|| Race debate
at the Institute
Celebrating diversity or equality?
By Marek Kohn
Perhaps it was the row over MP Diane Abbott's objection to Finnish nurses treating black
people in British hospitals. Perhaps it was the calibre of the speakers, or simply the
signal importance of the topic. Whatever the reasons, the Finnish Institute's seminar room
was packed on April 9 for an evening of discussion under the title 'The Meaning of Race
Such questions, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown observed in her introductory remarks, are
difficult to debate properly. Alibhai-Brown, a Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy
Research, remarked that it does not seem possible to have mature discussions about race in
which people are able to disagree with each other. Liberals, she observed, have become
reluctant to accept that racism remains a problem. Happily - and thanks in large part to
her stewardship of the chair - the evening provided evidence to the contrary on both these
The keynote speaker was Kenan Malik, who gave a provocative exposition of arguments he
develops in his book The Meaning of Race (Macmillan, 1996). Malik challenges the
idea that diversity is something to celebrate. The reason that difference and diversity
enjoy their current prominence, he argues, is because struggles against inequality have
failed. Difference, moreover, is "always at the heart of the racist agenda".
Tracing the idea of difference through history, Malik suggested that the idea of
multiculturalism arose largely in response to mass immigration since the Second World War,
and particularly in response to the persistence of inequalities. A youth describing
himself as 'Muslim' in Marseilles or London was not celebrating a freely chosen identity,
but attempting to defend the dignity of his community, and negotiating with a society
deeply hostile to him.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown later responded to this point by noting that her own religious
beliefs had developed in response to anti-Muslim prejudice. But, she emphasised, her faith
was now more than just a reaction to racism.
Juhani Kortteinen, secretary of the Finnish Committee against Racism, also entered some
reservations. Failure to recognise difference deprived individuals of something essential
to their identities, he observed.
Malik concluded by pointing to the decline of the idea of a common culture, and to the
prevailing pessimism about people's ability to change the world. The embrace of
difference, as a substitute for equality, was the embrace of social and political defeat.
The opening contribution from the floor was a wide-ranging harangue from Marc Wadsworth (a
black Finn whose mother is Finnish) of the Anti-Racist Alliance, denouncing Malik for
"Trotskyism" and the Finns for continuing to tolerate the caricatured image of a
black child on packages of Fazer's (a Finnish sweets manufacturer) liquorice sweets. It
turned out to be an isolated example of slash-and-burn debate.
Several speakers did, however, feel that the discussion was too academic. In reply, Malik
said that he was saddened by the division of practice and theory. It had been the failure
of anti-racist practice over the past ten years that had impelled him to examine the
theory which underlay it.
Elisabeth Rehn, a former Minister of Equality Affairs in Finland, spoke not about theory,
but about her experiences as UN Human Rights Rapporteur in former Yugoslavia. She recalled
an occasion when she had to jump from gravestone to gravestone in a churchyard, for fear
of mines. It seemed a poignant image of the predicament in which many individuals
dispatched to the region on behalf of the "international community" found
themselves. But she also described the encouragement she took from watching a multiethnic
boys' football tournament in Sarajevo. She had faith in the youth, and remained optimistic
about the possibility of a multicultural society.
The writer is a journalist and the author of The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial
Science (Jonathan Cape, 1995).
The photograph shows the speakers Kenan Malik, Elisabeth Rehn and Juhani Kortteinen.