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Replacing ‘race’, historicizing ‘culture’ in multiculturalism

Replacing ‘race’, historicizing ‘culture’ in multiculturalism

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Published by Alana Lentin
Lentin sets out to unravel the history of the discourse of culturalism in
the post-Second World War period. Culture is now almost universally used to
categorize distinct human groups and to refer to the differences between them. As
the liberal acceptance of multiculturalism as a recipe for contemporary living
affirms, the use of culture as a viable conceptualization of human difference often
goes unchallenged in present-day scholarship. Lentin focuses on how the concept of
‘culture’ came to replace the language of ‘race’ in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Looking at the history of the ‘UNESCO tradition’ of anti-racism, she shows how
racial categorizations were replaced by cultural distinctions as a means of explaining
human difference. Whereas ‘race’ was seen as irrevocably invoking the superiority of
some human groups over others, culture was assumed by anti-racist scholars on
both sides of the Atlantic to imply a positive celebration of difference while allowing
for the possibility for progress among groups once considered ‘primitive’. Lentin
argues that such a shift, on which the western discourse of anti-racism is grounded,
by merely replacing ‘race’ with ‘culture’, fails to expunge the ranking of humanity
implied by theories of ‘race’. The essentialization of ‘cultures’ inherent within this
cultural relativism is carried through into multicultural approaches to education,
policymaking and activism that fail to include the dominant group in their
schematization of contemporary social and political relations. Furthermore, the
failure of culturalist approaches to counter racism effectively has been attributed to
the purported identity politics of ‘minority groups’. Contrary to the notion that
culture has come to pervade politics due to a bottom-up call from the marginalized
for greater recognition of their cultural ‘authenticity’, Lentin shows how culturalism
originated within the anti-racist elite and has resulted in the depoliticization of the
anti-racism of racism’s actual targets.
Lentin sets out to unravel the history of the discourse of culturalism in
the post-Second World War period. Culture is now almost universally used to
categorize distinct human groups and to refer to the differences between them. As
the liberal acceptance of multiculturalism as a recipe for contemporary living
affirms, the use of culture as a viable conceptualization of human difference often
goes unchallenged in present-day scholarship. Lentin focuses on how the concept of
‘culture’ came to replace the language of ‘race’ in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Looking at the history of the ‘UNESCO tradition’ of anti-racism, she shows how
racial categorizations were replaced by cultural distinctions as a means of explaining
human difference. Whereas ‘race’ was seen as irrevocably invoking the superiority of
some human groups over others, culture was assumed by anti-racist scholars on
both sides of the Atlantic to imply a positive celebration of difference while allowing
for the possibility for progress among groups once considered ‘primitive’. Lentin
argues that such a shift, on which the western discourse of anti-racism is grounded,
by merely replacing ‘race’ with ‘culture’, fails to expunge the ranking of humanity
implied by theories of ‘race’. The essentialization of ‘cultures’ inherent within this
cultural relativism is carried through into multicultural approaches to education,
policymaking and activism that fail to include the dominant group in their
schematization of contemporary social and political relations. Furthermore, the
failure of culturalist approaches to counter racism effectively has been attributed to
the purported identity politics of ‘minority groups’. Contrary to the notion that
culture has come to pervade politics due to a bottom-up call from the marginalized
for greater recognition of their cultural ‘authenticity’, Lentin shows how culturalism
originated within the anti-racist elite and has resulted in the depoliticization of the
anti-racism of racism’s actual targets.

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Published by: Alana Lentin on May 19, 2011
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Replacing ‘race’, historicizing ‘culture’ inmulticulturalism
ALANA LENTIN
ABSTRACT
Lentin sets out to unravel the history of the discourse of culturalism inthe post-Second World War period. Culture is now almost universally used tocategorize distinct human groups and to refer to the differences between them. Asthe liberal acceptance of multiculturalism as a recipe for contemporary livingaffirms, the use of culture as a viable conceptualization of human difference oftengoes unchallenged in present-day scholarship. Lentin focuses on how the concept of ‘culture’ came to replace the language of ‘race’ in the aftermath of the Holocaust.Looking at the history of the ‘UNESCO tradition’ of anti-racism, she shows howracial categorizations were replaced by cultural distinctions as a means of explaininghuman difference. Whereas ‘race’ was seen as irrevocably invoking the superiority of some human groups over others, culture was assumed by anti-racist scholars on both sides of the Atlantic to imply a positive celebration of difference while allowingfor the possibility for progress among groups once considered ‘primitive’. Lentinargues that such a shift, on which the western discourse of anti-racism is grounded, by merely replacing ‘race’ with ‘culture’, fails to expunge the ranking of humanityimplied by theories of ‘race’. The essentialization of ‘cultures’ inherent within thiscultural relativism is carried through into multicultural approaches to education,policymaking and activism that fail to include the dominant group in theirschematization of contemporary social and political relations. Furthermore, thefailure of culturalist approaches to counter racism effectively has been attributed tothe purported identity politics of ‘minority groups’. Contrary to the notion thatculture has come to pervade politics due to a bottom-up call from the marginalizedfor greater recognition of their cultural ‘authenticity’, Lentin shows how culturalismoriginated within the anti-racist elite and has resulted in the depoliticization of theanti-racism of racism’s actual targets.
KEYWORDS
anti-racism, culturalism, culture, interculturalism, multiculturalism, race,racism
I
n the West, the first years of the new millennium are being marked by agrowing public preoccupation with the supposed incompatibility of diverse groups of people, at both a global and a local level. The ongoing‘war on terror’, launched by the United States and its allies in response to theattacks of 11 September 2001, is defined by a discourse that pits ‘civilizations’against each other in a Manichaean struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’,
Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 39, No. 4, 2005
ISSN 0031-322X print/ISSN 1461-7331 online/05/040379-18
#
2005 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/00313220500347832
 
‘enlightened’ and ‘barbaric’. Likewise, at the level of western nation-states,problems such as the erosion of national identity, the lack of politicalparticipation, the decline of the welfare state and urban unrest have been putdown to the allegedly unmanageable diversity of contemporary postcolo-nial, immigration societies. Commentators who have voiced fears aboutwhat they see as the over-extension of cultural diversity have linked them toa critique of multiculturalism, a policy of western nation-states that is nowpronounced ‘in crisis’ by governments and thinkers alike.
1
In response, in countries such as the United Kingdom and the Nether-lands, anti-racists have rushed to defend multiculturalism and denounce thereturn to assimilationist policies that is increasingly being witnessed, forexample, under the present New Labour regime in Britain.
2
While criticismof the insistence on the primacy of ‘national values’ by current governmentsis crucial, the opposition made between multiculturalism and assimilation-ism in such critiques overlooks an important point. The policy of multi-culturalism itself was not historically the outcome of the struggle by‘minority communities’ for greater recognition, as is often supposed.
3
Onthe contrary, multiculturalism can be seen as an institutional policy that, byreplacing an analysis of the link between racism and capitalism with a focuson the importance of cultural identity, depoliticized the state-centred anti-racism of the racialized in postcolonial societies. In order to conceptionalizethe current debate about multiculturalism, which is far from being the first,
4
it is crucial to set its terms in a wider political-historical context: namely, theculturalization of politics that marks the post-war period in the West and theinextricable relationship this has with racism in the history of modernity.Accordingly, I intend to look critically at one of the ways in which culturehas come to dominate the language of politics in the post-war era, namely, bymeans of the struggle to eradicate racism in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Iwill look at one specific and central aspect of this ensemble of campaigns: theapproach taken by UNESCO, which in turn informed the anti-racist policy of many western states. As was revealed by my research into the developmentof the discourse and practice of anti-racism in Europe,
5
the UNESCOapproach also informs what can be thought of as the mainstream anti-racismpractised by many in the anti-racist movement, governmental agencies,supranational institutions and NGOs. I suggest that a look at the history of this anti-racist project may throw light on the artificial nature of the divide
1 See, for instance, David Goodhart, ‘Too diverse?’,
Prospect
, February 2004.2 Arun Kundnani, ‘Rally round the flag’,
IRR News
(online news network), 7 April 2004,available at www.irr.org.uk/2004/april/ak000006.html (viewed 1 August 2005).3 Cf. Charles Taylor,
Multiculturalism
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2004).4 Cf. Paul Gilroy, ‘The end of anti-racism’, in James Donald and Ali Rattansi (eds),
‘Race’,Culture and Difference
(London: Sage 1992).5 Alana Lentin,
Racism and Anti-racism in Europe
(London and Ann Arbor, MI: PlutoPress 2004).
380
Patterns of Prejudice
 
 between ‘race’ and ‘culture’, and influence the way we look back on theevolution of multiculturalism.This mainstream and institutionalized approach to racism in the westernsocieties of the post-war era is based on a belief that racism, propelled byaberrant extremists, comes from the outside to infect society. It therefore, tomy mind, fails to place the racism of the postcolonial western worldsatisfactorily in the political and historical context of its evolution from theEnlightenment through slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust. As such,mainstream approaches often adopt a psycho-social attitude to racism,seeing it as the problem of pathological or ignorant individuals. Therefore,they propose individually based solutions, emphasizing the need to over-come ignorance through education and a greater knowledge of the Other.Finally, whereas they may admit the wrongdoing of governments, theyavoid connecting racism with the historical development of the modernEuropean state, thereby seeing racism as an aberration of democracy and thepublic political culture of the modern European nation-state.
6
Such a viewcontrasts strongly with the argument of those such as Hannah Arendt orZygmunt Bauman,
7
and largely accepted by many theorists of ‘race’ andracism, that, far from being external to the capitalist liberal-democraticnation-state, modern racism was a consequence of modernity. In particular,the political conditions brought about by the institutionalization of nation-alism in the modern European nation-state, the need for populations of theseterritorial units to be defined
vis-a`-vis
external Others, made race-thinkingpolitically relevant and, indeed, expedient.Looking critically at the way in which the approach of western govern-ments to tackling racism has evolved over time can help us to uncover thefoundations of the ‘multicultural regime’. Multiculturalism may be thoughtof as being a regime because, in many ways, it has become an ideologicalstraitjacketandcriticaldistancefromithasbeenallbutabolished.Asapolicy,multiculturalism would have us see our societies as ‘race-free’ and culturallyrich. However, with the commendable aim of shunning those who condemn
6 In my theorization of anti-racism, I used John Rawls’s concept of ‘public politicalculture’ to describe the way in which the various discourses of anti-racism positionthemselves in relation to the state (Lentin,
Racism and Anti-racism in Europe
). Accordingto Rawls, public political culture is a set of ‘familiar ideas’ that ‘play a fundamental rolein society’s political thought and how its institutions are interpreted’ (John Rawls,
 Justice and Fairness: A Restatement
(Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2001), 5
 Á 
/
6). I argued that anti-racist principles may be seen as belonging to a wider set of principles contained in the public political culture of western, liberal-democratic nation-states. The extent to which anti-racists adhere to orcritique these notions informs us as to their stance on the relationship between ‘race’and state.7 Hannah Arendt,
The Origins of Totalitarianism
(New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1966); Zygmunt Bauman,
Modernity and the Holocaust
(Cambridge: PolityPress 1989).
ALANA LENTIN
381

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