Race, Culture, and Leftists

What follows is a paper for presentation at the Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, to be held in June 2006. It is fairly schematic. I have fleshed out the ideas with examples in other online work (see this essay and this interview). The aim here was to present the main ideas to a leftist, activist audience, advance the ideas somewhat, and seek feedback. I’m hoping for feedback from those who attend the sesions. But I hope to get more feedback in the ZNet wiki, in the discussion pages…

My presentation is motivated by what I believe is a weakness across the political spectrum: handling the interaction of different cultures and identities in accordance with principles of equality, solidarity, and liberty. My optimistic belief is that if we â€" leftists – can get this right, in our own communities and organizations such as they are, then we can solve some of the debilitating problems within our organizations and communities. If we can do that, we will be more attractive, bigger, stronger, and better able to face the battles we will need to fight in future.


I am obliged to start with some definitions. I am going to define a few very commonly used terms. In my definitions I am going to stick fairly closely to what I think people mean when they use these terms, but I am going to select meanings in order to make it easier for me to make my points.

I define a community as a group of people who share something in common. Who is in or out of the community is determined by the community and by those outside it. The Black community, for example, is not one based solely on self-identification. Who is Black has been defined, historically, by whites, not blacks. The journalistic or scientific ‘community’, a very different kind of community, is not defined from the outside â€" or is defined from the outside to a much lesser extent.

Identity is most simply membership in a community or group. Like the boundaries of community, identification happens in two ways. One’s own consciousness is important. But so too is that of the group â€" in many cases, membership in a group is contingent upon the group’s acceptance. And also, identity can be imposed from the outside â€" by states who confer ‘status’ or ‘non-status’ identity on their subjects.

I am going to define culture differently from anthropologists. To anthropologists culture is everything that is not defined by biology. But I will define culture as the shared language â€" not only language, but nonverbal cues, assumptions, norms, customs â€" that enable members of a group to communicate internally and to strengthen the identification of individuals with the community. But the capacity to communicate is moderated through cultural institutions â€" media, educational, religious… indeed every institution has a cultural element, which is the reason for phrases like ‘working class culture’.

Race is just a particular kind of group identity, correlated with continent of origin and physical features like skin colour. In North America ‘racial’ identifications are basically: Asian (sometimes divided into East, West, South), Indigenous, Latin@, Black, and white. Ethnicity is a more nuanced understanding of the concept, relying on country or language of origin.

Next is racism. Leftists used to have some control over the definition of this word, but I believe we have lost it, and this has led to some of our problems. Common usage of the word racism is that racism is bigotry, prejudice, resort to stereotypes. In this common usage, Blacks can be just as ‘racist’ as whites. Another idea is that racism is simply the irrational hatred of Black people. In this usage, ‘racism’ is reserved for anti-Black prejudice, and differentiated from anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and hatred against other groups. This usage leads to the idea of ‘reverse racism’, which in common usage is discrimination against whites and is usually suggested as an argument against affirmative action programs.

Leftist usage of the word racism is different from common usage. In leftist usage, racism is either a system of power that one group (whites) holds over others, or any individual or institutional behaviour or pattern that reinforces this system of power. I believe this is a useful definition â€" indeed the most useful â€" but because of its limitations, it has been mostly rejected in favor of the common usage. I will discuss these limitations in a minute â€" first I will dispense with the definitions.

Multiculturalism is a proposed solution to racism. In a multicultural framework, all cultures are respected and indeed, all cultures are equal. Groups are free to express their cultural preferences and dominant groups are to have special respect for minority groups. Tolerance and diversity are the order of the day. Cross-cultural understandings are sought. Multiculturalism posed as the counter to the common-usage form of racism.

Multiculturalism is not, however, a solution to racism as leftists refer to it. Indeed, if a system of power is still in place, multicultural ideals of respect, tolerance, and diversity can then be used as arguments against mobilization aimed at identifying or redressing power imbalances (as divisive or intolerant). Ideas of fairness and equality developed as an antidote to bigotry become arguments against affirmative action. It is official policy in Canada, and it plays out in perverse ways: it is a table built on dispossession at which the gatekeepers of the different communities compete for resources based on their ability to convince the others that they ‘represent’ their communities. The result is that the dominant group, presumed to have no ‘culture’ (having to settle for wealth and power instead) gets to wield strict fairness and equality arguments against these ‘cultures’, who sound like they want ‘special rights’.

At the same time, leftists helped develop multicultural analysis and the multicultural ideal. That it has become mainstream speaks to its basis in good values (fairness, equality, diversity). That it is used as a weapon against oppressed constituencies speaks to its limitations.

Limitations of Multiculturalism by Leftists

The limitations of the leftist definition of racism are related to the limitations of multiculturalism. Both are highlighted by the proposed solutions to the problem. If we are against power differentials between groups, do we eliminate the differentials but preserve the groups? Or do we eliminate the groups?

If we want to preserve the groups neatly and separately, we have a separatist solution.

If we want to eliminate the groups, we are after assimilation.

But both such solutions â€" and in its crudest form multiculturalism is a separatist solution, albeit with an injunction to ‘tolerance’ between the separate groups â€" are solutions based on cultural homogeneity. They are based on a flawed idea that people live their lives as members of a single group or a single identity.

The flaw and its application in multiculturalism is described by Vijay Prashad in his book ‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting’:

â€Å"Are cultures discrete and bounded? Do cultures have a history or are they static? Who defines the boundaries of culture or allows for change? Do cultures leak into each other? … To respect the fetish of culture assumes that one wants to enshrine it in the museum of humankind rather than find within it the potential for liberation or for change. Weâ€â„¢d have to accept homophobia and sexism, class cruelty and racism, all in the service of being respectful to someoneâ€â„¢s perverse definition of culture.â€

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