Racism fatigue

Sep 2018

Identity crisis

Racism fatigue

Is it time to turn away from raciology?

Diran Adebayo

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Topics Culture Politics

When did I first feel the symptoms of racism fatigue? At some early point, I fear, after the Macpherson Report into the Stephen Lawrence murder was published in 1999, as racism became ‘a thing’ and raced up the mainstream charts, second only to paedophilia among the worst sins one could be accused of. Some queasiness, certainly, as racism spread its wings to encompass the regions and the intra continentals (a white Briton who discriminated against a white Pole could now be ‘racist’); aesthetics (a gay guy I met at a party, flustered at the fact that he didn’t fancy black guys, wondered if that made him a ‘racist’); and, if some of my younger students are anything to go by, almost any racially or ethnically inflected comment in literature. Or perhaps at another party, this one thrown by an old university friend who had bought (courtesy of some parental money) into a gentrified neighbourhood – the type where middle-class anti-racists and the people they are so passionate about live largely parallel lives. But despite her ethnic foods, and her black cleaner, and the excited chat about intersectionality, the people of colour at her gatherings still totalled me and one other.

Yes, definitely some proper pangs that day.

What has been most striking about our cultural ecology, since around the turn of the millennium, is the tremendous currency that has developed around racism. In part, no doubt, because of the way in which appeals for cultural diversity in bodies and companies have been habitually framed, post-Macpherson, as being in response to racism – be it personal, institutional, or structural. More critically, racism, in its noisiness and its seemingly easy-to-get elements of victims and villains, sits well in an accusatory, clickbaity, tabloidised media age. It has become a celebrity, with all the fandom and the privilege, the ‘there can be only one’-ness, that that status brings with it.

To give one example: I was rung, some years ago now, by a reporter from a liberal organ that was writing a feature about ‘racism in publishing’. We spoke at some length, and most of my comments were class-related (albeit class with race and diversity consequences). I was talking about old, someway posh traditions that were still apparent in publishing, and how it could often be seen in the typical class of the staff. ‘You know how some people can have trouble pronouncing African names?’, I said. ‘They might call you Adebango or Adebongo or whatever? Well, I have trouble remembering their names – it’s all Pippa, Antonia, Hermione…’ These comments became, in the published version of this feature piece, ‘When I walk into publishers’ offices, they call me Adebango or Adebongo…’ This was not what I had said at all.

There were good reasons, beyond the obvious, for black Britain’s postwar immigrants to coalesce around racism. For a black ‘community’ that was theoretically quite weak, with people from different countries and cultures and classes, and differences in the length and type of relationship with their colonial forbear, racism made sense as a unifying force. That focus helped to forge easy coalition with the left, given its traditional concern for social justice.

But for some of us today, there is a worry about racism’s tendency to suck all the other air out of the room; about whether it’s an adequate main frame to help us grapple with the second-order complexities that might range from the practices of commissioners and distributors in the arts, to the ongoing challenges we face as workers in sections of society — the media, academia — that are as liberal as any. The knowledge, too, that, for any ‘community’, feeling good about itself is a lot to do with its sense of moving forward, and the worry, in a racism-powered vehicle, about where the signposts might truly be for this — an unclarity that has surely contributed to the sense of stasis that some of our prominent cultural voices have expressed in recent years (1). We also worry about the self-control of the car and its charisma going forward (our struggles in 21st-century Britain largely lack the basic dignity-stakes of civil rights-era America, Apartheid South Africa, or even 1950s/60s England). Most of all, perhaps, the concern, if our activist agenda is perceived to be dominated by the issue of racism, around coalition-building with that growing number of black and mixed-race people, who, by dint of class, profession or region, do not feel that racism has been a significant factor in their lives, but who nevertheless do have ‘patriotic’ potential.

Racism, in its noisiness and its seemingly easy-to-get elements of victims and villains, sits well in an accusatory, clickbaity, tabloidised media age

The tactical dubiousness of this approach when it comes to fostering the nuanced receptivity that we seek can be found in the racial defensiveness (fatigue’s close relative) that has been discernible in parts of the country for a while now, most notably in the Brexit referendum. Britain is a nation with a deep self-story of decency. An autobiography, if you like, with an unreliable narrator and no sense of original sin. It is a country whose majority feel they ended the slave trade, and fought fascism, alone for a while. Yes, they’ve done bad things, but never at the level of savagery and intolerant ideology that others have done theirs. And now, they give all this aid and they’ve tried to do a lot for minorities in laws, what more do you want?

A lot of Britain’s history, as has been noted before, happened elsewhere and it has never really interrogated itself in the way that, say, Germany has had to, or looked to rebrand itself in the way that Germany perhaps now is, evidenced in the recent generosity its government displayed to Syrian migrants. Given this, we were always likely to encounter a limit with our often race-based appeals, and the fact that we’ve reached this territory more quickly and less fruitfully than we might have done speaks in part to a certain disconnect in the coalitions we’ve forged here.

For as much as the white left doesn’t like racism, one gains the impression that many there don’t really care for race either — that they see the whole area as problematic. Perhaps it’s because many white Britons don’t feel that they’re living race most of the time, or whether the intellectual and emotional fallout from the centuries of Western racial thinking means that, when they are made aware of race, it usually comes to embarrass them. Perhaps it is the trends in academia (the notion of choice in gender and race), and developments in modern science that have discredited the notion of race as a meaningful category, a useful medical shorthand in certain areas, no more.

Perhaps it’s all these things. One sensed that fervent hope that race is a temporary category, on the road to post-racial times, during the excited commentary over Obama’s election in 2008, for instance. One of its by-products is that frequent Black 22 for the minority artist or writer of feeling pushed to talk about race to come through, only, if you do, the powers won’t totally rate you, because race is not quite that universal, eternal stuff that the Shakespeares and Tolstoys do.

That impatience with race is also there among progressives of colour, too. The scholar Paul Gilroy wrote in his 1999 essay, ‘Joined Up Politics and Post-Colonial Melancholia’, of his desire to be an ‘anti-anti-racist’. These were views he expanded on in his early 21st-century work with his rejection of ‘raciology’ in favour of a ‘planetary humanism’, a position he adopts not least because he (and others) feel that a tactical shift may be needed since race, and the racial appeals we have mounted, may lack the ability to deliver real equality or, in his phrase, ‘to tackle the lore and relations of inequality that bring race to life’. (2)

Around this time, my own travels, mainly in Europe, were deepening my feeling that tribe, no matter how we construct it, was hardwired in us. I was encountering race less as a problem than as a resource, and learning the applicability of Hegel’s apercu that only the slave – the footman, shall we say, to use a less laden term – truly understands a freedom that the master simply enjoys.

By one of Lisbon’s main squares, I would see a number of newly arrived Cape Verdeans gather daily for sustenance and the sharing of information. On a British Council visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia, the one black local who had attended my first event spread the word so that 15 came at the end of my short trip there to take me out and prick my brain about how the Council might be able to help them in their business schemes, relieved to meet someone they felt would be sympathetic, to whom they could extend and receive family-like privileges. On a recent trip to France, my Guinea-descended hotel receptionist took me on a day-long saunter through Paris’s African quarters, to Stalingrad, Barbes and Chateau Rouge. All through my adult life race has generated a welcome in almost any black British space, high or low.

My own bugbear with ‘raciology’ has lain in its insufficiency in helping us to cross that final frontier (for which race is an unreliable signifier), and that is the discomfort with difference: this reluctance to allow that other ways have their legitimacies, their own reasons, their own value, and are not, in most cases, a threat. You hear it in the calls from populist continental politicians for an ‘integration’ that might more accurately be characterised as assimilation, and it is there often in a more covert, sanitised form in the UK. It’s there, for example, in the someway enforced transition of the Notting Hill Carnival from a defiant countercultural statement to a family-friendly weekend, or the type of black contestant favoured by public vote in television’s reality shows (the type who’s grown up in predominantly white surroundings with no connection, seemingly, to any black network).

The preoccupation with national cohesiveness has come along at time when so much points to minoritarianism

The British academic Pathik Pathak, in his book The Future of Multicultural Britain: Confronting the Progressive Dilemma, has identified a certain rethinking of, and backlash against, minority ‘appeasement’ that has occurred this British century, as the political centre shifted rightwards after the 9/11 attacks and the riots a few months before that had pitted whites against Asians, communities living separate, unmingled lives, in a number of northern English towns. You could detect it in the closure or running-down of black and multicultural programming units at the BBC and Channel 4, and ever-more prescriptive demands around citizenship by successive home and education ministers. Parthik writes of this sense of ‘a declining multiculturalism and an ascendant majoritarianism’, of the ‘majoritarian reflex’.

One of the peculiarities of this reflex, this preoccupation with national cohesiveness, is that it has come along at time when so much points to minoritarianism. The internet, of course, with its myriad transnational groups clustered around different zones of interest, is the most graphic reminder of this tendency. We watch our sport and drama less on cohesive television and increasingly on diverse digital platforms. But you could also cite the growth of local currency unions, such as Bitcoin, or the fact that governments are now elected in the UK and elsewhere with less than 40 per cent support from the voting electorate, itself just a proportion of those entitled to vote.

On my first trip to India, in the 1990s, I was refused a room by the staff of the first hotel I came to in Delhi. They made me stand aside in the reception while they gave rooms to all the other arrivals, including many who had travelled on the plane from London with me. One of these, part of a crew of rather loud and possibly intoxicated white football-shirt wearers that I’d made eyes with but avoided during the flight, piped up. ‘What are you doing?’, he said: ‘He’s with us, he’s one of us.’ His protestations were key to the staff changing their minds. I was struck by how the protective embrace of tribe was extended as we, my white British helper and I, moved from majority to minority in this foreign land.

We live in multiple, intersected tribes and sets that are mainly minority or bare majority, many of which will have no significant racial aspect, and out of this lie seeds for optimism. Europe’s Enlightenment period is problematic for students of race, for that intellectual wind of change that ushered Europe into modernity also coincided with the entrenching of modern race thinking – a necessary ideological ballast for the deepening of the Atlantic Slave trade and European colonialism that occurred in those times. But if we take the Enlightenment’s belief in the ‘plasticity of peoples’ seriously, then people’s growing awareness of their own place in a jumble of minorities or near minorities may, as my Delhi anecdote indicates, contain the potential for them to view another’s experience through a lens that is nearer to home than ‘away’, and thus enhance a personal connection to diversity.

We are a majority because we are all human beings, or because we are Britons in Britain or Germans in Germany. We have to agree, too, as a civis, on a minimum of things – the most important of which, of course, is not to kill each other. But we are also minorities as human beings on this variously populated planet, because many of the passions that animate us are actually minority interests, and because the commonness of human aspirations are particularised by the differences in human conditions and human experiences.

Maya Angelou got both sides of our coins rather neatly, in her poem ‘Human Family’ where she says:

‘I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.’

Culturally, we are in a global and national moment where a level of power through reach is being distributed among many more groups than previously, and it behoves us to think of ways – in our creative lives, in our activism, in our marketing – to extract the promise in this with a more multi-pronged, strategic approach. Of course, we must continue to ‘call’ racism where it needs to be called, but we need as well to defamiliarise; to shake people out of their understandings and ‘otherings’; to disrupt the tariffs to better illumine; to disrupt majoritarianism by moving more dexterously around that majority-minority matrix.

Diran Adebayo is a novelist, critic and lecturer in creative writing at Kingston University. His books include, Some Kind of Black (1997) and My Once Upon A Time (2001). This article is adapted from an essay, ‘The Footman’s New Clothes’, included in Locating African European Studies: Interventions – Intersections – Coalitions, which will be published by Routledge in 2019.

Picture by: Carla Ann Cote, published under a creative commons license.

(1) I’m thinking of the comments Mark Sealy, artistic director of the Black Photographers Collective Autograph, made during the 2014 protests against the Barbican’s racially controversial ‘Exhibit b exhibition: ‘Since the 1980s, it is progress zero. Our institutions have failed to bring about change – whether it is academia, the Macpherson Report or funding policies – [black] people feel absented from power, authoring and having a voice.’ And, in a 2015 interview, comedian Lenny Henry spoke of there having been 29 initiatives at the BBC alone in the last 15 years to achieve ethnic diversity in editorial staffing, ‘and the numbers are actually going down’.

(2) Gilroy, Paul, Against Race, Harvard University Press, 2000

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Topics Culture Politics

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