Ellis Cashmore Review Article: The Chimera of Multiculturalism: Diversity and the Media
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/7/1/cashmore.html>

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Received: 28/5/2002      Accepted: 31/5/2002      Published: 31/5/2002

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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
0742508838 (pb)
x + 354

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Ethnic Minorities and the Media

Simon Cottle
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
0335205208 (pb)
ix+ 124

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Representing Black Britain; Black and Asian Images on Television

Sarita Malik
Sage Publications: London
0761970282 (pb)
xi + 201

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Black Marks: Minority Ethnic Audiences and Media

Karen Ross and Peter Playdon (editors)
Ashgate: Aldershot
0754614255 (hb)
xx + 217

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Bending Ethnicity

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 remission.

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.

Sedimented contempt

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 (p. 329).

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. Nave 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 characteristics."

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 today.

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 television.

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

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 global media.

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" (pp. 109-10).

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. e.cashmore@staffs.ac.uk

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