Hatred of the partially familiar

June 25, 1999

New racial hostilities are surfacing towards those whose difference is hard to pin down. By Paul Gilroy

Discussions of race pose moral challenges that historians must be prepared to explore. Following the national convulsion over the murder of Stephen Lawrence, most political commentators became inhibited about acknowledging the existence of racialised division. Sir William Macpherson's report into the tragedy, for example, yielded a view of racism as either existing everywhere uniformly or as closely specified, concentrated in the insensitive and stupid behaviour of some London police officers.

People have become reluctant to admit the ways that thinking in terms of race has shaped identities, affecting ideas of nationality, belonging, progress, democracy and indeed history itself.

Accusations of political correctness are the key to understanding this retreat. Where it threatens to become policy, political correctness is denounced as "social engineering" by authoritative voices eager to hear less from the noisy corner in which the British have confined their multi-culturalism and its post-colonial demands for justice and equality.

These charges have altered the climate in which we undertake work on race. Politically correct remedies against discriminatory attitudes and behaviour are now said to be worse than the ailments they aim to address.

Serious work on race is also being obstructed by the way in which academic habits deal with race and nation. But the tangle we experience between the idea of nationality and that of "race" cannot be easily untied. Its source goes back to the formation of nationalism as a way of managing historical time according to a logic that uses race to solve wider problems of belonging and fate.

Race and ethnicity are also associated with two distinctive political and historical conflicts: struggles to document and thereby bring value to the lives of people who have been marginalised and overlooked and aesthetic battles that challenge racial hierarchies by highlighting the complex beauty found in culture dismissed as primitive or simple and therefore unworthy.

These struggles overlap. They also contribute to political thinking about identity. Though it may spark accusations of political correctness, we should recognise that identity is politicised more than ever.

For example, appeals to sameness from those mourning the lost homogeneity of Europe suggest its discrete but apparently unchanging traditional identities can be managed and safely cultivated only after additional fortifications have been erected against trespassing by strangers, through, for example, tough immigration laws. Members of those groups may not always be dismissed as inferior but their unfamiliar cultures and the fixed identities that correspond to them, are judged to be so incompatible with indigenous patterns that catastrophe is the likely result of all attempts to mix.

New hatreds and violence arise not, as in the past, from supposedly reliable anthropological knowledge of the identity and difference of the Other but from the novel problem of not being able to locate the Other's difference. Different people are hated and feared, but the antipathy towards them is nothing compared to the hatreds of the half-different and partially familiar.

Excluded minorities have also begun to invest in identity as something that marks unbridgeable chasms in experience and culture. It has provided a popular means of compensating the socially excluded for exile from the real privileges of the insider status they are still denied.

Where the best liberal traditions remain strong, cultural differences are enthusiastically realised and then given back to the minorities in bogus, purified form as legitimate sources of ethnic pride and celebration. If exotic differences are to be tolerated, it would appear that they must first be frozen and then handed over to cultural brokers and anthropological experts. On the other side stand those who fear the erasure of ethnic distinctiveness that is precipitated by global commerce, Americanisation and other sinister but faceless corporate interests. These conservatives strive to harness the power of identity to bind dominant and subordinate groups to each other through a common enthusiasm for national identity.

All this means no longer asking the relatively simple question of what it takes to belong to a nation but what it takes to be recognised as belonging. Under these volatile conditions, identity has repeatedly been reduced to questions of ethnicity.

The predicaments of the so-called "second generation immigrant" endorse a view of identity as open to processes of historical and social construction. But there are grave dangers in seeing the compulsion to create oneself as nothing more than a sustained act of will. The ad-men are wrong. Identity may be a construction but that does not mean it is always under the conscious control of its bearers. Historians know that it proceeds in locations and at tempos its makers might not have chosen and requires the use of resources that they inherited and may not be able to command. Seeing this construction work as wholly different from the everyday processes of being and becoming experienced by other social groups risks making immigrants and minorities into special custodians of identity. They reappear in ethnic costume as groups that have, for elusive historical reasons, enjoyed a sort of "hot-line" to the glamorous world where authentic - and usually exotic - identities are determined. This is doubly dangerous because it abandons the great ordinary, non-exotic majority population in a blank "identity-less" space. These are circumstances in which neo-fascism can thrive, animated by demands for national rebirth in the midst of the decadence and decline symbolised by the forces of multi-culture and gender-equality.

I am not a member of the migrant generation. Perhaps that is why I am determined not to be defensive about my appetite for a race-less world in which identity is allowed to be complex. Now, on the edge of a new epoch, we can begin to inquire into the possibility of moving beyond and beneath the old colonial dramas into a more forward-looking and assertively cosmopolitan stance that requires a new history of our present, bolstered by some equally novel ways of comprehending our humanity.

Paul Gilroy is professor of sociology and cultural studies at Goldsmiths College, London. He will be going to Yale as professor of sociology and African American studies in August. This is an edited extract from his lecture to the Anglo-American conference.

IV anglo-american conference of HistoriansThe Times HigherJjune 25J1999 The site where Stephen Lawrence was murdered in southeast London The Times HigherJjune 25J1999 Anglo-American Conference.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments