Genealogies of British Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism research
Tracing strategies of difference management

Are you for or against multiculturalism? Policy debates compel us to either rehabilitation of the practice or point us to other models which can best govern the heterogeneity of cultural and religious diversity. Critical approaches to ‘multiculturalism’ have been less sanguine about the productiveness of the question. Some have found it to be a way of commodifying cultural difference and securing an unreconstructed liberalism behind a veneer of recognition. Others have argued the ‘failure’ narrative is a way of legitimating new forms of racism which claim the banner of anti-racism and equality.

While these debates have been productive for envisaging more nuanced relationships between certain conceptions of multiculturalism and citizenship there has been little investigation into why multiculturalism in Britain has taken the form it has. Its history appears a closed and uninteresting case. This project questions the historical location of the problems British multiculturalism addresses from both its supposed roots in 1980s and its apparent philosophical basis in both dominant narrative of liberalism and romanticism. It points to four moments in British/colonial history where different valences of otherness became a problem of government:

 1. Toleration with comprehension as a state practice of domination in Restoration England and colonial Carolina.

2. Tradition and orientalism as a means of critiquing the oriental despotism thesis of Warren Hastings during his impeachment.

3. Representation and authenticity as a means to claim British subjecthood, thereby defining ones imperial citizenship and right to exclude others in post-abolition Mauritius.

4. Defining others as citizens ‘after Windrush’.

The purpose of this endeavour is clearly not to satisfy ones historical curiosity about the origins of British multiculturalism or colonial history. Instead, through these moments I exemplify several models of what counts as political subjectivity intertwines with overlapping and shifting conceptions of difference (religious, racial, cultural etc). I argue that multiculturalism bears traces and reconfigurations of these practices, enabling and curtailing possibilities to move beyond myopic and exclusionary visions of what is recognized as a political act.

Are you for or against multiculturalism? Instead of asking whether we support or condemn multiculturalism, whether it enables new forms of racism to thrive or prevents racism, this project aims to confront the issues which underlie dominant and critical perspectives on multiculturalism. What types of political subjectivities are imaginable if we speak with or against multiculturalism? What is foreclosed, and what does this tell us about thinking the limits, and thinking beyond the limits of political subjectivity?


Multiculturalism research
Poster - Genealogies of British Multiculturalism (PDF document)105.85 KB

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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