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Sunday 22 October 2017

Essentialising difference

The unseemly fight between politicians worldwide who remorselessly exploit matters of race, ethnicity, religion and difference for their own ends does nobody any good eventually.

By chance I came across the first time publication in book form of the W.E. B. Du Bois Lectures, given by one of the foremost public intellectuals of our time the pioneering Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall who died in 2014 in London. He was the founding editor of the impactful New Left Review and one of the most influential figures in the contemporary study of culture and politics. The lectures, already well known to students of sociology and admirers of Stuart Hall, were given at Harvard University in 1994 and have been widely referred to and pored over for the last twenty years. I had forgotten much of the detail but rereading his ideas in this beautifully produced new book entitled the Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, I was amazed how prescient he was in pinpointing migrants as the target for new nationalisms.

Everywhere we turn now, we find that to be the case. Close to home we have the so-called Dreamers of the USA, the 800,000 offspring of illegal immigrants who President Trump and many Republicans find a threat to US nationhood. The President has told Congress basically to undo President Obama’s plan to help regularize their status. Maybe Congress will produce sensible legislation that would avoid their unjust and inhumane deportation, but I wonder to what extent a driver for his policy is the fact that the majority of the Dreamers belong to different ethnic and racial groups, those for whom the President appears to have little empathy.

In his lectures, Stuart Hall reiterates that while we can see that people look different from one another, race has no validity in science – scientific efforts to ground racial classification in science have failed - it is a social and cultural construct in which the stories of what our physical differences mean are imbibed and stick with us, yet are not fixed in reality; notions of race shift and slide.

He calls race “the floating signifier” and asks us to analyse the stories, anecdotes, jokes etc over time to see that historically race has had many different meanings. “It is only when physical differences have been organised within language, within discourse, within systems of meaning, that the differences can be said to acquire meaning and become a factor in human culture and regulate conduct”. He calls this the “discursive” concept of race, making reference to Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian of ideas.

What should concern us here and elsewhere is how we have allowed politicians and rulers, going back to conquest, Empire, the Atlantic slave trade, indenture and right up to now to use this shifting concept to divide us and give themselves power. They have used the fact that who we are [our identity] has become codified in how we look, our phenotype, our dress and behaviour. The paradox for Hall is that we have come to identify ourselves as others see us, and oppressed groups instead of rejecting those identities have instead “flipped the script”, as Henry Louis Gates describes it in his Introduction, accepted the differences as defining and essentialised themselves. It goes some way to explaining why in a place such as Trinidad with centuries of mixing and migration the boundaries of race remain so stubbornly fixed.

Whether it is the Nazis against Jews, Jews versus Arabs [both Semites and often hard to identify as physically different from each other], Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis, the Albanians and Serbs, the Armenians and Turks etc, etc, we can be easily led into patterns of extremely violent exploitation of difference. The picking on defenceless Dreamers in the USA sadly shows that Hall was right: race culture and nation are linked. I would say depressingly so.


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