Diane Abbott draws Finns into British race debate

The low profile which Finns in Britain normally enjoy was transformed briefly into front page news when Diane Abbott criticised employing Finnish nurses in a Hackney hospital. Although the debate soon disappeared from the news, many troubling questions lingered on in British-Finnish discussions. Some British participants in the race debate thought that the incident showed how confused arguments about race and ethnicity have become.

Kenan Malik, the author of The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society (Macmillan 1996) says that multiculturalism has become a language through which ideas of race and racial difference are being recycled. race.jpg (20490 bytes)

Malik sees Abbott's (one of the few black MPs in the House of Commons) comments about Finnish nurses last November as a classic illustration.

"It is striking if you compare Abbott's comments with those of racists who, half a century ago, were arguing against black immigration to Britain. Then racists used to complain that black immigrants would have no understanding of British ways and customs; now Abbott argues that black people have a better understanding of British ways and customs than do Finns. Racists used to argue that black immigration would deprive white people of jobs. Now, Abbott argues that Finnish nurses are depriving black people of jobs. Racists used to object to black people touching 'our' food or patients. Abbott asks whether a Finnish nurse who has never touched a black person is suitable for work in Britain." kenan.jpg (6571 bytes)

Malik says that he has argued for some time that there is a dangerous ambiguity at the heart of multicultural thinking because of the emphasis on difference.

"In recent years the goal for anti-racists has not so much been the right of people to be treated equally, as the right of every group to have their differences acknowledged and respected. But the notion of difference has always been at the heart, not of the anti-racist programme, but of the racist agenda. Racial thinkers have always been hostile to the idea that we can, and should, overcome the differences that separate us to create a more equal, more universal society. By emphasising differences rather than equality, anti-racists are rooting their arguments in the same philosophies as gave rise to racial thinking itself."

"Multiculturalism has become a language of exclusion, not inclusion, and a means of differentiating between and delineating peoples, and of saying that one group belongs and another one doesn't. In this case, black people apparently belong to Britain but Finns don't."

In his book, Malik complains that the current multiculturalist approach "overestimates the homogeneity and autonomy of the various ethnic groups and underestimates the degree to which all groups are reciprocally implicated in the creation of cultural forms within a common framework of national political, social and economic institutions."

"The multicultural approach sees immigrant communities as somehow external to the nation," he writes.

Malik says that the terrain of anti-racist struggle today is no longer that of social equality but of cultural diversity.

"Indeed the very meaning of social equality has come into question: for many the concept of equality in the old sense is a form of discredited universalism which does not take into account the differences within society. Equality has come to be redefined from 'the right to be the same' to mean 'the right to be different'."

In Malik's view the philosophy of difference is the politics of defeat, born out of defeat.

" It is the product of disillusionment with the possibilities of social change and the acceptance of the inevitability of an unequal, fragmented world," he concludes.

Kenan Malik will speak at the Finnish Institute on April 9, 1997 at 7.30 pm at a meeting about "Race and ethnicity".

See also:

Back to index of issues

The uuslogo.jpg (2750 bytes) in London