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Replacing 'race', historicizing 'culture' in multiculturalism

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 14:03 authored by Alana Lentin
The paper proposes to unravel the history of the discourse of culturalism post-World War II. Culture is now almost universally used to categorize distinct human groups and to refer to the differences between them. As the liberal acceptance of multiculturalism as a recipe for contemporary living affirms, the use of culture as a viable conceptualization of human difference often goes unchallenged in present-day scholarship. I focus on how the concept of culture came to replace the language of 'race' in the aftermath of the Shoah. Looking at the history of the UNESCO Tradition in anti-racism, the paper shows how racial categorizations were replaced by cultural distinctions as a means of explaining human difference. Whereas ‘race’was seen as irrevocably invoking the superiority of some human groups over others, culture was assumed by anti-racist scholars on both sides of the Atlantic to infer a positive celebration of difference while allowing for the possibility for progress among groups once considered ‘primitive’. I argue that such a shift, on which the western discourse of anti-racism is grounded, by merely replacing ‘race’with culture, fails to expunge the hierarchization of humanity proposed by theories of ‘race’. The essentialization of ‘cultures’contained within such cultural relativism is carried through into multicultural approaches to education, policy-making and activism that fail to include the dominant group in their schematization of contemporary social and political relations. Furthermore, the failure of culturalist approaches to effectively counter racism has been attributed to the purported identity politics of ‘minority groups’. Contrary to the notion that culture has come to pervade politics due to the bottom-up call from the marginalized for greater recognition of their cultural ‘authenticity’, this paper shall show how culturalism originated within the anti-racist elite with the result of depoliticizing the anti-racism of the actual targets of racism.


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  • Published


Patterns of Prejudice







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  • Sociology and Criminology Publications


A shorter version of this article exists as part of a debate about the future of multiculturalism on

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