British Multiculturalism

By Mark Trodden | October 17, 2008 8:10 pm

The Guardian has carried out a quite fascinating project. They have identified children raised in Britain, but originating from almost every country in the entire United Nations’ list (omitted were San Marino, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Naura, Paulu, the Central African Republic and North Korea), photographed them, taken their stories, and posted them on the Guardian web site.

It is remarkable to me to see such a collection of children, from every corner of the planet, gathered in my home country; a tiny island off the coast of mainland Europe. Their personal tales are intriguing – some heartwarming, others heartbreaking – and provide a sampling of some of the world’s recent history.

  • Jim Harrison

    I get something like the same feeling from reading the names of the authors of one of those great big papers published in SCIENCE or Nature. Science is remarkably multicultural and has been for some time now.

  • Sili

    There are kids in the Vatican? Poor things.

  • B

    That’s lovely, thanks for the link :-)

  • foo

    In Papua New Guinea people look Muslim. I’m a Christian.

    In India they have brown skin and in England they have white skin. English people speak English and Indian people speak Indian.

    I am proud to be Russian because Russia is the biggest country. If not for Russia, all of Europe and Asia would be German now, because Russia made Germany go away.

    It’s so heartwarming to see religious bigotry, color-consciousness, and ultranationalism being passed on to future generations. Apparently multiculturalism now means “Live together with all these other people so that you can take opportunities to show how your skin color and religion and nationality are different from theirs.”

  • Xenophage

    You’ve never lived in Brooklyn, NY.

  • Blake

    If there is anyone who is British here, could you please say what you believe the term “multiculturalism” means? Don’t look it up, just give us your common definition. I’ve come to suspect over the last few years that the term means two very different things to us here in the US and those in the UK. In the US, in the most common and most neutral sense, it means simply the state of a large number of ethnically diverse people living in a certain area. There are an infinite number of opinions about that fact of course, but the term itself is relatively uncontroversial here.

  • Gareth Rees

    “Multiculturalism” in British politics refers to government policies which support people in the exercise of their own culture (or at least which don’t interfere in it) as opposed to “assimilationism” (this term is much less heard) in which government encourages or coerces people to adopt British norms of culture and behaviour.

    For example, the Education Reform Act 1988 requires that state-funded schools have a daily “act of collective worship” “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. This is an assimilationist policy. A multiculturalist education policy would allow schools (or perhaps local authorities) to choose whether or not to have a daily act of worship, and if so, of what kind of religious character.

  • Mark

    I’m British Blake, and the definition you gave is the one that was in my mind when writing the post.

  • spyder

    I love this Mark, thank you for sharing it. Wow, passion and pathos mixed with so many young minds.

    As for “multiculturalism” in the US, i would propose that the term is heavily politically-charged in various parts of the continent (predominantly the western parts of Canada and US). To many, it is a synonym for government policies that lead to: bilingual education, legal and illegal immigration, multiple languages on public signs and ballots, cultural celebrations (read non-Chrisitan religions) that do not invoke US patriotism, and so forth. Spouted from the mouths of right-winger talk radio, the term is derisive and quite literally dripping with hatred and bigotry. There continue to be movements within the academe to squelch multiculturalism in curricula and in individual classrooms.

  • foo

    This comment was written a few minutes at a time over several hours, so it may appear disjointed.

    Full disclosure: I’m Indian-American. I grew up in India, and I live in the US. I’ve seen pluralism that works, and I’ve seen pluralism that stinks. Broadly, it works well when done bottom up, by letting people get familiar with their neighbors on their own and learning new geography. It fails when someone forces it top down, by making people deal with new cultures whether they’re ready or not and whether they’re good at it or not.

    From an American perspective, British multiculturalism is a ghastly mess. It’s torn between right-wing xenophobes, who want to basically kick all the foreigners out, and left-wing representation fetishists, who want to parade non-whites everywhere under a misguided notion of racial or cultural equality. Two examples:

    A high-visibility blunder a few years back was the decision by BBC management to introduce the South Asian Ferreira family on the soap EastEnders, because someone decided that more South Asians need to be shown on TV. The Ferreiras were supposed to be Goan Catholics, and one character was given a Muslim name while his sibling was given a Hindu name! The people responsible for the decision had no idea of the difference – they just wanted brown folks on TV, without doing any research into the characters or putting any effort into the storyline. Unsurprisingly, the characters were dismissed by most British Asians as a botched attempt at a condescending token presence, and by everyone else as being boring characters who had been imposed by bureaucrats instead of writers.

    Earlier this year, some British school administrators decided to ban story books about pigs, such as “The Three Little Pigs”, from the classroom, out of fear of causing offense to Muslim students. All they did (other than to demonstrate that they had copious supplies of crack) was to play into the hands of the right-wing rabble-rousers. It infuriated both moderate Muslims (who deplored that such decisions prevent full equality by expecting that Muslims need to be shielded from fairy tale pigs), and also hardline Muslim clerics (who were angry that the administrators equated eating pigs with listening to pig stories).

    The difference between the US and the UK is this: Imagine a foreign-looking person from country X. In the US, a racist will yell “Go back to Y!”, while in the UK, a multiculturalist will greet “Welcome to the UK, person from Y!”, for some value of Y spectacularly unrelated to X.

    From an Indian (or South Asian perspective), it seems far more straightforward to deal with British xenophobes than with British multiculturalists. At least skinheads are forthright and have integrity when expressing their opinions, while multiculturalists accidentally stab you in the back when attempting to roll out a red carpet.

  • Nom De Guerre

    Earlier this year, some British school administrators decided to ban story books about pigs, such as “The Three Little Pigs”, from the classroom, out of fear of causing offense to Muslim students.

    I hope it’s OK posting a comment many days after a post was put up, but I work for the organisation whose actions gave rise this story, and you are making a mistake, though I doubt you mean to.

    My organisation, Becta, offers annual awards for excellence in software product design. Unfortunately, not everyone who enters can win. The product with the story of the Three Little Pigs in it was judged by a panel, and failed to win the award. One of the judges said among other criticisms ‘and this story might offend Muslims’. In my opinion she was in error to do this, but in any case it was not a decisive issue in rejecting the product, which was of good quality but not the best that year.

    That uninteresting bit of trivia has mutated via Chinese whispers into ‘British school administrators ban stories about pigs’. The process by which this mutation happens, and the way the exaggeration drives out the boring truth, is fascinating, and this is one of the few times I have been so close to the process. I hope you will forgive me remaining anonymous.

  • foo

    The Becta story is true, as reported here by the BBC (thanks for pointing it out). However, I’d had this incident in mind, where a Huddersfield school did actually rename “The Three Little Pigs” to “The Three Little Puppies” to prevent causing perceived offense. (Never mind that dogs are not considered particularly clean anyway). I was mistaken in my belief that someone tried to ban the story, but I was right in my recollection of the school being criticized by moderate Muslims, the people ostensibly being shielded from offense. I apologize if I increased the local confusion of the universe.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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