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15 May 2023

Against race essentialism

Black identity is a reality, not an idea.

By Tomiwa Owolade

The now suspended Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott recently wrote in a letter to the Observer that Jewish people, Irish people and Travellers “undoubtedly experience prejudice. This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable.” But they are not.

Abbott added that, “In pre-civil rights America, Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus. In apartheid South Africa, these groups were allowed to vote.”

Why America? This question is the crux of my forthcoming book. But the case against using the US to analyse race across the rest of the world relies on being against what I call race essentialism. Let’s examine this idea through a film, a novel, and some thinkers who have influenced my views on this subject.

The 1957 film Island in the Sun is a cat’s cradle of interracial romance and intrigue. Set in the sun-drenched island of Santa Marta, a fictionalised British colony based on Grenada and Barbados, it features the recently deceased Harry Belafonte as an activist and a budding politician who develops a romance with a white heiress played by Joan Fontaine. The iconic black actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge plays a pharmacy clerk who falls in love with the governor’s white aide. And Joan Collins plays Jocelyn Fleury, the daughter of a plantation owner on the island; she is betrothed to the aristocratic governor’s son, Euan Templeton, who is visiting from London.

The big twist of the film comes when a muckraking American journalist reveals the patriarch of Jocelyn’s family, the landowner Julian Fleury, has black ancestry. Jocelyn wants to call off the wedding. Her fiancé, Euan, claims his father doesn’t care about Jocelyn’s “unmixed” ancestry; he still wants to consummate their island romance. But Jocelyn desists. She cannot, she says, allow a future member of the House of Lords to be possessed with her Negro blood.

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Another twist enfolds the first. Her black ancestry only comes from her father’s side of the family. Her mother, appalled by the decision to call off the wedding, reveals her own dirty little secret: Jocelyn is not actually the daughter of Julian Fleury. She is the offspring of an illicit affair her mother had with an undisclosed white man. This means Jocelyn is (actually) white! Relieved by this, she decides to marry Euan after all. What a scare she has avoided: she is no longer burdened by the terrible tragedy of possessing a great-great-grandparent that happened to black.

[See also: Gary Younge: how racism shaped my critical eye]

Around 25 years before Island in the Sun was released, a black American journalist named George Schuyler wrote a novel called Black No More. It is about a simple medical procedure that can turn a black person into a white person. The novel is slim in length, Swiftian in its combination of horror and comedy, Huxleyan in its philosophical richness, and Wildean in its satisfying ironic coincidences.

In the novel, the doctor behind the procedure that turns black people white is a man named Junius Crookman. Educated in Germany, he is part of the black bourgeoisie. The narrator describes Crookman’s goal: “Dr Crookman prided himself above all on being a great lover of his race… He was so interested in the continued progress of the American Negroes that he wanted to remove all obstacles in their path by depriving them of their racial characteristics.”

The only way black Americans can be free is by not being black. This seems manifestly absurd – how can ceasing to be who you are advance your progress? And yet, like many absurdities, it conveys a deeper truth: black Americans can only be free once they reject the fantasy of race as a fixed essence.

Max Disher, a young black man in Harlem, is the first person to undergo Crookman’s procedure. Once he becomes white, he changes his name to Matthew Fisher and moves to Atlanta to pursue a white woman, described as a tall “Titian-haired” beauty, who snubbed him earlier on in the novel. As a black man, he asked her for a dance, and she responded by exhibiting the decorum characteristic of Atlanta upper-class white society: “I never dance with niggers.”

Before they rekindle their fiery romance, Fisher introduces himself as an anthropologist to a respected gentleman in Atlanta society – Reverend Henry Givens, the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Knights of Nordica. Fisher talks at an event hosted by this inventively named group, and he discovers the Titian-haired beauty is the daughter of Givens – she is called Helen. Fisher, now blonde-haired and blue-eyed, courts and soon marries her. He has climbed to the top of the racial greasy pole.

The Knights of Nordica, if the name wasn’t suggestive enough, is a white supremacist organisation dedicated to enforcing segregation, combating Bolshevism and modernism, and demonising black people, Catholics and Jews.

Most pertinent of all, in the context of the novel, is its attempt to stop the medical procedure that has allowed droves of black people to turn white. Without blacks, white supremacists would lose the countervailing presence against which they define themselves. In one particular passage the narrator highlights their dilemma:

“The deep concern of the Southern Caucasians with chivalry, the protection of white womanhood, the exaggerated development of race pride and the studied arrogance of even the poorest half-starved white peon, were all due to the presence of the black man. Booted and starved by their industrial and agricultural feudal lords, the white masses derived their only consolation and happiness from the fact that they were the same colour as their oppressors and consequently better than the mudsill blacks.”

Givens wants to stop this. He teams up with a white supremacist group called the Anglo-Saxon Association, which is based in Virginia and its leader, Arthur Snobbcraft, commissions a statistician named Samuel Buggerie to compile a nationwide genealogical database. Givens decides to run as president and Snobbcraft agrees to be his running mate: they plan to use the genealogical investigation to expose all the newly whitened black people and restore the primacy of Jim Crow.

[See also: How identity politics props up racism]

Meanwhile, Matthew is facing trouble. Helen is pregnant and close to giving birth. The procedure that allows black people to turn white does not guarantee the existence of white children. When Helen gives birth, Matthew will be exposed. But there’s a twist.

As Matthew is chatting to the consoling doctor after Helen has given birth, he receives a newspaper with a startling headline. Snobbcraft and Buggerie’s investigation has been leaked: it turns out that Snobbcraft, Buggerie and Givens all have black ancestry. Givens and Mrs Givens storm into the hospital, heartbroken. Helen sees the headline and is devastated. “I’m so sorry about all this,” she pleads to Matthew, “If I’d only known, I’d never have let you in for it. I would have spared you this disgrace and humiliation. Oh, Matthew, Honey, please forgive me. I love you, my husband.”

To which Matthew, emboldened by the ironies, reveals the truth about his transformation from black to white. Like Jocelyn from Island in the Sun, Helen is chastened by this experience – but not because she isn’t black. She now accepts the insignificance of race in the matter of love. “Helen,” Schuyler’s narrator writes, “felt a wave of relief go over her. There was no feeling of revulsion at the thought that her husband was a Negro. There once would have been but that was seemingly centuries ago when she had been unaware of her remoter Negro ancestry.”

Perhaps if Jocelyn discovered Euan also had “black ancestry”, things would have resolved themselves more smoothly in the film? Racial purity as a chimera is certainly a more wholesome conclusion than “the man I thought was my father wasn’t really my father so I can now marry my fiancé because I am really white”. Who would have thought a novel written in the 1930s and featuring Dixie white supremacists would be more enlightened on race than a drama starring Harry Belafonte? Henry Givens, ever the most subtle wit in the novel, announces after Matthew and Helen’s reconciliation: “I guess we’re all niggers now.”

Black No More climaxes in a horrific scene where Snobbcraft and Buggerie, travelling to Mexico out of shame and fear for their lives, stop over in Mississippi to refuel their plane. Their black ancestry is revealed to the inhabitants of the county and both men, like witches, are duly lynched. Snobbcraft and Buggerie scream to the braying mob that they are not black. It doesn’t matter. The resident preacher of the community, a fervid demagogue named Alex McPhule, needs scapegoats to bind the community together; if you need to be black, you are black.

The analogy between racism and witchcraft is one made by Barbara and Karen Fields. As they put it in their book Racecraft (2012), writing about racial caste systems, “Obviousness is the hallmark of such a world. The evidence is everywhere, populating the banalities and the showstoppers of life. So the results of telling any inhabitant of such a world that races do not exist are like those I used to read from colonial district commissioners’ reports of informing villagers that witches do not exist.”

Their argument can be summed up more succinctly: race doesn’t produce racism, racism produces race. In witch hunts, the need to find scapegoats to explain society’s problems and to bind the in-group together necessitated the existence of witches; the same is true of race. The existence of race as a fixed and essential category arises out of a community’s desire to legitimise a pre-existing social hierarchy.

Years after the procedure in Black No More has been in place, the novel describes a society in which the vast majority of previously black people are now white. Is the race problem fixed? No.

“The new Caucasians began to grow self-conscious and resent the curious gazes bestowed upon their lily-white countenances in all public places. They wrote indignant letters to the newspapers about the insults and discriminations to which they were increasingly becoming subjected. They protested vehemently against the effort on the part of employers to pay them less and on the part of the management of public institutions to segregate them… The Down-With-White-Prejudice-League was founded by one Karl von Beerde, whom some accused of being the same Doctor Beard who had, as a Negro, once headed the National Social Equality League.”

There are very few blacks: but there are new races invented to compensate for this new lack of an out-group to demonise. Because the previously black whites now possess a fairer complexion than the old whites – what I would call in this instance the ancien blancs – a darker complexion becomes an index of social power and prestige: “Everybody that was anybody had a stained skin. A girl without one was avoided by the young men; a young man without one was at a decided disadvantage, economically and socially. A white face became startlingly rare. America was definitely, enthusiastically mulatto-minded.”

The desire to differentiate, to divide, to demonise, has created new races to supplant the ones obliterated by the “black no more” medical procedure. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “Black no more” doesn’t mean racism no more; the problem isn’t with the blackness but the underlying impulse to divide and segregate.

[See also: America’s oldest shame is violence, not racism]

James Baldwin claimed, consistently and eloquently, that the race problem in America was about white Americans failing to come to terms with the fact that black Americans were their family; that the underlying cultural affinities between them meant more than the racial differences that supposedly divided them. That such differences were themselves artificial rather than essential.

In an essay in which he contrasts America’s relationship with black people to Europe, Baldwin states: “The American image of the Negro has been created out of our terrible experience, and is sustained by an anguished inability to come to terms with that experience.” He adds, crucially, that the black man “is one of us – and from this reality there is no escape”.

George Schuyler was also convinced that black Americans were Americans first and foremost. Their racial identity mattered less than their national identity. In an article for the Nation, to which Langston Hughes, the bard of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a famous response, Schuyler claimed: “Aside from his colour, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American.”

Two other thinkers who have been influenced by Barbara and Karen Fields are Kenan Malik and Kwame Anthony Appiah. As Malik put it in his recent book, Not So Black and White, “We live in an age in which our thinking is saturated with racial ideology and the embrace of difference… [But] the more we despise racial thinking, the more we cling to it. It is like an ideological version of Stockholm syndrome.” Like the Fields, he argues “race did not give birth to racism. Racism gave birth to race.”

Race doesn’t always map to skin pigmentation. As Malik writes, Irish immigrants in 19th-century America were seen by some nativist groups as “niggers turned inside out”. In 1864, a London newspaper called Saturday Review described the Bethnal Green poor as “a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion, persons with whom we have no point of contact”.

Appiah, meanwhile, has argued that “being white is not a matter of sharing a rich and distinctive culture with other whites in the way that immigrant Jews from Cracow [in Poland] shared a culture. True, whites in America almost all speak English, but so does almost everyone else. They are Catholic and Jewish and Protestant.” According to Appiah, European immigrant communities became white when they moved to America. The same is true of enslaved Africans. Nevertheless, Appiah insists that:

“African-Americans do not have the same culture, in the sense of shared language, values, practices, and meanings. But many people who think of races as groups defined by shared cultures conceive that sharing in a different way. They understand black people as sharing black culture by definition: jazz or hip-hop belongs to an African-American, whether she likes it or knows anything about it, because it is culturally marked as black. Jazz belongs to a black person who knows nothing about it more fully or naturally than it does to a white jazzman. This view is an instance of what my friend Skip Gates has called ‘cultural geneticism’.”

For Appiah, what is black American culture does not arise out of a metaphysical essence called blackness. It comes from the particular historical circumstances of black people in America. It is just as much American as it is black. Black American culture is also not a singular thing. It is plural. As he puts it: “African-American identity, as I have argued, is centrally shaped by American society and institutions: it cannot be seen as constructed solely within African-American communities. African-American culture, if this means shared beliefs, values, practices, does not exist: what exists are African-American cultures, and though these are created and sustained in large measure by African-Americans, they cannot be understood without reference to the bearers of other American racial identities.”

Race essentialism isolates black identity from any sense of rooted context. I argue instead in favour of context over and above essentialising. This applies to an American context, but the thrust of my book will be that it should apply to a British one too.

This is an edited version of a lecture given earlier this May at the Cambridge Forum for Legal and Political Philosophy.

[See also: The UK is less racist than the left – and the right – think]

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