Another essentializing moment?

Since Stuart Hall wrote critically about race as an analytical category in the 1980s, naturalized accounts of race are back with a vengeance.

Justice for Sam DuBose sign. Credit Hayden Schiff via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

In his introduction to the recently released volume of Stuart Hall’s writings on race and difference, historian Paul Gilroy argues strongly for the contemporary relevance of Hall’s thought. Yet, as social theorist Sindre Bangstad notes, in “one particular respect,” Gilroy “places … Hall resolutely in the past.” Specifically, Gilroy identifies the “considerable hostility” among contemporary anti-racists towards the “open … notion of blackness” as “a political color accessible to all non-whites,” a notion that figured centrally in Hall’s classic essays on the politics of difference in 1980s Britain. Bangstad is skeptical of Gilroy’s claim that this version of blackness as a kind of self-identification akin in many respects to class consciousness is “now anachronistic.” Instead, he suggests that Hall would react in an “open” and “pragmatic” manner to the ideas of contemporary anti-racists.

By contrast, I would argue that Gilroy is correct in his assessment; indeed, the passing (or, more optimistically, eclipse) of race as a political rather than ontological category highlights just how much the terrain of struggle has shifted since Hall produced his classic works on the subject. Yet something important has been lost in the bargain by which the racial categories that Hall so presciently revealed to be social, historical, and political have re-ossified into apparently inarguable natural forms. For at a time when, as American political scientist Jodi Dean suggests, “those taken to share an identity are presumed to share a politics, as if the identity were obvious and the politics didn’t need to be built,” we seem to have slipped into what Hall might have termed “another essentializing moment.”

In his classic 1992 essay, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” Hall criticized “the essentializing moment” he inhabited for naturalizing and de-historicizing difference, for “mistaking what is historical and cultural for what is natural, biological, and genetic.” Moreover, he suggested that such essentialism was incompatible with anti-racism: “the moment the signifier ‘black’ is torn from its historical, cultural and political embedding and lodged in a biologically constituted racial category,” he wrote, “we valorize, by inversion, the very ground of the racism we are trying to deconstruct.” The end point of such racial absolutism, he warned, is unwarranted faith in the absurd notion that “we can translate from nature to politics using a racial category to warrant the politics of a cultural text and as a line against which to measure deviation.” Ironically, the kind of naturalization that Hall located in Thatcherite racism has taken root at the heart of anti-racist rhetoric itself.

British sociologist Claire Alexander describes “an important shift during the 1990s [in the UK] from ‘political blackness’ to ethnically defined identities, such as black British or British Asian,” or, more recently and somewhat controversially, BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic).  According to Alexander, the dynamics of political blackness were once very much like those of class formation. In the 1970s and 1980s, she says, “young people of color identified as black and campaigned together to fight racial discrimination,” adding that “at the heart of political blackness was a shared feeling of being unwanted.” Yet from the perspective of the present in both the US and the UK, the idea that blackness could denote anything other than African ancestry seems absurd. Alexander, “who describes herself as an Asian woman in her 50s, says, ‘I still use black, but I realize you can’t really get away with that because you look at young people and you describe yourself as black, they will look at you like you’re deranged.’”

As logical as it appears to be, the shift away from black as a political identity in which shared politics based on coalition building trumped ancestry to more contemporary notions of natural blackness located in individual and essential bodies was neither necessary nor coincidental. Alexander argues that the British government “‘sponsored a specific version of multiculturalism, which was focused on ethnic identities,’… [as] a method to undermine strong forms of resistance.” Moreover, she adds, “the move away from political blackness and toward ethnic identities broke down key alliances between communities … eventually [leading] to a disempowered and, in some ways, a depoliticized anti-racist movement.” We should not lose sight of what has been lost in the recasting of black as a natural category—the ability to conceptualize a community of struggle that does not “valorize, by inversion, the very ground of the racism we are trying to deconstruct.”

Ultimately, Hall’s response to contemporary anti-racist racial absolutism might be less to welcome it pragmatically than to see it as the return of the innocent black subject—insofar as that category is seen as pre-given and naturally existing, a feature of ontology rather than the subject of political struggle. We, in turn, would do well to reject the kind of essentialisms Hall criticized so cogently, even—indeed, especially—in service of anti-racism. Instead, we must push for a return of the sort of politics of struggle “without guarantees” which Hall advocated in his classic works on race. It is high time that we heed Hall’s reminder that identities are never obvious and that the politics of struggle always need to be built. In this regard, Hall’s work on race as a political category, even in its anachronism, has never been more timely.

Further Reading

The culture wars are a distraction

When our political parties only have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical, and it’s all bullshit.

Stuart Hall in Africa

Though Hall’s work was written from the vantage point of the black immigrant experience in the UK, some of it resonated in South Africa.