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Tango for three

Is anti-racism the same as multiculturalism, and is anti-racism dangerous for women?


[chronicle] "Is multiculturalism dangerous for women?" asked the American philosopher and feminist Susan Moller Okin in 1997. Thus, she initiated a debate that has gained classic status in political normative theory. In Norway and the Nordic countries, this debate became particularly relevant after the assassination of Swedish Fadime in 2002. Professor Unni Wikan is among those who have been most strongly involved in the debate, and her answer is yes, without a doubt: Multiculturalism is dangerous for women, and especially young women – which is sacrificed on the altar of culture. In the zeal to respect "foreign cultures", the authorities play along with those who have the power to define what is culture and what is good in culture. They do not take into account that there are also oppressed minorities within oppressed minorities, Wikan said.

It is first and foremost the state that is on the bench in Wikan's book Generous Betrayal from 2002, but also the many multiculturalists and – says Wikan – the anti-racists who have been zealous for this policy and gagged its critics. In her texts, therefore, anti-racism and multiculturalism seem to go hand in hand, and thus anti-racism also becomes dangerous for women.

Anti Racism.

If you ask Hannana Siddiqui, head of the Southall Black Sisters London organization, the answer will be that yes, multiculturalism is very dangerous for women. It is multiculturalism that is blamed when a British-Asian girl seeking protection from an abusive father is told that she should try to persevere because the family is so important in her culture, or when the authorities consult religious leaders and not women's organizations in their work against forced marriage.

Women are thus discriminated against when it comes to very basic rights. In this way, not only is multiculturalism dangerous – it is racist, says the Southall Black Sisters, a feminist and anti-racist women's rights organization.

How is it that Wikan equates anti-racism with multiculturalism, and is it really that anti-racism is dangerous for women?

The difference.

Multiculturalism and anti-racism are two approaches to multicultural society. While multiculturalism is most often associated with liberal thinking, anti-racism belongs on the political left. Central to multiculturalism is the recognition of differences and the rights of groups, while anti-racism is about abolishing oppression. A little simplified you can say that:

Where multiculturalism is concerned with culture, anti-racism is concerned with power. Where multiculturalism will recognize cultural differences, anti-racism will fight political and economic power differences – or dominance. Where multiculturalism wants ethnic minority groups to be recognized and live in peace, anti-racism will abolish the majority exclusion and discrimination of minorities. Where multiculturalism focuses on groups, anti-racism is concerned with relationships and positions. The position as "black" is not a given position, but historically created in relation to the position "white".

Where "respect for culture" is often about respect for religion, antiracism has traditionally professed a secular position.

Dangerous confusion?

The differences are thus many, both in substance and focus. Is Wikan wrong, or have we in Norway had a collusion between multiculturalists and anti-racists?

It gurgles when Wikan and others talk as if Norway in the 1970s and 80s experienced a kind of anti-racist golden age. Rather, it was a rather dull and superficial multiculturalism in some limited fields – who does not remember the public campaign "Yes to a colorful community" – while society at large was not particularly interested in "these immigrants".

Whatever you call it – this policy has had some concrete results that feminists should worry about today. An example is the child welfare service's lack of competence regarding upbringing to obedience and virtue in authoritarian minority families – a form of neglect that differs from the usual Norwegian, with key words such as alcohol, drugs and absent adults. Or financial support schemes that have stimulated organization around religion and ethnicity and that may have helped to strengthen group thinking.

Anti-racist organizations such as the Mira Center have always emphasized organizing across ethnicities and religions, around the common position that is not desired, but which is a reality – namely the minority position.

The problem for an anti-racist is that attacks on minorities tend to take a cultural form. When minority women are unilaterally portrayed as passive victims, and men as culturally determined abusers, it becomes more difficult to criticize women-hostile practices without contributing to racial stigma.

On the other hand, the language of anti-racism has proved useful for those who do not want the state to interfere in the "inner" conditions of minority groups. Those who admit that forced marriage is a problem in a few families, but who refuse to discuss why no imams in Oslo will marry a couple who do not have their parents' blessing. Those who believe that divorce mediation is best handled by "own" institutions, and that criticism of Islam is the same as Islamism – something they are unfortunately too often right about.

But if anti-racism has thus become the same as "respect for culture and religion" – yes, then Wikan is right – then anti-racism is dangerous for women.

Against culturalism.

Above all, it has been popular to accuse the other party of ethnocentrism or – conversely – cultural relativism. Either one accepts too little – or too much – in the name of culture. In this crossfire, anyone and everyone can be paralyzed.

Therefore, it is liberating when the Canadian philosopher Uma Narayan shows us that ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are two sides of the same culturalism. Both are based on ways of understanding that construct "cultural groups" as homogeneous, authentic and static – albeit with opposite normative signs.

Culture should instead be seen as historically and contextually created through struggle between different considerations and actors, Narayan believes. Therefore, it will be and should be difficult to find out who represents, for example, the Turkish culture. It also becomes more difficult for some to make themselves advocates for others – without a fight.

For feminists, anti-racism – with its focus on the economic and political rights of individuals – can be a breaking point in the fight against such culturalism, but then it must detach itself from the embrace of multiculturalism.

By Anja Bredal

Researcher Center for Women's and Gender Research, UiO

The text was written in connection with the 20th anniversary of the Center for Women's and Gender Research at the University of Oslo.

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