May 2021

IV. Essays und autobiografische Texte: The Specials

The Specials


Naomi Lubrich, Basel, Switzerland


Black-skinned, blue-eyed boys /
ain’t gonna start no war.

The British band “The Specials” dreamed in 2019 about “brand-new people” of mixed ethnicities whose multicultural background would rid the world of nationalism, racism, and religious zeal.

They ain’t got no country /
They ain’t got no creed /
People won’t be black or white /
The world will be half-breed.

My childhood in Berlin and Toronto of the 1980s and 1990s could have stood as a model for the Special’s “brand-new people.” In my high schools, one at the tear of the Iron Curtain, the other in a country of immigration, cultural diversity was indeed considered special.

My classmates had most unusual identities. One was Tunisian and Finnish, another Chilean and German. A friend whose parents were born in Guyana believes he has a combination of South Asian, African, First Nation and white DNA. My own background, German and Jewish, Canadian with an Israeli first name, bridges a genocide. Racism and anti-Semitism were despised in our urban social spheres. Being visibly diverse was as cool as the “United Colors” advertisements for Benetton.

We were in step with our times. Minority literature was entering school curricula. Political correctness was gaining ground. Apartheid in South Africa was abolished. The European Union was eradicating national borders. Identity, diversity, and plurality were the words of our time. Maya Angelou’s “diversity makes for a rich tapestry” was a poster on a wall, a tattoo on an arm.

Then the tables began to turn. It began at the university. The more we studied plurality, the more we found it: Many cultures at many times interacted with foreigners from near and far. From a historical perspective, our mixed identities were not really special – and not really modern.

Scholarship revealed that “in between-ness,” “transculturality,” and “hyphenated-identities” was a fairly normal experience, which made the identity-discourse seem tautological. What was the gain in studying personal identity, only to conclude that identity is personal?

Identity politics began to seem narcissistic. Not only is its discourse inward-looking, but in some circles, it smacked of arrogance. The “richness” of being bi-cultural seemed to imply – often unwittingly – a paucity for people with only one background.

Then the tables turned again. In summer 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in an election won by a nationalist, anti-immigration campaign. That fall, the election of Donald Trump exposed rampant racism in the United States. Our “brand-new world” with “brand-new people” proved a naive insular bubble in a fierce world.

Looking at my bi-cultural friends today reveals the malice underlying racists discourse. My friends are accountants, receptionists, speech therapists, and salespeople, single, married, and divorced, like everyone else. But my friends also prove that the believers in a multicultural advantage were too optimistic. Most of us are mainstream. The one or the other is a bigot. We’re more “ikea carpet” than “diverse tapestry.”

In our fierce world, with a climate on the verge of collapse and in a country with free access to firearms, today’s youth are fighting anti-vaxxers and anti-abortionists, neo-Nazis and Brexiteers, confederalists and conspiracy theorists. The cultural battlefields they are arming for are existential and daunting in ways unknown to my generation. Let’s stand with them, regardless of their identities, and regardless of whether they’re “special” or not.

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