Paul Gilroy: ‘Whiteness Just Ain’t Worth What it Used to Be’

November 9, 2020

A conversation about racial tensions on both sides of the Atlantic, nationalism, and why inequality might be the key to understanding our current crisis.

In 1987, the historian and academic Paul Gilroy published There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, a searching examination of racism and nationalism in the United Kingdom in the second half of the 20th century. Its dissection of the fictions that contribute to ideas about “Englishness”—and the emphasis given at the time to a white, Christian frame for recognizing Englishness—as well as its examination of the ongoing accommodation of racist ideas by the British political and media establishment, were received at the time with great enthusiasm on one side and great ire on the other.

Gilroy, 31 at the time of the book’s release, quickly became a prominent figure in conversations around race and identity in the United Kingdom. Six years later, in The Black Atlantic, he looked at the effects of the “double consciousness” that results from an inability among diasporic communities to easily inhabit a single “national culture,” whether it be Euro-American, Afro-Caribbean, or any other. The book, which served as a powerful critique of the idea that within a country any single national identity should ever dominate, is considered now to be a seminal work in the field of Black diasporic studies, and of Black political thought more broadly.

Gilroy was born in London’s East End in 1956 to a Guyanese mother and an English father. He completed his PhD at Birmingham University, where he became friendly with the late British-Jamaican cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall. Against Race, published in 2000 (in the United Kingdom under the title Between Camps), argued that a “crisis of raciology” was then underway: “It is a crisis because…the elaborate cultural and ideological work that goes into producing and reproducing [race] is more visible than ever before, because [the study of race] has been stripped of its moral and intellectual integrity, and because there is a chance to prevent its rehabilitation.”

I spoke with Gilroy, who is founding director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism & Racialisation at University College London, after a summer of upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic, and amid an intensifying focus on the security and status of nonwhite communities in the Western world.

—Francis Wade

FRANCIS WADE: Two decades ago, in Against Race, you wrote that popular thinking about race as a principle of power and differentiation had “lost much of its common-sense credibility.” Do you feel that view has held up? 

PAUL GILROY: That book was really written as a warning about the enduring significance of the fascist revolution of the 20th century. It tried to alert people to the idea that its legacy was alive and waiting to be accessed. I would like to think that some of what’s happened in the intervening two decades indicates its prescience. There was an opportunity—I think it was an opportunity to disaggregate the terms and the order of racial politics. In the US, one might say that something of that flowered briefly, inadequately and insubstantially, in Barack Obama.

This is complex. In the United Kingdom, we have had the most right-wing government probably since the 1920s, yet it is entirely populated by and habituated to the presence of diversity. There are Black and brown people who have extreme far-right politics who are part of this particular moment. That might be thought of as a slightly complicating factor in identifying the modern-day political geography of anxieties, fears, and resentments. If we look back a few years to the Brexit vote and the breakdown of the Leave vote by ethnicity, or whatever you want to call it, of course there was a white majority who voted to leave, but I think I’m right in saying that a quarter of Black people, or people classified as Black, in the UK voted to leave the EU; mixed people about a third, I think; those classified as South Asian about a third; and Chinese about a third.

Those sorts of numbers, and the numbers of Black and brown people not only inside the Conservative Party but who vote Conservative, suggests that there have been some fundamental realignments taking place. People who look at what’s happening in Britain and want to impose some sort of dualistic analytic which sees uniformly oppressed Black people victimized by the uniform power of whiteness have to go back to do a bit more thinking about what’s actually happening here.

FW: This realignment seems to confound many people. What then are Black and brown voters voting for when they support a party like the Conservatives, whose leadership—one that repeatedly expresses Islamophobic and racist tendencies—appears unwilling to ensure their security and equal place in British society? 

PG: Their commitment to the Conservative electoral option, and the neofascist common sense that is now entangled with it, cannot be dismissed as a passing result of the lies and distortions that follow from carefully targeted psychographic interventions. There are forms of vernacular neoliberalism alive in our Black cultures. They’ve been there for ages, largely unchallenged. The bootstrapping, self-reliance and something-for-nothing mythologies might even appear, in a certain light, to offer an answer to how people manage the impact of racism in their lives.

Think back 40 years to the old Conservative election poster that said: “Labour say he’s Black, Conservatives say he’s British.” Four decades later, the compost from that intervention has fostered new right-wing life. The hyper-individuation of neoliberal life might resonate with the idea that racism never lets Blacks be individuals.

FW: You’ve claimed that race as a regressive organizing principle can be renounced without entailing a loss of pride, even for communities who cleave tightly to a racial identity amid an onslaught of majoritarian prejudices. How might that be possible? 

PG: It all depends on what is coming in the other direction.

If you ask people to renounce their investments in whiteness, for example, what do they get in exchange for that renunciation? And what is the geography of that whiteness they invest in?

Some would say it’s a way of anchoring themselves amid the turbulence of austerity; that they return to a space of certainty, guaranteed by a notion of racial attachment. So we should look at what’s available once that renunciation is made. It could be a local identity, for example.

Look at this pandemic, which has revealed with an appalling clarity the nature of the inequalities that are routinely lived in Britain. If you’re in one of those places in the north of England which at the moment are characterized by explosions of disease, maybe there are ways of managing Covid-19 that would blur the lines of identitarian thinking. In these scenarios—or, even, look at the many Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and so on who did the work the government should have been doing in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire [in London in 2017]—you will find an alternative: a complex politics where people don’t simply roll over and conform to the identity categories that existed before; where they’ll be able to hear the call of suffering and respond to it.

There will always be another story you can tell if you want to tell it. You do not have to be content with the Manichaean bullshit that streams out of our computers as generic racial commentary. In the political emergency we inhabit, there are lots of inducements to renounce that kind of facile thinking. It’s catastrophic because it is complicit with the great harm that’s being done.

FW: Thatcherism served as a key period in solidifying a rather white conception of “Englishness” and birthing the kind of culturally oriented nationalistic racism you’ve examined so closely. 

PG: Yes, there are areas of Britain where people have a relationship with themselves, culturally speaking, that allows a political identity and a civic identity to mesh. I think of parts of Wales or Scotland or Ireland that have languages and identities that they are attached to. Of course, there is racism there and neo-fascists in those parts of Britain too, but the English pathology of racism is quite specific. There’s a peculiar deficit that the English suffer from—they don’t know, culturally speaking, who they are, and that makes them very anxious. It gives rise to the idea that if you can purify your polity and get rid of all those contaminating alien bits that come in from the outside and that don’t really belong, you’ll be okay.

There’s a hidden tradition of these things in England, from the early years of the 20th century through to, and beyond, Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party’s debate in the post-1945 phase over whether to use the slogan “Keep Britain White” as part of their election pitch. This has accelerated during my life, and Thatcherism represented its self-conscious political expression. It has a particularly vicious edge to it in England, that idea of purging all that has intruded, but this is also found in other places in Europe where fascist movements are reborn and resurgent.

FW: Has that conception of “Englishness” ever really left us? You explored its shape and character more than 20 years ago in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, and in the intervening time you’ve seen how similar racially oriented nationalisms manifest themselves—in the US, for example, where you taught for several years. 

PG: I came back from the United States to live in Europe because I wanted to be part of the making of a new Europe. I have no illusions about the EU and the racism that has been rising in every other country. I like to think I don’t have any illusions about racism in Britain.

Do I think that what happened to the so-called Windrush generation is about to happen to the EU residents here as we move towards a Brexit Britain in which the idea that “the wogs begin at Calais” is commonplace? Yes, I do. Do I think that the Labour Party has been as implicated as the Conservatives in creating this situation? Yes, I do.

These people have for generations thought that they could play with this symbolism; make it mean anything they want it to mean. Well, what’s going on in the north of this country, in the mill towns and in the “Red Wall” areas where not just the “alt-right” but a real neo-Nazi right is working very hard to build a violent movement that people aren’t even noticing is happening—these are the things that concern me.

If my work says anything useful about Britain, it’s in insisting that there is a close relationship between nationalism and racism. They couldn’t really be separated out and allocated to different disciplines of research.

If we really wanted to understand what racism did to the UK, we had to see how closely racism was entwined with nationalism, and how much, in enunciating one, there was an enunciation of the other. That connection corresponds to this notion of a cultural deficit, that there is a real crisis over what it is to be English. That anxiety comes through in the appetite for shiny, hypermodern American culture that is imported here. In terms of race politics, those imports offer people the comfort of what I call generic racial attachments: generic whiteness, generic Blackness. The cultural deficit, the lack of cultural comfort in knowing who you are and where you’re headed, that English people suffer from so painfully can summon and generate swift and intense violence. A large part of what’s now at stake in Brexit is the idea that American culture will be embraced here again so that it provides an alternative filling or content which mediates the gnawing pain of cultural emptiness or anaesthetizes the anxieties arising from cultural disorientation.

FW: You’ve said this cultural deficit in Britain has deepened in your lifetime and has likely accelerated even more so in the past few years. This aligns with a continued “melancholic” view of multiculturalism, as you’ve put it. What psychosocial drivers are at work here?

PG: I think it corresponds in many ways to the departure of organized socialism and other forms of politics that correspond to improving the lives of workers; the decline of the Labour Party, and so on. There are a number of elements that have been connected to the transformation of the political culture. The impact of immigration is another factor that gets exaggerated.

Let’s think about this. People might be a little less inclined to be fervently nationalistic if they actually owned something, and if the levels of inequality in our country hadn’t accelerated and deepened.

They wouldn’t feel so impelled to be violent towards those who they imagine place their interests in jeopardy if they had a sense of their land or opportunities and education. The answer to your question really arises from the peculiarly damaging hold that the oligarchs of Britain now maintain on the life of this polity.

It might help to have a state like every other kind of ideal bourgeois social democratic state where citizenship means something and there’s a constitution and we don’t have pantomime Etonian elites telling us what to do. How many shelves of books are needed to tell you that this is the ailment that cramps and paralyzes this country?

FW: Du Bois wrote of the “psychological wages” that sustain the sense of privilege and opportunity felt by white people even when subjected to the same level of exploitation as the minorities they live and work alongside. But you’ve written eloquently of the way that raciological thinking actually harms those whom it “privileges”—the estrangement they suffer, the “amputation of a common humanity.”

PG: The problem is really to do with our inability to find a language of humanity adequate to the task. There’s a poverty of imagination compounded by anxiety and depression. Let’s face it, whiteness isn’t worth what it used to be worth. Its value is falling globally. Chinese and other workers in remote parts of the world are coming up to meet our declining socioeconomic order as it plummets downwards. Whiteness just ain’t worth what it used to be.

Francis Wade, the, 28.10.2020

Photo by Vron Ware

Francis Wade is a journalist and author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence And The Making Of A Muslim Other.  

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