“We will work to promote equality and diversity.”

Many a policy document in public and private sector organizations across the Western world contains similar phrases. The social changes over the last forty years that have placed equality and diversity at the heart of policy at both macro and micro levels have been driven by to a large extent by the influence of ideas emanating from the feminist and anti-racist movements, and from post-modernist thinkers such as Michel Foucault.


Society has expressed its desire to consider the place of the “other” in a radically different sense from that which prevailed in, say, the 1940’s and 1950’s, and this has culminated in a set of ideological practices often termed “multicuralism.”

Multiculturalism is, of course, a much contested term, with many specifically “anti-racist” campaigners seeing its emphasis on culture and the development of mutual understanding as a de facto whitewashing of darker underlying structural and historical racism within European society.

As well, in the wake of September 11, the trend for political thinkers both in and out of government to challenge the practicality of a melting pot of culture has meant that multiculturalism has come under attack from both right and left, with many social conservatives arguing that assertive activism by minority groups, while perhaps necessary in the past, now often just contributes to social divisiveness.

This is only one – albeit central – aspect of the ongoing maelstrom of political debate on this issue. I wish, however, to focus on a more finely finessed issue, which for many people whose values are derived from a religious or spiritual perspective lies at the centre of the discussion.

Thus I want to put forward a more radical view of the relationship between majority and minority groups. An interpretation of multiculturalism based on this will, I believe, resonate strongly with many from minority groups who have grappled with these issues in their working lives and is based on our experience of what it is like to be the “other.”

In my own case, I remember my first interview for a teaching position in the 1990’s. The interviewers were rightly concerned to ascertain how I would approach “equality and diversity” in the classroom. Although ignorant at that time of any of the theoretical or historical background to these issues, my instinctual response was to say that I would draw on my own background as a Jew in considering what it would be like to be different from the majority in the classroom.

Later experience, however, showed me that many very well-intentioned people who are, from their education and training, ideologically welded to the concepts of equality and diversity in fact have no real sense of what it might be like to be that “other.”

The overwhelming majority of the population (here in Britain as in the United States) is from a white background, and as large if not larger a percentage of people working in middle class white collar roles in both the private and public sector have no personal experience of what it is like to be from a minority group. The reality of this is something I have experienced many times in my work in higher education, but was brought graphically home to me in the following incident that occurred where I held a position some years ago.

A colleague, whose surface commitment (and no doubt inward sincerity) toward “tackling injustice” and “equality and diversity” could not be faulted, took to loudly pointing out at meetings that “I suppose you can’t eat anything here then.” As a religious Jew, dietary requirements meant that I rarely could eat the cakes and biscuits routinely brought out at meetings.

Yet – and again I should stress that this was wholly without malice on their part – my colleagues had no idea that it might be embarrassing for me to have this point referred to in public, especially as it was clear that for whatever reason none of them had considered doing anything about it (for example, by looking into the possibility of ordering of an alternative).

To my mind, it seemed my colleagues not only failed to have any conception of what it was like to that different from the group, they had simply no idea of what it could mean to hold to a meaningful cultural symbol in that way. This last point is crucial. It’s not that white middle class people don’t have cultural symbols – of course they do – but that as majority symbols they are an implicit aspect of their thinking. In fact, and this lies at the heart of my critique of multiculturalism, it’s only because white Anglo-Saxon cultural symbols are so deeply imbedded in our society that both multicultural and anti-racist attacks on them can be tolerated.


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