‘Namaste’ she says.
“Hi,’ I reply.
‘Namaste’ she replies and raises her prayer hands to touch her bowing forehead. She has faded henna on her hands.
‘It just means hello,’ I say. She looks at me, confused.
‘Namaste, it just means hello. That’s it’.
Nikesh Shukla – Namaste – taken from The Good Immigrant
If you attend a yoga class, the teachers end by saying “namaste”. Generally, the teacher will encourage you to cross your legs, put your hands together in a prayer position and then touch them to your forehead, and repeat “Namaste” in a reverential tone. As a second generation migrant of Asian descent, this is an awkward moment for me. There are a number of reasons for this. Aside from the most obvious – I am catastrophically un-flexible, and sitting in an approximation of cross-legged even for this long is not a pleasant experience.
It is awkward because there is a particular cognitive dissonance that occurs in being induced to speak Sanskrit by an English person. It sits at the locus of a fleet of insecurities I have about my own identity.
I am half-punjabi. But I don’t speak Punjabi, beyond a couple of words. For a variety of reasons, my dad didn’t teach it to me and I never got my act together to learn it. About a decade ago I tried to learn Hindi, and while I was okay at it, it never took and beyond a few phrases. These I often deploy as joke with friends who speak Hindi or Urdu. Otherwise, I am functionally incapable of speaking it now. This creates an awkward feeling with other second-gen South Asian migrants who can speak at least one regional language – or often two. They often expect me to speak it as well. The discovery that I don’t always makes me feel like an impostor. I have falsified a connection to a joint heritage I cannot really claim.
That feeling is not entirely unjustified. The truth is that my upbringing was overwhelmingly British. While I have family on my dad’s side who never lost touch with their Indian background, visits to paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles were brief intervals in an otherwise very typical middle-class, English childhood. I’m not religious, so there were no regular trips to a temple (a Gurudwara in my case) to anchor me in culture and traditions of the homeland. For about 10 years now, I have periodically put on a pagri, mainly so I don’t forget how to do it. But my ability to tie one – while passable, is put to shame every time I pass a sardar on the street with a properly tied turban.
There is, if not stigma, then a certain implied disapprobation attached to this. We intrinsically disapprove of people who integrate to the extent they lose touch with “their heritage”. The second generation city-slicker who goes back “home” and finds themselves woefully incapable of blending in, is a trope for a reason. I am sceptical about giving too much credence on overly prescriptive ideas of ‘heritage’. I think it risks becoming essentialist. Nonetheless the feeling of guilt associated with it has never quite left me, and I still find it hard to meet the eye of someone in my generation, when I have to tell them I don’t speak Punjabi. The sense of relief I feel on meeting another desi-descendent in my situation is palpable.
So imagine the feelings that roil inside, when the person putting my cultural familiarity to shame is white.
Already, i have spent an hour or so showing myself to be a bad Indian by being completely incapable of even the most basic yoga poses. This is supposed to be “my” thing, but i am having to apply block to cushion to blanket to even approach sitting cross-legged.
Then to cap it all, at the moment of peak discomfort, when the contradictions of my mixed identity feel at their most acute, the class all bow their heads, and we enchant “Namaste”.
Why should I be any good at this though? I think if you asked most people they would agree that having parents from the Subcontinent doesn’t automatically bestow affinity with every facet of the culture.
Yoga, in particular sits in a funny place. It employs the language, and the aesthetics of the Indian spiritual tradition that inspired it. But from Dr. Iyengar onward it has become increasingly divorced from it. A suite of different forms have sprung up during the course of the last century, often with only the most passing engagement with the philosophical underpinnings of the original meditative practice. The marketing that supports them, while it may mention peace-of-mind, meditation or a nebulous “wellness” will often focus as much, or more on the physical benefits. Yoga sits alongside Pilates and Zumba as an exercise option, a get-fit scheme.
I often get the impression that I am expected to object to this. This new, bowdlerised, commercialised version of yoga. It trades on the spiritual vocabulary of ancient Hindu practices at £10-£20 an hour. Particularly as I am one of those people who get chippy about brown-face, white-washing and cultural appropriation. I disapprove of people wearing headdresses to festivals.
But the truth is, I don’t really. Partly because I am not sure that appropriation is what has happened here. A lot of the schools of yoga that have sprung up came from enterprising Indians, who saw a niche in the market in the West and took advantage of it. While they may be taught by westerners now, go back a generation or two of instructors and you will often find yourself in India.
Carl Jung argued that yoga was fundamentally too alien a cultural practice to really be able to function in the West. He thought any meditative practice would need to be based on the cultural and spriritual traditions that had grown up in Europe. A glance at the class list of nearly any modern sports centre would be enough to disabuse him of this conjecture. Yoga has sprouted and grown here. It has become a largely new thing. And if in doing so it has separated from the religious and philosophical tradition that birthed it, well to be honest, I think that’s fine.
But the other reason is because I just don’t feel that much of an affinity to it. I only ever really encountered it in it’s western format. I don’t feel like there is much of the heritage that feels meaningful to me, at stake.
Which brings us back to my ambiguity about “namaste”. Somewhere deep down, I think I probably should care more. I should feel a connection to Indian culture and traditions. Whether or not “namaste” is appropriation should be a live question for me. I should feel more of an affinity with that side of my family history. But I lack flexibility, lack language, lack a sense of spirituality and I lack the outrage. It is one word, which sums up a lifetime of letting the side down.
Daniel Kitson’s latest show Something Other than Everything includes a short section where he riffs on the fact that in the village he grew up in, people referred to the shop owned by an Asian family as “The paki shop”. He compares this to his nice middle class family, who called it “The sikh shop”, and ends with the conclusion the proper term would have been simply “the shop”. It’s a bit that has provoked some criticism. At the Guardian Nosheen Iqbal has written about feeling “winded” by his use of the word. Kitson can’t reclaim a word he’s never been called, she argues.
I want to talk a little bit about why I am willing to acceept Kitson using it in that set, when i might not accept others. In particular i want to compare it to Louis CK, and a routine he performed when he toured London last year.
In his routine, Louis CK talks about the crude racial stereotypes he employs to amuse his daughters. One character, “the quiet man” is a caricature of a Japanese man, another “the friendly man” is very clearly a stereotype of an African American. Because he does not openly identify each with a specific ethnicity, his daughters are unaware of the racial context and he feels he can get away with it.
Iqbal relates a history of intimidation, vandalism and threats of violence linked to the word, which Kitson’s set brought back to her. I was called the word a few times growing up, and certainly had to sit through my share of paki-jokes from other children. But i was not subject to the same level of violence and intimidation. So maybe that influences the licence I am willing to grant Kitson, which Iqbal is not.
In Kitson’s defence, I don’t think he was attempting to reclaim the word. Neither is he inviting the audience to congratulate him and themselves at achieving greater racial sensitivity than a Yorkshire village in the 1970s. Instead, the gag fits into a wider trope in the routine. Repeatedly he makes a statement or proclaims a value only to undermine it. This is not presented as evidence of Kitson’s smug superiority. Instead it is evidence of chronic insecurity. Kitson continually tries to establish something he’s sure of, then reads something, or speaks to someone that fatally undermines his confidence. As a result the show loops round and round presenting ideas, dismissing them, and fretting whether he was right to do so.
In this context, the riff comes across more like a chastisement, to himself and the audience for their (presumed) willingness accept “the sikh shop” as an improvement on “the Paki shop”. To be honest, it’s not the best bit of the show, you can see the conslusion coming so the intended bait and switch doesn’t really come off. But nonetheless, given the huge amount of reflection and self-examination, the continual questioning of his own ethics and justifications; I don’t find the routine troubling. I feel that in this show, Kitson has earned the right to make a joke with the word Paki in it.
Given that, why did Louis CK’s routine bother me? Similar to Daniel Kitson, Louis CK’s routines often engage in a very close analysis at how a particular phrase or comment works. Previous routines have engaged in a deep and nuanced dissection of how race, gender and privilege operate. Surely Louis CK has earned it, if Daniel Kitson has?
But, similar to Iqbal, I had the experience of feeling I was boring companions and friends who saw the routine. Most people I spoke to, who had seen it were pretty happy to go along with it. Louis CK had not openly identified his impressions with their obvious targets. The joke did not then hinge on a set of shared racial assumptions that he was inviting the audience to join him in laughing at.
Except it was, wasn’t it? A key component of the gag was: “here are some crude stereotypes of Black and Japanese people”. The transgressive thrill that Iqbal assigns to Daniel Kitson feels more appropriately applied here. Part of the rush is Louis CK giving the audience permission to laugh at crude racist stereotypes. But why was it necessary to do so? The gag was a 3-minute bit in an 1.5 hour routine. And that was a large part of the problem. Context is king. Kitson’s gag fell in the middle of a c. 2 hour routine that obsessively examined privilege, race and language. He continually challenged his own position as middle class man, and as a comic and examined the ethics of his words and actions. Louis CK just threw in some stereotypes with (to me) kind of flimsy ironic covering. He just hadn’t done the prep work to earn that kind of licence.
Why does any of this matter? Well in the grand scheme it doesn’t. But, I occasionally find myself getting into debates with people about whether a given artwork, or joke or statement is racist. About whether a given writer, or actor of comedian is allowed to say something. I think the difference between my reaction to Daniel Kitson and Louis CK explains a lot about my wider feelings on this. I don’t think comedians or writers have to stop saying any given word, or talking about any given subject. But words and subjects are not weightless, and they are not all the same. And the heavier they are, the more work i think you should have to do before you can throw them.
Diane Abbott is the politician who best exemplifies the very different conversations about race that go on in the country even among people who profess similar values and beliefs. Consider the two statements below:
Diane Abbott has had a bad election. She’s conducted a couple of car-crash interviews that may or may not have been influenced by the illness that has caused her to step away from the role of shadow Home Secretary. Any politician who had performed so badly should expect mockery, especially in the run up to an election.
Diane Abbott has been the recipient of a campaign of misogyny and racism that long predates the election but was ramped up in the run up to polling day. Racist and misogynistic attitudes (misogynoir) have absolutely affected the way she has been treated.
How can we square one these two attitudes?
It is telling that we even feel we need to. I have spent the day having conversations with a number of people with whom I share differing degrees of political territory. None of whom are radically right wing and none of whom have ever given me any indication they hold any genuine racist or misogynistic attitudes. To be clear, on the off chance any of them read this, I still believe that today.
Nonetheless I still believe they are wrong when they express only a version of the first statement and dismiss some version of the second. Several times someone has pointed out to me that Diane Abbott has simply been picked on because she is the weak link in the cabinet. That’s why Boris kept trying to crowbar her into his interview on the Today Program.
Thats why she features so prominently in Tory literature despite their being a number of other MPs that also make good RW character-assassination fodder.
But mockery of John McDonnell doesn’t cut through the same way.
Well that maybe, but that is not simply because she has made some gaffs. It’s because those gaffs feed into a well established narrative that has portrayed Abbott as stupid, lazy, uncouth and unreliable. Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Damien Green and even the notoriously camera shy Theresa May have all had shocking interviews this election. None have been picked up and amplified in anything like the way that Diane Abbott’s have.
In between Abbott’s now notorious interviews Jeremy Corbyn had a car-crash interview in which he flubbed the details of his own childcare policy. The story got nothing like the coverage that Abbott’s did.
In the day she stepped aside, an hour after the announcement George Osborne proudly tweeted an Evening Standard cartoon mocking Abbott for cancelling engagements due to ill-health.
In February David Davis tried to kiss Diane Abbott in the Commons bar. Much of the press the next day was full of stories about Abbott telling him to fuck-off. Not about Davis being an entitled, boorish, creep.
I’m not saying no other politicians get mocked, or get caricatured, or get unfair reporting, but Abbott gets all of it. And it is notable that while I haven’t had to debate this with all my white, male friends, all the friends I’ve had to debate this with have been white and male.
In 2012 Diane Abbott tweeted “White people love playing divide and rule, we should not let them. #tacticasoldascolonialism”. The result was an outcry. Whether or not she should’ve said is not the key issue here. (FWIW given the limits of twitter I don’t think it was a good idea). What was stark to me was how completely separate the conversations it sparked where, and how ethnically divided.
I frequently found myself encountering the same questions when discussing it:
Why was she tarring all white people with that brush? Wasn’t that racism? Why bring up the empire it was so long ago? Surely they couldn’t be held responsible for what happened before they were born? Why divide white people from ethnic minorities? Wasn’t that needlessly divisive?
Abbott’s comments were in keeping with many I’ve heard from BME people of hers and my dad’s generation. “White people”is a fairly common stand-in for the empire when time or space make brevity an advantage, and colonialism is a common touch stone in discussion of race and politics. White people is also a description of people at the top of an ethnically stratified power dynamic, and doesn’t refer to absolutely all people of that ethnicity, colonialism is the basis and driving force behind that dynamic. It’s really not that long ago.
Again, not every conversation with a white interlocutor involved explaining this background, but all conversations that required it, where with a white interlocutor.
Similarly, in conversations about Abbott’s treatment over the election, BME friends and colleagues automatically place it in a wider context. This context treats it as axiomatic that politicians who are Black, and politicians who are women will get punished for being in the public eye, in a way that politicians who are male or white will not. It’s not that no white people I’ve discussed it with have seen this context, but the clear majority of BME people I’ve spoken to have. There is a feeling that you can’t play the sort of role that Diane Abbott has played, as a Black woman and not get treated this way.
I would reiterate I think it’s perfectly possible to be critical of Diane Abbott’s performance without being racist or misogynistic, and I don’t think any of the people I’ve been debating with today are either of those things.
There have been, already a slew of articles debating this point so perhaps this one is extraneous. But it strikes me as telling that even people who seem to agree on race, often dont seem to be speaking the same language.
With depressing predictability Morrissey has decided to offer his contribution to a conversation that was in no sense crying out for it. As a rule, my policy on Morrissey is to ignore him and hope he’ll go away. But for whatever reason, this one particularly irked me. And as this blog is largely an outlet for things that irk me about race stuff, and at the risk of adding one more extraneous opinion to the pile, here is one.
In the past, Morrissey has tended to release his most offensive pronouncements to coincide with tours and new albums. But, that doesn’t appear to be the case on this occasion so I guess we have to take him at his word. After all, he has form.
In 2007 he declared that he would never return to the UK because immigration had destroyed English identity. In 2010 he declared the Chinese were a sub-species because of their treatment of animals. Long before this his songs and statements had enough to make people uncomfortable – telling the “Bengali in Platforms” that he didn’t belong. Declaring that reggae was vile, much of this was then passed off as wit.
Alongside the obvious offensive nature of the comments, and the strong whiff of cynicism that accompanies many of his later outbursts; what really hits you in the face is his thudding lack of irony. For a man often hailed as an arch ironist, Morrissey apparently did not hesitate to lecture the English on losing their identity to foreign immigration – from his home in Italy.
The man who has written whole songs about the impact of British colonialism in Ireland, and castigated the English for not abandoning the memory of Oliver Cromwell is apparently completely blind to the role of British colonialism on immigration to the UK. The same forces that took Cromwell to Ireland generated the process that brought the Bengali in platforms to the UK to face Morrissey’s disdain. Instead, the son of Irish immigrants to the UK declares that immigration is the problem, and links it explicitly to terrorism…
Finally he declares that politicians are complacent because they are never at risk, within 12 months of a politician’s murder and an attempted attack on Parliament.
In the 1980s and 90s he mainly stuck to nostalgia for an imagined, lost-England cobbled together from Kenneth Williams and Eaton comedies. While this often strayed into dubious territory he normally managed to keep just (just) on the right side of the line separating provocative from openly bigoted. For years now, he’s no longer seemed to bother.
Maybe, he just meant to highlight the way politicians rarely seem to bear the brunt of their decisions. That’s a reasonable point to make. In the past, maybe he just meant to raise the issue of animal cruelty in China, that’s certainly worth addressing. But for a man who’s built his reputation on a stiletto precision with words, he certainly chose a clumsy crass way of expressing these views. So let’s take him at his word, maybe he’s just an aging chauvinist, who knew exactly what he wanted to say? Maybe.
Last week I got drunk with (among others) my friend Rob and we talked about what I mean by “Race is a process”. I’ve been thinking it through for a week now and so I’d like to try and put down what I think I mean by it.
What is a process?
When we call something a process we mean that it requires a series of actions, that can be repeated for the same outcome and all of which are necessary for the given outcome to take place.
What if race wasn’t a process?
In order to get some clarity, it might be useful to think about what it would mean if race wasn’t a process. What could it be instead?
One way we often talk and think about race as a scientific phenomena. So we think about biological traits or markers, perhaps a result of genetics that demarcate identifiable and fixed groups within the species homo sapiens. I think this model underlies the crudest scientific racism: discussion of bell curves and genetic superiority of Aryan races.
The problem with this model is that the races identified don’t map very well on to the genetic markers we are told mark the boundaries of one race or another. Firstly, because evidence indicates that genetic variation can be greater between individuals within the same race, than between two individuals of different races. Secondly, because the markers that identify people as one race or another are socially determined. This means that race is socially rather than biologically constructed.
There is another, softer model that often operates in practice. This model views races as the equivalent of a breeds among animals. This model at least has space for an acknowledgement that the lines of demarcation are the result of human action. Nonetheless it produces a model that is highly deterministic. In practice racial categorisation is a result of social and historical contingencies that render the kind of calculations of that produce dog breeds (for example) generally nonsensical.
So how is race a process?
What I mean by that is that race requires specific actions and theories to be in operation for it to manifest within society. These processes involve (but aren’t necessarily limited to) ideas about skin colour, the heritability of traits through genetics, the role of parentage and the importance of phenotype in identifying a members of particular population. Also there are historical and political process that create and attach meanings and power relations to these various processes in order to fashion a race out of them, and define what it means to be a part of that race at any given time or place.
But race isn’t just a discourse
So far I’ve been implicitly contrasting race as a process with race as an ontology. I think that works as a corrective to overly determinative views of race. But it’s possible to go too far and miss something important when we just think about race as a discourse, and I think I often do so.
Race is a process because processes can be physical in a way that isn’t necessarily captured by a “discourse”.
Other people’s perception of our race can impact on our bodies. Racism does not simply operate as an abstract discourse, the impact of which we must trace through studies and statistics. It also often operates as an extremely physical experience one that can beat and break bodies because of the physical traits they display.
It is easy to write as if we can wave the theory wand and dismiss race as a discourse. But that would ignore one of the most important things about how the process of race operates. In order to function the process of race also requires physical bodies to demonstrate whichever trait history and society have selected as a marker. More importantly, people’s experience their race is embodied. My conception of my race involves the physical sensation of the body which possesses the relevant traits, the skin of a certain tone, the nose of a given shape etc. The fact that those traits mark out a racial identity might be because of historical and social forces, the fact I have them is because of an extremely physical process and I can’t escape the fact that they are felt, not just conceptualised.
The statement “race is a process” doesn’t mean it is just a process.
Nb. I’ve edited this blog after some really helpful comments from Thomas Neumark. Huge thanks to Rob Waters for prompting me to think more clearly about this, and especially his thoughts on how race is actually experienced.
I attended two events last night (I’m like that) that made me think about how race affects our perception, but also how perception affects the social construction of race.
The first event was a talk by an academic who uses neuroscience to investigate prejudice and dehumanisation. The talk explored the ways that the structure of the brain leads to implicit bias. (NB. what follows will vastly over-simplify a complexes process so apologies to any neuroscientist who may accidentally stumble on to this blog).
The second was the launch of a book of poetry by my friend Raymond Antrobus (That’s right, my friends have book launches, it ain’t no thing).
People are evolutionarily disposed to engage in social cognition in the company of others. We automatically imbue them with an inner-life and make assumptions and guesses about how others think about us. This process is automatic, but it is also flexible. We can extend it to inanimate objects in certain circumstances, like when we watch a puppet show, or a cartoon and temporarily credit the puppet or the coloured shapes with some (limited) personhood for the duration.
However, we can also withdraw it, in order to dehumanise someone, in a situation when it is socially advantageous. This process is in play, for instance, when we walk past a homeless person, but allow ourselves not to consider their experience in order to avoid giving them any money. While it seems heartless, there is an evolutionary mechanism at work here, an inability to turn off, or at least turn down social cognition would be mentally exhausting and render us less able to function particularly in situations where resources are limited and we may need an element of ruthlessness to survive. The fact that it served a purpose at one time, however does not mean it does not need to be resisted at others.
The flexibility of this process also allows us to employ time-saving heuristics when coming to conclusions about strangers. The largest number of social connections an individual can hold in their mind is roughly 150. Beyond that, we lose track. This means that we often employ a heuristic to identify people outside of this 150-person social circle, and decide how to react to them.
One of the main heuristics employed, is stereotypes. Effectively, absent detailed knowledge of another’s personality, we will generally grasp a number of cues and relate them to the dominant model of people who share those characteristics, which we have absorbed – often unconsciously – from our culture. This model allows us to decide how we will act around them, but it in order to turn them into a broad “type” we generally turn down our social cognition, and dehumanise the other. These models can change over time, in the early 19th century a British person’s instinctive reaction to someone with a french accent would be very different to what it is now. However, at any given moment they are very powerful, and often require either a long time, or a very significant event to shift them.
Again, from an evolutionary perspective, a false positive is far less of a problem than a false negative, especially for something you might perceive as not only an outsider but a threat. Combined with our capacity to turn down social cognition, these stereotypes can produce responses that are not just prejudiced, but often violently so.
So in situations where people are free to operate on the basis of unconscious impressions; or are even encouraged to trust to a nebulous instinct, outcomes will often reflect these socially constructed dynamics. A classic example, of course, is stop and search. Police are meant to have probable cause (for most powers) but in practice it seems that actually there is a significant degree of implicit bias that determines who is stopped and who isn’t.
To indicate just how intimately the physiological and social are connected on this process, there is a theory that the stereotype of African-American men as violent, brutal and ape-like was so strong that police in America automatically perceive them as a greater threat than other men. In a controlled experiment to measure perceptions of threatening behaviour police routinely rated men of predominantly African descent as being a greater threat than men of other ethnicities. Not only this, but they also routinely indicated that they would react with force sooner in a hypothetical interaction.
Perhaps the archetypal example of this process is the airport security line. I have numerous examples of times i have been “randomly” selected for additional security checks. So does every non-white friend I know. Ray travels quite a lot, and in introducing this poem last night he discussed a little of his history of interaction with, particularly US immigration at airports. He followed it with a poem that neatly encapsulated this experience. (NB. I’ve cut it down for space, but it’s called Miami Airport and it’s taken from a book called To Sweeten Bitter published by Outspoken press, and you should check it out).
“ID/ Why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?/why were you in Africa? / why don’t you look like a teacher? / is this your girlfriend? why doesn’t she look English…
you think you’re going/ to go free? / what did you not hear?
A version of this piece appeared at mediadiversified.org I am very grateful to them for posting it and for the invaluable help editors gave me there, in making it a much better piece than it would otherwise have been.
Last night I attended a screening of I Am Not Your Negro followed by a Q&A with the director Raul Peck.
It’s full of interesting ideas. But the one that struck me, was Baldwin’s deconstruction of race, and in particular Whiteness. It is an idea that points to some limitations, and a lack of nuance that can still be found in discussion about race, even decades after Baldwin died.
The critique of the idea of race as immutable difference and its relation to whiteness runs through a lot of Baldwin’s narrative in the documentary, but in particular when he says that white North America created the “Negro-problem” to preserve their purity.
For Baldwin, the so-called “Negro-problem” in America is not a description of an actual situation. It is a psychological device created by white American society to fabricate a hated population against which they could define themselves. Baldwin charted the impact of this process on the Black as well as white populations when he wrote how:
“In America, the color of my skin stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down. Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me – anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me…”
– James Baldwin, ‘Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son’ (1993; orig. 1961), pp. xi-xii
Baldwin’s insight is deeper than the common historical truism that North American racism was forged as a device to prevent the poor white and poor Black populations from forming an alliance. It is not simply a case of divide and rule. White American identity was forged in very particular ways in opposition to Black.
To do this, it was necessary to create a Black people where one did not exist before, who could provide the material of the “Negro-problem”. There are hints of this racial temporality in the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When, reflecting on how her identity changed after leaving Nigeria, the protagonist Ifemelu says “I did not think of myself as Black and I only became Black when I came to America.”
People who were sold into the North Atlantic slave trade were not Black prior to enslavement. The category would not have been salient to them. However, in the violence of being brought to America, a range of salient differences: linguistic, tribal, cultural, religious were erased. The salient characteristic of the power-structure in which they were enmeshed picked up on a particular range of epidermal markers (skin tone) and labelled them Black. These tones were then yoked to some other aspects of phenotype and from them a racial categorisation was fashioned: negro. The term, and all of its adjuncts and synonyms came weighted with political and cultural significance which placed those it labelled in a specific relationship to those around them. In particular, it placed them at the bottom of a hierarchy which defined those at the top as “white”. The hierarchy was not fixed and unchanging. Groups of people could and did move around in it, and their racial classification also moved in response. The higher up the ladder one moved, and depending on your ethnicity and class, the closer to white one became.
This dynamic is visible in other colonial contexts as well, though of course the specifics of how it played out were different. It is visible in some of Gandhi’s early writings, when he uses the derogatory term “kaffir” to refer to the African populations of South Africa. This work is inflected with an earnest desire to differentiate his crusade for better treatment for the Indian population from any implication of racial equality. While he would later abandon this position, it is clear that at the start of his South African campaign, Gandhi is outraged to discover that in the eyes of the British, he is no better than Black.
In a sense, certain populations in North America became white when and to the extent that they could differentiate themselves from, and reject and dominate Black populations.
There is a similar discussion in Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me, with the refrain “People who believe themselves to be white”.
For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies (of Black people) were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation
The quote above picks up the absolute brutality with which the distinctions have to be enforced. The idea of purity might help to understand the obscene, excessive violence that marked slavery and later lynchings and the sickening frivolity that accompanied the events – postcards, picnics and souvenirs (See P. Wolfe, Traces of History for more on this).
Lynching was not simply a material device to keep the Black population of the South politically disenfranchised (though it was that too), it was an emotional and visceral response to perceived pollution. A pollution that undermined an important psychological component of white American’s perception of itself. As Baldwin, himself put it:
“… the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity… Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the Black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star… and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations”
James Baldwin, ‘Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundred Anniversary of the Emancipation’ in ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963), p. 20
It is significant that lynchings were often the response to perceived violations of the sexual probity of white women. In highly patriarchal societies, women and their sexuality can be positioned as bearers of the status and dignity of the whole community. Men are then empowered to act with extreme violence in defence of this perception of honour, which is justified not merely as atavistic violence towards threats to their dominance, but as principled defence of the status of the community. Lynching is an expression of this dynamic at work.
Picking up from this point, if the Negro problem was created by white America, to help them fashion themselves as a nation, then the Whiteness of white Americans is also something they developed as they became more established on the continent. They became more white as they ceased to be Irish, or Polish or German, Quaker, or Catholic or Jewish.
Whiteness is not a description of a race, it is rather a position in a power-relationship which builds itself in opposition to all the people who are produced as not-white, and in particular those who are Black. If there were no Black people in Africa, before they were brought to America, then there were similarly no white people in Europe. The term would have been equally meaningless.
Towards the end of the film, Baldwin says “The world is not white. It can’t be, whiteness is just a metaphor for power“. At this point in the film I felt like Baldwin had casually summarised an idea I have spent years, and now, at least two blog posts trying to express. Race is socially and historically constructed but more than that, race is created by a political dynamic.
While this is most starkly seen in the violent dichotomies discussed in I Am Not Your Negro I think this is a basic structure of race across society. What does it mean, therefore for us to say that race is always a description of a social, historical and political position?
It is tempting to argue that this means race is ‘only’ a construct, an idea like money or marriage. There has already been enough ink spilled on Rachel Dolezal, that it would be hubris to think I could add further illumination. But one important issue that is thrown up by Ijeoma Oluo’s recent interview (among many), is the role of ideas of biography and parentage in the formation of race. Oluo points out that Rachel Dolezal’s actions caused hurt and outcry in part because her personal background placed her at the top of a racial hierarchy, even as it enabled her to portray herself as being at the other end of it. Her refusal to recognise that privilege, is (rightly) criticised by Oluo. This is significant because it highlights that there are inherited and physical aspects to race hierarchies.
Populations develop physical characteristics as a result of environmental pressures. Light skin among Europeans is a response to levels of sunlight that require less protection for skin cells and make higher levels of melatonin a disadvantage in terms of vitamin D production. Darker skin is a reaction to opposite environmental pressures. My own family has a genetic tendency to the thalassemia trait, a blood condition similar to sickle cell anaemia. It is one of a number of conditions that are common in South Asian (amongst other) communities. Along with its more deleterious health impacts, there is evidence that Sickle Cell and Thalassemia provide some protection from the malaria virus still common in the region. So while phenotypes that were grouped together as racial identifiers are the result of a political and historical process they can also tell us something about the dynamic exchanges between bodies and their different environments.
Have we gone too far the other way now, are we now at risk of straying into racial determinism? No. The racial categories identified by proponents of racial determinism, e.g. inherited differences in intelligence, only loosely map onto genetic differences between those populations. Identifiers of race may be historically and politically contingent but those identifiers themselves are not entirely randomly distributed.
So if race is not merely a construction neither is it an ontology. Reflecting the damage done to earlier an earlier generation, Baldwin warned his young nephew against being trapped and limited by those who would treat it as such:
“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t ever forget it.”
– James Baldwin, ‘Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundred Anniversary of the Emancipation’ in ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963), p. 16
**Spoiler Warning** The below discusses Get Out and has some mild spoilers so bear that in mind and maybe see the film first.
Get Out is often held up as a penetrating analysis of the politics of current racial dynamics. But its targets are not the real drivers of the current state of racial politics. Firstly, a disclaimer – this is not one of those hot takes where someone just picks something popular and explains why you’re all wrong to like it. I loved Get Out, it was great. Genuinely funny, creepy as hell, and incredibly well-observed. I don’t have a word to say against it.
Except, maybe the way it is being discussed as a film that has so much to say about the post-Obama zeitgeist. The film is openly set the post-Obama world, and a couple of characters discuss the fact. Given the subject matter, some scenes consciously evoke the numerous incidents where white Americans – and particularly the police – have inflicted fatal violence on African Americans with impunity.
But the real target of the film’s biting critique is a form of racism that feels – at the moment – as if it has been superseded: the smug, hypocritical Boston brahmins who profess liberal views but secretly view black people as inferior – to a murderous extent in the film. Bradley Whitford’s role in particular, could be summed up as “What if Josh Lyman ran an underground slave trade?”
I’m not claiming that this is no longer a problem or that we should not object to this type of racism. But the racial animus that has defined the last year or two is not the genteel hypocrisy so brutally exposed in Get Out.
Instead it is the more open, and violent xenophobia, that labels all Mexicans rapists, brands MPs traitors and murders them, attempts to ban Muslims or evokes Nazi propaganda in it’s campaign posters.
Explanations of the various political upsets that took place over the last year have been many and varied. But no one can seriously claim that they were marked by the immense confidence; the presumption of natural superiority that underlies the the hypocrisy of the Armitage family. These people are at pains to express their liberal credentials because they view the resentment and bigotry that fuelled Trump’s election campaign as below them. They are the “elite liberals” that have been the target of so much of the populist billionaire posturing we have seen in recent years. The ones so often railed at by the Daily Mail and Spiked. They don’t view the black characters as truly human, but they don’t hate and fear them for it. Trump’s election and the referendum campaign weren’t characterised by a smug, superior condescension; one that indulges in a creepy fetishism of black bodies. Instead, they were characterised by a simmering and often open resentment against people of colour. A belief that society is a racial zero-sum game that whatever progress was made (or perceived to be made) by ethnic minorities came at a cost of white people.
Get Out is sharply observed, laugh out loud funny and genuinely creepy. But, it has little to say about the resentment that is really driving our current politics.
One of the most persistent, and frustrating fallacies that has popped up routinely in the last decade or so, is the idea that that class and race are entirely separate categories and that white and working class are natural corollaries. Yet the working class is multi-ethnic group.
This normally takes the form of a commentator, or politician (normally white, normally male, often middle class) declaring or implying that action to address racial inequality is taking place at the expense of action on class inequality, and in particular at the cost of the white working class. What is particularly galling is this lament is often wailed by voices that demonstrate very little other interest in addressing economic injustice.
The chart below provides the latest ONS figures (based on the 2011 census) for employment broken down by ethnic group in the UK. Clearly employment is not identical to class. Nonetheless, it calls into question any implication that ethnic minorities are benefiting from a economic system rigged in favour of the non-white population.
Employment % by ethnicity, 2014
This is a critique that is also voiced on the left, Simon Jenkins recently castigated the identity-politics obsessed left for failing alienating the white working class and clearing the path to Trump and Brexit. Ironically those who tend to fret about the splintering effects of “Identity politics” seem to advance a politics that explicitly splits off the interests of the BME working class, in order to create an imagined, snowy white working class whose interests must be addressed independently.
Implicit in this claim is the assumption that people experience only one type of discrimination – class or race based. It is not possible, in this schema for people to be both BME and working class.
In this simplistic formulation, concern for racial injustice is the preserve of the effete metropolitan elite. A boondoggle that allows them to avoid thinking about the uncouth poor.
It is for this reason that we should welcome the latest joint publication from Class and the Runnymede Trust. Minority Report is a series of essays that pick apart the ways that race and class issues operate in the UK. Importantly, it identifies the way that discussions of one are often used to erase or disguise the other. As the editors point out “the ‘white working class’ analysis tends to sidestep or even erase the existence of the ‘black working class’”.
We see this effect apply not merely in regard to race, feminism and women’s rights and LGBT rights are also often dismissed as being an elite, liberal distraction. As if the history of the elite in the UK is one of warmhearted embrace of women’s liberation and LGBT rights. The fact is that the working class includes women too, some members of the working class are LGBT, and some are black.