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Race & Culture

The link between race and culture, or rather the racialization of culture, and the political manipulation of this situation is central to our understanding of how race works. In our in-class discussions, we have already noticed that we have difficulty speaking about race without speaking about culture and our sense of self. When asked to define race, several students made remarks such as race is about my identity, or my sense of belonging; it is about the fact that, no matter what, we have shared beliefs and practices in common with people who come from our community, be that the Lebanese or the Sudanese community, in the context of our class. Interestingly, we talk about race as linked to culture and identity very easily when it comes to what we think of as ‘minority’ communities in Australia or elsewhere, but white students are less likely to make a link between race and their identity. Indeed, we might be concerned if a white person said, ‘I am a member of the white race; that is my identity.’ This is the kind of language we usually associate with far-right extremists, or so-called ‘white nationalists’. This is because whiteness has achieved the status of not being, or needing to be, racially marked (Frankenberg 1993). As I discussed in my post on ‘Race and the Human’, the boundaries of the human are established by drawing lines around what is fully human, ‘not-quite-human’ and ‘non-human’ to use Weheliye’s formulation. And because these boundaries were decided upon by white Europeans, white Europeanness was held up as the norm or standard against which all else is compared.

Today, I am not as interested in theories of whiteness, although these are generally impossible to discount in our overall quest to understand race. I am taking it as give that race is an assemblage of systems and processes for the maintenance of white supremacy. As Matthew Hughey rightly, to my mind, observes the ‘overwhelming litany of scholarship concerned with “whiteness”, especially in a US context’  has led to a ‘failure to synthesize how seemingly disparate white identity formations are constituted by, and help to reinforce, strategies of social control and domination’ leading to ‘the study of white identity’ being robbed of its ‘critical, conceptual and explanatory purchase’ (Hughey 2012:1290). In other words, we cannot think about white as merely another identity category, but about whiteness as a power structure that needs interrogation as such, and dismantling at both personal and institutional levels.

What I want to focus on here is how race has become bound with culture and identity, more precisely the cultures and identities of the racialised. In general, it is necessary to start by saying that this is by no means new. Contrary to the arguments of Pierre-André Taguieff (1991), Verena Stolcke (1995) and others, I have spent many years refuting the idea that there is a new culturalist racism which replaces a purportedly ‘old’ biological racism. I will first outline the arguments for a culturalist racism, and make associations with the contemporary politics against multiculturalism and for tighter border controls, both of which focus on Muslims as particularly problematic migrants. I shall then look in greater depth at the link between race and culture, and the racialisation of culture. Based mainly on the main reading for this week, Chapter 2 of Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle, I shall seek to show that it has never been possible to separate race and culture into two separate formations. Race, turning on the categorization and hierarchical organization of difference from whiteness/Europeaness has always been about the notion of less and more compatible cultures. What is more or less compatible can shift over time, and depending on circumstance. But it is impossible to entirely disentangle the idea of an intrinsic quality of each population group from the expression of that across a range of facets, which have always included both the visible, the tangible and the bodily and the less secure practices, symbols, norms, and values which are said to separate the world’s populations into different ethnicities.

A new culturalist racism?

[n.b. for a fuller discussion of my approach to Balibar and Barker, see Chapter 2 of my book, Racism and Antiracism in Europe, 2004].

In the famous chapter of Race, Nation, Class, ‘Is there a neo-racism?’, Etienne Balibar argues that racism in the postcolonial era is a ‘racism without races’ (Balibar 1991: 21). The idea that it is no longer necessary to invoke ideas of biological hierarchy, or what Stuart Hall calls ‘the genetic code’, to be racist has become the orthodoxy since the 1990s. This is understandable if we observe that, from the 1980s on, as Martin Barker wrote in The New Racism,  there was a shift in the language being explicitly used by both racist extremists and Conservative politicians. As Balibar writes, we can observe ‘the category of immigration as a substitute for the notion of race’ (Balibar 1991: 20).

No longer did activists, politicians, pundits and members of the public argue that they objected to foreigners on the grounds of their biologically-encoded inferiority; rather the argument was made that too much immigration created stress for the local working class, who it is said may suffer due to a downward pressure being put on wages. Or, alternatively, it is heard that too much immigration leads to a lack of cultural cohesiveness. We continue to hear both arguments frequently, applied to a variety of situations.

For example, a recent visitor to Australia, the editor of The Spectator magazine, a leading Conservative publication in the UK, Douglas Murray argued on the ABC TV ‘Tonightly’ show that migration to London by Somalis has led to an uptick in gang violence, because Somalis who have seen so much violence in their home societies purportedly bring that violence with them when they migrate. As I suggested in the video clip below, the recent upset caused by new Senator Fraser Anning’s maiden speech in the Australian Senate, when he invoked the ‘Final Solution’ in relation to migration, was non-existent in the case of Murray who uses more careful and measured language to make very similar points.

Certainly, using the explicit language of ‘old racism’ became less acceptable in the aftermath of the Holocaust because this language underpinned the genocide perpetrated against the Jewish and Roma people. At this time, race was considered to drive everything in human society. In his 1938 article, ‘The Independence of Race from Culture‘, Maximilian Beck sets the stage for thinking about race and culture independently. At the time of writing, it was common for the ‘racial doctrine’ to explain

‘everything which makes man what he is, especially his religion, ethics, science and art, his social, political, juridical and economic forms, and all his spiritual and cultural values, as the natural consequence of his race’ (Beck 1938: 49).

It is undeniable that there was a shift from the belief that, as the 19th Century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli put it, ‘All is race, there is no other truth’, to the idea that culture, not race explained the practices, belief systems, and ways of life of people from different locations around the world.

Front Nationale poster
National Front poster from the 1980s which reads, ‘3 million unemployed are 3 million immigrants too many. France and the French first.’

So, Balibar, Taguieff, Barker and others rightly note that in the 1970s and 80s, we witnessed a shift in the language even of the far right, who continued to oppose ‘race mixing’, and were openly white supremacist. Nevertheless, in public at least, it was common for the leaders of increasingly successful far right political parties – in particular the French National Front – to use the  language of culture, rather than biological race, to make their main point: that immigration and multiculturalism are undesirable in what are proposed to be traditionally white, Christian countries. It is said that the argument of the cultural racists is not that some so-called racial groups are naturally better than others, but rather that each culture has a ‘natural’ home – the region or nation-state from which they have migrated – and that is is as cruel to unroot people from their homes as it is to impose people with vastly different cultural norms, traditions, religions, and so on, on those in the ‘receiving’ country. As Balibar notes, the truly ‘astonishing’ part of this argument is that this ‘culturalism’ is actually suggested as a solution to racism:

‘if insurmountable cultural difference is our true “natural milieu”, the atmosphere indispensable to us if we are to breathe the air of history, then the abolition of that difference will necessarily give rise to defensive reactions, ‘interethnic’ conflicts and a general rise in aggressiveness. Such reactions, we are told, are “natural”, but they are also dangerous. By an astonishing volte-face, we here see the differentialist doctrines themselves proposing to explain racism (and to ward it off)’ (Balibar, 1991: 22).

Despite three decades of theorizing about ‘new’ culturalist racism, what is striking to note is how commonsensical this view seems from our vantage point today. Culturalism is a mainstay of politics and has become a primary driver of immigration policies and associated policies around ‘social cohesion’, ‘integration’ and ‘cultural diversity’. For example, when the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull speaks about Australia as a ‘successful multicultural country’, he generally couches that statement in stress placed on the importance of unity and ‘shared Australian values’. In the video below, plans to introduce English language and values tests as a requisite to the acquisition of Australian citizenship are discussed as conditional for the maintenance of ‘successful multiculturalism.’ Other such measures have been applied in many other countries, such as the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, etc. Australia already has a citizenship test, so arguably the introduction of a further values test could be seen as a signal to those in society who are worried about immigration, which is a major topic of division in Australian politics.

Since 9/11 in particular, the discussion of immigration and cultural incompatibility and the purported need for ‘strong borders’ is related to the idea that migrants from Muslim countries pose a particular threat and have to be curtailed. Objections to Muslims, and Muslim migration in particular, frequently  rely on the argument that they are incompatible with ‘our’ (European, western, Christian) way of life. Those who propose this often shield themselves from criticism as racist because, they argue, Islam is not a race. Islam, being a religion, therefore, can be objected to because religion is proposed to be a choice – you can choose to leave the religion you are born into or become an atheist – while you cannot choose the colour of your skin, etc.

The sociobiologist Richard Dawkins is one of the world's leading intellectual proponents of islamophobia and the 'New Atheism'
The sociobiologist Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s leading intellectual proponents of  the ‘New Atheism’, which often manifests as Islamophobia.

Here, not only are virulently racist views (and often violence) against Muslims protected by the claim that ‘Islam is not a race‘, but Muslims are served a second dose of racism because it is implied that their religion is unworthy or unviable for life in societies that are not predominantly Muslim. As we shall see in further detail when we examine the specific nature of gendered forms of Islamophobia in future weeks, these views of Islam and Muslims have become dominant, in many cases uniting both the political right and the liberal left in their opposition to what are  seen as the cultural excesses of Islam as a religion and Muslims as people, highly diverse as they may be (in fact it is the homogenization of this diversity of Muslims as Muslims beyond all else that serves to racialise them in one way, while pointing to their diversity and claiming, therefore, that their attachment to Islam is ephemeral is another!). For now, I am raising this example, which has been so well written about by scholars such as the late Saba Mahmood, Salman Sayyid, Abdoolkarim Vakil, Yassir Morsi, Katy Sian, Mayanthi Fernando among many others, because it epitomizes the problem with assuming that there is something intrinsically different about race versus culture in the ways that they are mobilized as objects of racism.

The problem with the identification of culturalist racism as distinct from biological racism is not that there is no distinction to be drawn. Rather, the problem is that it is not ‘new’. Interestingly, it is still common to read social scientists refer to the ‘new’ cultural racism although Barker, Taguieff and Balibar (the principal authors who contributed to the early literature) were writing about it from the beginning to the late 1980s. And authors such as Franz Boas, Du Bois, and Beck were already writing about the differences and similarities between race and culture from the turn of the 20th century on. Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ classical work on Race and History is the seminal text for thinking about race versus culture, and is in many ways the bedrock for the shift to a preference for a language of culture over a language of race, a shift I argue in Chapter 2 of Racism and Antiracism in Europe is at heart of the problematic failure to talk openly about the legacies of race thinking for postwar politics in Europe and for a more complete reckoning with the legacies of colonialism and the persistence of coloniality on a world scale.

But as Stuart Hall points out in Chapter 2 of The Fateful Triangle, ‘Ethnicity and Difference in Global Times’, race works discursively (as a language) because it ‘is not a form of truth in any case, but rather a “regime of truth”‘ (Hall 2017: 80). Therefore, there is really no such thing as a ‘biological time’ of race which has not been superseded by a ‘cultural time’.

The problem I have been working on since my PhD is that some theorists of the ‘new racism’ – in particular Pierre-André Taguieff were convinced that antiracism was responsible for the emergence of this from of racist expression, in a sense gifting the Right a language. I have written about this in many places. If you would like to go down this particular rabbit hole (which I admit may be my own obsession!) you can migrate to this short note.

So how are race and culture linked?

In fact, it is important to note that Etienne Balibar’s chapter, ‘Is there a neo-racism?’, by posing this as a question, does not really come down on the side of arguing that culturalism is new. Rather, he admits that ‘a racism which does not have the pseudo-biological concept of race as its main driving force has always existed’ (Balibar 1991: 23). For him, prototypical culturalist racism is antisemitism:

‘Modern anti-Semitism the form which begins to crystallize in the Europe of the Enlightenment, if not indeed from the period in which the Spain of the Reconquista and the Inquisition gave a statist, nationalistic inflexion to theological anti-Judaism is already a ‘culturalist’ racism. Admittedly, bodily stigmata play a great role in its phantasmatics, but they do so more as signs of a deep psychology, as signs of a spiritual inheritance rather than a biological heredity’ (ibid. 23-24).

Condenados por la Inquisición, by Eugenio Lucas.

This is true, and as Balibar also notes, there are many ways in which antisemitism functions like contemporary Islamophobia. (However as an aside, it is interesting to note in Islamophobes’ creation of an opposition between Jews and Muslims – readily participated in by many Jews and advocates for Israel – Jews are posed as real victims of racism because they are a race, while Muslims cannot experience racism because they are a religious group! Such a view negates the heterogeneity of Jews, who come from many different backgrounds including Arab and African, as well as being – well – racist!).

However, in addition, it is important to show that race and culture have always been intertwined. As Alexander Weheliye puts it, science and culture are ‘relationally connected’. And what we are really talking about when we speak about what race does is to reduce the wildly complex mix of identities, subject positions, and so on to one factor – race – which is said to explain everything about a human being or group of human beings. The biological, phenotypical or genetic features of groups of human beings are intermeshed with their ethnic, cultural or spiritual traits and reduced to the ‘natural’.

The Dutch 'East Indies' (Indonesia)
The Dutch ‘East Indies’ (colonial Indonesia)

As Ann Stoler points out in a wide-ranging interview,

‘We’ve assumed that early racisms, the real racism, the hard racism is biological racism and now we’ve moved to a new racism, which is a cultural racism. This is a totally erroneous notion of how race has developed as a category. From the very get go […] it has always been about […] the cultural competencies that were displayed or not displayed’ (Stoler & Lambert, 2014)

In her discussion of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia in the interview, Stoler describes how, for example, the Dutch colonial record discusses the compatibility of Indonesians with Dutchness by assessing the differential ability of ‘natives’ to ‘feel at home’ in Dutch culture. ‘To feel at home’, she says, ‘was a term used in the legal record.’ So, the issue of cultural compatibility which, as I discussed earlier, is so much at the heart of how governments assess who can and cannot be allowed to enter and stay within the territorial borders of the countries of the Global North, is to be found right at the peak period of colonial-racial rule.

But, moreover, as Martin Barker points out in his extremely important book, The New Racism, an intermeshing of culturalist and pseudo-scientific ideas is the main driver of the ‘new racism’ which he identified as defining the British Conservative Party’s position on race and immigration in the late 1970s and 1980s. Barker shows how the neo-Darwinist schools of ethology and sociobiology become fundamental to the ‘Tory ideology [which] claims that it is biologically fixed that humans form exclusive groups, and that these groups succeed internally in so far as they close up against outsiders’ (ibid.: 78). It is not surprising that, forty years later, it is Richard Dawkins, one of the principal proponents of sociobiology, who is also the spokesperson for the Islamophobic and racist ‘new atheism‘ movement.

Paul Gilroy, in his book Between Camps (2000), writes that what the main activists of the ‘new racism’ movement, identified by Barker, were doing was synthesizing ‘nature and culture, biology and history’ into a ‘bioculturalism’ (Gilroy 2000: 33). Culture appears here to be determined by nature and vice versa. This drives the idea of incompatibility between Europeans and non-Europeans, which may be presented as ‘mutual’ and thus not racist, but which Balibar points out always implies an implicit hierarchy. As he puts it, it is absurd to think that there is no hierarchical judgment in play when immigration is controlled by the state or when limitations are put on people’s right to exercise cultural or religious freedom:

‘Prophylactic action against racial mixing in fact occurs in places where the established culture is that of the state, the dominant classes and, at least officially, the ‘national’ masses, whose style of life and thinking is legitimated by the system of institutions’ (Balibar 1991: 24).

Far-right ideologue and 'race realist', Canadian Stefan Molyneux
Far-right ideologue and ‘race realist’, Canadian Stefan Molyneux

Space and time precludes me from entering into a discussion of the contemporary manifestations of this, but we have to pay attention to the rise of what is being labelled ‘race realism‘ which is a major driver of current far-right ideology across the West. Increasingly prominent ideas about race and crime, violence, and intellectual ability are based on the bioculturalism that Gilroy identifies. Proponents of the idea that we have been too hasty to reject the idea of inherent racial differences and that a great deal of the social problems we experience in contemporary societies can be understood through the lens of race include scientists such as Nicholas Wade and Stephen Pinker and right-wing activists, most significantly, Steve Bannon and people like Stefan Molyneux, who recently visited Australia who have an enormous platform via social media. But these ideas also enter into public policy in numerous ways, as we shall address in greater detail when we look at race and digital technology in subsequent weeks. Various policing technologies are predicated on bioculturalist ideas, such as ‘predictive policing‘ – the idea that we can predict what populations are most likely to be involved in particular forms of crime; ideas which are often underpinned by racialised assumptions. In counter-terrorism too, early intervention strategies such as the UK’s ‘Prevent‘ programme, are not completely outside the realms of bioculturalism, in that they too often make naturalized assumptions about the likelihood of a particular group – in this case Muslims – to commit violence based on drawing associations between cultural and religious affiliation and particular forms of behavior.

Back to meaning making

So culture, while it certainly exists separately to race, is nonetheless constantly open to racialisation. To understand what race does, we have to see it – in Hall’s terms – as a ‘system of representation’ (ibid. 81). As he puts it,

‘the biological-genetic element functions to fix difference discursively all along the chain of equivalences in the racial system, of representation’ (ibid.)

So, the function of race – as Hall discusses in his lecture ‘Race: the Floating Signifier’ (or chapter 1 of The Fateful Triangle), is to give order or make sense of a world full of differences. These differences are as much cultural, religious, geographical, spiritual and social on, as they are to be seen in what Hall, following W.E.B. Du Bois calls, the differences of ‘colour, hair and bone’ – the visible differences that we have come to think about as ‘racial’. But of course the need to make sense of the world and give it order, as discussed in my post on ‘Race and the Human‘, did not happen in a void. As Hall reminds us, the objective of making meaningful differences between categories of humans (the human, the not-quite-human and the non-human) is always about the ‘operations of power’ (Hall 2017: 81); there is always some who have the power to distinguish between people, to make judgements about their worthiness or their place in the cultural or social hierarchy, and others whose judgments are not taken into account. More than this, it is possible to argue, based on our previous discussion of the very aim of creating a ‘general idea of Man’, as Balibar puts it, in ‘Racism as Universalism‘, that the will to categorise and to make these meaningful distinctions is also specific to a particular project that begins with Enlightenment, and hence is uniquely European. Indeed, as Balibar remarks in ‘Is there a neo-racism?’, in the case of France,

‘There is, no doubt, a specifically French branch of the doctrines of Aryanism, anthropometry and biological geneticism, but the true ‘French ideology’ is not to be found in these: it lies rather in the idea that the culture of the ‘land of the Rights of Man’ has been entrusted with a universal mission to educate the human race.’

Protest against the French ban on the burqa
Protest against the French ban on the burqa

In other words, the ‘cultural racism’ of modern French Islamophobia, which has institutionalized the banning of the hijab and the burqa, is entirely based on this older ‘civilizing mission‘ which drove French colonialism and in many ways continues to underpin the expressions of French anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Black racism.

Colonialism and its long reach is really still at the heart of the matter. As Hall writes, these games of ‘the white West constructing and consolidating Western and white identities through the discursive inscription of otherness’ (Hall ibid.)  are ‘frontier effects’ (Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,  1985). We do not get the notion of ‘otherness’ until the ‘onset of the Euro-Imperial adventure which makes it coterminous with modernity – and which… shifted after the Enlightenment from the marking of differences between different human species to the marking of difference within one continuous human spectrum’ (Hall 2017: 82).

This is why a large part of Hall’s work, particularly during the 1990s, was focused on making sense of identities. As he puts it in Chapter 1 of Familiar Stranger

‘Contrary to common-sense understanding, the transformations of self-identity are not just a personal matter. Historical shifts out there provide the social conditions of existence of personal and psychic change in here‘ (Hall 2017a: 16).

And for Hall, the shifts over the course of his lifetime were both locational – moving from his native Jamaica to the proverbial motherland, Britain – and colonial – moving from being actually colonized to be being within something called a ‘postcolonial’ era. Recognizing the impacts of colonialism on himself was foundational for Hall. It meant ‘accepting my insertion into History (capital ‘H’), all right – only backwards, upside-down, by negation’ (ibid. 21). The understanding of this means that displacement becomes the guiding force of one’s existence. Because being colonized invoked in Hall, and other Jamaicans, a feeling of ‘secondariness’ (ibid.), it meant that his identity was ‘formed more by resistance to those circumstances I had inherited than by adaptation to what they had tried to make me’ (ibid. 22).

 Stuart Hall with his mother, Jessie, on the boat to England from Jamaica, 1951. Photograph: Courtesy Stuart Hall estate / Allen Lane
Stuart Hall with his mother, Jessie, on the boat to England from Jamaica, 1951. Photograph: Courtesy Stuart Hall estate / Allen Lane

Hall enters into a fascinating discussion of his relationship to Blackness. He may have been the darkest member of his family, but his parents were both what would now be referred to as ‘mixed-race’ and there were constant attempts to distance themselves from Africanness and certainly from Blackness, which also had strong class implications. As he puts it,

‘I was formed as a creole, the product of mixed origins and born, thoroughly indigenized into, local society’ (ibid. 18). He became Black after decolonization. In this sense, Hall’s Black identity was very much a politicized one born of the ‘Alabama Bus boycott,  the Notting Hill riots, US Civil Rights…’ (ibid. 15-16).

In ‘Ethnicity and Difference in Global Times‘, Hall suggests that these histories are the background for what he identifies as the ‘return of ethnicity’ in the 1990s. He describes the shift from mobilization around the idea of ‘political blackness’ – a shared stance of people from diverse non-white identities who had been similarly racialised in the post-1950s UK – to a ‘proliferation of various ethnic identities that rank their cultural specificity’ (Hall 2017: 95). Hall argues that the identification as ‘politically Black’ was not racial (as opposed to 1990s cultural identification); rather it was a recognition of the ‘sliding’ nature of race that he identifies. Political blackness, then, was a decision to mobilize around the common points shared by people racialised in the British ‘postcolonial’ context, rather than focus on the potential ‘social antagonisms’ (ibid. 97):

‘I would define this as a proliferating and fragmenting field of antagonism and cultural contestation that refuses to become a unified and sutured space of political representation, instead remaining a field of difference articulated in its relatively dislocated and disaggregated from as a site of generalized antagonism’ (ibid. 98).

British Black Panther Party. Photo: Neil Kenlock/Vice.
British Black Panther Party. Photo: Neil Kenlock/Vice.

It appears to me that for Hall, there may be understandable reasons for this turn away from unification around blackness and towards ethnicity, and I would wager that they are to do with the same problems of coloniality that he describes as being highly determinant of his own identity formation (the feeling of dislocation). Hall notes that we are in an era in which ‘everything still takes place in the slipstream of colonialism’ (ibid. 101). But, this is not to say that Hall believes that ethnicity is in any sense more descriptive, or ‘real’, than race. Rather, it is ‘every bit as much a discursive construct, a sliding signifier, as “race”‘ (ibid. 99). Indeed,

‘ethnicity and race continue to play hide and seek with one another. The idea… that the discourses of cultural difference would be able to resolve the problems engendered by the discursive operations of race, was overly optimistic, as it turns out’ (ibid.)

Perhaps the optimism of cultural and ethnic attachments melting away cannot itself be dissociated from the colonialism that Hall shows us is still so very much in play. Perhaps the dreamed of cosmopolitanism is itself an imposition on those who – through lived experience – realize that being interpellated to shed their sense of self (their culture, identity, belonging, tradition, etc.) is a ruse, because the promise of full equality after integration never really materializes. Hall was writing about these topics in the hey-day of globalization theorizing. Thinking about globalization, he wrote that it is characterised by the compression of space and time and this compression has a direct effect on our identities because time and space are so crucial to ‘all systems of representation’ (ibid. 103). We always tell stories, for example, by locating them in both time and space (even when we write, ‘once upon a time, a long time ago, in a distant land…’).

Because of the significance of place and time to identity formation, it is unsurprising then that the sense that we have that ‘our people’ (whoever they may be) came from a particular place is a central feature of ethnic identity. This shared location and attachment to place is so strong so as to take on natural characteristics; we believe that, ‘although discursively constructed’ (ibid. 107), our cultural identity is ‘part of “kith and kin”, rooted in “blood and soil” (ibid.). The problem that Hall identifies is that under the conditions of globalization, our individual cultural identities become stronger (rather than melting away) because we have less of a grip over where our place is in the world. As more and more people have migrated, losing touch with home, becoming as Hall put it, citing C.L.R James, ‘in, but not of, Europe’ (and we could say the same for Australia, the US, etc.), we need to constantly collectively reimagine the homeland and to build our attachments to it, in order to regain a sense of who we are. As Hall writes,

‘identity is nowadays increasingly homeless.’

Now these types of discussion have triggered all types of responses, from strong rejections of identity politics, in favor of a racial universalism that mirrors the old idea of ‘political blackness’ to equally strong negations of the very possibility of unity across different but similarly racialised identities. And discussing these political implications are of great interest to me. [for an interesting discussion of the legacies political blackness in the UK, listen to this podcast by Reni Eddo-Lodge below].

However, in terms of our concern here, it appears to me that it is necessary to return to Hall’s words to think in a longer term way about where these shifts between solidarity across difference and ‘the return to ethnicity’ lie. He recalls that, although he is writing against the backdrop of globalization, it ‘is not a recent phenomenon per se. We could say it was inaugurated at the end of the fifteenth century when Europe, having expelled its others – Jews and Muslims – turned outward and the Euro-imperial adventure we call modernity began on a global scale’ (Hall 2017: 110).

John Beijer Kulture hub graffiti art

But contrary to the idea that ethnicity is a revival of some long-lost authenticity with inherently antagonistic and ‘primitive’ orientations, Hall says that if we observe what is really going on, it is an

‘unexpected revival and return of new kinds of local identifications, new forms of symbolic attachments to the connotations of place and cultural specificity, and new discursive formations of the traditional…. What else is street style of “street cred,” or the symbolic global significance of place names such as Bed-Stuy, Brixton or Trenchtown as they circulate in the new world musics of rap and reggae, if not a marking of locality, with its connotations of place, as a response to the forces of homogenization?’ (ibid. 115).

Of course, he says, there are cooptations by the market, but ‘the fact that there is negotiation means we are not dealing with absolute difference’ (ibid.). So what we have been seeing, over the last 3-4 decades at least (but arguably in fact much longer) is what Hall calls, ‘new articulations of “the local” and “the global” that cannot be  mapped within the terms of nations and national cultures as we might have tried to do in the past’ (ibid. 116).

Thus, if we think about the problems evoked by political leaders across the West today – the failures of multiculturalism, integration and social cohesion, the rise in dangerous particularists, and the rejection of the dominant values and ideologies of the old colonial powers – are we not witnessing the profound rejection of the idea that the local can be made and remade in the ways suggested by Hall? And nevertheless, in the face of all this resistance, remaking and reinventing the local is exactly what people are doing!

In these contexts, Hall remarks, what is important is how one positions oneself with respect to the ways in which we are ‘involuntarily, hailed by and interpellated  into a broader social discourse’ (Hall 2017: 16).

Alana Lentin