race awareness' threatens to stoke a racism that has in recent times been otherwise on the decline. Malik's personable and disarming style works well, exposing the weaknesses in the arguments of his suitably diverse interviewees.
'Bradistan' to the residents, Bradford to the rest of us, illustrates Malik's point that ghettoisation, with its roots in racism, nevertheless has its apologists in municipal multiculturalism. As the 80s were coming to a close, demands for equality gave way to a separatist agenda. A former architect of this relativistic race relations is saddened by the 'multiculty' reality of divided communities. Asian school kids are bussed from one part of the segregated town to another in a desperate attempt to undo the damage.
An upwardly mobile Asian woman considers joining the 'white flight' as her comfortable suburb is increasingly 'Asianised'. She wants her children to grow up in a mixed neighbourhood. For Malik, the remnants of pre-multicultural Britain have taken on the appearance of a 'white end-of-the-pier freak show'. Their 'awareness' is also raised, but not as the multiculturalists would hope. Indeed, the 'natives' of all cultures if united by anything are united in their intolerance of 'the new Pakis', asylum seekers.
The Ford plant in Essex gained notoriety for whiting out the black faces in its recruitment poster. Its Director of Diversity (yes, that's his title) is today ensuring, as Malik puts it, that all staff 'line up for reprogramming', or diversity training. This 'multicultural makeover' knows no bounds it seems. Malik talks to Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP), over a pint. Griffin, though initially reluctant to accept his new title as 'bigoted multiculturalist', is won over once he sees the implications. As Malik explains, he, like his opponents, privileges the differences between people over their commonalities. The legitimacy multiculturalism lends to a new breed of fascism is clearly too good to resist.
Malik speaks to the Assistant Chief Constable in Colwyn Bay, Wales. This rather ludicrous character took the BBC to task for Anne Robinson's allegedly anti-Welsh comments on Room 101. He refused to entertain Malik's reasonable assertion that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between the throwaway humour of TV trivia and brutal racist attacks. Instead, he ominously spoke of the need to clamp down on 'escalation behaviour' and quite genuinely claimed to feel irritated and ridiculed by Malik's mildly provocative sheep joke. And he's English!
I can only wonder at the left's embrace of multiculturalism. As the far right moves in on their territory, and as this divisive ideology increasingly takes hold, perhaps the wisdom (or rather lack of it) of this move will begin to register. Relativism, of which multiculturalism is a variant, represents a vision (or rather its absence) to which disillusioned intellectuals and activists have retreated. Politically, it's a dead end. For British society, as Malik says, it's frightening.
Showing just a week after BBC1's The Secret Policeman, in which
police cadets were secretly filmed expressing race hatred, Kenan Malik's critique
of multiculturalism is a timely contribution to the debate on racism in the
Malik is from London and Manchester but when people ask where are you 'really' from, he says, they expect a reference to the Indian extraction evident in his skin colour. This works to his advantage as enters the minefield of political correctness that multiculturalism has become. It's made in a diary style with his wry commentary added over as well as between interviews.The subtle humour is underscored by link sequences fast forwarded with a music soundtrack and the result is a programme that's both informative and entertaining.
He joins a diversity day at Ford, the company that a few decades ago infamously airbrushed out non-white employees from a company photograph used in an ad. Now they are keen to show how awareness training has transformed the company. But Malik remains sceptical. At the end of the day positive resolutions are invited, and he stuns the group by saying, 'well I think I'll stop going to diversity days and I'll continue being offensive - you can't challenge racism without being confrontational'.
He presents a provocative but well argued case that multiculturalism, although initially well intentioned, has bcome little more than a rebranding exercise - good PR but failing to address the real issues. In Wales he meets the police officer who filed a complaint against the BBC because on the Room 101 programme Ann Robinson listed the Welsh amongst her dislikes. He tells a Welsh joke to see if it will get him arrested. There is no on-screen arrest but the officer admits to being 'very irritated'.
The taboo-breaking continues: 'It seems every ethnic group can celebrate their heritage, except the white English'. He goes on to meet another supporter of multiculturalism - none other than Nick Griffin of the right-wing British National Party, and asks him to define English culture. Griffin is curiously lost for words, 'You can't describe it, you just know it', he says, 'it's like being in love'. But he has no doubts about his support for separate schools.
Malik continues the conversation with someone he's known for many years through anti-racism activities - Lee Jasper, now advisor to London's Mayor. Surely, he asks, something has gone wrong with multiculturalism when it starts to share an agenda with the BNP.
The programme begins and ends appropriately with the issue of schooling and makes a persuasive case that the feelgood rhetoric he finds is seriously out of touch with the real challenge of building an integrated society.
The customary chatshow bonhomie was suspended for a few minutes on the Frank
Skinner Show on Monday night (ITV1). Matthew Kelly, the TV presenter
and actor who was arrested and then acquitted of child abuse earlier this
year, confronted Skinner about some 'horrible jokes' he and David Baddiel
had told when Kelly was under suspicion. Skinner held his ground pretty well,
insisting that the issue had been fair game, but the exchange generated the
kind of raw atmosphere that reality TV producers would kill for. This had
a rather dulling effect on Skinner's re-telling of the jokes (one to the effect
that with his head shaved for a play, Kelly looked like a paedophile, and
the other suggesting that kids spending the night with Michael Jackson should
let Kelly know they wouldn't be at his place). To an objective observer, it
was clear that Kelly was just too close to the issue to be sensible about
it. In the right context, the jokes were funny, but nobody would expect Kelly
to laugh at them. Jokes are just like that.
There was a similar moment on Disunited Kingdom on Wednesday (Channel 4), when Kenan Malik tried out a joke on Clive Wolfendale, the Assistant Chief Constable of North Wales. What do you call a sheep tied to a Welsh lamp-post? ...A leisure centre. Boom, boom! Except that Wolfendale was not amused, no more than he had been when Anne Robinson had a go at the Welsh on a BBC light entertainment show, and North Wales police sent detectives to interview BBC chief Greg Dyke. He said he was irritated.
No doubt many others will feel the same about Malik's programme, which was a critique of multiculturalism, not just in its more absurd and censorious guises, but as an ideology that emphasises difference rather than commonality. The writer charges that multiculturalism has intensified divisions, and led to something like apartheid in northern English towns. Channel 4 will take some flak for the programme, but it deserves credit for allowing Malik to take on such a holy cow (albeit at 11.15pm).
There were moments that recalled programmes by Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson, as Malik met an Asian woman, a lesbian and a transsexual who were at a training centre to teach police about diversity, and when he sat in on a Ford diversity course and irritated both the trainers and the 'students', who looked like they just wanted to get their heads down and get the course over with, by pointing out the absurdity of the whole situation.
Then there was the pub interview with BNP leader Nick Griffin. Malik announced as they shook hands that he might once have been coming to a pub like this to beat up fascists, rather than chat to them. His street-fighting days may be over, but the bespectacled journalist managed to land a few metaphorical punches, getting Griffin to concede that he shares the multiculturalists' belief that we are defined by our differences. Malik played back the interview to Lee Jasper, London's Godfather of multiculturalism. Jasper was unperturbed at seeing Griffin cite approvingly his own position on separate schooling. He dismissed Malik's position as a 'white left' one (much worse than sharing ground with the far right, apparently), and disappeared into a lift with a Black Power salute.
Malik's attempt to start a debate about multiculturalism is commendable. The problem faced by him, and anyone else who takes the issue seriously, is that contemporary British multiculturalism has a going-through-the-motions character. Its assumptions are implicit, and few if any advocates are willing to take intellectual responsibility for them. Whereas Matthew Kelly was genuinely upset by the jokes told at his expense, Clive Wolfendale was striking a professional pose about Malik's anti-Welsh gag. The absurdities of the diversity courses and so on arise from this same bureaucratic mindset. Sometimes, all you can do is take the piss.
Kenan Malik's doc saw him investigate the sad transition from anti-racism
to multiculturalism, and captured his dismay as he found that the goals of
the former (equality and integration) have been pretty much abandoned. Instead,
everyone from Nick BNP Griffin to Lee London Assembly Jaspers is preaching
segregation as a necessary construct of our fractious society.
Multiculturalism, as in celebrating difference like it's one big Zadie Smith novel, sounds innocuous enough, but Malik tried to demonstrate that the whole diversity industry that's sprung up (from corporate 'diversity training' and other PR exercises, to govt-sponsored ads 'Celebrating Multiculturalism' as culled in our latest 'zine) is completely superficial and cosmetic. At best, it trains people to be nice to one another - though as Malik pointed out, old-style anti-racism was never about avoiding confrontation. This new dogma of diversity avoids challenging racial hatred completely: nothing that Malik heard on his visit to a Ford company diversity workshop contradicted anything Griffin had to say.
At worst, this prioritising of diversity of culture (over commonality of needs) unites liberals and extremists in the belief that the way forward is separate schools, separate neighbourhoods, each to their own. Malik's footage of Asian kids bussed in by the Bradford LEA for visits to all-white schools (and vice versa) showed how such areas are returning to the time when people of different colours were mysterious, exotic and threatening. Come the weekend, central Bradford changes colour, as the whites celebrate their 'culture' (getting off their face in theme bars) having stewed over their erroneous beliefs all week in their enclaves on the periphery of town. Two white twats professed a liking for 'Pakis' (an interchangeable term incorporating Indians, Pakistanis and Bengalis) before they proudly revealed it was all a joke and they 'hate the lot of them' really. Like their fashionable labels they wore, their views are sadly mainstream. London dwellers, who at least see a veneer of that much-vaunted unity, need to be reminded of this in particular.
Race once again has become something non-negotiable, something you cannot challenge, play with or escape. Gone are the ideas that race, like gender, is culturally constructed rather than biologically determined. Your identity is once again already decided for you in advance by your skin colour. Surely this is to be opposed, regardless of whether your resultant fate is preferential treatment or a lynching?
Of course, the issue that completely undermines the multiculturalist dogma is at the same time the one thing that seems to unite Britons (save football fans, whose chief target seems to be 'the Turks') of all colours and creeds: the mass hatred of asylum seekers. This term itself is legal rather than pejorative or racist, but its connotations are much the same as racist epithets have been in the past - proving that the issue is not the terminology but the actual practices of discrimination and dehumanisation in progress.
Anti-racism has moved from political commitment to individual psychology; the importance of publicly acknowledging that asylum seekers are the new 'pakis' and all the prejudicial history that this entails; proof that Jasper has (literally) grown fat on the politics of segregation and that much of his divisive rhetoric is born out of a fully-developed prejudice against whites.