Naseem Khan: We should celebrate diversity, not suppress it

My experiences have challenged the usefulness of integration from above

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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

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