Stoking the multicultural fire

The Times today carries an interview with the new Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, complimented by a leading article. He criticises the concept of ‘multiculturalism’, suggesting that it means a trumpeting of other cultures at the expense of Englishness.
The problem I have with his views, and the way they are reported in The Times, is one of language. The words used to describe the concept of culture are past tense. For example:

… the essential part that Christianity has played in the formation of modern British culture.


England is the culture I have lived in, I have loved…. My teachers were English. As a boy growing up, that is the culture I knew

I don’t think this is a minor quibble. The implication is that English culture (indeed, any culture) is fixed and homogenous for a given set of people, and that by being in and around those people, you become 100% part of it too. In reality, cultures are fluid, changing things. Worrying that a particular culture is being marginalised is a pointless exercise. They are all evolving, and the better parts of what he considers ‘Englishness’, such as parliamentary democracy are hardly on the wane.
What is odd is that Dr Sentamu seems to be the very proof of this positive cultural evolution. He was brought up in Uganda, and has done well bringing his African roots and Ugandan Missionary Christianity to the UK, and to London in particular, where he advised the MacPherson enquiry. It is precisely his dynamic, ‘fire-stoking’ approach, borne out of his alternative background, which has allowed him to contribute so successfully to public life. Dr Sentamu’s very existence corrupts ‘Englishness’, and the English are the better for it.
I am in agreement with him on ‘tolerance’:

It seems to me the word tolerance is bad, because it just means “putting up with it” … I was raised in the spirit of magnanimity. That is a better word than tolerance. If you are magnanimous in your judgements on other people, there is a chance that I will recognise that you will help me in my struggle.

Moving on from simple ‘tolerance’ is at the heart of the multicultural debate. It is not enough that we simply live grumpily side-by-side. If this is what multiculturalism has become (both Trevor Phillips of the CRE and The Times seem to believe this is the case) then Dr Sentamu is right to be critical. But a multiculturalism that runs deeper, and sees the constituent cultures merge into something greater than the sum of their parts, is worth supporting. Christian morality may be a part of what we become, but everyone needs to accept that other parts of their culture will be left behind. Talking of Englishness as something fixed and tangible will not help this come about.

15 Replies to “Stoking the multicultural fire”

  1. I’ve spoken about Morris dancing as museum exhibit Englishness. Unlike fox hunting that has hit a real modern vs traditional crossing point, some things need to be shoved into a historical context to stop them being confused with modern English culture.
    Neutral tolerance isn’t really very serviceable anymore. It breeds misundertsanding and fear, as we’ve seen in the summer months. The quicker you appreciate peoples few standing differences, the quicker you find the large amount of common ground.

  2. Hmmm… I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while…mmm.. wish there was more time in the day 🙁
    Maybe over the weekend…
    I can see what he’s saying but I don’t necessarily agree in his phrase. Has the British drinking culture come from Christianity? the sexual promiscuity?

  3. One thing I didn’t mention is the English/British distinction, which doesn’t seem to figure in the thinking of the article at all. The notions of democracy, and what the Archbishop cites as the positive aspects of The Empire, seem to be the doings of the British, not the English. It is precisely the fact that England is by far the dominant state of the union, that the rules of ‘political correctness’ treat it differently to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Englishness seems to be something like the factory default, with anything or anyone of any note is English, unless mentioned otherwise! Every day is St George’s Day.
    An analogous case would be the way ‘white’ culture is not overtly promoted in the same way that we have, say, a Black History month. Everything else is White English history, so it’s really not necessary! What critics of these kind of policies label ‘political correctness’ I see as a welcome introduction of diversity into the culture.

  4. I always find it baffling when critics of multiculturalism in Britain refer to ‘the Christian roots’ of British (or English) culture. Like Islam, Christianity is a ‘foreign’ import from the Middle East. It must gripe these essentialists that Jesus wasn’t born in York, but in Bethlehem – a Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank whose situation appears to worsen every day thanks to Western financial (and political) support of its ghettoisation behind a massive concrete wall. The real threat to British society is the same as the threat faced by Palestinians every day – the racist inability of the dominating society to perceive others among them as equal.

  5. I don’t think I see why it is baffling. It really doesn’t matter to those people where Christianity came from, but rather its position/role in the history of the country/their lives. Some people don’t like change, that’s all. It frightens them.
    It would only be baffling (as far as I can see) to someone who saw the motives of anti-multiculturalists as being randomly and bafflingly anti-Middle East, just for the sake of it. Personally, I think that’s rather a simplistic way of looking at the issue, even if it is quite understandable. I think the racist element is a symptom rather than a cause of anti-diversity.
    I don’t think it gripes anyone in york that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that’s one fact that gets trotted out proudly every year, you don’t see anyone trying to cover it up or anything, do you, even when people were painting Jesus as a white european.
    It is not because things are from the Middle East that some people object to them (cf ‘the Christian roots’). but because they threaten and undermine people’s feeling of belonging and security in their historically derived (and comfortable?) way of life. When people get defensive, it’s because they’re frightened. If we’re not prepared to try and understand that, then I don’t think we’re going to overcome it terribly well.
    And FWIW, I think the real threat to british society (and to the Palestinians) is domination full stop, regardless of the dominating ones’ abilities. And one thing that makes domination impossible is empathy. It’s a great shame its in such short supply.

  6. Here in York we have lots of Morris dancers, in the summer months they are hard to avoid. We also have 1000 years of recorded history. It is probably as English a city as one could hope to find. But when ‘Dr. John’, as the local press call Dr. Sentamu, introduced African dancers to his inauguration ceremony, it was a signal (imo) that English history hasn’t stopped. I don’t believe that Englishness can be ‘corrupted’, except when it loses sight of its history. And what’s wrong with ‘Museum Exhibit Englishness’? It’s like a cultural gene bank that may come in useful one day.

  7. Interesting post.
    I have to disagree though.
    I think many people confuse multi-culturalism with multi-ethnicity. They are two very different things.
    I don’t believe there is any country that demonstrates the success of multiculturalism.
    On the other hand, multi-ethnicity as derived from the US model, to a large extent works. Everybody subscribes to The American Way. Whether you’re Afro-American, Mexican-American, etc.
    Where you have a dominant culture, it may be influenced by other cultures which are not in conflict with it. It can (and must) not accomodate any culture which has views that are opposed to its success.
    In Nigeria, where we have alot multi-culturalism, some of it caused by the British, some of it pre-existing their arrival.
    It has caused nothing but trouble.
    There are ethnic groups living amongst each other, physically and linguistically indistinguishable, who’ve been fighting for hundreds of years.
    As an African, I think it is important to stress that we view all of the English-speaking Western World as being “English”. This includes Australia, Canada and the US. The Scots, Welsh and Irish are merely “English” regions with their own accents like Mancunians and Liverpudlians.
    You’d be shocked at the number of Africans who think London is in the US!
    I am fairly sure that Dr. Sentamu’s use of the word English is a semantic misnomer. When he talks about “English” culture, he really means the culture of English-speaking west.
    In Yoruba, the word for Englishman is also the same word for White man.
    When Yoruba’s speak English as a 2nd or 3rd language, they frequently refer to white peopole, be they French, Italian, American or Spanish as being “English”.

  8. Is the word something like murungu or muzungu? – I’ve been told that it is pretty much the same all the way down the continent!
    I do mean multi-culture rather than simple ethnicity, although I appreciate there is an overlap. Multiculturalism is a pretty ill-defined term anyway, and edging towards a better definition is half the point of this site!
    Its a very interesting point you raise about the ‘success’ of a culture. Clearly sucess is a subjective thing, as is the evolution of the culture in a ‘positive’ way.

  9. I know “muzungu” is used in Zambia as I first heard it from a Zambian girl.,
    Not sure what ethnic group it originated from.
    Possibly Swahili.
    Most african languages have their own words for white people, Toubab, Dogonyaro, Oyinbo are some that I am aware of.
    None of these are derogatory though.

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