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

Share

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before