What is multicultural?
by John Welch
[ opinion - september 05 ]
The American columnist William Pfaff writing in the Observer (21 August) blames "a half-century of a well-intentioned but catastrophically misguided policy of multiculturalism" for creating the circumstances that led to the recent bombing in London. As someone who worked for many years in an East London borough as a member of a specialist team, the English Language Service, subsequently renamed (yes, I won't say re-christened!) the Multicultural Development Service, I can't help feeling that I am being targeted. The trouble is Mr Pfaff doesn't define what he means by 'multiculturalism' and gives not a single specific example of this policy and how it was carried into practice. In this he is typical. Time and again the 'm' word crops up in articles and columns, usually accompanied by the word 'well-intentioned', with its patronising connotation - "you naive soft-headed fools" - but one is left to infer what the word actually means to the person using it, and this gives the 'debate' an Alice in Wonderland quality. If a word is used often enough it acquires, simply by virtue of repetition, an aura of meaningfulness - "of course everybody knows what we mean by that" - and it becomes embarrassing to admit that you are perhaps the only person who doesn't know.
So what do people mean by 'multicultural'? The teacher who once said to me "I don't have any multiculturals in my class" didn't mean children brimming over with the spirit of multiculturalism; he simply meant the ones who weren't White. To a great many people the expression “Britain is a multicultural society” appears to mean simply the fact that there are now many people of different cultures residing here, and as such it has nothing to do with what 'multiculturalists' were up to. I strongly suspect, if only to judge from comments made on the radio by people taking part who rang in, that the 62 per cent of those polled recently by the BBC who thought Britain was a better place for being 'multicultural' probably meant simply this.
One thing seems to be clear: just now it has something to do with religion (this of course was not necessarily the case at the outset.) Every Western democracy has had at a certain point to face the same issue; once you introduce a system of compulsory state education, what accommodation do you make with the religious authorities, up to that point responsible for providing education? In France the struggle was a violent one resulting in an avowedly secular system. In this country we have evolved a rather awkward compromise. When I was assigned as a member of our team to a secondary school in the mid-1970s the only subject required by law to be on the curriculum was Religious Education. This remained the case until the introduction of the National Curriculum 10 years or so later. At the beginning of each school year, the head of RE at this school would inflict a peculiar catechism on the new intake, and as a "teacher of English as a Second Language" I found I was required to attend. "What religion are you - Christian, Moslem, Buddhist?" he would ask any child not obviously White, and I was expected to take away those who specifically professed a faith other than Christianity. Sometimes this led to confusion. I remember the girl who said she didn't know what religion she was. "Well what religion would you be if you had a religion?" The girl looked startled and finally stammered "Asian, Sir." "But that’s not a religion!" the teacher declared indignantly. "Used to do RE in my last school sir." Other children would arrive during the course of the year. There was a boy who turned up once in the middle of a lesson, and when my colleague asked why he was there, he simply said, "I'm a half-caste". This was said in that tone of exasperated reasonableness with which children confront the vagaries of the adult world; his father was Asian (he had a Moslem name); his mother was white. Children’s struggles to identify themselves when confronted by the adult world may be both touching and instructive - and of course the teacher's inquisition touched on some quite profound issues regarding identity. The law also stated that each school day must start with an "act of worship predominantly Christian in character" and Moslem boys in a neighbouring secondary school in that borough were being withdrawn from morning assembly to have separate prayers led by an imam who came in specially. The multicultural project at its inception was about creating an environment, in this case an RE curriculum, which could contain all the children in its inevitably rather shaky embrace, rather than espousing and promoting separateness.
Rukhsana Smith's Sumitra's Story is not a literary masterpiece, but it is a very competently written piece of teenage fiction describing an Asian girl's conflicts with her family and community and her eventually successful attempt to win independence. In the girls’ school I was teaching in, and which had around 70 per cent Asian students, mainly Moslems, it was used, as it was in many other schools at the time, as a class reader, as a basis for class discussion and so on. Getting books onto the curriculum is not easy - time is limited and there is a lot of competition. This book definitely came into schools under the banner of "multicultural education". When we talked about a "multicultural curriculum", we were not - and this cannot be too strongly emphasised - necessarily talking about religion. The drive to include more Afro-Caribbean or Afro-American writers in English lessons, or for that matter simply getting them into the school library, had nothing to do with promoting religious texts. For my own part I developed an interest in writing from India and Pakistan and in 1984 OUP published an anthology Stories from South Asia, which I edited. This was secular writing. The thing about good literature is that it is quite likely to challenge conventional views and traditional practices, from the inside, and this is especially true of Indian writers who in modern times have tended to adopt a social realist, reformist agenda. One would think that the last thing a secular liberal democracy might wish for is that Asian children should be encouraged to believe is that the 'Asian' aspect of their culture and heritage, something which is not simply going to disappear, is exclusively a matter of religion.
In the present debate culture and religion have become identified, though this identification only applies of course to those who are 'other', and in this respect it is the fundamentalists, for whom no such distinction exists, who are being allowed to set the agenda. Twenty years ago schools would often organise multicultural events - an 'Asian Evening' for instance. But these occasions had little or no religious content; they were about food, clothes, music, dance, film and so forth. Religion, of course, lays claim to a special kind of respect, and a pattern of deference is established vis-à-vis largely self-appointed community leaders, and now new legislation is pending aiming to reinforce that respect. I remember being at a multicultural conference not long after the Rushdie affair. There was a newly appointed adviser, a Kashmiri, going round expounding his view, a widespread one at the time, that The Satanic Verses was part of the worldwide Zionist conspiracy. People stood around looking sheepish; it was two Asian colleagues, both women, who stepped forward and had a real go at him. A recent Panorama programme drew attention to the influence exerted by what many Moslems would see as a particularly narrow form of Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia. So what we do? We invade Iraq. Saudi Arabia is our closest ally in the Middle East and it's not just mosques who get money from there. The armaments industry, our biggest single export earner, earns billions from arms sales to the Saudis. Can we always expect to have it both ways?
Meanwhile the fact that religion occupies a place in the British state education system continues to cause problems - but are people prepared to acknowledge what might be involved in undoing it? In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson says, "We should probably scrap faith schools". So all the Church of England State schools and the Catholic State schools and the Jewish State Schools are going to be closed down? It's quite a programme! Who's going to pay for it? The schools, to say nothing of the inner city sites many of them occupy, are the property of the religious institutions. What does he mean by 'probably'? Is it a tacit admission that, while it would be nice if we didn't have this problem of faith schools, it's unlikely we shall do much about it?
"We are here because you are there" was a slogan popular among radical Asians back in the 1980s. Our overseas empire had been by and large liquidated and, given the presumptuousness of the enterprise, we had got off remarkably lightly, and now the empire had 'imploded', as it were. What had been out there was now in here. It's not altogether disingenuous to suggest that what people sought to do in the name of 'multiculturalism' was to draw attention to and gain respect for the positive aspects of different cultures; this in a context where prejudice, racist abuse and discrimination of all kinds were general, and it's easy to overlook how much attitudes have changed over the last 20 or 30 years. But supporting this or that culture might mean lending your support to social and religious practices which you believe to be wrong, and it's worth placing on record that 20 years ago this was a matter of debate in what I suppose we had better call "multicultural circles". It has taken recent events here in London to bring that debate into the mainstream. What happened back then was that multiculturalism came to seem a bit goody-goody. And was 'multicultural' sometimes a way of managing the situation? It could be construed as inherently divisive, particularly from a left-wing perspective. There was, it has been suggested, an element of "divide and rule" involved in the way people were expected to bid for money for "community projects". A group might constitute itself the 'Kashmiri Moslem Association of Bradford'. They get some money for an office and a worker. So along come other groups each with its own separate remit. In reaction to this divisiveness people in teams like ours started talking about 'anti-racism'. This was intended as an inclusive term, covering anyone who wasn't white and was by virtue of that fact a potential target for racism, and could be referred to as 'Black'. This was an initiative widely greeted with derision at the time - by the same people I daresay who now denounce the 'separatism' as they see it of multiculturalism. It certainly could lead to some unpredictable results. When the Borough of Hackney undertook a count of Black children in its schools, a significant number of the children in the Jewish State Primary School just up the road from where I live were designated 'Black' - they were North African Jews. It is easy to make fun of the tangles people get themselves into in this area, but it may be at the expense of ignoring the underlying complexity of the situation.
To return to Boris Johnson's article (well, unlike most commentators, at least he is specific): two of his prescriptions are "We must teach English" and "We must teach in English". The impression persists that some people believe that there are schools where, in the interests of 'multiculturalism', English is not really taught. And aside from the Lycée Français in Kensington, I don't know of any school where English is not the "medium of instruction". Of course it was the English Language Service in our East London Borough that introduced "mother tongue teaching", and maybe this is where the confusion arises. Urdu simply became a modern languages option, alongside French and German. There are reasons for this. Modern languages teaching in this country is not easy - it's true that 'they' really do learn English, and there is an argument for saying that helping to make them secure in the aspect of their identity represented by the so-called 'mother-tongue' will enable them to combine the different aspects of their 'Britishness' in a more effective way.
The language issue surfaced last year following comments made by Blunkett when he was still Home Secretary to the effect that it was undesirable that people should ever use a language other than English in the home. But again the discussion is dogged by a failure to define what is meant, in this case by "second language". It can become a pretext - one hears it said when people are making those excuses they often make for not sending their child to the local comprehensive school: "So many of them have English as a second language - not their fault of course, but my child will be held back." "Problem inner city schools" are often characterised by the variety of languages in use. It is felt that a child's brain is simply not able to contain more than one language at a time, and children who don't speak English all the time at home won't be able to cope at school. This is demonstrably untrue. The girls' school where I taught for many years had the highest proportion of Asian pupils in the borough, most of whom used another language for a good deal of the time at home, and it got the best GCSE English results, a great deal better that virtually 'all-White' schools at the other end of the borough. Added to this is a sense of suspicion and unease aroused when people are talking a language you cannot understand. And what does 'second' mean anyway? Second implies first and this implies a hierarchy. Is this a hierarchy of value, of competence or is it merely temporal - the second language you happened to learn, and which may well be the one you end up using? It’s not unusual for small children to operate in one language and then simply drop it. I asked a boy once what was his first language and he answered 'Arabic'. He couldn’t speak it or understand it, but like most Moslem children he regularly read the Koran in Arabic, so he could read the script and sound out the words. So his first language was one he didn’t ‘know’. But of course it was an intelligent and thoughtful answer - the Koran in Arabic is literally the word of God, and he was understanding 'first' in the purely in the sense of value. And if we are talking about a hierarchy of competence, then competence in what? There are four basic skills involved - reading writing, speaking and understanding the spoken. People use different languages for different things. The language in which you speak to your mother and the language of your science homework aren't going to be the same.
Looking back on it, we in the Multicultural Development Service were always in an ambiguous situation. Appointed to the team and not to the school, and sent in to schools initially to teach English and later to spread the words re multiculturalism, our status was uncertain. We were in a double bind where doing what we were supposed to be doing would often bring us into conflict with the school authorities, and no school was obliged to have a teacher from our team. The advantage of hiving it off like this is that it does give you somebody to blame when things go wrong.