Ellis Cashmore Review Article: The Chimera of
Multiculturalism: Diversity and the Media
Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1,
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Global Multiculturalism: Comparative Perspectives on
Ethnicity, Race and Nation
Grant H Cornwell and Eve Walsh Stoddard (Editors)
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham, MD
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and the Media
Open University Press: Buckingham
0335202705 (pb); 0335202713 (hb)
£14.99 (pb); £50.00 (hb)
xii + 251
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C W Watson
Open University Press: Buckingham
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Black Britain; Black and Asian Images on Television
Sage Publications: London
xi + 201
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Minority Ethnic Audiences and Media
Karen Ross and Peter Playdon (editors)
xx + 217
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- There is a locker room scene in Gurinder Chadha's
film Bend it like Beckham in which the leading character, Jess explains to a fellow footballer
the varieties of and proscriptions attached to arranged marriages. Jess's sister enthuses at the prospect of
her own marriage, while Jess is indifferent, though reluctant to oppose her Indian parents. Her
incredulous teammate is African Caribbean and dismays as she hears how a white partner would be
unacceptable, but a black partner would be absolutely forbidden. "I don't know how you stand it," her
friend submits. Jess shrugs it off. "It's just your culture," she explains, masking the multiple conflicts
she attempts to manage throughout the film.
- In Jess, the film presents a kind of walking
affidavit: living proof of the torments of multiculturalism. Born in Hounslow, near Heathrow airport,
she spurns the future mapped out for her by her traditional Sikh parents. While her sister's ambitions
extend no further than a happy marriage and her own family, Jess has hopes of being a professional
footballer. Her parents oppose her even playing football, let alone earning a living from it. While her
parents suspect she may be a lesbian, she falls for her team's coach, who suggests that, as an Irishman,
he can empathise with her experiences of discrimination. Ordinarily composed, she reacts violently
during a game when a rival calls her a "paki" and gets a red card.
- Shots of planes jetting in and out of Heathrow
symbolise Jess's shuttling between the various cultural stations of her life, all the time trying to satisfy
the competing mandates, never completely accommodating any of them. Her truest friend contrives to
be more compromised than she is: a closet gay Asian male, who entrusts only Jess with his secret.
- Jess is a far cry from the "between two cultures"
archetype: she flits between the conflicting expectations, even demands, of several assemblies of
people, responding chameleon-like in her efforts to coalesce. Her only solace is an oracular poster of
David Beckham on her bedroom ceiling to which she pours out her anguish and in which finds
- The film ends with a resolution of sorts. Her
father, once an avid cricketer who was kicked out of a cricket club years before and vowed never to
play the sport again, allows her to sneak from her sister's wedding ceremony to play and important
football game. Jess impresses a US scout who offers her and her white friend, Jules, sports scholarships
in California. Her family succumbs and sees her off at the airport. She is emboldened to snog her
Irishman in full view of her parents. And the audience is left with the impression that all's well in
multicultural Britain. It is, of course, a film; a drama, rather than documentary. Multicultural societies
throw up many different kinds of tensions. If only they were all as soluble as Jess's.
- Few could have predicted the intractability of
multiculturalism's discontents when the Macpherson report's conclusions on the Stephen Lawrence
investigation were published in Britain in 1999. Heads were bowed in shame, hands raised in
confession and faces set like flint against the institutional racism exposed by the report. Public and
private corporations fell over themselves in the rush to conquer the racism that had slipped through the
interstices of their equal opportunities policies. The Metropolitan and other police forces commissioned
research and reduced the number of stops and searches. Renewed efforts to recruit more ethnic
minority officers and beef up "valuing cultural diversity" training followed. A cleansing wave of
liberalism seemed to rise. "Lawrence will not be forgotten like the Scarman report (of 1981)," we were
promised. Ethnic relations in Britain would never be the same.
- Then, the wave seemed to break and the liberal
sentiments, like droplets of sea, were sprinkled. Urban unrest in Burnley, Oldham and other northern
towns signaled a reversal to earlier times. The British National Party (BNP), buoyed by its quiet
success amid the liberal climate of the post-Lawrence period, marched defiantly in dense ethnic
minority areas, prompting locals to protest, not only against the party but the police (for allowing the
marches). By Spring 2002, the far right British National Party had begun to convert its street presence
into tangible electoral success, giving rise to fears of a surge in popularity for the far right, as in France.
- And, of course, there was September 11: in the
aftermath of the attack, there was an awakening of feelings and action known, perhaps misleadingly, as
"Islamophobia." This was not an aversion to or fear of all Muslims, but a less coherent, knee-jerk
reaction to the World Trade Center's destruction. Anyone, indeed, anything bearing resemblance to or
having purported connections with Islam, no matter how spurious, was targeted by racists. As the
"Islamophobes" took their bogus vengeance, the suspicion was confirmed: the liberal hour had passed.
- The multiculturalism Britain had pushed so
prodigiously following the Lawrence inquiry was as distant and as seemingly unachievable as ever.
But, worse: simple-minded explanations that identified racism as a cause, and every other problem as
an effect, were ineffectual. A small but vigorous British equivalent of a "black bourgeoisie" emerged,
many business leaders being women. Black-on-black crime proliferated; groups hitherto called
"Asians" rejected the term, aligning themselves with their religion rather than their parents' or
grandparents' country of origin. Patterns of educational underachievement revealed starkness: African
Caribbeans and Bangladeshis continued to stall, while other groups of Asian descent made progress.
The picture was further complicated by Muslim groups who pushed for their own faith schools. Three
years after Lawrence, the police's campaign for more ethnic minority candidates yielded few results;
even forces that managed to boost recruitment discovered that the attrition rate went up
correspondingly. In other words, black and Asian recruits, having experienced life in the force, soon
left, usually disillusioned.
- Britain was, almost by definition, a
multicultural society. Its diversity of language, custom, faith, cuisine made it so. Yet, it had not, indeed,
does not embrace the ethos, the mentality, the invocation to action known as multiculturalism. It does
not value cultural diversity. In fact, it appears to denounce and reject it, at one stage suggesting a sort of
citizenry pledge designed to elicit a primary commitment to Britain from anyone whose allegiances
might be ambiguous. This is a society struggling with the demands of a variegated population and a
tradition based, perhaps imperfectly, on cultural homogeneity and the superiority born out of centuries
of imperial rule. The old apothegm about saris and samosas seemed inane in the twenty-first century:
multiculturalism was not about clasping the acceptable parts of minority cultures or even encouraging a
tolerance of the not-quite-so-acceptable parts.
- There have been violent disagreements and even
impasses within ethnic minority populations around a cluster of issues. These coexisted with a
lingering racism and a rigidly hard right that was always ready to exploit it. New Labour's third way
and its programme of inclusion were transparently rhetorical and carried no implications for practical
action. In fact, its response to calls for exclusive schools was capitulatory.
- Depending on how you define it, multiculturalism
is either a description of the present state of affairs, or a chimera. If it is the former, it describes a
society in which several different cultures coexist, not necessarily peaceably, though without one
obliterating all others. If it is the latter, then it is a society of hybrid character, perhaps a fanciful
construction, in which distinct cultures share some features whilst preserving their own unique
properties and, crucially, believe their being is enriched by the presence of the others. In this
conception, multiculturalism incorporates a credo and a prescription for action. This is a more
extravagant conception than the former, though even that involves problems. What, for example,
constitutes a culture? "A common language, a shared history, a shared set of religious beliefs and moral
values, and a shared geographical origin, all of which taken together define a sense of belonging to a
specific group," according to C. W. Watson in his short, but estimable Multiculturalism.
- Watson, an anthropologist, is clearly vexed by the
vague and often downright lazy uses of the term multiculturalism. His essay aims at conceptual clarity
and precision. The popularity of multiculturalism (for the moment, at least) is because of its
associations with egalitarianism and positive self-evaluation. Implicit in the concept is that individuals'
senses of self worth are wrapped up in their cultural identities; as such, they recognise, or at least
should recognise, that others' cultural affiliations are as precious as their own.
- In recent years, there has been a shift towards a
near-universal endorsement of multiculturalism (in the sense of being a credo), though, of course,
several nations have rejected this, believing appeals for cultural equality to threaten their precarious
unity. The volume edited by Grant Cornwell and Eve Walsh Stoddard bears the title Global
Multiculturalism and is full of essays on the tensions involved in reconciling demands for cultural
uniqueness with official government policies. Even in nations like Canada, which champions an
official policy of multiculturalism, "the structural organization of power in the cultural and political
landscape" has remained unchanged, according to contributors Louis Dupont and Nathalie Lemarchand
- Watson argues that multiculturalism is less a
description of reality, more a "heuristic concept to be tested against the reality of situations in different
countries with an appropriate openness to the contrasting accounts of individuals and groups on what
they seek from government and society" (p. 26). His own work on Malaysia complements the various
accounts in Cornwell and Stoddard's collection. Naïve proponents of multiculturalism should prepare to
be disavowed of their ideas: the studies highlight the invariably conflictual progress towards, or
sometimes away from, multicultural states. There can be no blueprint for achieving multiculturalism,
though Watson identifies two issues that always need to be addressed.
- First: what is multiculturalism for? It is a
widespread presumption that multiculturalism is desirable. If a government is prepared to intervene in
hastening its arrival, does it do so because it regards cultural diversity and difference as simply good in
and of themselves? Or, because it wishes to protect the interests of minorities which are in danger of
being subordinated to dominant populations? In other words, the motive behind multicultural initiatives
should be explored.
- Second: what should governments do to promote
multicultural states? Minimal interference is one option, simply providing facilities for the
development of particular cultures. Others include much more invasive methods: affirmative action, or
positive discrimination, legislation and forms of social engineering. The method chosen will reflect the
conception of multiculturalism preferred.
- In his chapter "Multiculturalism in historical
perspective," Watson introduces the term "sedimented contempt" to describe how western films and
print media in the second half of the twentieth century imagined the non-European other "as alien and
alternately threatening or ridiculous." The various media elaborated on basic racist stereotypes to
purvey conceptions of others (Watson eschews the capital "O") not always as degenerate, but usually
as, in some (usually profound) way different. This had the cumulative effect of "distancing the
European from the non-European." While he does not probe the importance of representation in either
retarding or advancing multiculturalism, Watson suggests how popular sentiment was and, indeed, still
is enormously influenced by the media.
- The role of the media in representing and thus
fomenting particular forms of multiculturalism is clearly of vital importance. How cultures are
depicted, in a genuine way, shapes how they are. Some treatments approach culture in all of its diverse
forms as having some eternal nature, a core or substance that is impervious to change. These have
become popular targets, though ones that have the ontological status of phantoms: who seriously
espouses cultural essentialism today?
- Watson censures the failure of some writers to
visualise culture, ethnicity, religion and, we might add, other constituents that contribute to our sense of
self worth, as processes rather than persistent, unchanging articles and a "finite set of essential
- A meaningful multicultural policy should sever
the links between culture and nations, or ethnic minorities, or even religious believers. These are
constraining and ultimately destructive. Instead, it should examine "the changing ways in which the
expression of identity responds to newly available local and global opportunities and how contained
within those responses is an ongoing negotiation of collective and individual responsibilities which
need to be configured less on a national than on a global or transnational scale" (p. 110).
The media's "unified diversity"
- Simon Cottle does not like the term
multiculturalism at all. "When 'multicultural' is converted into an 'ism' - 'multiculturalism' - as it so
often is today, this tends to flatten thinking about cultural heterogeneity and glosses over the
differentials of power and historical privilege embedded in the institutions, practices and thinking of
'multicultural' societies," he writes in the introductory essay to his edited collection, Ethnic
Minorities and the Media.
- As the title suggests, the collection focuses on how
the media perform a key role in the public representation of groups designated ethnic minorities. As
Cottle writes: "It is in and through representations, for example, that members of the media audience
are variously invited to construct a sense of who 'we' are in relation to who 'we' are not, whether as 'us'
and 'them, 'insider' and 'outsider', 'colonizer' and 'colonized', 'citizen' and 'foreigner' ... By such means,
the social interests mobilized across society are marked out from each other, differentiated and often
rendered vulnerable to discrimination" (p. 2).
- Equally, the media can also affirm and,
presumably, valorise the diversity encouraged by multicultural society and provide spaces in and
through which imposed (and, we assume, essential) identities can be challenged and changed.
- Much of the criticism in this title and, indeed, in
the arguments of Sarita Malik's Representing Black Britain and Karen Ross and Peter Playdon's
Black Marks, centres on the media's own version of essentialism. "Disparate and diverse voices,
interests, views, identifications and practices dissolve into a formless mass of stereotypical essences;
this is what Caribbean people are like, this is what Asian people do," writes Ross in her contribution to
Cottle's collection (p. 145). It is a familiar claim, though perhaps one that owes more to the 1990s than
- Malik, for instance, provides examples of films
and television programmes that "visually rework official race narratives and thus manage to keep the
representation open, allowing more than one way of visualizing 'Blackness', 'Asianness' and for that
matter, Britishness" (p. 180). Among her illustrations is Bhaji on the Beach, director Gurinder
Chadha's 1995 movie. We assume she would also include Chadha's latest venture, which, as we have
seen, defies what Malik calls "multicultural conventionalism" - "a unified cultural diversity" in which
different ethnic groups separate easily and perfectly, yet still fit into the social whole. Amid the
segmentation, there is contradiction and confusion as well as symmetry and confluence.
- Malik's book, an outgrowth of her doctoral thesis,
chronicles racism and ethnic relations in Britain through television. She traces the often clumsy and
sometimes downright racist attempts of television to represent Britain's changing cultural landscape.
"Television's 'misfiring' or lagging response to 'lived' popular cultures is partly a result of its typical
White, middle-class personnel, but also because of the medium's lengthy and sluggish process and its
ongoing submission to the print media's green light as to what is 'cutting edge'" (p. 119).
- One of Malik's themes is that a coded racism that
depicts black women as animalistic and black men as violent and sexually rapacious still exists, and
traditional associations between blackness and primitivism have continued into contemporary
- The media is especially important as a purveyor of
multiculturalism. As Ross states: "[Even] if the media do not tell us what to think, they set the
agenda on what we should think about. If the media, and television in particular, think of
themselves as presenting a window on the world and reflecting reality, we have to ask, whose world?
Whose reality? Whose truth?" (p. 14). The quote is from her chapter in the Ross and Playdon volume
and derives from her research on how ethnic minority audiences interpret programmes and how their
interpretations affect them. Other chapters in this volume suggest that comparable conclusions may be
reached from around the world. Minorities are marginalised, stereotyped or completely excluded by the
media in places like Norway, South Africa and Turkey.
Transnational identities in flux
Copyright Sociological Research
- A theme that recurs in this and the other titles
reviewed here is that of diaspora. The more conventional understanding of a diaspora is that of people
scattered throughout the world as a result of forced or voluntary migration (capture, starvation,
economic necessity, the threat of genocide etc.); in short, people living in states other than their
ancestral homeland. Another conception is that of indigenous people, perhaps in a numerical majority,
but splintered into multiple cultures, or "nations," by conquest and subjugation. To one degree or
another, all the titles under review argue that the diaspora has re-emerged (it is as old as Hebrew
scriptures, of course) as an important instrument in fashioning multiculturalism.
- "The value of diaspora as a model is that it relates
widely dispersed persons to each other as an 'imagined community' and to a 'homeland'," write
Cornwell and Stoddard, alluding to Benedict Anderson's concept (Imagined Communities:
Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, 1991), which features in all of the
reviewed texts. Anderson's argument is that nation-ness is a relatively recent form of consciousness,
driven by "changing apprehensions of space." The nexuses that connect people are not as apparent as in
recent history: attachments are increasingly transnational, thus introducing a more critical role for the
- Given the connection between culture and identity,
the diaspora that have criss-crossed have created conditions under which cultural hybridity (and hence
hybridisation of identity) has occurred. The media can both fragment and unite dispersed peoples who
may feel united in some senses, unrelated in others. "A diasporan (for example, an African, Caribbean
or Asian person living in Britain) has multiple ideological (though not necessarily physical)
connection-points," Malik observes (p. 30), stressing syncretism over integration, fluidity over fixity,
differentiation over difference.
- Perhaps this helps explain the improbable success
of Ali G., who defies all attempts to categorise him ethnically. Malik, who applauds his
"reconfiguration of the proverbial 'negative Black stereotype'," believes the ambiguity "at the heart of
this cultural phenomenon" revolves around whether he is a white man deliberately, hopelessly and
inauthentically mocking a black person, a white comedian doing an impersonation of a white youth
who thinks he is black, or a white comedian ridiculing an Asian youth who thinks he is black. We
could add several other possible interpretations. The point is: there is no single right interpretation. The
popular commercial success of Ali G. is due in no small part to the doubts he provokes. He is a
ludicrous and uncertain hybrid who manipulates, and allows himself to be manipulated. He makes both
black and white audiences feel uncomfortable, probably in equal measures.
- Like the character presented in Bend it like
Beckham, though in a grotesquely comic way, Ali G. moves among many cultural stations, picking
up identity cues as he goes, dispensing them through his language, dress and absurd homilies. Chadha's
character Jess acquiesces to her ancestral culture, deviates from it, then turns back, before twisting once
more - as the film's title implies, she continually "bends" her identity, or identities, shifting as she goes.
Her principal identity markers, British, Asian and woman, are all subject to continuous negotiation.
- The challenge to contemporary multiculturalism is
how to reflect and incorporate such protean forms of ethnicity and whiteness. The days when
integration was the watchword are gone: the phrase assumed there were segments or portions of society
to be integrated. Recognising and communicating differences and staking out distinctiveness carries no
necessary injunction to accept the staple categories of yore: black, Asian etc. The media's task is to
make difference visible without signposting it as "ethnic." As Ross writes: "There is an aching desire
for minority ethnic characters to be created and given storylines which recognise their humanity, not
simply their 'blackness' and difference to white people" (p. 13).
- The media in general, and television in particular,
occupy a central position in all of our lives: everyone accepts their cultural power. Study after study has
complained of their inadequacy in representing the full cultural diversity of British society. For
decades, we have consumed what Malik calls "reductionist images of Blackness." The new challenge is
not necessarily to add new dimensions to those images, but to consider ways of representation that
adequately convey a sense of flow, of movement. "Ethnic character," as Roza Tsagarousianou calls it,
should be treated as "a process, unfolding continuously and intersecting with other experiences
and identifications." She adds: "One can discern various and distinct experiences relating to class,
gender and age that are constantly in flux" (p. 21 in Ross and Playdon).
- Perhaps the time has come to resist isolating
subjects in segmented portions that bear little resemblance to the currents and courses of multicultural
society. The endless variation and shifting that characterises today's ethnicity presents an near-
amorphous gathering and scattering of peoples, their affiliations and commitments diversifying more
quickly than any medium can hope to catch.
- If even the concept of multiculturalism is to be
valuable, we must, as Watson suggests, "abandon those misleading associations of the word 'culture'
with nations or ethnic groups or religious believers." Instead, we should accept, address and engage
with how "the expression of identity responds to newly available local and global opportunities and
how contained within those responses is an ongoing negotiation of collective and individual
responsibilities which need to be configured less on a national than on a global or transnational scale"
- This requires a sensitivity to difference, an
openness to change, a longing for equality and, as Watson concludes, "an ability to recognize our
familiar selves in the strangeness of others." If the evidence of the titles under review is accepted, the
media faces a special problem in trying to accommodate this amid a culture that ostensibly affirms
tolerance of "strangeness" while harbouring an implicit fear of diversity itself. This "fear," as Charles
Husband argues, "justifies a widely held consensus that there is a natural threshold of tolerance beyond
which 'reasonable' people cannot be expected to go" (p. 206 in Cottle). That threshold can be either
maintained, adjusted or perhaps even dismantled by the media.
Ellis Cashmore is Professor of Culture, Media and Sport at Staffordshire University, UK,
and author of The Black Culture Industry and ...and there was television. firstname.lastname@example.org