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Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 39, No.

4, 2005

Replacing ‘race’, historicizing ‘culture’ in



ABSTRACT 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.

KEYWORDS anti-racism, culturalism, culture, interculturalism, multiculturalism, race,


n the West, the first years of the new millennium are being marked by a
I growing 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 the
attacks of 11 September 2001, is defined by a discourse that pits ‘civilizations’
against each other in a Manichaean struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’,
ISSN 0031-322X print/ISSN 1461-7331 online/05/040379-18 # 2005 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/00313220500347832
380 Patterns of Prejudice

‘enlightened’ and ‘barbaric’. Likewise, at the level of western nation-states,

problems such as the erosion of national identity, the lack of political
participation, the decline of the welfare state and urban unrest have been put
down to the allegedly unmanageable diversity of contemporary postcolo-
nial, immigration societies. Commentators who have voiced fears about
what they see as the over-extension of cultural diversity have linked them to
a critique of multiculturalism, a policy of western nation-states that is now
pronounced ‘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 the
return to assimilationist policies that is increasingly being witnessed, for
example, under the present New Labour regime in Britain.2 While criticism
of the insistence on the primacy of ‘national values’ by current governments
is 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 On
the contrary, multiculturalism can be seen as an institutional policy that, by
replacing an analysis of the link between racism and capitalism with a focus
on the importance of cultural identity, depoliticized the state-centred anti-
racism of the racialized in postcolonial societies. In order to conceptionalize
the 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, the
culturalization of politics that marks the post-war period in the West and the
inextricable relationship this has with racism in the history of modernity.
Accordingly, I intend to look critically at one of the ways in which culture
has come to dominate the language of politics in the post-war era, namely, by
means of the struggle to eradicate racism in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I
will look at one specific and central aspect of this ensemble of campaigns: the
approach taken by UNESCO, which in turn informed the anti-racist policy of
many western states. As was revealed by my research into the development
of the discourse and practice of anti-racism in Europe,5 the UNESCO
approach also informs what can be thought of as the mainstream anti-racism
practised 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 (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: Pluto
Press 2004).

between ‘race’ and ‘culture’, and influence the way we look back on the
evolution of multiculturalism.
This mainstream and institutionalized approach to racism in the western
societies of the post-war era is based on a belief that racism, propelled by
aberrant extremists, comes from the outside to infect society. It therefore, to
my mind, fails to place the racism of the postcolonial western world
satisfactorily in the political and historical context of its evolution from the
Enlightenment 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, they
avoid connecting racism with the historical development of the modern
European state, thereby seeing racism as an aberration of democracy and the
public political culture of the modern European nation-state.6 Such a view
contrasts strongly with the argument of those such as Hannah Arendt or
Zygmunt Bauman,7 and largely accepted by many theorists of ‘race’ and
racism, that, far from being external to the capitalist liberal-democratic
nation-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 these
territorial units to be defined vis-à-vis external Others, made race-thinking
politically 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 the
foundations of the ‘multicultural regime’. Multiculturalism may be thought
of as being a regime because, in many ways, it has become an ideological
straitjacket and critical distance from it has been all but abolished. As a policy,
multiculturalism would have us see our societies as ‘race-free’ and culturally
rich. 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 political

culture’ to describe the way in which the various discourses of anti-racism position
themselves in relation to the state (Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe ). According
to Rawls, public political culture is a set of ‘familiar ideas’ that ‘play a fundamental role
in 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), 5/6). 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 or
critique 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: Polity
Press 1989).
382 Patterns of Prejudice

societal diversity, it has become impossible to see clearly the artificiality of the
divide between ‘race’ and ‘culture’ within official discourses that valorizes
culture while*albeit strenuously*demonizing ‘race’. The emphasis placed
/ /

on the difference between these two means of categorizing human difference

often serves to mask the persistence of racism in what is widely believed to be
a post-racial age.8 Indeed, a multicultural approach to living together in the
diverse societies of the post-war western world was built on ways of
conceptualizing and suggesting solutions for racism that, by bypassing
history and politics, enabled culturalist interpretations to come to the fore. We
cannot, therefore, discuss multiculturalism historically without looking at
how it evolved out of an increasing emphasis on culture as a means of
bringing about a state of ‘racelessness’.9
The culturalist approach to opposing racism becomes dominant precisely
because it focuses on the need to find an alternative to ‘race’ as an adequate
means of describing human differences. The antidote to racism, according
to this thinking, is the denial of the viability of ‘race’ as a category and
the introduction of alternative conceptual tools based on culturalized
understandings, such as ethnicity or, more recently, identity. By concentrat-
ing on the need to replace ‘race’ at all costs, proponents of this form of anti-
racism have denied the necessity of historicizing the emergence of racism,
not as a mere pseudo-science, but as an ideology that came to dominate
politics from the end of the nineteenth century until the Second World
This denial has led today to a failure to disentangle ‘race’ and state.
Furthermore their interconnectedness remains largely obscured despite the
introduction of affirmative action and quota policies in many countries and
admissions of institutional racism, most significantly that following the 1997
Macpherson inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in
the United Kingdom.10 While we may accept that individual institutions
contain racist elements or have even become steeped in a culture of racism,
extending this to the idea that the state itself may be structured by racism is
generally considered to be an extremist position. The success with which
racism has been portrayed as a type of fungus that grows on the body
politic means that we generally believe that, in a postcolonial, post-
Holocaust era, racism has been expunged from the realm of the state and
that any residues that persist lurk on the fringes of politics and society. For
these reasons, campaigns against racism often focus on the activities of far-
right groups and individual cases of racially motivated hate crime. While
these should by no means be ignored, the constant identification of racism
with the actions of the politically marginal enables the apparently more

8 David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell 2002).
9 Ibid.
10 William Macpherson, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William
Macpherson of Cluny, Cm 4262-I (London: Stationery Office 1999).

banal, everyday racism experienced by the racialized in all social, political,

economic and private spheres to be played down. In addition, today, the
increasing control over asylum and immigration has led to the criminaliza-
tion of migrants and a public acceptance that their detention and
deportation is necessary for the protection of national interests. Never-
theless, these state policies are accompanied by a declared commitment by
governments to ‘tackling racism’, which brings about a situation in
which*despite all evidence to the contrary*the belief that racism exists
/ /

outside of the state and that, therefore, immigration policies are not racist
but merely common sense has become ingrained in the contemporary
western consciousness.
In order to provide a solid, historically grounded argument for my claim
that multiculturalism emerges from culturalist responses to racism that
depoliticize anti-racist discourses and obscure the link between ‘race’ and
state, I will, first, offer a brief history of the so-called ‘UNESCO tradition’ at
the core of culturalist anti-racism. I then go on to critique the idea that
became prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, and that largely dominates
thinking on racism in the West today, that a so-called cultural racism has
come to dominate its biological predecessor and, more importantly, that its
appearance is due to the diffusion of anti-racist, anti-colonialist and
‘minoritarian’ discourses in society. In conclusion, I discuss how the
predominance of cultural interpretations of human differences and their
official endorsement suppress state-centred critiques of racism that focus on
‘race’ as, above all else, a political idea that, chameleon-like, adapts itself to a
variety of political circumstances.

The roots of culturalism: the UNESCO tradition

Martin Barker introduced the idea of a ‘UNESCO tradition’ of anti-racism in

reference to the opposition to racism-as-science, one of the central principles
of the anti-racism of the inter- and post-war years.11 This branch of anti-
racism, first promoted by anti-racist scientists and anthropologists such as
Franz Boas, Julian Huxley and Otto Klineberg in the 1930s, was based on a
belief in the necessity of defeating racism on its own terms, as first and
foremost a science that could, therefore, be disproved. This approach, based
on an a priori separation between ‘race’ and politics was considered by its
promoters to be the most effective way of establishing the impracticality of
racism as a system for making sense of human diversity.
UNESCO first brought together its panel of ‘world experts’ in 1950. Their
meeting resulted in the publication of the UNESCO Statement on Race and
Racial Prejudice which, having been updated several times, still serves as the
basis for the UN position on racism. The Statement, as well as pamphlets on

11 Martin Barker, ‘Empiricism and racism’, Radical Philosophy, no. 33, Spring 1983, 6/15.
384 Patterns of Prejudice

various issues related to racism written by the various members of the

panel,12 formed the basis of the anti-racist policy of post-war international
institutions, a policy that was also widely adopted by western governments.
The Statement is well characterized by the key idea that emphasizes, as Ivan
Hannaford demonstrates, that a distinction be drawn between ‘race’ and
ethnicity: the former pernicious, the latter a supposedly benign means of
categorizing human beings. This idea assumes that

all men belonged to the same species, Homo Sapiens , that national, cultural,
religious, geographical, and linguistic groups had been falsely termed races; that
it would be better to drop the term and use ‘ethnic groups’ in its place; that the
‘race is everything’ hypothesis was untrue.13

The UNESCO project is mired in two problems, both of which relate to the
argument being made here that culturalist approaches to explaining and
proposing solutions to racism are inadequate because they avoid the
political relationship of ‘reciprocal determination’ between ‘race’ and state.14
The first problem is that UNESCO aimed to tackle racism on its own terms,
namely as a pseudo-science, reasoning that disproving the scientific validity
of ‘race’ would lead to the demise of racism. Second, the project’s authors
(mainly the anthropologists involved) aimed to provide an alternative
explanation of human difference to that of ‘race’ that would serve to rid
the conceptualization of human difference, necessary for making sense of
increasingly diverse populations, of the dangerous reverberations of race-
thinking that were still sounding in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
In order, first, to disprove the validity of the pseudo-scientific concept of
‘race’ it was imperative for the UNESCO panel to diminish the significance
attached to it. This aim nevertheless resulted in a view of racism that denied
its effects on the state and politics, relegating it to the realm of misused
pseudo-science. Point 3(b) of the 1968 version of the UNESCO Statement

The division of the human species into ‘races’ is partly conventional and partly
arbitrary and does not imply any hierarchy whatsoever. Many anthropologists
stress the importance of human variation, but believe that ‘racial’ divisions have
limited scientific interest and may even carry the risk of inviting abusive

12 Leo Kuper (ed.), Race, Science and Society (Paris: UNESCO Press and London: George
Allen and Unwin 1975).
13 Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
University Press 1996), 386.
14 Etienne Balibar, ‘Racism and nationalism’, in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel
Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso 1991), 37/67.
15 ‘UNESCO Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice’, Current Anthropology, vol. 9, no. 4,
1968, 270/2 (270).

However, while the UNESCO project contributed to undermining the

scientific credentials of the ‘race concept’,16 it did not address the political
implications of racism in the history of the West. It failed to deal with the
important fact that, while race-thinking may have had its beginnings in the
scientific or philosophical domain, it was through the medium of politics
that it had been propelled to significance. For example, while the Statement
on Race and Racial Prejudice recognized that the colonial ‘conditions of
conquest’ contributed to racism,17 this did not entail, in the analysis, any
agency on the part of the colonialist state. Furthermore, while admitting the
historically rooted, rather than natural or universal, origins of racism, the
Statement does not expand on the precise character of these origins. On the
contrary, it skims over the history of colonialism and the resultant
‘dependency’ of the colonies to claim that progress had since been achieved
due to the inclusion of many ‘formerly dependent countries’ in international
organizations.18 The formulation of the Statement ignores the power
relations between large and small, western and ‘developing’ states that still
define the workings not only of such institutions, but also of the neo-colonial
dependency that persists despite the official withdrawal of western rule.
The second problem in the UNESCO approach relates more directly to the
history of how culturalist explanations came to dominate understandings of
human difference and be posed as the solution to persistent racism,
interpreted as an irrational prejudice between groups of culturally different
human beings. The UNESCO panel, in particular the anthropologists who
dominated it, wished to replace ‘race’ as a theory of human difference with
‘culture’, seen as a non-hierarchical, and thus more suitable, means of
conceptualizing diversity. The culturalist interpretation of difference em-
phasized in the Statement is epitomized by the following assertion:

Current biological knowledge does not permit us to impute cultural achievements

to differences in genetic potential. Differences in the achievements of different
peoples should be attributed solely to their cultural history. The peoples of the
world today appear to possess equal biological potentialities for attaining any
level of civilization.19

UNESCO wanted to be able to answer questions about why human

groups differed from each other in appearance, in traditions and in levels of
‘progress’. This was perceived to be even more necessary as the immigration
to Western Europe of non-Europeans meant that indigenous populations

16 Elazar Barkan, ‘Race’, in Theodore R. Porter and Dorothy Ross (eds), Cambridge
History of Science. Volume 7. The Modern Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press 2003).
17 ‘UNESCO Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice’.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid., 270.
386 Patterns of Prejudice

were, many for the first time, coming face to face with Others whom they
often considered racially inferior or, at the very least, dangerously
unfamiliar. The concern at this time with ensuring that racism should never
again ‘raise its ugly head’ in places where the assumed homogeneity of
national identity was being transformed by the arrival of newcomers is
directly associated with the subsequent development of the multiculturalist
ideal as a principle for coping with the diversity of contemporary western
The main proposal made by UNESCO, and most forcefully by Claude
Lévi-Strauss in his short book Race and History,20 was that human groups
could be divided according to cultures that were relative to each other. The
relativity of culture eradicated the hierarchical implication of ‘superiority’
and ‘inferiority’ built into the idea of ‘race’. Therefore, Lévi-Strauss and
UNESCO insisted on the replacement of ‘race’, as a way of categorizing
human difference, with ‘ethnicity’ or ‘culture’. Racism, too, was therefore
replaced by the term ‘ethnocentrism’ which Lévi-Strauss thought more
adequately described the intolerance between different cultural or ethnic
groups; this was considered to be almost inherent in groups and, therefore,
more benign.
The idea that each culture contributed ‘in its own way’ to humanity as a
whole countered the widely accepted belief that a hierarchy of ‘race’ divided
Europeans from non-Europeans. Lévi-Strauss celebrated the diversity of
humanity, demonstrated by what he called the ‘distinctive contributions’ of
each cultural group.21 He claimed that the different levels of progress of such
groups could not be attributed to any innate differences. Rather, progress
comes about as a result of interaction between groups. The historical chance
that led to the onset of modernity taking place in the West meant that the
other cultures that rubbed shoulders with the Occident experienced more
rapid progress. Those that remained isolated did not. In the culturally
relativist framework adopted by Lévi-Strauss, which so greatly influenced
the UNESCO approach and which formed the basis of the multiculturalist
approach to the ongoing discrimination of non-Europeans in western
societies, the differences between human groups were seen as fortuitous
and almost arbitrary.
By so forcefully making this point, Lévi-Strauss rightly critiques a
Eurocentric notion of progress, which he sees as emerging from the
evolutionist idea that all cultures are merely stages towards a single model
of humanity epitomized by the West. Rejecting the idea of ‘primitive’ and
‘civilized’ cultures and the ideal of assimilation, Lévi-Strauss proposed that
the only means to curb ethnocentrism was through the greater exchange
of knowledge between different cultures. This interculturalist objective
underpins the anti-racism that dominates the policy of international

20 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (Paris: UNESCO Press 1952).

21 Ibid.

institutions, such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe, to this
There is a twist, however, to Lévi-Strauss’s celebration of cultural diversity
and his advocacy of greater intercultural knowledge. The anthropologist
claimed that the ideal of a ‘world civilization’, based on what he described as
a fact of cultural diversity, would only be worth pursuing if each culture
were to retain its originality. The more different the cultures involved
were from each other, the more fruitful the intercultural communication.
However, the only way to ensure diversity was actually to enforce the
stratification of human groups according to colonialism’s class hierarchies.
As multicultural society became a reality, Lévi-Strauss feared that cultural
diversity would become a thing of the past. This extreme approach to the
idea of cultural diversity, as something static within which cultural groups
would ideally remain hermetically sealed despite the fact that they would
increase their knowledge of each other, reveals the problems associated with
anthropology’s involvement in the search for solutions to the ongoing
problem of racism. While certainly no longer universally the case, the legacy
of the anthropologists’ role in colonialist regimes and their contribution to an
exoticizing and reifying view of non-European cultures cannot be comple-
tely overlooked.
The UNESCO tradition that developed out of the contributions of thinkers
such as Lévi-Strauss overlooked the complexities of such arguments and,
indeed, later elaborations of them, such as Lévi-Strauss’s own re-evaluation
of Race and History in his essay entitled ‘Race et Culture’.22 The approach it
outlined was based on three fundamental principles that formed the basis of
the proposed solution to the persistent problem of what now had become
known as ‘ethnocentrism’.

. Because ‘race’ has no scientific validity, it should be replaced by ‘culture’

or ‘ethnicity’, and the notion of racism by that of ethnocentrism;
. the benefits of cultural diversity should be promoted as a means of
enriching society; and
. greater knowledge of other cultures among western societies should be
encouraged in order to bring about awareness of the ‘fact’ of cultural
diversity on a global scale and to combat the inclination of ignorant and
prejudicial human beings to adopt ethnocentric attitudes.

There are three main problems arising from this package of solutions
proposed by UNESCO that have a direct bearing on the way in which
multicultural approaches to racism have affected the politics of anti-racism
specifically and the lived experience of many racialized people in
western societies more generally. First, by proposing that racism is a

22 Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Race et Culture’, in C. Lévi-Strauss, Le Regard eloigné (Paris: Plon

388 Patterns of Prejudice

misconstrued attitude based on misleading, pseudoscientific information,

the UNESCO approach implies that it can, therefore, be overcome at the
level of the individual without questioning the role of the state. This
approach forms part of what is today a widespread attitude to racism, one
that characterizes analyses of institutionalized and state racism as the
paranoia of ‘minorities’ or the extreme left. Racism, from this commonsense
perspective, is the pathological problem of ignorant individuals who ‘know
no better’, an analysis based on an in-built class stereotyping that equates
racism mainly with working-class ignorance. This interpretation of racism
psychologizes and individualizes it, making it impossible to propose
political analyses or solutions. Therefore, slavery, colonialism, the Holo-
caust and contemporary discrimination against immigrants can only be
interpreted as aberrations and not as political components of modern
The second problem entailed in the UNESCO project is that to propose
‘culture’ as an alternative to ‘race’ does little, contrary to the belief of those
such as Lévi-Strauss, to refute the widely accepted view that groups are
organized hierarchically according to levels of progress. While theoretically
accepting the validity of ‘different but equal’ cultures, the transposition of
this principle into anti-racist action was nevertheless accompanied in
practice by paternalism because, as Lévi-Strauss himself observed, the
principle of cultural relativism could only work if ‘cultures’ were kept in
isolation from each other. Once populations moved, they were naturally
influenced by living in a new society and interpreting its codes for
themselves on the basis of their own lived experience. However, when
non-white, non-European populations were confronted with racism in the
western societies to which they had come as immigrants, they were often
confronted with the fixed anti-racism of the local left that assumed that, as
newcomers, immigrants lacked knowledge about the workings of the society
and would require guidance before acquiring political and social maturity.
This was a particular problem in the early anti-racism of the white left in
post-war Europe, which allied itself with the romantic figure of the anti-
colonial freedom fighter but found it difficult in practice to make political
space for immigrant activists in the metropole. On the contrary, the idea
prevailed that white people had a duty to help new immigrants, producing a
paternalistic attitude that reproduced the idea of western superiority over
so-called Third World backwardness.
Finally, the idea that people can be assigned to different groups according
to culture is powerless to avoid the essentialism implied by ‘race’. Whether
or not it is as pernicious as an idea, culture is no less reifying. Here we
can see the direct link to the critique of multiculturalism that has often
been formulated. Multiculturalism has been accused of seeing cultural
groups as internally homogeneous and static, and of being unable to make
room for the necessary hybridization that comes about as populations
originating in various parts of the globe share space in the urban

metropole.23 Moreover, the homogeneity of culture is almost always evoked

by members of the dominant culture in reference to that of so-called
minority groups. In such a schema, the dominant culture is rarely
scrutinized, but merely accepted as the norm. Therefore, it is common to
hear references to ‘ethnic’ food and music on the assumption that this only
refers to what does not originate within the national space. While it is less
frequent for what are considered to be cultural characteristics to be put
down to genetic differences, there is a tendency to talk in stereotypes about
‘Muslim values’, ‘black attitudes’ or ‘Asian work ethics’. Such stereotyping
of groups, many of whose members have lived in western societies for
several generations, belies the influence that common living in multicultural
societies has on everyone. The persistence of racism that often consists in the
ghettoization of racialized groups should not be confused with the common
perception that ‘minority groups’ naturally choose to live in cultural
enclaves. The frequency with which such attitudes are expressed strengthens
the suggestion I am making here that the shift from ‘race’ to ‘culture’ or
‘ethnicity’ is little more than a cosmetic one in terms of the impact it has on
the actual experience of racism.

Cultural racism, identity politics and the misconstrual of authenticity

The culturalist approach epitomized by the UNESCO tradition has domi-

nated ideas about how to interpret and propose solutions to racism in the
post-war western world. Beyond this, it has also contributed to a belief,
which came to prominence in the 1980s, that anti-racism could be held
responsible for the emergence of a new culturalist racism, heralded by
groups on the far right such as the French Front National. However, while it
is true, as several commentators have pointed out,24 that the language of
cultural relativism was adopted by the far right in an overt effort to shun
blatant racism in favour of a discourse of cultural incompatibility, it is
mistaken to attribute the diffusion of culturalism itself to the rise of identity
politics. What I am suggesting is that commentators who have proposed that
the call for the recognition of the cultural specificity of ‘minority’ groups in
western societies is a process that originates at the grassroots, with the
marginalized or racialized themselves, have failed to historicize adequately
the way in which multicultural approaches to targeting discrimination have

23 Cf. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, Racialised Boundaries: Race, Nation, Gender,
Colour and Class and the Anti-racist Struggle (London and New York: Routledge 1992);
Gilroy, ‘The end of anti-racism’.
24 Pierre-André Taguieff, La Force du prejugé: Essai sur le racisme et ses doubles (Paris: La
Découverte 1989); Pierre-André Taguieff (ed.), Face au racisme , 2 vols (Paris: La
Découverte 1991); Verena Stolcke, ‘Talking culture: new boundaries, new rhetorics of
exclusion in Europe’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, no. 1, 1995, 1/24.
390 Patterns of Prejudice

evolved. As I demonstrated in the previous section, culturally based

explanations of human difference and culturalist solutions to racism
emerged out of an elite project, piloted by the United Nations and
legitimized by renowned academics. To blame the racialized for the
culturalization of politics and the resultant depoliticization of anti-racism
is to misunderstand the origins of the culturalist project and to disregard the
choice often faced by black and ‘minority ethnic’ anti-racists, from the 1980s
on, between adopting the language of multiculturalism or ceasing to be
socially and politically engaged.
The idea that the culturalist approach to the fight against racism has
contributed to the rise in acceptability of the discourse of the far right
originates with the idea of a new cultural racism. The ‘new racism’ is
epitomized by the idea that cultures should be seen as separate but equal.
The translation of this in far-right, nationalist rhetoric is that each culture
deserves its own homeland in which its members can live undisturbed by
others. Publicly, proponents of this view claim that, just like Europeans,
immigrants too would be happier ‘at home’, in their ‘natural surroundings’.
The idea of a new racism was first proposed in 1981 by Martin Barker in his
analysis of the relationship between Thatcherism in the United Kingdom
and the rise of sociobiology as a means of proving the incompatibility
between the inherently different ways of life of British people and
‘immigrants’. The new racism was based on the idea that ‘it is in our
biology, our instincts, to defend our way of life, traditions and customs
against outsiders’.25 Barker insisted, however, that culturalism was an elite
discourse that infected the racist politics of fringe groups from the top down
because it had been legitimized by both the governing Conservative Party
and by key thinkers in the academy.
In contrast to Barker’s perspective, cultural, or so-called differentialist,
racism was analysed in a very different way by Pierre-André Taguieff.
Taguieff proposed that the success that cultural racism had enjoyed in
appealing to the French public in the late 1980s, as seen in growing support
for the Front National, was due to anti-racism, which he saw as having been
propelled by anti-colonialists and the far left. Taguieff suggested in several
works on the nature of anti-racism that anti-racists had been responsible for
creating the language used to such effect by the racists of the Front
National.26 The diffusion of the discourse of cultural relativism has,
according to Taguieff, directly enabled the resuscitation of a far-right politics
whose association with the distasteful history of European fascism had led to
its previous decline.

25 Martin Barker, The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe (London:
Junction Books 1981), 23/4.
26 Taguieff, La Force du prejugé ; Taguieff (ed.), Face au racisme, vol. 1: Les moyens d’agir and
vol. 2: Analyses, hypothèses, perspectives; Pierre-André Taguieff, Les Fins de l’antiracisme
(Paris: Michalon 1995).

Taguieff is a self-styled French republican thinker whose more recent work

has targeted Islam in France as the carrier of a ‘new Judaeophobia’ that poses
a threat both to Jews and to the principles of laicité upon which the French
state was ostensibly founded.27 Therefore, while professing his commitment
to fighting racism, he opposes what he sees as the ‘communitarianization’ of
anti-racism, namely, the association of the opposition to racism with the
experiences of the targets of racist discrimination. His stance is one
commonly adopted in France whereby anti-racist principles are established
by reference to a public political culture that upholds the belief that the
French state is foundationally anti-racist. This form of anti-racism, practised
by organizations such as SOS Racisme and the Ligue contre le racisme et
l’antisémitisme (LICRA), is referred to as ‘generalist’ because it seeks to
appeal as widely as possible to the general public, and therefore refuses to be
seen as associated with what are written off as being the ‘particularist’
concerns of racialized people. As was pointed out in an interview with a
representative of SOS Racisme:

From the moment that we would rely on a communitarian model, we would lose
all our power and all our force because we wouldn’t be speaking to everyone’s
hearts. We would not be speaking to 60 million people, we’d be speaking to the
victims concerned. And the victims concerned are not the majority of the activist

Taguieff blames anti-racism for the emergence of culturalist racism. He

ignores the heterogeneity of anti-racism. Rather, he identifies it wholly
with the actions of the extreme left and those whom he sees as being anti-
western, epitomized by anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon. Furthermore,
he proposes that cultural relativism has destroyed any chance that the
struggle against racism*associated exclusively with the activities of the far

right*might succeed. Cultural relativism is seen as stemming from the


insistence of those of non-European origin on creating exclusivist commu-

nities that threaten the secular and assimilatory ethos of French republican
political culture. Nowhere does he admit the possibility that the ‘ghettoiza-
tion’ and ‘communitarianization’ that he sees as so damaging may not have
been the outcome of a choice made by those of immigrant origin in Europe,
but rather the result of the state racism that persists despite official
endorsements of equality and meritocracy and a publicly professed
commitment to ‘weeding out’ racism.
The possibility of blaming racialized ‘communities’ for the diffusion of the
language of cultural racism is founded on a purposeful misreading of the
development of culturalism, which was top-down and not, as Taguieff
would have it, bottom-up. This misreading is based on a view of identity

27 Pierre-André Taguieff, La Nouvelle Judéophobie (Paris: Milles et une nuits 2002).

28 Quoted in Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe , 185.
392 Patterns of Prejudice

politics that claims that political action by ‘minority groups’ is solely

founded on a need for the culture of each ‘community’ to be equally
valorized in a diverse society. The ‘politics of recognition’ are based,29 it is
claimed, on the significance of authenticity as a means both for establishing
internal cohesion within a given ‘community’ and for seeking legitimacy in
the public sphere. Like Taguieff, Charles Taylor sees Fanon’s thinking as
fundamental to notions of authenticity and recognition. Taylor’s misreading
of Fanon is a useful example of how culturalism came to be associated, not
with the elite anti-racism of the international institutions, but with the self-
organized anti-racism of the racialized in the postcolonial West.
Taylor bases his view of identity politics on what he claims to be a search
for authenticity in the process of throwing off domination. And he attributes
the concept of authenticity in the contemporary world to Frantz Fanon.
Fanon argues that the main weapon of colonization was the imposition of
the image of the colonizers on the subjugated so that they were no longer
recognized*even by themselves*outside of a view of them constructed by
/ /

their oppressors.30 Ignoring Fanon’s grappling with the ontology of black

people’s existence in Black Skin, White Masks, Taylor dwells on Fanon’s
justification of violence in the process of decolonization in The Wretched of the
Earth. During this period, Fanon’s writings emphasized the assimilation of
the culture of the oppressor as characteristic of colonization and the creation
of the ‘native’ by the settler. He calls for the effects of colonization on the
colonized to be consciously reversed through the shattering of the self-
perception of oneself as subjugated resulting from oppression.
Taylor confuses his own view of the ideal of authenticity as a model for
society with Fanon’s advocacy of violence as a necessary stage towards the
achievement of national self-determination for the colonized. He then links
this artificial connection to his theorization of contemporary identity politics.
By doing so, he purposefully avoids the very strangeness of Fanon’s
situation: a Martinican who had elected to fight for Algerian liberation
from French rule, under which his own country had elected to remain.
Taylor’s view that Fanon’s appeal to authenticity is a foundation of present-
day collective action by ‘minority’ groups for recognition skims over the
vital fact that, for Fanon, the achievement of national liberation must eschew
any appeal to ethnicity or ‘race’. Fanon recognized how nationalism comes
to rely on racism when he remarked that the ‘racial and racist level is
transcended’ in an Algerian nation that must emerge on the basis of will and
consciousness and not on the grounds of shared ethnicity.31 The openness of
Fanon’s vision of the membership of a new self-determined nation opposes

29 Taylor, Multiculturalism .
30 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press 1963); Frantz Fanon,
Black Skins, White Masks (London: Pluto Press 1967).
31 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth , 108.

the essentialism of the authentic identity that Taylor claims it is necessary to

construct for the achievement of equal recognition.
Taylor fails to read Fanon’s own ambivalent relationship to the authen-
ticity claims made by the advocates of negritude. Ultimately, Fanon sees
negritude as a transitory stage in the process of decolonization but not as an
end in itself. Such an authentic identity cannot be sustained because to do so
would be to belie the extent to which the ‘Negro’ has been brought into
existence by the white man. The impossibility therefore of ‘returning’ to a
precolonial authenticity is evident in Fanon’s explanation of his condition: ‘I
wanted to be typically Negro*it was no longer possible. I wanted to be

white*that was a joke.’32 Fanon’s negritude is a pragmatic position bound


up more with a concern for making the Black visible as such, independent of
the white gaze. However, it is clear that, for Fanon, visibility is of little use
without self-determination, not in the individualist sense applied to it by
Taylor but as a process of freeing a people from colonial rule. As David Theo
Goldberg notes, ‘being recognised, whether as self-conscious or as Other,
and thus being visible, requires that one be outside the Other’s imposition,
free of the Other’s complete determination’.33 Therefore, the recourse to
authentic negritude can be a first step towards humanizing the colonized by
making them visible. Its necessity, however, can begin to be reconsidered
once self-determination is established in order to create a new politics that,
as Barnor Hesse suggests,34 particularizes Eurocentric universalism by
constructing itself in opposition to it.

Culturalism and the depoliticization of anti-racism: contemporary


The history of anti-racism in Europe reveals that the political project of those
facing racism that attempted to ground itself in a Fanonian commitment to
lived experience as a key to interpreting racial domination has always faced
suppression. This has come both from the right and from those generally on
the left who have looked for anti-racist responses in western public political
culture and denounced the self-organized anti-racism of the racialized as
‘communitarian’, ‘particularist’ or ‘culturalized’. I have attempted to show
that a culturalized view both of the interpretation of racism and the solutions
proposed to it was a top-down project that was then misinterpreted as
emerging out of identity politics as a search for authenticity. This reading
ignores the fact that, with the diffusion of multicultural policymaking,

32 Fanon, Black Skins, White Mask , 132.

33 David Theo Goldberg, Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America (New York and
London: Routledge 1997), 81.
34 Barnor Hesse, ‘‘‘It’s your world’’: discrepant M/multiculturalisms’, in Phil Cohen
(ed.), New Ethnicities, Old Racisms (London : Zed Books 1999).
394 Patterns of Prejudice

political demands in reaction to racial discrimination could only be framed

in a culture-oriented language that sees intercultural knowledge as the key
to combating so-called ‘ethnocentrism’. Politicized approaches that stress
institutionalized racism and that look to ground the anti-racist project in the
lived experience of racism’s targets have been seen as counter-productive to
the aim of creating a generally non-racist society.
What have been the repercussions of the dominance of culturalism and the
concomitant marginalization of self-organized, state-centred anti-racism?
First, the replacement of ‘race’ with ‘culture’ has done little to counter the
idea that humanity is organized hierarchically. This is due to the fact that
difference has been culturalized by Europeans and imposed on others as a
means of coping both with the recent history of the West and with the
diversification of its societies. As such, like universalist values, cultural
difference is theorized in relation to a European standard that escapes the
relativization that it proposes for others.
Within the logic of multiculturalism, the members of non-white and/or
non-European cultural groups are generally thought of as internally
homogeneous. Members of these purported cultures are essentialized as
such. This essentialization often acts like racialization: so-called minorities
are pigeon-holed and as a result rendered invisible. Once an individual has
been assigned to his/her cultural group and tucked away at the fringes of
society (both metaphorically and often geographically), any sense of
hybridity or heterogeneity is lost.
Many theorists, artists, musicians and writers have emphasized the
fluidity of cultural identities. Yet, without challenging the underlying
reasons why culture dominates our understandings, this is unlikely to
have a significant impact in the realm of politics and policymaking. Thinking
culturally about difference is the default position for not talking about ‘race’
and avoiding the charge of racism. But this very need for such a substitute
covers up the fact that the hierarchy put in place by racism has been
maintained. It no longer exists as blatant persecution. It is more ambivalent.
It can continue precisely because it has been deleted from official discourse.
The ultimate signal that it has been rejected is the fact that it has been
replaced: ‘benign’ culture has taken over from virulent ‘race’.
Nevertheless, racism persists. And this is even admitted by elites. Their
response is also formulated in terms of culture. Multiculturalism, intercul-
turalism and diversity management have, over the years, been different ways
of talking about the same thing: how to ‘integrate’ difference and curb the
problems that it may lead to. However, it is now increasingly obvious that
culturalist policies have not brought about the end of racism. This is because
neither multiculturalism nor its updated version*interculturalism*ques-
/ /

tions the very reason for the focus on culture.

People targeted by racism generally see through the idea that recognizing
cultural differences, providing for them and encouraging others to learn
about them will bring an end to discrimination. At local, national and

European levels, virtually the only anti-racist projects that receive funding
are those that mobilize culture under one form or another. Mainstream anti-
racist organizations propose that culture is the best way to break down
barriers and increase tolerance. They thus organize concerts of so-called
‘ethnic music’, food festivals and even intercultural football matches. As my
research revealed, in Italy, for example, groups such as the Roma or
Senegalese communities are invited to share their food and music with
local Italians as a way of bringing ‘cultures’ together, despite the fact that
some of them have lived in Italian society for up to two decades. As one of
my British interviewees from the Campaign against Racism and Fascism
pointed out in a comment made about the problem of receiving financial
support for anti-racist activities:

I don’t think we got any money from the European Union at all . . . what was
funded was not anti-racist work. It was cultural work, multicultural work. The
best way to get funding was multicultural work, not stuff that was going to be
critical of state institutions.35

There is a widely accepted perception that culture is inherently devoid of

politics. It is therefore possible for states, supranational institutions and
private bodies close to them to promote anti-racist initiatives without calling
into question the participation of state institutions in racist discrimination.
Even the admission of institutional racism by the Metropolitan Police in the
United Kingdom following the 1997 Macpherson inquiry has primarily
engendered policies of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversification’ within institutions
that fail to transform the culture of racism by which they are structured.
Indeed, these policies fail to scratch the surface to reveal the often deeply
racist premises on which these institutions have been built.
There is an idea in our multicultural societies that it is futile to historicize
the development of the concepts we take for granted. Instead, we can revel
in our cultural richness, ignoring all those for whom the official embrace of
diversity makes little difference to their daily lives. The story of how the
potentially liberating, political tool of culture was harnessed in the aim of
bypassing ‘race’ and the real effects of racism may assist us in the vital
project of rethinking multiculturalism at a time when it is being challenged
by those on the political right who seek to replace it with policies that
emphasize the primacy of national identity. Rethinking multiculturalism
must not mean an acceptance of the new assimilationism that, as Arun
Kundnani rightly points out,36 seeks to impose the symbols of patriotic
allegiance on populations for whom, happily, the need for a strong
nationalist identity has been progressively being eroded. It should rather
signal the necessity of challenging classifications that would not have been

35 Quoted in Lentin, Racism and Anti-racism in Europe , 289.

36 Kundnani, ‘Rally round the flag’.
396 Patterns of Prejudice

chosen by those they aim to describe. This may pave the way towards
questioning the way in which notions of identity and belonging are
conceived, by whom they are developed and for what purpose: not only
in theory but in political practice.

Alana Lentin holds an EC Outgoing International Fellowship at the City

University of New York where she is continuing her research, begun at
Oxford University, on the link between globalization, immigration and
collective action. She is the author of Racism and Anti-racism in Europe (Pluto
Press 2004).