by Yasmin Gunaratnam

The recent exchanges here and @WritersofColour show the continuing emotional charge of race semiotics. And that’s not to forget the generous doses of hurt innocence from those called out about their use of language. “What’s wrong with that?” the baffled MEP Godfrey Bloom asked when it was pointed out that his comments about British Foreign Aid going to ‘bongo bongo land’ might be racist.


Most recently there have been contentions about whether being anti-immigrant or an Islamophobe is racist because migrants and Muslims are not a racial group.

As the currents of race and race sensibility ebb and flow some of you have been clear that it is not the job of those who are subject to racism to educate the racially privileged, to act like an anti-racist sat nav, guiding and steering people through the hazardous and shifting terrain of race politics and terminology. It’s a good point, but that job seems to already have been taken. There are now burgeoning on-line resources and tips about racial sensitivity and those clever people at Apple have an app. Not a race app exactly, but ©CultureGPS. ©CultureGPS claims to help those in business ‘to analyze visible behavior differences in intercultural encounters and to predict to a certain degree, which interactions evolve when people from different nationalities meet.’

mzl.xupnpbnu.320x480-75©CultureGPS is an ironic, if disturbing homonym. The app does not actually use GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. Its five dimensional model of national cultures is based upon survey research and not satellite navigation. But how much the inventing and naming of this little app says about the menace of cultural and racialised difference and the appetite to make things easier, with minimal thought and effort. If it isn’t in the pipeline already, a race version can’t be that far off. But would you use one? Might you recommend it to people like Godfrey Bloom, Jessica Simpson  or Luis Suárez? Would you buy one for a colleague or perhaps a relative? There may be a market opening up, but the latest commercialisation of race awareness worries me. It takes away responsibility for difficult thinking, listening and dialogue. Don’t use up your energy fretting and worrying, or worse still, getting caught up in those heated discussions with touchy, angry people. Just reach for your phone or the internet and everything will be OK.

Race terms will always be troublesome and emotional. They remind me of what my colleague, Sara Ahmed, Professor in Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, calls ‘sweaty concepts’ – difficult ideas and words that are full of hard work . I don’t think it can be otherwise. Language has a pulse. It’s alive and symbiotic, drawing from and shaping social life. The meanings of a word can’t always be tabulated and predicted in the abstract. Every time I argue, hesitate, or am forced to rethink identity monikers I am reminded of this volatility and liveliness. Sometimes the debates about language are frustrating. Like a political Groundhog Day, they can drain the will to live with the same points circulating over and over again. But sometimes sparks fly, new insights emerge, something shifts.

An important development in the last thirty or so years has been ‘whiteness studies’ which has investigated the ways in which whiteness is naturalized and passed of as ‘normal’. This scholarship has shown that historically, whiteness is skittish and contingent. It has never been a socially neutral signifier of skin colour. In Victorian England, for example, class was very much wrapped up with being white. The English upper class was seen as being more white than the working classes and those who were Irish. In other parts of the world, racial hierarchies are sculptured out of ethnicity, religion and caste. The point is that all race sign systems are confected around an invisible norm that produces outliers. As outliers we are marked. We continually have to account for ourselves.

This is where particular histories of racism, colonialism and nationalism also leave their dirty fingerprints all over language. It makes sense that North Americans have their own terms and we have others. Different contexts are at play. One of the objections that my mum had to us being called ‘Pakis’ was that we were Sri Lankan, from a completely different geographical place and linguistic and cultural heritage to people from Pakistan. I say Sri Lankan, but my mum was Singhalese and my father was Tamil. My maternal grandfather was of Indonesian descent and my great grandfather was from the Isle of Skye, in Scotland. Try navigating through that with ©CultureGPS. Of course these intricacies had no consequence whatsoever for the people who smashed our windows, or for us as we cleaned up the broken glass.

_57450204_luis-gettyCollectivising terms such as  ‘South Asian’, ‘Black’ or ‘of colour’ – all of which I have used to describe myself at some time or another – can capture commonalities and create potential for mobilising. But we also lose something in the process. I might be a Paki in England, but for Sri Lankans my multiple heritages matter deeply. The tone of conversations can change in a heartbeat when people hear my surname. And somewhere along the line there is always racism because race typologies and nomenclature were birthed by racist hierarchies. So although the footballer Luis Suárez may have had a point in trying to argue that El Negro is a common address in Uruguay, without the freight that it carries in the UK, can such words be entirely free of their racist genealogy  ?  When flung out against a black person in a heated situation, latent meanings can be stoked and reinvigorated. New semiotic layers accrue and it is the ambiguities that can make them all the more potent.

In the theatre of racism the audience invariably want rational and conclusive proof. Those of us who have experienced its slippery artifice know that the mathematics of racism in the modern world doesn’t always add up. In her book ‘Arabs and Muslims in the Media’, Evelyn Alsultany makes a convincing argument for how attempts to balance the stereotypical representation of the Arab/Muslim with positive portrayals in news reporting and TV dramas such as West Wing, The Practice and Sleeper Cell results in ‘simplified complex representations’ that are far from progressive. This does not mean accepting all accusations of racism at face value, neither should we discourage attempts to rearrange race representations. What it does mean is recognising that racism and its histories are contorted and uneven. We can never assume a level playing field.

This recognition of racism’s long shadows is often behind moves to prohibit or to reclaim denigrating terms. For some, experimental incursions into the depths of the cultural lexicon are necessary to break new ground. For others, certain terminology is too stained to ever be rehabilitated. Talking about the N word recently when promoting The Butler, Oprah Winfrey made it clear that there was nothing redeemable in the term;

You cannot be my friend and use that word around me. It shows my age, but I feel strongly about it. … I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree.”

As well as reactivating the past through our use of language, a more mundane danger that most of us are trying to avoid is what Roland Barthes, a grand master of semiotics, called ‘the disease of thinking in essences’  . Essentialism traps a person/group into a cage of unchanging characterisations from which they cannot escape – if you like opera you are not really black or Indian Muslim women can’t have enjoyable, playful sex lives. Racism and other isms work by slotting us into preconceptions where we must stay put, pinned down and unable to move like one of those poor lifeless insects suspended in amber. The paradox is that while we are immobilised, racisms are constantly morphing.

Race used to be thought of as connoting immutable biological difference, but in what has been called ‘neo’, ‘cultural’ or ‘second degree’ racisms, identities such as those related to immigration or religion, are the fodder of contemporary race thinking. In these cases it is a fundamental incommensurability of lifestyles that substitutes for, or perhaps augments, notions of biological difference. This is ‘racism without race’ as the writers Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein have put it  . Like an inventive but fickle Casting Director, racism is always open to new lead characters and plotlines. It could be religion today, who knows what will be centre stage next? But whatever is mobilised in race thinking, be it biology, culture or immigration status, what we lose sight of is our common humanity. One of the most powerful descriptions of racism comes from the British novelist Doris Lessing. For Lessing, racism is ‘atrophy of the imagination’.

So how do we negotiate the risks of essentialism and this withering away of the imagination? I used to get het up about this in my writing and teaching. I have tried various strategies in the past such as herding terms into scare quotation marks when I write or using language that is deliberating jarring such as ‘minoritised’ – to problematize the word ‘minority’ and to show it as an active racialisation (I didn’t want the term to roll off the tongue without thought in the way that the facile ‘BME’ does).

The excruciating bind is that without race terms and categories it is difficult, if not impossible, to challenge racism or to name and share experiences. I still remember the knot of anxiety and confusion in my stomach as a child when I heard or witnessed banal racism in the playground or on TV and I didn’t have the words to decode and to name what was happening. Regardless of the political and academic debates about language, whether we are talking to each other or writing, racial signifiers continue to have currency and traction. And good people do amazing things with bad language. A couple of weeks ago I listened to doctors and nurses talking about an initiative to increase access to hospice care for ‘BAME’ groups. I may have been wincing inwardly throughout, but it was a wonderful project, skilling local people and demystifying illness, disease and death. It will make more of a meaningful difference to lives than I ever will.

9780802143006The work of writers such as Avtar Brah, Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde and Stuart Hall are the coordinates that guide my political GPS, helping me to navigate ways through the ‘treacherous bind’ of racial language, a term first used by the postcolonial writer Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan. For Radhakrishnan as soon as we use race terms we are trapped. ‘We find ourselves in a classic Nietzschean double bind’ Radhakrishnan insists, arguing that

“Race” has been the history of an untruth, of an untruth that unfortunately is our history…The challenge here is to generate, from such a past and a present, a future where race will have been put to rest forever.’

This is an onerous challenge. Rather than being a frightened rabbit caught in front of the headlights of racial semantics, I use what I call a ‘doubled’ practice of working with and against race terms and thinking. I use race categories in order to begin conversations or to start a research project but I try to show their inadequacy and limitations. In his writing on race, culture and representation, the Cultural Studies pioneer, Stuart Hall, argues that race – and related concepts such as ethnicity – are so entangled with histories of colonialism and nationalism that they are incapable of innocent, descriptive meaning. Drawing on ideas from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Hall believes that race concepts are best thought of as being ‘under erasure’. Think of a word or phrase such as PEOPLE OF COLOUR. Now think of it with a strike-through PEOPLE OF COLOUR.  It’s there and not there. Language that operates under-erasure is like food that has passed its sell-by date; it’s no longer good to think with but loiters stale on our linguistic shelves because we don’t have anything adequate to replace it with.

A doubled approach holds this tension in sight, recognising that although we need race concepts and words to challenge racism, our use of language is provisional and faulty, at best ambivalent and pragmatic. I grudgingly use phrases such as ‘minority ethnic’ with some of the organisations that I work with because these are the terms that they use and we have work to do. I choose my battles and context is everything. In academic writing, I have used ‘subaltern’, ‘racialised others’ or the cumbersome ‘racialised as being minority ethnic’. And there are the words that I will not use. ‘Non-white’ should be torched. It centres whiteness as a sun around which we are condemned to orbit, forever defined by a deficit.

Whatever words flow out of my mouth or fingers, I try my best to show the low-key humanity that is lost or smothered by race epithets. The more hospitable thought and language are to what lies on the margins of categories the better. Any anthropologist will tell you that cross-culturally what is most dangerous are those things on the borders of a category. If you are able to show even a sliver of ordinary humanness outside of race you are doing something truly subversive. Apply an amended Shukhla test  to your writing and research. Do a) characters who are people of colour b) do and say things without c) needing racial or culturalist references?

In her oft-quoted essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ the poet and activist Audre Lorde urged us to nurture our differences and interdependence whilst all the time keeping our eyes on the moving target: racism/sexism/homophobia. Lorde didn’t want the bickering to take energy away from the day-to-day realities of opposing violence and injustice. I know what Lorde means, and as a poet she knew more than most about the power of language. Words do things. With the right conditions, they create and support change.

So for me, there is vitality and hope in the recurring arguments and squabbles over language that we have been having. They stop us becoming too complacent about ourselves, the alliances we might assume, and that shape-shifter that is racism. Most important of all, they revivify the vital role of language as a part of critical thinking and adventure.

On a good day, count me in. And without the GPS.


Yasmin Gunaratnam is a writer and academic, interested in illness, death, migration, the body and feminism. She teaches in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College on research methods, culture, representation and difference and feminist theory. Yasmin is the curator of Media Diversified’s academic space. Her latest book Death & the Migrant (Bloomsbury Academic) is about transnational dying and care in British cities. Buy books She’s on twitter @YasminGun

2 thoughts on “Race GPS? No Right Turn Ahead

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.