Saturday, 22 May 2010

Gillian Evans: "The aboriginal people of England: the culture of class politics in contemporary Britain"

Yesterday Gillian Evans gave a departmental seminar at the School of Anthropology. Her work is on white working-class Londoners. I thought the second part of her talk, in which she talked more directly about her ethnographic fieldwork, was more interesting than the first half, which was a long preamble about the consequences of legal interpretations of the term "ethnic" in the 1976 Race Relations Act, and in particular the BNP's growing use of tropes of indigineity and ethnicity. She pointed out that although the party was trying to  moving away from a perception that it was obsessed with race, the idea of "whiteness" was still there in the background, as people like Nick Griffin still let slip in unguarded moments (such as during a heated discussion in his recent appearance on the BBC's Question Time). She agrees with Adam Kuper that far-right politics in Europe is the unfortunate and unintended corollary of the increasing emphasis on indigeneity in former colonies; hence the 2008 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stresses (rather unscientifically, to my mind!) that a group of people must be "politically underprivileged" in order to be treated as "indigenous".

This extended preamble over the BNP's claim to represent the "indigenous" white people of Britain did not mesh terribly well with the second part, although she did draw out some interesting connections in the Q&A session at the end (when she seemed to become more lively and engaging than in the main body of the talk). In her ethnography of Bermondsey she has aimed to show how there is been a discursive shift (both locally and nationally) away from the discussion of the politics of class, and towards what she called "an absurd politics of culture". Bermondsey, in South-East London, is a white working-class enclave which was once so inward-looking that one of her older female informants recalled how her father accused her of bringing a "foreigner" home when, in her youth, she introduced him to her boyfriend - who was also white and working-class, but hailed from Peckham (just a couple of miles away)! Local pride began to be undermined when it was fused with the "rival" neighbouring boroughs of Southwark and Camberwell: some people were apparently forced out of certain types of public housing, which led to bad feeling between different strata of the white working classes.

The sense of isolation, a siege mentality almost, of the inhabitants of Bermondsey was further increased by mass immigration during the 1960s and 70s: while Bermondsey remained largely white, the neighbouring area  of Peckham became known as a "black people's manor". Once known as "London's larder" because of its proximity to the docks and consequent involvement in the importation and processing of food from the colonies, the transnational relationship between white labourers at one end of the supply chain in Bermondsey and colonial people at the other end had always been in the background (witness "Jamaica Road", the main thoroughfare of the area), but now came to the fore as large numbers of former colonials moved to London in search of new economic opportunities. These immigrants began to form a "fourth class" beneath the old white working class.

There was a midly tragic element to the attempts of the newcomers to integrate with their new neighbours. Bermondsey women used to take great pride in their council flats, taking it in turns to clean the communal areas according to a strict weekly rota - a cycle of reciprocal exchange. One informant recalled how immigrants were systematically excluded from this system. One Jamaican mother, keen to do her share, washed the hallway on a Sunday - which for the other women was a day of rest - and poured the dirty water down the stairs as she had seen the other women do. This backfired as the natives took the opportunity to complain about her ruining their nice clean stairs! One black family was even told, to their faces, that they were not welcome in the local church when they turned up for a service one Sunday. An Irish woman told how she had been made to work in a separate room of a local biscuit factory with the black women after she complained about their segregation.

In the Q&A session, Evans ruminated on how people in Bermondsey and similar areas now feel disconnected from their working-class background, and aren't sure how to define themselves. People used to be defined by the sort of work that dominated in their area: e.g. the inhabitants of the Potteries of Stoke called themselves "the People of the Clay". People don't self-describe as working-class any more. Instead, a lot of their sense of identity derives from a narrow, postcode-based territoriality [although this seems also to have been true of Bermondsey in the past, on her own account]. One big puzzle thrown up by her study, which she herself acknowledged, was why the discourse of class had been replaced with the discourse of ethnicity. This reduces the common ground between different groups, and confuses the policy reaction. For example, black youth workers seemed to have no sense that sections of deprived white youth suffered from similar social problems as black youths; and educational policies aimed at improving the performance of white working-class boys ignore the fact that black working-class boys fail at least as much, and for similar reasons.

My reactions:
  • I wasn't quite clear about how the first part of Evans's talk - and in particular, her lengthy discussion of some of the legal material relating to the Race Relations Act - connected with the second part. Why has it been a shrewd legal move on the part of the BNP to move away from the discourse of race and towards the discourse of ethnicity, when racial discrimination, as well as ethnic discrimination, is obviously outlawed by this Act? It seems more like a sensible PR move based on the fact that most people these days feel intensely uncomfortable with being labelled as "racists". I did also wonder if it fitted in nicely with the new wave of immigrants "flocking in" from Eastern Europe, who are not really racially distinguishable from the English, but are certainly ethnically distinguishable.
  • In connection with that last point, I meant to ask her (but didn't quite get round to it) which the BNP would see as less desirable: a thoroughly acculturated person of Afro-Caribbean descent, or a completely unacculturated Pole. I suspect that for the average grassroots member it would be the latter; but then again there is still the lunatic fringe of white supremacists (from which the party seems to have done a good PR job of dissociating itself, at least in the public imagination) who might take the opposite view.
  • One questioner asked persistently why the discourse on class had been replaced with discourse on ethnicity, and Evans had no terribly convincing answer, beyond arguing that the answer was a historical one linked to the deliberate suppression of class politics over the last couple of decades. I did wonder if a more comprehensive answer might be constructed with reference to globalisation, which on the one hand has made ethnic differences more salient, and on the other has turned the working class of developed countries into a global elite, through an inflow of cheap luxury goods. I suspect there is also an evolutionary answer in there somewhere about how people are primed to use arbitrary cultural markers to differentiate themselves from "other" people, while tolerating indicators of social status (such as wealth) as intra-group variation.

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