‘These African cultures’


Cultural Diversity?

Paper presented at the Cultural diversity, media and the creative arts symposium, Goethe Institute and Alliance Française, Chester Beatty Library, 16-7 October 2008

“Culture and community are caught in a circular, tautological reasoning… culture is being invoked to solve problems that previously were the province of economics and politics”

George Yúdice, The Expediency of Culture, 2003: 25

Introduction: ‘These African cultures’

In a recent Immigrant Council of Ireland discussion on the challenges of integration in post Celtic Tiger Ireland, Danny McCoy, Director of Policy with IBEC, [1]stressed that migrants were one of the engines of Ireland’s economic boom. Businesses, McCoy said, are interested in migrants as customers, not as workers. Migration has brought about not only a bigger market, but also cultural diversity and segmentation, both fuelling market growth.

It was a reminder, from this sober economist, who cannot be suspected of political correctness or left wing politics, that the term ‘cultural diversity’ has been used and abused, and that culture, as Yúdice writes, is being invoked to solve problems that previously were the province of economics and politics.

I had another reminder of the use and abuse of the term culture at the end of the mesmerising performance by the Isango / Portobello company of an African version of Mozart’s The Magic Flue – Impempe Yolingo last week. A real ode to joy and love, a journey towards self-knowledge, written in 1791 by a dying composer who was struggling to capture the essence of humanity in music, to hold up a mirror to us all, the performance brought the Gaiety audience to its feet. As the audience was cheering, I shared my enthusiasm with The Sunday Independent’s theatre critic. ‘Wasn’t it magnificent?’ ‘Oh yes,’ she replied, smiling broadly, ‘I was just saying to my friend that these African cultures have so much more joy in them than Islam, don’t you think?’ I protested meekly, but went home with a sour taste – here was a major cultural commentator, homogenising ‘these African cultures’, and demonising ‘Islam’ in one fell swoop.

In this paper, I want to unpick the title of the symposium and interrogate the ease with which contemporary Ireland [2] has moved, in a very short time, from the discovery – during the 1997 European Year Against Racism – that racism was indeed an Irish problem, to current euphemisms such as interculturalism, transculturalism, integration and cultural diversity. Euphemisms, the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben reminds us, involve ‘the substitution of a literal expression with an attenuated or altered expression for something that one does not actually want to hear mentioned’ (Agamben, 1991: 31). Agamben said this in relation to the over-use of the term ‘Auschwitz’ as shorthand for genocide and the Holocaust. But, as I argue in this paper, in the current race to diversity, euphemisms abound, erasing political terms such as race and racism, which, at this post-race stage, states and individuals don’t want to hear mentioned.

Mine is a theoretical journey of deconstruction, against the background of the shadowy figures of turbaned and veiled migrants, leading me to ask, not what so-called ‘cultural diversity’ can contribute to Ireland’s contemporary post-optimism racial realities, but – and for me this is a much more important question – how much difference are racial states, dedicated to constructing homogeneities, prepared to tolerate in the race to diversity.

Culture and community: Racism and (Irish) interculturalism

Within the principles of an intercultural approach, An Garda Siochána is not advocating one religious belief over another, nor are we, in any way, being racist. We are attempting to… retain an image of impartiality while providing a State service to all citizens (Supt Kevin O’Donoghue, head of Garda Press and Public relations, McGarry, 2008).

Like theories about race, as Paul Gilroy famously argues in his now canonical article ‘Race ends here’(Gilroy, 1998), theories about culture are implicated in the divided world they strive to explain (Gilroy, 2000: 271). I begin, therefore, by positing the cultural turn in relation to what I suggest is actually racism and racial states. It has become increasingly difficult to speak about racism as modern nation-states declare themselves anti- and post-racist, despite the fact that ever since the Enlightenment, racism has been indelibly linked to state policies. The influence of the UNESCO discourse which, in the 1950s, in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, provided an alternative explanation for human difference by supplanting culture and ethnocentrism for race and racism (A. Lentin, 2004) continues today, as first ‘ethnicity’ and now ‘culture’ become code words for race and racism. As explicit racism has becomes unacceptable, Gilroy argues,

An even blend of those deceptively bland terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture’ has emerged as the main element in the discourse of differentiation that is struggling to supersede the crude appeals to ‘race’… The culturalist approach still runs the risk of naturalizing and normalizing hatred and brutality by presenting them as inevitable consequences of illegitimate attempts to mix and amalgamate primordially incompatible groups (Gilroy, 2000: 27).

Culture, according to Tony Bennett, ‘is figured both as the object and the instrument of government’ and as such is in essence ‘a historically specific set of institutionally embedded relations of government in which the forms of thought and conduct of extended populations are targeted for transformation’ (Bennett, 1992: 26). Likewise, George Yúdice (2003) argues that the horizon of cultural theory and activism is inescapably institutional, though he sees this as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the state withdraws its previous investments in the public sphere, in the shift from welfare state to market state (Kundnani, 2007). Forces such as neoliberalism and globalization mean that communication, transport and capital networks are increasingly transnational, and the institutions producing and managing culture are as likely to be global corporations, private foundations, or international aid agencies as they are states (Beasley-Murray, 2004). On the other hand, however, the cultural turn and the rhetoric of artistic collaboration and community involvement that predominates the discourse about culture in the intercultural age, make visible the social inequalities upheld by US and EU immigration policies, while at the same time also generating cultural capital to fuel bottom-up cultural productions. Culture, Yúdice argues, ‘becomes doubly expedient as a resource to be mobilized for the resolution of social problems, empowering marginalized communities, and as a service industry that extracts value for difference for a rampant global capitalism’ (Yúdice, 2003: 279).

Gilroy reminds us that current theories of inter- and multiculture do not assist in half of the stories we need to consider, as the freedom of travel and movement is frequently assigned to the margins of settlement and made into the property of marginal people, migrants and refugees (Gilroy, 2000: 275). Furthermore, in denying the continuing cogency of race, culture has becomes the badge of difference, as the new (cultural) racisms mask, but do not overcome, plain good old (biological) racisms.

A perfect Irish example is the turban debate. Last year An Garda Siochána, having appealed for recruits from what is euphemistically called Ireland’s ‘new communities’, refused to allow a Sikh volunteer to the Garda reserve force to wear his turban on duty. While the Garda claims to have made ‘many advances’ (including a variety of older measures such as ethnic liaison officers, and ‘Diversity Works’ training packages), it insists on a ‘standard uniform and dress’ which, according to the commissioner, ensures impartial policing. At the same time it declined to rule out the wearing of Catholic religious symbols such as crucifixes, ashes and pioneer pins. [3]

Meanwhile, like many ‘Irish solutions to Irish problems’, the government has agreed not to issue a directive to schools on the wearing of the Muslim Hijab, and the Irish Hijab Campaign reports at least one Dublin school maintaining a ‘wall of silence’ over allegations that it has outlawed the Hijab (Reilly, 2008). One wonders what will happen when a female Muslim Garda recruit is prohibited to veil on duty.

Religion is one signifier of culture, yet cultural differences – as both object and instrument of government – mask racial differences, just as the census ‘ethnic question’ masked racial differences as respondents were asked to tick their ‘ethnicity’ as ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘black Irish’, ‘Asian’, ‘Traveller’ or ‘other’ (Chiyoko King O’Riain, 2008). In this debate culture is ascribed to the marginal while the hegemonic is either invisible and seen as not possessing any troubling signifiers, or worried about the threat to the indigenous culture by incoming foreign cultures. Yúdice (2003) reports a slippage, in post 9/11 America, between an official rhetoric of diversity and a silencing of dissent in the integration of culture and politics. In the passage to a ‘society of control’ culture is being invoked to solve problems that previously were the province of economics and politics. The collapse of economics and politics into culture means not the expansion of civil society, but its extinction. In the Irish case, the rhetoric of diversity and interculturalism by players such as the Minister of Integration, public bodies such as the Gardai and the education system, but also by economists, unions and cultural institutions, masks, but does not eradicate the realities of racialisation.

‘Too much diversity’?

‘The emphasis throughout the (National Plan against Racism) is on developing reasonable and common sense measures to accommodate cultural diversity in Ireland’ (NPAR, 2995: 27).

If culture can be theorised as both object and instrument of governmentalities, and if the ‘culturalist turn’ has meant denying that racism forms an integral part of state control over incoming migrants and existing minorities seen as ‘culturally’ rather than ‘racially’ different, then diversity and integration have become the currency of the race relations industry. In After Optimism?, McVeigh and I documented the transition from ‘combating racism’ to ‘accommodating cultural diversity’, including, inter alia, the shift in 2005 from the government’s ‘Know Racism’ Anti-racism National Awareness Campaign, to ‘Diversity’. [4] Because of the refusal to name and address state racism, ideologies of interculturalism and integration actually become racist themselves – functioning to protect the operation of state racism. From this perspective, ‘interculturalism’ is racism; ‘community relations’ is racism; ‘integration’ is racism (Lentin and McVeigh, 2006: 178).

Rather than re-rehearse that argument, I want to ask, after Ahmed and Swan (2006) what is it that diversity does? In Ireland, as in the UK, the shift to diversity means that other kinds of vocabularies are no longer used. Diversity and equality, Ahmed and Swan argue, are becoming performance and audit culture. However, although being about race equality, diversity does not actually speak the language of anti-racism. Increasingly bureaucratised, diversity becomes merely a matter of tick boxes and paper trails, but it is no longer about challenging inequalities. Thus, diversity becomes an instrument of government which not only depoliticises inequalities, but is an actual mechanism for the reproduction of inequalities. Furthermore, if we follow Danny McCoy’s logic, the performance of cultural diversity becomes a marketing device, a brand, as state bodies, companies, and educational and art institutions pride themselves on their ‘happy colourful faces’, albeit without relinquishing control of those diversity projects to the owners of these very faces.

But in the face of the increasing control over migration quotas, in Ireland and across the EU and the Western world, cultural diversity matters not as description of spaces of multiculture – which, frankly, most spaces are, despite the nostalgic harking to a fictional monocultural past ‘before theses people came’ – but rather as a sign of what they are not. Thus, as Ahmed and Swan argue, organisations and states need to ‘diversify’ only when racialised others remain the strangers, the ‘bodies out of place’. However, the issue should be not to constitute black and migrant communities as the carriers of diversity, as adding colour to the white face of the population, but rather to point out how society and state are orientated around whiteness, around ‘those who are already there’. Doing diversity, then, should be not about writing, researching, making films and works of art about the newly arrived other, but about what is concealed by representing the other as the agent of diversity.

So when UK neo-liberal commentators such as David Goodhart (2004) speak about ‘too much diversity’ and the need for ‘social cohesion’, they are, on one level, undoing diversity, and calling for closer immigration controls. But on another level they are reiterating the policy of multiculturalism that sees culture as fixed and already there, enabling the state to negotiate with leaders of ‘other cultures’ whose diversity should be managed, streamlined, regulated and controlled to suit the interests of the market state.

This helps us make sense of the turban prohibition enacted, on the one hand, in the guise of diversity, and on the other, of impartial policing, as Garda and state insist that, while ‘many advances have been made’ in making the state apparatuses ‘intercultural’, integration is ultimately about migrants doing things ‘our way’ – learning the state’s (second) language, taking citizenship tests, signing on, de-turbaning and un-veiling.

Conclusion: Shadowy figures and the return of the repressed

‘[in] all countries in all Christian ages he has been a usurer and a grinder of the poor…The Jew in Ireland is in every respect an economic evil… he is an unfair competitor with the ratepaying Irish shopkeeper, and he remains among us, ever and always alien’ (Arthur Griffith, United Irishman, 23 April 1899)

‘You don’t really believe in an open door policy? You don’t really want a Polish ghetto in Ringsend?’ (Colleague, 2008)

My argument so far has been that terms such as ‘culture’ and ‘diversity’ need a lot of unpacking before we can use them glibly. Culture, I have argued, is not merely a veiled way of saying race, it is also both object and instrument of a governmentality that places the population as the object of state control in a Foucauldian shift from the sovereignty of old to contemporary biopower (Foucault, 2003). The appeal to cultural difference, I further argued, is a way of not speaking about race and racism. More specifically, the new cultural racism – with Muslims and Islam as the main object of the war on/off terror that has turned us all into ‘docile bodies’ (think airports here, and the ‘security check’ dance) – makes ‘culture’, ‘religion’ but also costume and hair – all cultural signifiers – speak the language of race.

I went on to argue that the work of diversity – while initially meant to signify racial equality – conceals more than reveals the very whiteness it is meant to counteract. Furthermore, diversity has become not merely a marketing ploy, but also an employment sector, from ‘social inclusion’ units to myriad NGOs, mostly led by the locals, for the benefit of ‘these people’.

My conclusion is a reminder of a national past often forgotten during the tiger’s diversity era, but which might return to haunt as intimations of financial collapse quicken the heartbeat. Ireland, like most spaces, has never been the monoculture some people claim it was, yet at the turn of the 20th century, the nationalist leader Arthur Griffith could write ‘the Irish ought to cherish that feeling of hatred as their most valued possession, as the rock upon which the edifice of their nationality can only be built securely’. [5]

This was one of Griffith’s antisemitic rants – he wrote this during the infamous 1904 Limerick Pogrom. But why speak of antisemitism all of a sudden? It is not merely because of the horrific antisemitic hate mail I keep receiving because of my support for immigrants and immigration. It is rather because antisemitism is racism without race, a cultural construction displaced in contemporary western society to immigrants and black people (A. Lentin, 2004: 58).

Political antisemitism, lest we forget, culminated in genocide, defined by Bauman (2004) as ‘categorial murder’, where whole groups of ‘culturally different’ people – European Jews, but also Roma and Sinti, gay men and others – were annihilated because they were assigned a racial category. And it’s worth reminding ourselves, yet again, that neutral Ireland allowed in only some 65 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1946 as Europe burnt (Lentin and McVeigh, 2006).

In the middle of the 20th century antisemitism assigned racial belonging to people whose culture and religion differentiated them from the majority. At the turn of the 21st century racism is bound with the image that there are irreconcilable differences between ‘cultures’ and ‘civilizations’ both nationally and globally (A. Lentin, 2008). As imperialist wars continue to rage, the post 9/11 west, teetering on the brink of economic chaos, clings on to notions of ‘culture’ and ‘diversity’, in the multicultural illusion that

dominant and subordinate can somehow swap places and learn how the other half lives, while leaving the structures of power intact. As if power relations could be magically suspended through the direct exchange of experience, and ideology dissolve into the thin air of face-to-face communication (Cohen, 1988: 13).

Meanwhile, shadowy figures past and present are reproduced in a slide show of cultural diversities, threatening the imagined homogeneity of the racial state: caftaned Jew, funny hats and facial hair; Sikh, funny turban and facial hair often mistaken for a Bin Laden; African, funny accent and hair pieces; and veiled Muslim woman, being sent ‘home’ to Pakistan, even if she originates from Cabra or Rathmines.

But economic downturns have an uncanny power of recall as talk of emigration and belt tightening begins to seep through. In 2002 I wrote, ‘as ”we” the nation celebrate “our” sameness through Riverdancing Irish culture, we expel otherness. The other threatens the newly regained national voice… because it reminds it of its not-too-distant past pain’ (Lentin, 2002: 235). This slide show, I want to suggest, is a facet of a multicultural politics of recognition which fails to interrogate the ‘we’ that does diversity, the return of the repressed past, long forgotten traumatic events that can no longer evade interrogation (Lentin, 2002: 233).

Luckily, these figures are not mere shadows, not mere objects of cultural governmentalities, but rather active agents who can enact their own cultures and politics, given half a chance. Because ultimately it is because colonialism, racism and gender hierarchies continue to shape social spaces that diversity matters (Ahmed and Swan, 2006: 99).


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Ahmed, Sara and Elaine Swan. 2006. ‘Doing diversity’, Policy Futures in Education, Vol. 4/2: 96-100.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. ‘Categorial murder’, in Ronit Lentin (ed.) Re-presenting the Shoah for the 21st Century, Oxford and New Tork: Berghahn Books.

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McGarry, Patsy. 2008a. ‘Garda defends its policy on wearing of religious dress’, The Irish Times, 3 October.

McGarry, Patsy. 2008b. ‘Ministers agree common approach to wearing of hijab’, The Irish Times, 3 October.

O’Toole, Fintan. 2007. ‘The choice is simple: All or nothing’, the Irish Times, 7 August 2007.

Reilly, Catherine. 2008. ‘Wall of silence: Dublin school keeps quiet as Muslims hit out voer hijab issue’, Metro Eireann, 2-8 October.

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[1] Irish Business and Employers Confederation (

[2] In ‘Ireland’ I mostly mean the Republic of Ireland, even though many of the observations relate to both North and South, see chapter 5 in Lentin and McVeigh, 2006.

[3] In ‘The choice is simple: All or nothing’, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole (2007) argues that state institutions either adopt a ‘no religious symbols in public’ ruling across the board, including Catholic religious symbols – his preferred option, or allowing all religious symbols, including turbans and veils.

[4] As well as the substitution of the International Day Against Racism with a partnership-centred ‘Intercultural week’, aiming, as per the NCCRI, at organising events that focus on ‘celebrating diversity’ (NCCRI, 2006, cited by Lentin and McVeigh, 2006: 176-7).

[5] Arthur Griffith, United Irishman, 5 March 1904.