Skip to content

Race, class, gender and the ‘white left’

BHMI was invited by Luqman Onikosi at Sussex University to address Black History Month, an event I used to enjoy immensely during my time there. I highlight for me was chairing the Black Panther speaking tour back in 2008. Luqman asked me to speak on the problematic separation between race, class and gender, and I’m not sure how much justice I did to that massive subject. However, the following text include some reflections on the question of what race is, the problematic misunderstanding of race in the approach taken by Lisa McKenzie in her recent Guardian article, ‘The Refugee crisis will hit the UK’s working class areas the hardest‘, and what I see as the blindness of the white left opposition to identity politics. Please note that these reflections are schematic and I might work it up into a longer article in due course.

In this talk I want to respond to some recent, and some more longstanding, debates in the politics of race, racism and antiracism with regards to the connections between race, class and gender.

I am motivated by the current moment – the movement of refugees across borders and their reception/rejection in ‘western’ societies. I want to get behind what this means for our understandings of race in a so-called ‘postracial’ era and what this means for antiracism.

The demand to cross borders by those who have no choice but to move has always forced us to ask difficult, but fundamental, questions such as ‘what is the nation?’, ‘where is the border?’, ‘who is an insider?’, ‘whose interests are being protected by closing borders?’, etc.

Migration and critical border studies are at the forefront of asking these questions, but they often do so without putting questions of race at the centre. So, while some might understand racism as an ideology that is used by elites (politicians) to create fear of migrants among the population, race as the factor which underpins the very question of why borders exist is an issue that is often sidelined. In fact, placing questions of race at the heart of explanations of why and how migrants are created or what purposes the border serves is often written off as being reductive.

I think this comes from a problem with what we consider race to be. So, I want to start by talking briefly about how a race critical lens can help us conceptualise racism. I want to make a connection to gender by showing how we must think of race and gender as two inseparable structures.

But I also want to talk about some problems with the term racism, its history, and its current usage.

I then want to look at some contemporary examples that help us understand the problems of not thinking of race, gender and class together. These are problems that are not dissociable from the issues of citizenship, nationalism, whiteness, coloniality, borders etc. which continue to constrain the vast majority of the world’s people.

Finally, I will also ask what these issues mean for the struggle against racism. Many of you will be aware of the call (originating with black and majority world feminists) for an intersectional approach that looks at how the structures of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability and so on work in tandem. But in so far as black and otherwise racialised and minoritised feminists insist on this, there are also strong rejections of this approach, especially from those who resist ‘identity politics’ from a variety of standpoints:  libertarian, Marxist, humanitarian or ‘white feminist’.

I will point out how I think this misreading of decolonial, autonomous action, led by racialised people and often queer people of colour who may or many not also be migrants, asylum seekers, detainees, Muslims facing Islamophobia, etc. as identitarian and hence conservative poses a significant problem for antiracism.

1.    What is race?

The modern race project can be thought of as successful for two interrelated reasons, and this is the key for understanding why it has endured.
•    It has entered into commonsense by being made appear natural
•    It has been made synonymous with biology or genetics, and thus separate to culture.

Both of these interpretations are wrong, have little to do with the foundations of race as a political project, yet persist in the mainstream.

The problem is that race and racism have been thought of together, but it might make more sense to think of them separately, or at least to think more deeply about how they relate to each other.

Social scientists and historians have made a good case for claiming that racism invents race. In other words, race is a social construction – there are no significant biological differences between groups of people who originate from different parts of the world. Since the advent of genetic research, many geneticists have shown that there is more genetic variation among people thought to belong to the same ‘racial’ group than there is across the ‘races’. In other words, race is not an objective, ‘scientific’ fact.

But, as Stuart Hall and many others have argued, race has social significance. Put simply, if you are treated differently because of your perceived race, it doesn’t really matter if there is any truth behind race or not. Also, because groups have been discriminated against on racial grounds, it has made sense for collective  identities to be built on ‘racial’ grounds.

As the great African American sociologist, W.E.B Du Bois put it, race is a badge worn by those who share a long history of discrimination and insult. In other words, race can be and indeed has been a rallying point and a source of strength and resistance.

I have no dispute with these two points and as I shall argue later, I have no time for the anti-identity politics position that sees all racial/ethnic/religious/gender-based etc. collective action as short-sighted/standing in the way of a larger struggle.

I also have severe skepticism about the position, that has been the orthodoxy in Europe since the end of the Second World War, that speaking about race encourages racism. The argument, which is especially strong in countries such as France and Germany, is that because ‘race thinking’ underpinned the Holocaust in all its horror, then to speak in terms of race would lead to race becoming naturalized (again): an acceptable way of thinking or speaking.

Obviously, those who are concerned about racial language are right in some respects. The idea of race contains within it the notion of hierarchy – a schema whereby humanity was arranged on a scale, with white Europeans at the top and black Africans at the bottom. The belief in the ‘superiority’ of whites and the supposed natural propensity of blacks for slavery is a dangerous idea that should be challenged.

I agree. However, I am not sure that challenging that idea is achieved by getting rid either of the word race or of the potentially unifying collective power of racial identity.

Put simply, the problem with eliminating race is that it obscures ‘its trace’. How do we talk about something if we don’t talk about it?!
Anthropologists suggested that talking about culture or ethnicity was a better way of making sense of human differences, because they thought that there was no implication of hierarchy or superiority. However, scholars such as Ann Stoler or Robert Young (who have both written a lot about colonialism) have shown how biology (race) and culture were often thought about interchangeably or together. There was no neat separation of ideas about genetic inferiority over here and cultural difference over there.

As Ann Stoler argues, under Dutch colonialism for example, the main point of differentiation for the colonized was the extent to which they could fit in with Dutch culture. Could colonized people ever have the same understandings of the ins-and-outs of ‘Dutchness’ as a white Dutch person? Now, if we think about contemporary debates about integration, for example, questions of how ‘suitable’ Muslim people are to a western ‘way of life’, we can see that we are not a million miles away from these questions that animated Dutch colonial administrators in the 19th century.

So, we need to have different ways to think about race.

One of the problems with race, pointed about by Barnor Hesse, is that because of the significance placed on the Holocaust as the pinnacle of racial logic, race-thinking has become synonymous with 19th century racial ‘science’, the eugenics movement, cranial measurements, etc. The marriage of politics and science that came about in the 19th century (which led British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to say ‘all is race, there is no other truth’) effaced race’s longer trajectory and roots. Because this form of ideological/science backed race thinking was seen as motivating the Holocaust, it was this version of the history of race that took precedence.

Hesse explains that this cannot be separated from the history of the word racism. Racism first gets mentioned in the 1920s and 30s by European thinkers who were concerned with the rise of fascism. In most of their writing they don’t mention colonialism or, for example, the concentration camps of the Australians, the British during the Boer war, or the Germans in Namibia that were the prototypes for the Nazi Final Solution.

Much like our concern with refugees today, now that they are clamouring at the gates of Europe, the inventors of the term racism were Eurocentric in their concern for what they saw as extremism within European societies, but they weren’t so concerned with the business as usual in the colonies which they mainly either ignored or justified.

So, the problem with the concept of racism is that it was never invented with the purpose of explaining race in its entirety. Rather, it originated as a Eurocentric concern with a particular form of ideology that was seen as destroying European values. This is consistent with the way in which we continue to talk about racism – extremist parties, uneducated individuals, reactionary policies which undermine ‘democratic’ or ‘liberal’ values (which are touted as western values).

Race has a longer history, going back to the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors from Spain and the subsequent conquest of the Americas. It is ultimately a technology of power, a schema for the management of human populations. As such race cannot be thought of separately from gender because it is via sex that certain groups are reproduced and others are not. Sex was a technique both to ‘improve’ those seen as racially inferior, but also more crucially to control populations through the threat of sexual domination.

Race is also indelibly linked to property. Because race is invented as a schema to legimitise colonial expropriation and settlement, the enshrining in law of who had rights of ownership over lands and resources was fundamentally a racist project. When the British declared Australia Terra Nullius – a land without people – they did so to legitimize taking the Aboriginal people’s lands. Because Aboriginal people were not seen as having a stake in property, they were seen as not fully human because to be human (according to the English) was to own property.

Of course, within this context, women too were property. So, slavery is as much a gendered regime as a racialised one. Slaves were feminized in their relationship to their ‘masters’; female slaves were doubly their property, to be sexually used at whim. But also, crucially white women – who were subjugated by white men – could elevate their status in the context of colonialism or slavery by subjugating black women (No time to go in greater depth but for more on this, Vron Ware’s ‘Beyond the Pale: white women, racism and history).

We can think about it like this, just as sexism is only one aspect of how gender works as an oppressive structure, so too racism – which we could think of as the ideology of racial superiority – does not completely explain race as a system. (It’s not that racism and sexism are completely analogous here, but putting it this way helps see what the problem is.)

When it comes to sexism, we can see how the discriminatory treatment of women, for example in cases of sexual harassment, points towards an underlying gendered power system, but on its own cannot fully encapsulate how gender operates as an ordering mechanism that constrains both women and men into predefined roles.

Similarly, when we talk about racism we generally refer to discrimination or particular attitudes towards racialised people and, while many of us are aware that this originates in systems of rule, treating racism in this way also enables individual incidents to be treated as unique. In a supposedly ‘postracial’ time, it also allows for ideas such as ‘anti-white’ or ‘reverse’ racism to be proposed.

In other words, if we fail to set racism within its global historical and contemporary context – one in which race remains a system for ordering and dividing populations in order to manage and control them – we can easily allow racism to slip into being taken to be a matter of individual bad attitudes, or a natural human behavior (in fact it is neither of these things).

Because race has given rise to identities, the way we talk about it today, is generally descriptive. Racism is seen as actively doing something – discriminating, harassing, etc. – while race is seen to be describing different groups appearance, taste, style, socioeconomic reality etc.

However, if we were to stop talking about race as something that is something but rather as something that does something – something with a function to perform – to constrain equality, usurp resources and land, order the global labour market, produce borders, and so on – we might be able to better grasp why it persists. Because if it were just a matter of bad ideology, creating bad attitudes arguably it would have gone away by now.

2.    Racism, gender and class

Some of the misunderstandings about the relationships between race, gender and class are to do with how race has been misrepresented (as I’ve tried to explain).

Let’s look at this problem through the recent furore around an article by the sociologist Lisa McKenzie in The Guardian, ‘The Refugee Crisis will hit the UK’s working class areas hardest’.

In her article, Mc Kenzie argued that ‘white, working class women’ in places like her local area of St Anns in Nottingham (a stigmatized working class estate) were concerned about refugees living there, particularly those they called ‘Iraqis’ who they said were sexually harassing them. They were also concerned about scarce resources in the area, such as access to GPs.

The women who McKenzie interviewed said they were aware that mainstream society sees them as racist, so ‘they were careful about what they said, and who they complained to.’

The article goes on to say how women such as those in St Ann’s or in Tower Hamlets, where she now does research, are proud of their connections to places like Jamaica and Ireland or of their Jewish or Bengali links. But, ‘they are anxious about who else will move into their neighbourhood and whether these refugees will be “given” an affordable home, when they live day to day not knowing if they and their children will be able to stay.’

The debate on Twitter between McKenzie, myself and various other people got pretty heated. For me, the tenor of her article was reminiscent of old dog whistling abut migrants, asylum seekers and refugees as threats to those who could lay claim to the country – the ‘indigenous’ of England if you will (a la Enoch Powell).

McKenzie and her supporters dismissed this by emphasising the creolised microcosm of communities likes St Anns where many white women are married to African-Caribbean men and have dual heritage children. However, two points can be made.

Firstly and obviously, the same ‘fears’ about Caribbean and other racialised migrants were rampant when they arrived, mirroring the language about asylum seekers today. Ironically, in her study about St Anns, McKenzie quotes one of her interviewees as saying that the reason there is affinity between many of the white and black people in the area is because, as Irish migrants, they remember the era of ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’.

However, in her article, McKenzie recounts how the women in her study speak about black culture as enriching. Many of the women with black partners describe white men as ‘boring’, pretending to be black but not being ‘the real thing’. They also talk about Caribbean food as more interesting and about multicultural schools as better for their children. The heading of this section of the article is ‘Pride in mixed Britain’ so the overriding emphasis is on how multiculturalism adds to Britain, supplementing or bettering Britishness. The language is one of consumption which is the way that we have always been comfortable talking about diversity – as enriching diversification, providing choice, excitement, etc. However, nowhere is there a sense that Britain has to give something up in return.

The second problem is that McKenzie wishes to separate her concern about scarce resources and the stigmatisation of white working class people as ‘racist’ from race as a structure.

She says, ‘The dominant narrative in Britain for working-class people is about feeling powerless, having no say, being disrespected, and having accusations of ignorance, small-mindedness and racism thrown at you if you point out that your neighbourhood can’t take much more.’

This is what she says leads people to building barriers between them and others.

Racism, as Sara Ahmed has noted, is often interpreted by whites as an accusation. And here too racism is interpreted by McKenzie as something that is used to deflect from the ‘real issues’. As she said on Twitter ‘I also don’t think race is central I think class is.’

But as another twitter user @judeinlondon, who McKenzie called a ‘bigot’, pointed out, her separation of race from class reveals a poor understanding of class. Working class people have historically been racialised themselves, and as has been shown by many scholars of ‘whiteness’, only managed to whiten themselves through the differentiation from colonised people or racialised migrants.

But rather than concentrate on the points of similarity between stigmatised working class people and refugees for example, many of whom have come together in solidarity in various places, McKenzie zoned in on the concerns of ‘white working class women’. But, as she herself shows in her other work, their designation as white is rather arbitrary given their own identification with Caribbean culture very often.

Unlike in the US where race and class are largely synonymous, in the UK economic deprivation is not as clearly racialised. Poverty and the stigma related to it is not a white people’s problem alone. Rather, by making it appear so, people like Lisa McKenzie are somehow saying that the concerns of the ‘indigenous working class’, which after all is a trope popular with the far-right and dog whistling politicians, are more important than those of refugees. In a rich country, such as the UK, these are false oppositions.

3.    Anti-racism

McKenzie sets up a hierarchy between race issues and those of class. Not only does she see the latter as more important but, by emphasizing how racism is an accusation used to further demonise white working class people, she seems to be saying that opposing racism is for the middle class. Many of her tweets speak of middle class academics in their ivory towers accusing her, a working class single mother, of being racist.

This is extraordinary given that the struggle against racism has always been led by black and minoritised people. Middle class whites may have often taken the credit or tried to speak on behalf of migrants and refugees who they infantilise, but this does not change the fact that any gains in the struggle against racism has been the result of autonomous action by collectives of POC and other minoritised groups.

However, McKenzie’s position illustrates a broader problem on the left, that many people will be aware of and struggling with – the belief on what I’ll call the ‘white left’ that talking about race distracts from the universal class struggle. In particular, over recent years, this problem has been framed as an anti-identity politics position according to which identities are seen as reactionary and conservative, the cradles of self-segregation and fundamentalism.

The problem with this approach is not that there is nothing to criticise about the concept of identity, but that the way in which race is seen as synonymous with identity is based on a complete misreading of what race is. The classical Marxist approach that underpins this point of view is obsessed with an understanding of race as ideological ‘false consciousness’. Racism, from this perspective, is a tool of the ruling class used to divide workers along racial lines. In other words, black and white workers are encouraged to think that they are intrinsically different to each other, and thus are too busy fighting each other to fight the Man!

Now, more sophisticated elaborations on this basic theme admit that racism is systemic and institutionalized – in other words not purely a matter of ideology – however, they are still convinced that racism is produced by elites and used as a stick to beat the working class with. In Australia, this argument is especially popular among the white left.

For example, with regards the government’s horrific policies of mandatory indefinite detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, white leftists argue against the idea that these policies are the government’s response to the wishes of a racist population. Despite the fact that 59% of the Australian public claims to be in favour of harsh detention policies, these writers and activists argue that politicians manipulate those who they call ‘ordinary voters’.

The term ‘ordinary voters’ can only be understood as code for ‘white citizens’ who, much like McKenzie’s subjects who are ‘sick’ of being accused of being racist, should not be seen as really advocating for concentration camps.

This view seems to think that society is divided into three groups, elites (politicians/decision makers, the media), ordinary voters/citizens (read white), and racist extremists. Out of these, only two out of three are racist – those at the top and those on the fringes. Ordinary people are manipulated into believing that they have something to fear from migrants, refugees or Muslims. Of course, the group that completely disappears in this division are the racialised themselves whose views or opinions don’t count. Their repetitive insistence on ‘calling out’ racism is seen as an obstruction from the real task of exposing the machinations of the elites to govern us with an increasingly iron fist.

Now, I’d be the last person to argue that there is no problem with elites, but what is clear is that, when it comes to exploitation and domination, those first in line have historically been and continue to be racialised people, be they citizens or migrants. We can see this in the fascistic pursuit of Muslims across western society as the enemy within, the almost complete lack of due process in the way they are policed, threatened with losing their citizenship rights, arrested and detained without charged, the schools that they attend placed in lock-down for a Facebook status update, or for too many students at a Muslim prayer room.

We can see it in the fact that last week in Australia an Aboriginal woman was fined $1000 for stealing a $6 box of tampons that she was too embarrassed to buy or in the fact that another Aboriginal woman, 22 year old Julieka Dhu, was found dead in a cell after begging to be taken to a doctor. She had been arrested for having unpaid fines.

We can see this in the fact that a young Somali refugee forced to live on the island state of Nauru by an Australian government that refuses to settle her, after being raped and left pregnant, was brought to Australia for an abortion only to be sent back to Nauru without having had one. The reason was that the Minister for immigration was afraid that she would try to use her situation to stay in Australia and she did not want her to ‘take the Australian people for mugs’.

So, I have difficulty with those on the white left who claim that emphasizing race detracts from the universal struggle against elites, or capital, without realizing that the very roots of capitalism were racial, or that the modern nation state and the very idea of citizenship is predicated on a racialised division. How do you argue against safe spaces for women of colour and call them exclusionary when gender is raced so that white women are made the norm and the fight against racism is made to compete with the fight against sexism as if they were not impossible to discuss in isolation?

How do you get beyond something  – race – that hasn’t even begun to be understood by so many?

…..

Alana Lentin