Since the fall of communism, the notion of multiculturalism has been hijacked. There has been no alternative to globalisation under capitalist terms, where the free movement of the proletariat is demonised. Border crossings are encouraged only for the wealthy and educated; executives from Abu Dhabi, Lagos, Delhi and New York can hold a meeting in the VIP business lounge at Narita airport in Tokyo and pat themselves on the back as evidence of this new global world.
We see this version of multiculturalism represented in the current Conservative party, and also its inherent contradictions: Priti Patel vilifying some Black Lives Matter protesters for their “hooliganism”, Sajid Javid overseeing the deportation of yet more Jamaicans from the place where they had lived since they were children; and in those who imagine themselves as leftists, such as Trevor Phillips, claiming Muslims are “different” and running a consultancy whose software was used by police to determine whether ethnic groups specialise in certain crimes.
Karl Marx’s Gattungswesen embodies the idea that social relations evolve into a system that then becomes alienated from everyday life, which is what I would argue has happened with multiculturalism. Seeing faces of various ethnicities in positions of power is not the same as seeing faces from various cultures together; you know, people who haven’t necessarily been privately educated or aren’t in possession of an Oxbridge degree. As neoliberalism creaks, the widening of the gulf between rich and poor, and inequity along ethnic lines, has been exposed ever more by Covid-19.
But in lockdown a different kind of social interaction has been taking place outside officialdom. I know I’m not the only one suddenly connecting with my neighbours in a more meaningful way. Near Sheffield, where I’ve been in lockdown, I have seen more members of the Caribbean, Yemeni and Somali communities engaging more frequently with the Peak District, in the same way white people do. I notice a new recognition of carers, and the hidden labours of homemaking and child-raising; a new concern about the elderly and people talking openly about mental health. In essence, we are finding human ways to connect that don’t involve filling out application forms or signing up to log in. Instead of empowering the social relations of the elite, we’ve been reminded to look across the road again.
We must emerge from isolation without falling into isolationism by reclaiming multiculturalism as something more organic; something that can include the elderly and the poor, and doesn’t necessarily demand participation in the marketplace.
• Johny Pitts is a photographer, broadcaster and the author of Afropean: Notes From Black Europe (Penguin)