Justice, Not Identity: What a Woke Multiculturalism Looks Like

You say you believe that ‘all lives matter’
I say I don’t believe the fuck you do
—Stevie Wonder, “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate”

Anyone who leafs through Scandalous Bodies or who ponders its memorable moments twenty years after its publication cannot help but be overcome by a profound déjà vu. Smaro Kamboureli’s elaboration of multiculturalism’s logic of containment rather than of tolerance, accommodation, or indeed hospitality; her attention to the production and representation rather than the definition of difference; her diagnosis of how ethnicity comes to oscillate between sanctioned exoticism and dangerous excess; and her affirmation of a “mastery of discomfort” (130) in refusing to assimilate or appropriate the Other’s differences continue to resonate in our all-too-discomfiting present.

But reliving the pleasures of her book’s idiosyncrasies and insights also made me squirm—has so little changed that multiculturalism continues to sedate rather than emancipate? Kamboureli describes her book as shaped by the rift between discourse and action—her argument reveals that the Multiculturalism Act’s “rhetoric of normalization” (102) serves not to guarantee the aspiration to equality and dignity but to regulate difference (101). Kamboureli’s keen awareness that the legitimation of ethnicity lapses all too readily into taming its incommensurability motivates her to reject “the futile promises of a utopian project” (xv); instead, she advocates learning to live with contradiction and asymmetry, “shuttling between centre and margin while displacing both” (130). Her modest claim for her book, therefore, is that it seeks to interrupt rather than alter the present it inhabits (6).

The normative embrace in which multiculturalism encloses the ethnic subject, Kamboureli demonstrates, must be characterized less as “force or violence” (102) and more as the insidious operation of hegemony, of power that defines Canadianness and effectively demolishes resistance to such conformity and homogeneity. The dominant discourse of multiculturalism, in Kamboureli’s view, simultaneously disavows and fetishizes difference; that is, ethnicity must signify transgression and contamination for the politics of recognition to seduce and sedate. The law, in Kamboureli’s scheme of things, exercises a disciplinary function in reconstituting the body politic and narrating nation.

The title of her work, however, alludes to the corporeal and the material rather than only the discursive and the symbolic, while remaining attuned to and troubled by the problematics of mediation and enunciation. In this regard, Kamboureli asserts that the word “scandal” is a sign “also of violation and indignity” (xv). I take my cue from this assertion because recent events such as the Tyendinaga standoff and the protests and toppling of monuments in the wake of George Floyd’s death indicate that the need of the hour may be less about the politics of identity and difference and more about what Walter Benjamin would call the relations among law, violence, and (in)justice. Kamboureli cites Amy Gutmann’s comment that dominant narratives of multiculturalism could be assessed in light of their implementation of justice (Kamboureli 101-02; Gutmann 176), but does not develop this argument except to indicate that neither social cohesion nor cultural relativism resolves conflicts. Put another way, our attention needs to shift from the rhetoric of normalization that renders ethnicity both undifferentiated and essentialized to the necropolitics of extremity. George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” searingly illustrates the meagre superfluity of a life for which “nobody bears the slightest feelings of responsibility or justice” (Mbembe 37-38). In the context of the routine and casual violence and the threat of incarceration that Black, Indigenous, and mentally ill bodies and persons suffer, “constructive dialogue” (Kamboureli 129), necessary as it is, is unlikely to suffice if only because the boundaries that circumscribe the other (129) are, precisely, impermeable. In light of Floyd’s suffering and humiliation (he is, of course, representative rather than alone in his plight), Kamboureli’s comment about how Naomi’s body in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan both “bears the stain” and “dissolves under the weight” of history becomes even more poignant and apposite (187).

I chose Stevie Wonder’s lyrics as my epigraph because they deploy enunciative position to such startling effect. Kamboureli discusses enunciation in the context of critical responsibility and the ambivalences of positionality, but my interest is in what enunciation makes politically possible. Like Kamboureli, Wonder is skeptical of “emancipatory gesture[s] in the name of homogeneity and unity” (Kamboureli 101). The enunciative position of Blackness refuses to suspend disbelief in the expansive gesture that includes “all lives,” illuminating the exclusion that makes such largesse possible. Kamboureli struggles with the determinism of historical repetition despite or perhaps because she refuses to speak in messianic terms; for Wonder, change is too important to leave “in the hands of fate.” The rift between discourse and action may never be sutured; nevertheless, “expos[ing] the contents of history” acquires meaning and momentum when it serves “also to change history’s shape” (Kamboureli 221).

I want to conclude by turning to Kamboureli’s discussion of “the striptease of our humanism” (117) that Frantz Fanon undertakes. Her critique of Charles Taylor’s misreading of Fanon is well taken and, I would add, Taylor’s failure to feel unsettled by Fanon’s determination, as Sartre describes it in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth, to root out “the settler which is in every one of us” (qtd. in Kamboureli 117) is telling, to say the least. But Fanon’s scathing denunciation of Europe, that never ceases speaking of Man while murdering men wherever it may find them, is also a cry of rage and disappointment in the failure of humanism to live up to its vaunted ideals. When this suspicion on my part is juxtaposed with Mbembe’s poignant depiction of a superfluous life “whose price is so meager that it has no equivalence, whether market or—even less—human” (37-38), I want to interpret both humanism and universalism counterintuitively to account for Floyd’s exclamation “I can’t breathe,” his embodiment of worth in and as breath, as life itself. In this moment, Floyd dreams simply of being human, equivalent to anyone and everyone else.

How might the discourse of multiculturalism affirm its responsibility to life without disciplining or commodifying difference?

Works Cited

Beaumont-Thomas, Ben. “Stevie Wonder Rejects ‘All Lives Matter’ in First New Music in Four Years.” The Guardian, 13 Oct. 2020, theguardian.com/music/2020/oct/13/stevie-wonder-new-songs-music. Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.

Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Selected Writings: Volume I, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Belknap, 1996, pp. 236-52.

Gutmann, Amy. “The Challenge of Multiculturalism in Political Ethics.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 22, no. 3, 1993, pp. 171-206.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Oxford UP, 2000.

Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Translated by Steve Corcoran, Duke UP, 2019.

Stevie Wonder. “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate.” So What the Fuss Music, Republic Records, 2020.

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