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The Need to Understand Multiculturalism Dialectically

Around a year ago controversy was stirred up in the Canadian fine arts world when the representative of a national gallery made a problematic distinction between "excellence" and "diversity."  That is, he argued that his national gallery was interested only in funding art work that was "excellent" (although he himself could not precisely explain the meaning of "excellent" art, a point of contention for art theory for centuries at least) and not simply in work by artists from minority groups.  His point was generally one of officially sanctioned state multi-cultural programs: "diverse" artists already have special galleries, funding programs, and avenues that promote their work, and so an austere national gallery should not have to bother about inclusion because inclusion will "naturally" happen if an artist's work, regardless of their background, fits some nebulous standard of "excellence."  The problem with making this distinction in the first place, however, is that it reifies a normative standard of artistic excellence, a standard that has developed through long years of exclusion, where the only art that counts as "excellent" is an usually art created by acceptable white artists.  The entire notion that an ahistorical concept of "excellence" can by itself promote "diversity" assumes, therefore, that such a concept did not emerge in an oppressive context.

In any case, the statement set off a small tempest in the art community where some artists (and most often those artists who felt that they were hard done by because of multi-cultural funding programs that ear-marked money for artists from historically oppressed people groups) championed the call for "excellence" and where other artists (most often artists of colour) pointed out the problem with counterposing "excellence" against "diversity", a binary that implied that artists from minority groups could never––because of some dubious notion of affirmative action that holds that minoritarian artists who would never be recognized as artists in some Hobbesian state of nature art competition receive "free" funding––produce "excellent" art.

This controversy over arts funding revealed the contradictions of multi-cultural policy: both the ways in which official multi-cultural programs continue to enforce normative inequality, and the ways in which attacks on these programs can be mobilized those who want this normative inequality to be returned to some by-gone era where it was socially acceptable to exclude people from oppressed groups.  Moreover, numerous progressives are often unable of making sense of the contradictions beneath official multiculturalism, and/or affirmative action programs, due to inability of examine this problem in a dialectical manner.

First of all, it needs to be pointed out that official multiculturalism became policy in part to neutralize anti-racist struggles.  Himani Bannerji (among others) has done a good job chronicling this history of multiculturalism in The Dark Side of the Nation, demonstrating how the multicultural policies promoted direct state interference that resulted in cultural ghettoization and atomization amongst various oppressed communities, allowed certain funding while removing other types of funding of the table, tended to focus on culture rather than actual material demands, and promoted competition amongst minorities rather than solidarity.  I am not going to examine her arguments in detail because I feel that most of the readers of this blog are familiar with the logic and are probably at this moment nodding their heads in agreement.  But just to connect this with the anecdote I used to start this entry, I should point out that the arts funding earmarked for artists "from diverse communities" in Canada demonstrates some of these problems: the funding may seem substantial as a whole but is severely limited if we look at the actual numbers of minority artists applying for grants, thus promoting competition; this competition continues when it comes to secure jobs in the arts world where only a few galleries, those that draw on this type of funding, actually have proper equity policies; atomization and ghettoization are promoted in a context where a director of a national gallery can argue, without initially thinking it would be a problem, that "excellence" and "diversity" are separate categories.

And yet there tends to be a knee-jerk and unsophisticated rejection of multiculturalism, due to the above problems, amongst progressives.  As soon as the word is mentioned, some leftists will foam at the mouth, cite authors such as Bannerji, and complain about the "evils" of multiculturalism as if it is, by itself, responsible for racism.  It gets worse when these leftists, and often white and male leftists, promote some Platonic notion of "solidarity" over "diversity" and argue that multiculturalism divides people of colour from the white working class (or white manarchist population, depending on who is making the argument): "if only multiculturalism and affirmative action weren't in the way of us organizing together!"  The article that prompted this entry, cited above, has done a good job of critiquing the more problematic versions of this anti-multiculturalist position and has revealed that is often left in form but right in essence.

Left in form and right in essence because, regardless of how it mobilizes its radical sounding terminology, it ends up supporting, and sometimes quite directly, the arguments made by reactionaries.  Every conservative sees multiculturalism and affirmative action as a threat to their right to be chauvinist and oppressive and return to the good old days when the "nanny-state" did not make reforms, as limited and often pathetic as these reforms might be, to certain people groups.  Reactionaries do not see these reform initiatives as limiting to progressive solidarity, they see them as limiting to the autonomy of the "excellent individual" and right to exclude people from their dining room.  So what if these programs are often the equivalent of crumbs being thrown from the dining table?  Those crumbs shouldn't be given away for free!

And then there are those, also uncritically accepting the reactionary position, who have been socialized into believing that multi-cultural and affirmative reforms are "oppressive."  Those who maybe are not doing well in their chosen vocation and, rather than blame a larger structural oppression, decide to blame the handful of people who have benefited from these reforms.  For example, returning to my initial anecdote regarding the context of arts funding, I have heard numerous white male artists, who claim to be progressive, complain that they would be successful if only they were women of colour since, apparently, the doors of the art world are always open and there is infinite funding for women of colour. Or those white male art workers who, upon seeing a woman of colour working at a gallery, immediately assume they are better qualified and the only reason she has this job is because of affirmative action: as if these people received their jobs, in a society that is still racist despite reforms and where statistics prove that the majority of people working secure jobs in the arts are NOT women of colour, simply because of their gender and ethnicity.  (I know of several occasions where some white male art "expert" has made these types of claims and, in each of these occasions, has been utterly wrong about the qualification: in many cases the "usurping" woman of colour has actually possessed more education and experience and yet, due to this uncritical and unrealized racism, there was no attempt to even fact check.  Diversity and excellence opposed again: "she cannot possibly be excellent, and I will just assume out of hand that she is not, because she is from a diverse community.")

The problem with dismissing multiculturalist and affirmative action reforms simply because of the problematic basis of their implementation neglects the historical fact that these reforms only exist because of radical struggle.  The state would never mandate any reforms, no matter how limiting, on the oppressed without struggle.  Reforms are a concession and, within that concession, an attempt to protect structural power: but the concession forces a rearticulation of this power and should still be understood, regardless of its limitations, as a gain––a gain that is not enough by itself, and will never be enough within the context of colonial-capitalism, but that is still a gain.  Without these gains, though they are concessions made by the state to contain radical structure, so many people would not have jobs or opportunities––not because they lack the requisite abilities or "excellence" but because the employers and "experts" would never be forced to consider them for these jobs and opportunities in the first place.

Many of the leftists who dismiss multi-cultural reforms are the same people who would never dismiss a union's legal right to strike, or any of the concessions granted after successive waves of labour struggles.  Clearly these gains are limiting, and are definitely not enough, but we cannot argue that, in this context, the work week, job protection, the right to negotiate as a union, legally defended strikes, were not gains won on the part of the oppressed.  At the same time, however, the left position has always been that the radical logic that led to the state conceding needs to continue past every state limitation and that the labour movement, regardless of the gains it has made, should not allow these gains, as it often does, to neutralize its potential radicalism.

The same point can be made about multiculturalism and affirmative action.  These are concessionary gains, but the logic that led to the establishment of these gains must be carried through––a multiculturalism from below rather than a multiculturalism from above, a radical multiculturalism that supersedes the limits of the capital-colonial state.  In the meantime, though, it actually reactionary to suggest that the state should scrap these programs, or that they're simply just "evil", when they were won by the blood and sweat of the oppressed.

Returning the "diversity" versus "excellence" debate, however, we need to see how officially sanctioned multiculturalism itself promotes anti-multiculturalism, how in itself it is terribly contradictory.  The argument, after all, is that people from "diverse" backgrounds are incapable of "excellence" and that this is the reason to provide multicultural programs in the first place––this logic arms the reactionaries who want to see these multi-cultural programs abolished, allowing white artists to believe that their excellence is being threatened (as noted above) by the non-excellence of the "diverse" hordes who, without state philanthropy, would never work or be shown in official art establishments.  Such an argument ignores the fact that these reforms, as aforementioned, only exist because of struggles of the oppressed and were never provided out of some kindly philanthropism on the part of the oppressor.  And those leftists who would argue undialectically against multiculturalism, focusing only on its obvious limits and not its origins, are making the same argument.


  1. I love this post.

    Unfortunately it reminded me of how many people in the Anarchist movement reject every advance oppressed classes have clawed out of the hands of oppressors just because the state or its proxies are the tools used to do the clawing. That reminds me how many anarchists I've talked to or read who condemn support for the recent labor unrest in Wisconsin because those workers labor for the state, and that makes me vomit all over my shoes in disgust. Not that there aren't critiques of labor aristocracy and even unions as a whole that aren't cogent, but these people use their leftist modes of nonsense speak to defend rightist positions, precisely as you say.

  2. Yeah... our hipster neighbours have the same sort of petty bourgeois radicalism. When we first moved in, and after they told us about all their cool "urban anarchist" adventures (except I'd never seen them anywhere in the Toronto activist scene, so clearly they weren't even that kind of anarchist), they tried to start an argument about the union t-shirt I was wearing. Same arguments about the state, unions who go to far and aren't radical... If the jingo was replaced, they would sound like union-hating conservatives!

  3. Great post Josh!!! Totally on point.

  4. Thanks for this, Josh. It articulates some issues I have been trying to wrap my head around. One of which is the idea that "excellence" and "diversity" have been made into a binary, which is sort of counter-intuitive since they are not even on the same plane of existence, but that's exactly what is happening.

    Part of what I have been struggling with is the idea that affirmative action (or other like laws) sort of breed that kind of resentment from white men, and almost codifies stratification, but I like the way you address these concerns. I would never "suggest that the state should scrap these programs, or that they're simply just 'evil'", mostly for the reasons you point to.

  5. Glad you liked it...

    I think anything that claws back the privilege of those groups who benefit most from structural oppression breeds resentment because it is wrongly experienced as disenfranchisement. That is, since white men in North America have generally found it easier to get jobs and experience social mobility than other groups, now that there are some programs, as weak as they might be, that erode their uber-privilege, they imagine that they are being oppressed when, really, certain rules that once rigged the game completely in their favour are being tampered with.


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