the dirty d-word

guardian, 29 october 2003

'We need to improve our diversity training'. That was the response of Chris Fox of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) to the revelation in a BBC documentary that police recruits in North Wales and Greater Manchester liked cavorting in Ku Klux Clan outfits. Ah yes, diversity training. It's become the contemporary version of ghostbusting - an army of people always on call to clean up any polluted air and put the genie of racism firmly back in the bottle. Back in the eighties, diversity training was the province of loony left councils. Today, there's barely a blue chip company that has not called on services of diversity trainers to help its employees understand their differences.

The fashion for diversity training reflects the new-found emphasis on the celebration of cultural diversity. Twenty years ago it all looked very different. I became an antiracist because I thought it unjust that people should be treated differently simply because they happened to have a different colour skin. Today that's just what antiracists want. Where once I fought for equal treatment, antiracists now demand respect for diversity. Where once I wanted to be treated the same as everybody else despite my skin colour, activists now want to be treated differently because of it. 'You have to treat people differently in order treat them equally', as Lee Jasper, Ken Livingstone's race adviser, told me. 'It’s good to be different' might well be the motto of our times.

But is it that good to be different? And can diversity training really exorcise the ghosts of racism? Earlier this year I attended a diversity day organised by North Wales police as part of a film I've been making for Channel 4 about multiculturalism. In a Mormon church in Gaerwen, a tiny village in the middle of Anglesey, seven police officers were put through their paces by five trainers. The day began with a video of racism in North Wales. 'I know nearly everybody in that film', one of the policemen remarked. 'There are not many of you - visible ethnic minorities - around here.'

The officers then went off to see the four 'visitors' for the day to learn about the diversity of Welsh culture. It was becoming uncomfortably like a Richard Littlejohn parody - there was an Asian woman, a disabled man, a lesbian and a transsexual. Each visitor sat in a cubicle-like room, into which the officers came, one by one, to listen to their life-stories. The day ended with a general discussion of how the officers might improve their awareness of diversity.

I'm not sure if Rob Pulling - the North Wales police recruit who likes parading with a pillow case on his head and thinks that Hitler was a regular guy - ever attended a diversity day. But it's difficult to know what it could have done to his prejudices - apart, perhaps, from confirming them.

But, then, for all the rhetoric, diversity training is not, and never has been, about combating racism. The irony is that the whole diversity industry has sprung up just at the point at which Britain has became noticeably less racist. The release of Winston Silcott this week was a reminder of what racist policing used to be like. Back then you didn't need a hidden camera to expose racism in the ranks. In 1983 the chairman of the Police Federation went on TV to defend his officers calling black people 'niggers'.

Diversity training is really a PR exercise, a way of projecting a positive public image. 'Diversity' has become a brand, a kind of Benetton shorthand for cool, liberal modernity. And any organisation that wants to brush up its image signs up. When the BBC wanted to shake off its fuddy-duddy image, it replaced its logo of a spinning with shots of wheelchair-bound dreadlocked basketball players and Indian classical dancers. When the Arts Council wanted to become more relevant it launched its Year of Diversity. When Ford motor company was revealed 'whiting out' black faces on its ads, it responded by instituting a glossy, multi-million pound diversity programme.

Even the BNP are at it. Over the past few years, under the leadership of Nick Griffin, the BNP has attempted to rebrand itself from a party of street thugs into a democratic organisation defending 'English culture' and 'white identity'. According to its website, the BNP's 'moderate, commonsense position' is that 'races are neither equal nor unequal, but simply different'. 'Fortunately', it suggests, 'increasing awareness of the scientifically established reality of such differences is undermining the old egalitarian dogmas and making it ever easier for those of us who champion human genetic and cultural diversity to win the argument.'

I met Griffin in a pub in Mixenden near Halifax on the day when the BNP won its fifth council seat in a local bye-election. It was a surreal encounter - a decade ago I might have come to a pub like this to beat up people like Griffin. Now I was interviewing him for a Channel 4 documentary. But more surreal was Griffin's patter. 'There are two kinds of diversity', he told me. 'The diversity of nations in Britain - the English, Welsh, Scots and Irish - and on global scale, all great traditions and cultures of the world.' It was a racist bigot talking as if he'd just been on the same diversity course as me.

Griffin remains the man who, in 1995, wrote in the BNP magazine The Rune that the party should be 'a strong, well disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan "Defend Rights for Whites" with well directed boots and fists.' He has learnt, however, to translate this racist project into diversity-speak. The BNP takes the sense of abandonment and resentment felt in areas such as Mixenden and wraps it in the language of identity and victimhood. Other ethnic groups are allowed the promote their identity, so why not the English? Why has English heritage been abandoned? Why should white identity not be included in the multicultural map? And so on. It is perhaps the biggest indictment of the contemporary celebration of diversity that it allows someone like Griffin to turn racism into a cultural identity.

The unthinking pursuit of diversity not only gives legitimacy to the likes of Nick Griffin. It also helps divide communities far more effectively than racism. Take Bradford. From the beginnings of mass immigration in the 1950s racism has helped create deep divisions in the city. But it also helped generate political struggles against discrimination, the impact of which was to create bridges across ethnic, racial and cultural fissures. In response to the militancy of these struggles, the local council in the early eighties rolled out its multicultural programme, including a 12-point race relations plan which declared that every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city' had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'. Council funding became linked to cultural identity, so different groups began asserting their differences ever more fiercely. The consequence has been not simply to entrench the divisions created by racism, but to make cross-cultural interaction more difficult.

Today, cultural segregation in Bradford has become so profound that the local education authority has started bussing children from all-Asian schools to all-white schools, and vice versa. The so-called 'Linking project' aims to break down barriers between children, many of whom have never interacted with a child from the other community.

I travelled with a group of Asian 10-year olds from the all-Asian Farnham Primary School in Great Horton as they visited their white counterparts at the largely white St Anthony's Catholic school. For most of them it was their third trip. 'What was it like the first time you visited St Anthony's?', I asked one of the children.
'Nervous', he said.
'Why were you nervous?'
'Because I didn't know what they'd be like. I'd never met them before.'
'You'd never met white children before?'
'Do you know any white children apart from those at St Anthony's?'

Could this really be Britain, 2003?

'I've got a present for you.' That's how my teacher introduced me, as a six-year old, on my first day at school in England. It was the era of Paki-bashing and Powellism, when black people were still viewed as exotic creatures and treated with fear, hatred and condescension in equal measure. Thirty years on it's almost impossible to imagine how inward, looking, parochial and racist Britain used to be. Mass immigration has opened up British society, transformed its culture and created a nation far more vibrant and cosmopolitan than would have seemed possible three decades ago.

But diversity has become more than simply a way of describing the expansion of our experiences. It has also become a dogma about how we should live that has become as stultifying as old-fashioned racism - and often as divisive. The dogmatic pursuit of diversity means that there remain schools in which seeing someone of a different skin colour is as exotic an event as it was to my white classmates three decades ago. Half a century ago the American authorities were forced to bus black children to break the stranglehold of racism in the schools of the Deep South. Did anyone ever imagine that local authorities in Britain would be forced to follow suit in 2003 to break the stranglehold of cultural segregation?