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 and Ethnicity'.
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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 scores.

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.

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