Naseem Khan: We should celebrate diversity, not suppress it

My experiences have challenged the usefulness of integration from above

Related Topics

The solution, argues Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Community Relations Commission, is a policy that will stress sameness rather than distinctiveness, and promote common British values. It is a message that comes with all his considerable weight and has attracted sage nods from high street to corridors of power.

So why does it raise my suspicions? After all, I come from an immigrant background with parents who were anxious to see myself and my brother integrated as fully as possible (though they themselves never managed to).

Partly my unease comes from the seeming incontrovertability. But more substantially my own experience has challenged the practicality and the usefulness of integration from above.

Thirty years ago, I was pounding the streets of Bradford, Manchester, London, Cardiff, Bristol, on what many thought an odd quest. Were there any arts in immigrant communities that merited inclusion in the British canon, I was inquiring.

The people who had posed the question were major power brokers and policy-makers. The Arts Council, Gulbenkian Foundation and Community Relations Commission (forerunner of the CRE) had come together to ask for research into what was a silent, unknown and utterly unprospected area of life.

It took faith, patience and ingenuity to provide it. The ghettoes - now so decisively identified by Mr Phillips and others - were truly ghettoes then. The writers, dancers, singers and artists who slowly emerged from its backrooms were invisible on the main stage. "Nothing like that here," said local authority after local authority, demonstrating the separation that existed. The work that did exist in force echoed that separateness then: it often harked back to ethnic homelands, emphasising continuity and placing much weight on "authenticity".

How things have changed. I looked through my mail, when I arrived back recently after three months away, and found a mass of leaflets - new Indian dance in Trafalgar Square, a feisty and sharp Caribbean musical on Shaftesbury Avenue, forthcoming African world drama at the Young Vic. Authenticity hardly featured. Instead there are new influences, forms, subject matters, aspirations. "I suppose it's British, because I live here," said the choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, when she analysed her ground-breaking work.

The energy has been noticed. The Council of Europe made us one of its case studies in its international research into diversity policies. Country after European country invites our artists, painters and commentators to come and tell them how it all happened. How has culture got out of the ghetto?

Is it all a question of time? Not wholly. I can see two main levers for success. One has been the readiness - often shambolic and blinkered - of arts policy to acknowledge that different voices are a need more than a threat. The Arts Council swallowed deeply in the late 1970s when they formally received my findings in The Arts Britain Ignores, and began to address new forms and ways of organising - carnival, Indian classical music (termed "ethnic folk art" when I was researching in the US) and arts that combine disciplines unconventionally.

The second lever has been crucial. It has been the recognition, however slow and uncertain, that the work needs mainstream space and opportunities. People need to be able to choose to be heard outside their communities, not contained within them. And they need to be able to opt for an ethnic identity or not, as they wish. Pressure to abandon ethnicity is as misguided as the pressure to retain it.

In 1995, Unesco's culture report Our Creative Diversity spoke on the concept of the "shared space". This is surely a more attractive aspiration than one in which difference is minimised. Rather than expecting people to junk cultural hinterlands, it provides space to express them. Provide open forums and equal opportunities, and you will be likely to get developments that have been called "interculturality".

All this has taken some 30 years in the arts. But the germination has provided some serious pointers about how we could achieve integration. It warns of the dangers of top-down policies - such as bussing - that have been espoused by the US. It stresses that presence does not guarantee equality, nor propinquity guarantee understanding. It shows that integration is not so much a matter of a common voice but opportunity for different voices, leading to a shared space. The Government's task forces need to look at these quiet but telling British-based lessons.

The author was head of diversity at the Arts Council, 1996-2003

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

£12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat