Belonging is multi-layered
30 March 2007

Shadows of people

Nira Yuval-Davis claims that factors such as emotional attachment and insecurity are as important to the 'politics of belonging' as citizenship and identities. This article was written in 2004 for Connections magazine.

Some of us have been critical of multiculturalism policies for many years, on the grounds that they were linked to the British race relations industry and had some very specific characteristics that are only now being critically examined.

This approach homogenises the cultures of these communities, and also their members

One is the assumption that there are clearly defined and fixed boundaries between the majority and ethnic minorities. This approach homogenises the cultures of these communities, and also their members. It assumes that everyone relates to a particular culture in the same way. It views culture ahistorically and nourishes a sense of cultural relativism. The same was true of anti-racism, although it was in one way an advance on multiculturalism, it looked at the politics of power.

Citizenship tends to be seen solely in terms of the relationship of the individual to the state, of legal rights and responsibilities. Despite references to ‘core universal values’, the current debate about Britishness starts with what I call ‘the politics of belonging’, much of which is about determining who does or does not belong, regardless of their formal citizenship status. The politics of belonging is not only about citizenship or identities, but also about emotional attachment, securities and insecurities, dividing the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Political belonging

The BNP and others on the Right are able to play in this emotional arena. All too often, the response of the Left has been one of denial. However, we do have to relate to the issue of political belonging, although in a very different way from the terms of the infamous Norman Tebbit ‘cricket test’.

The CRE is attempting to address these issues now. But I am concerned that, instead of looking for ways of encompassing difference by equality, we are going back to a view of society in which everyone has to conform to a mythical, homogeneous ‘British culture’. I am also concerned that, in the transition to a single equality cxommission, the specificity of racism and discrimination could be lost. Most of all, I fear that the specific watch-dog role of the CRE and of other political bodies to monitor this and to fight it, is going to disappear.

This does not mean that we should not view racism, and all other social relations, in an intersectional way. We need an analysis that recognises that women have different forms and powers of belonging than men, as do people from different classes, abilities, and stages in their life cycle, and from different ethnic origins, and with different sexualities. Without this kind of analysis we risk giving the voice to some unelected community leaders, who, very often, are considered more ‘authentic’ the more they differ from the majority.

Promoting leaderships

In this way we can end up getting the state to fortify and promote the power of these particular leaders, who are anything but democratic and representative of their members. It is politically important to realise that power struggle happens within communities and not just between communities.

We must also realise that the boundaries of communities and civil societies do not necessarily overlap. The Parekh Report described British society as a ‘community of communities’. But it is not a closed system – socially, economically or politically. While many people in Britain would not associate themselves with any community, many others, from majority as well as minority populations, would see themselves as belonging to communities whose boundaries cross the British borders.

religious and political affiliations often stretch beyond specific territorial spaces

Kinship relations, and religious and political affiliations, often stretch beyond specific territorial spaces, especially in today’s globalised world. We cannot see the politics of belonging of the British people just in terms of loyalty to the British state. We should not delegitimise people’s membership in other communities, or see it as excluding membership in British society. Unless we view people’s citizenships as multi-layered, we fall into the trap of racialising them, accusing them of ‘divided loyalties’ and denying the reality of the contemporary politics of belonging.

The issues are many and complex and I have been able to touch on just a few of them here. However, I hope I have said enough to show that, to view the debate just in terms of the multiculturalism/integration dichotomy is to do a disservice to one of the central issues in contemporary society everywhere.

Professor Nira Yuval-Davis is Professor in the School of Cultural and Innovation Studies at the University of East London.


Before the birth of Catalyst Magazine at the beginning of 2005, the Commission for Racial Equality published Connections, a magazine covering many of the same issues now tackled by Catalyst. We are republishing some of the best articles from Connections on the Catalyst website - you can browse the complete set on our Connections archive page.

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