Slippery Definitions

4 February 2009

Where’s the Culture in Multicultural?

Sliip, by MarkyBon, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Definitions are slippery things, often over-ruled by the shear weight of expectations. In responding to ‘yourfriend’ about multiculturalism in China I have relied on what is by and large an academic definition of ‘multicultural’ rather than what has more recently become a popular description of multiple cultures in the same political space. My multicultural country is one in which the majority culture absorbs, pays deference to and systematically tends to the health of minority cultures – an unrealised and perhaps unrealisable ideal, if the policies and presumptions of multiculturalism are anything to go by. ‘Yourfriend’, in contrast, has defined – a least implicitly – a ‘multicultural’ country as one in which multiple cultures exist: a statement of fact.

This is an interesting divergence not so much because it shows our different viewpoints (although that it does) but because it’ll allow me to consider some of the implications of what we haven’t quite managed to discuss, touching on the points that ‘yourfriend’ has covered and considering some of the things we’ve both missed. And, as ‘yourfriend’ implies in his final comment from last week, both sides are lacking useful definitions of ‘nationality’ and ‘culture’. These, unfortunately, aren’t really evident in the post by Professor Crane that I originally wrote about.

Ethnicity and Nation

I can, however, start by accepting the assertion that minzu, which I put forward as ‘nationality’, is more accurately translated into English as ‘ethnicity’. That doesn’t necessarily rule out xenophobia in China of the sort I described in my last post – as ‘yourfriend’ mentions of America, the creation of “ethnic people” can be debasing by itself. But leaving that particular issue aside as something I can neither prove nor disprove here, I’m interested in how ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’, or at least the concept of the nation, start to merge into one another in discussions about multiculturalism, and how the notion of culture floats on by, curiously abandoned.

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On Race and Rationality

21 August 2008

A New Take on Race from Hong Kong

Look past the bias of the times, the certainties of this epoch or that, and race becomes a messy, various concept. At any given moment – and quite aside from the scientific definition of a single human race – it can define people of different types in any number of categories, depending on perspective. There was for many years, and perhaps still is, the perception of a British race, born of the concept that empire and a core of supra-national boundaries in the so-called British Isles could fuse biology and location to produce an identifiable people with certain physical and psychological characteristics. More often today, British people are subsumed under the generic appellation of Caucasian, and at a stretch – most often in the United States – as White. Regardless of how ludicrously broad these categories might or might not seem from your perspective, they are constructed according to a reason. Each has a nub of logic at its centre, from a certain point of view.

To claim that context is crucial in defining race might well seem equivocal, but it’s an observation rather than a moral judgement. It also helps to reveal the reasoning behind otherwise inexplicable definitions and their derivatives. Consider, for instance, this passage from Section 8(4) of Hong Kong’s soon to be enacted Racial Discrimination Ordinance:

The fact that a racial group comprises 2 or more distinct racial groups does not prevent it from constituting a particular racial group for the purposes of this Ordinance.

First, let’s consider what might make immediate sense here, given the context. Any legislation seeking to address racial discrimination, if not ban it outright, must first determine what ‘race’ really means before identifying how it can be used to disadvantage anyone. So the second half of this sentence, on constituting a ‘particular racial group’, is just a way of ensuring that the Ordinance does what it’s supposed to do.

But what about the seemingly nonsensical first part of the sentence? How on Earth, or even in Hong Kong, can one racial group comprise either multiple or distinct racial groups, let alone the two together? Surely that’s just gibberish. If, as the legal norm in common-law countries insists, the words of the Ordinance should be applied in their “natural and ordinary sense”, then good luck to any magistrate doomed to apply it. Right? Well, no – it just so happens that the words do make sense, in their own peculiar way.

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