Race helps to shape the English sense of self

From an inaugural lecture by Catherine Hall, the Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History, at University College London

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The historical imagination and historical thinking in Britain has been rooted in what I describe as the "grammar of difference": the multiple differences associated with the hierarchies of class, of race and of gender, always articulated through relations of power.

The historical imagination and historical thinking in Britain has been rooted in what I describe as the "grammar of difference": the multiple differences associated with the hierarchies of class, of race and of gender, always articulated through relations of power.

As a student I was fed and watered by Marxist historians and learned of grand historical narratives and class conflict. Lessons which I hope never to forget. But 1968 and its consequences began to disrupt those paradigms. The British tradition of feminist history, within which I proudly count myself, was powerfully influenced by that school of history writing, but also made itself in antagonism to it, insisting on the importance of gender, of sexuality as well as class as an agent of antagonism and change.

Entangled as I was in the troubled politics of feminism and race, I encountered what James Baldwin describes as the charged and difficult moment when the white man confronts his own whiteness and loses "the jewel of his naïvieté". Whiteness carries with it authority and power, the legacy of having "made the modern world", of not being "strangers anywhere in the world". White women carry this legacy in different ways from men, but they carry it none the less.

It is the "racing" of Englishness that has preoccupied me for the last 10 years. Race, it became clear to me, was deeply rooted in English culture. Not always in forms that were explicitly racist, but as a space in which the English configured their relation to others. Racial thinking was a part of the everyday, part of instinctive English common sense.

The time of empire, and here I am talking of 19th-century empires, was the time when anatomies of difference were being elaborated: across the axes of class, race and gender. These elaborations were the work of culture, for the categories were discursive and their meanings historically contingent. The language of class emerged as a way of making sense of the new industrial society in Britain of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The language of "separate spheres" became a common way of talking about and categorising sexual difference in this same period of transition. It was colonial encounters that produced a new category, race, the meanings of which, like those of class and gender, have always been contested.

The apparently binary oppositions, between men and women, between black and white, between working class and middle class, constituted through processes of differentiation which positioned their subjects as if such divisions were natural, were constantly in the making, in conflicts of power. As Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler have argued, the most basic tension of empire was that "the otherness of colonised persons was neither inherent nor stable; his or her difference had to be defined and maintained." This meant that "a grammar of difference was continuously and vigilantly crafted as people in colonies refashioned and contested European claims to superiority." The construction of this "grammar of difference" was the cultural work of both coloniser and colonised, and it has been the "grammar of difference" of the coloniser that has been the focus of my recent work.

The writing of history in this era, whether fictional or scholarly, aimed to civilise: it would educate British subjects and prepare them to civilise others. In its mappings of difference, whether of class, of race, or of gender, it was engaged in the constitution of new subject positions, as patriotic Britons, responsible and progressive workers, domesticated women, or those who were colonised. It configured a world in which nation and empire were intimately connected and in which race was a critical determinant shaping an English sense of self.

Unpicking this concept of civilisation and attempting to grasp its deep and complex relation to Englishness, is, I suggest, part of the work of creating a more egalitarian world.

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