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White representations of Black identity and the emergence of the racialised ghetto in post Second World War British cities

Barbara Bush

Workshop 1: Representing Back European History

My research and publication background is in Caribbean slavery, particularly culture, gender and resistance and, more recently, race, resistance and imperialism in the twentieth century. My recent research merges these two interests and focuses on the Black minority in Britain with particular reference to the African-Caribbean Diaspora. I have a particular interest in the content and dynamics of European race discourse and how this has informed policies towards colonised subjects/ Black Europeans and more recent migrants from the ex-colonies.

An outline of my research in progress is included below. Additionally, I have considerable experience both researching and teaching Black history (see my CV) and have an interest in spanning the public/ academic history divide (one of my ex students set up a Black history website and I worked with local archivists in Staffordshire in my previous post to promote interest in Black history in the region). I am a historian but my work has always been informed by insights from other disciplines and I would very much like to participate in this exciting conference on Black European Studies. It is a welcome initiative as much research into the Black minority in Europe has been British-centred. It would be fruitful to explore in more depth divergences and convergences of Black experiences in different European countries and between Europe and the US.

White representations of Black identity and the emergence of the racialised ghetto in post Second World War British cities

Black Minorities in Britain have arguably always suffered from exclusions on the grounds of race but the nature of race discourse has changed over time, as has the nature and composition of British society and economy. My research has focused on post-Second World War Caribbean migrants and their marginalisation in poorer districts of British cities. In redefining national identity in a period of imperial decline, these new racialised 'ghettoes' were perceived as a threat to white culture and this reinforced racial myths about black culture. The development of racialised boundaries in Britain, and the 'race relations' discourse they generated, occurred in a decade when race was a burning issue on the international agenda following the introduction of Apartheid in South Africa and the growth of Civil Rights struggles in the USA. The emergence of the 'dark side' of the city thus evoked fears of US style racial segregation and ghetto formation in Britain, which liberal England was keen to dispel. In this research I am interested in analysing the disjunctures between the construction of Black British identities in popular white discourse and the reality of Black lives in Britain. I also critique the multiracial, integrationist vision that remained based on assumptions of European cultural superiority and explore the ways in which the Black community sought to represent itself though writings, music and other cultural channels.

Thus my research explores the creation of the symbolic ghetto in white imagination but also addresses changing identities of the Caribbean minority in Britain from colonial to post colonial and from 'Immigrant' newcomer to Black British. These identities are explored in relation to white representations of other migrant groups, African and Asian. From the Black perspective, class is important to individual identities in Britain and responses to migration but, in white racial discourse, all Black men and women were repesented through homogenised, albeit gendered, stereotypes. As moral panics about 'dark strangers' built up in the 1950s, the majority white society made little distinction between men and women of African and Caribbean origin, between professionals and workers, between the 'old-timers', the long-standing residents of Black communities and newer residents who had arrived during the Second World War.

I argue that, despite official commitment to multiculturalism and equality within diversity, the experiences of racialised urban residents in Britain and the US have converged rather than diverged. 'Ghettos' have endured as a defensive area for British Caribbean communities who still experience racism but the Asian communities of Northern English towns and 'illegal immigrants' have revived debates about racial segregation and white racial hostility, now increasingly defined by Islamophobia, persists. Thus enduring problems remain relating to racialised identities of minority communities and respect for cultural diversity and equality of citizenship rights across all communities in contemporary multicultural Britain.

Potential Workshop Questions

  • To what extent is there a common racialised discourse in European states with Black minorities?

  • What is the relationship between representation and reality, that is, how have white constructions of Black identity shape economic and political realties (job discrimination, exclusion from full citizenship etc) past and present?

  • To what extent do Black communities challenge racist exclusions through reworking African/ Caribbean identities (language, music, dress, religion, food) and what impact does this have on race discourses?

  • To what extent do the experiences of Black minorities in European cities differ/ converge?

  • How valid is my argument that the life experiences of urban African-Americans and Black British have converged? How relevant is this to other European contexts?

  • Why do racialised discourses (some elements of which stem back to slavery) persist and how can we challenge persistent problems of racial exclusion?

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