Long Reads

Post-Brexit Britishness and the Black diaspora: lessons from Hall’s 1994 essay

Institutional nationalism and anti-Blackness after Brexit

Cultural representations of Britishness continue to reveal how perspectives of Britishness are shaped in the United Kingdom, within its state institutions, and across its history. These representations often hark back to the years before the increase in Black migration into the UK. However, the increased salience of the immediate post-war history and its associated social change has intriguing implications for our understanding of the place of the Black diaspora within the contemporary British imagination.

The nationalism derived from socially liberal and pro-welfare values is referred to as “instrumental nationalism” by Clara Sandelind. This form of nationalism succeeded in positioning the post-war Black diaspora in the UK as an archetypal other within the construct of British history. The construction of post-war liberal institutions such as the NHS and the welfare state are used as nationhood symbols in contemporary discourse to celebrate White Briton’s achievement, positioning the diaspora as beneficiaries instead of contributors to this social change.

A recent study by Clara Sandelind in Constructions of Identity, Belonging and Exclusion in the Democratic Welfare State found that national identities in the UK are closely tied to welfare states, which can lead to protectivist, often exclusionary “institutional patriotism.” If White citizens construct highly salient British identities that are centered on the provision of the welfare state, this can lead to a desire, among White nationalists, to exclude British citizens of the Black diaspora from accessing and benefitting from the national welfare state. In Cultural Identity and Diaspora, Stuart Hall wrote that the exclusion of the historically colonized diaspora from the benefit of British welfare is a fundamental part of the process of othering the diaspora. Furthermore, regimes “had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as ‘Other’.” These exclusionary British attitudes can be used to neglect the health needs of those among the diaspora, citizens, and non-citizens, who require support from the welfare state. Institutional nationalism, concerning the NHS, allows some White Britons to construct a national identity that encourages other Britons to reject the Black diaspora from accessing a significant institution tied to both the British welfare state and British public health.

“If White citizens construct highly salient British identities that are centered on the provision of the welfare state, this can lead to a desire, among White nationalists, to exclude British citizens of the Black diaspora from accessing and benefitting from the national welfare state”

The Commonwealth and unbelonging

Economic migration often reshapes the cultural make-up of the receptive country, and the reaction of the existing population to these waves of migration often results in ethnic, cultural, and religious conflicts within the society. Malory Nye (2017) in The Challenges of Multiculturalism considered the social rejection of Commonwealth migrant workers and their families, during the twentieth century, as a being strongly linked to Brexit. The groups and patterns of post-World War II migration, particularly from South Asia and the Caribbean, shaped the experience of multiculturalism in Britain differently from that in any other country in Europe; this rejection by many White Britons is mirrored in Brexit-related rejections of contemporary patterns of migration from Eastern and Central Europe.

The experience of inter-country migration can have a defining influence on the construction of British identities for the Black diaspora. As ethnic minority citizens move further away from first-hand experience of the lived culture in their ancestral homes, they are likely to maintain a strong ethnic identity and adopt a burgeoning British identity that first-generation Black “Britons” did not possess. This complexity was labeled as the process of developing multiple identities in Alita Nandi’s and Lucinda Platt’s Britishness and Identity Assimilation among the UK’s Minority and Majority ethnic groups. Hall accurately predicted the continuance of this phenomenon:

“Difference, therefore, persists – in and alongside continuity. To return to the Caribbean after any long absence is to experience again the shock of the “doubleness” of similarity and difference”

Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Disapora, 1994

The experience of the Black diaspora demonstrates the disorienting feelings of doubleness that excludes many of us from feeling wholly connected to either the UK or to those living in Africa. Each of us experiences the “otherness” of the ancestral migration experience.

Bobo and Fox’s 2003 study in Race, Racism, and Discrimination: Bridging Problems, Methods, and Theory in Social Psychological Research, which observed a contemporary workplace, originated their concept of “segmented assimilation” among non-native ethnic minorities; segmented assimilation is understood as the different spatial, industrial, and social class assimilation of different groupings of migrant workers. For recent Black migrants who quickly assimilate they are able to adapt more easily to the languages, culture, social mores, and expectations of a predominantly White British society; those who are less able to assimilate, however, can experience social ills, including alienation, cultural rejection, and interpersonal conflict. These factors would make it challenging to construct a “positive” British identity.

“The experience of the Black diaspora demonstrates the disorienting feelings of doubleness that excludes many of us from feeling wholly connected to either the UK or to those living in Africa”

The significance of the complications arising from segmented assimilation is underscored by Hall’s three distinct “presences:” Présence Européenne and its primacy over the Présence Africaine and Présence Americaine (Presence New World ). For those in the diaspora who quickly adopt the culture, norms, and values of British society they are more easily able to adapt to life in the UK; others, however, remain most significantly marginalized by the primacy of the Caribbean and African heritage, which constitutes their fixed cultural identity.

Hall suggested a variable or unfixed cultural identity for the diaspora, complicating their lived experience in Britain. Cultural identity for the diaspora “is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being.’ It belongs to the future as much as to the past.” A lack of assimilation and cohesion between new Black communities and White people already living in the receiving communities can make it difficult for newly first-generation migrants to construct British identities. The “struggle” to become British is made more difficult by rejecting the diaspora’s Britishness by segments of the White British community.

German-born sociologist Christian Joppke categorized the twenty-first century’s shift away from a trend of enforcing social integration as being detrimental to Black migrant communities. Citing contemporary Dutch society, he argued in The retreat of multiculturalism in the liberal state: theory and policy, that the unwillingness of state actors to take an active role in community integration led to the natural formation of an “ethnic underclass” consisting of those disadvantaged and rejected Black people who were unable to assimilate into the culture and society of the Netherlands. Joppke’s work suggests that Black migrants, moving into societies similar to the UK, can feel excluded from the kinds of socio-participatory activities that enable residents in Western societies to develop salient national identities. In addition to this higher likelihood of social exclusion, the formation of such underclasses can create additional social problems resulting from social, cultural, and economic deprivation; these problems might range from attainment inequalities in children to severe levels of anomie in adults and the elderly. However, Hall and Joppke may differ in their perception of the intention to create the ethnic underclass. Joppke considers this underclass to be an unintended consequence of weak social policy. In contrast, Hall’s perspective would think this phenomenon to be the desired outcome for Western regimes who sought to bring about the “exclusion, imposition and expropriation” of the Black diaspora in these societies.

“As the diaspora is often being excluded from ‘positive’ aspects of life within British cities, many of us will further struggle to form ‘positive’ British social identities in the face of a post-Brexit decline in quality of life in cities”

Hall notes that the ever-present effects of “colonialism, underdevelopment, poverty, and the racism of color” in British society are compounded by the higher likelihood of diaspora members living in undesirable subsections of cities. As the diaspora is often being excluded from “positive” aspects of life within British cities, many of us will further struggle to form “positive” British social identities in the face of a post-Brexit decline in quality of life in cities.

The empire’s monarch or the nation’s queen?

One of the most significant cultural representations that make the UK distinctive, in a global sense, is the role played by the British monarchy in the construction of British identity among its citizens. Hall’s concept of the competition between the dominant Présence Européenne and the subjugated Présence Africaine among the Black diaspora demonstrates how the monarchy can fuel the disorientation of doubleness felt by Black people of Britain in the British context. For the diaspora in the UK, the monarch represents a historical injustice in the colonialism of the African and American (North and South) worlds while being a symbol of Britishness for them in the diasporic communities predominantly in England. To embrace the monarchy as a Black Briton is to ignore the monarchy as a symbol of oppressive British colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean; this contradiction disrupts the formation of either a wholly “positive” or solely “negative” British identity for the diaspora who settled in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“To embrace the monarchy as a ‘Black Briton’ is to ignore the monarchy as a symbol of oppressive British colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean…”

Many “Black Britons” construct a British social identity that deliberately excludes the monarch from their conception of what it means to be British. Support for British republicanism can be observed in Gary Younge’s assessment of the media attention paid to the wedding of Prince (Henry) Harry and Megan Markle, being the Sussexes. In his public lecture on identity politics in Britain, Younge argued that, rather than symbolizing societal progress, widespread coverage of the monarchy further solidified the “inherited privilege” and “patronage” which governed the country. This cleavage between British republicans and British monarchists represents a potentially unresolvable conflict within the societal consensus of how one might construct a British social identity for their self; this division indicates that a unified British identity will continue to remain elusive because of the socially divisive factors with which it would be constructed. In keeping with Hall’s theory of the “constant transformation” of cultural identity for the diaspora, what was seen as a rejection of Meghan Markle’s place within the predominantly White monarchy symbolizes a limitation to the full development of a British consciousness for “Black Britons”.

Blackness, Europeanness and globalness

Cultural Euroscepticism impacts the ways voters from the right of British politics construct their British identities, but the rejection of European identity can also be observed in those of left-wing political traditions. Hall’s position as a Black Marxist is congruent to Cornel West and Bill Brown’s theoretical perspective. In their Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, they rejected a “monumentalist conception of culture,” favoring a more complex understanding of European history which replaced a perceived “superiority of European culture” with a systematic suppression of non-White cultures, and oppression of poor Black citizens in Europe. This subjugation of Black Europeans was partially achieved by constructing a “wealth positive” narrative about European history, whereby the ends of European advancement negate the importance of the means, such as slavery, genocide, and colonialism.

Many among the Black diaspora’s left-wing decline to embrace European identities because of their incorporated rejection of the historical mistreatment of Black people by the state forces of European countries. For these voters, the only basis for adopting a salient European identity would be embracement and favorable appraisal of the continent’s colonial histories; this is impossible for most. These examples provide evidence to support the idea that significant proportions of British society reject the Présence Européenne’s domination of the lives of the diaspora, but Brexit reflects a more minor, more nationalistic form of this presence.

Briton’s attitudes toward globalization in the post-Brexit world allow us to understand how the influence of historical British social identities shape nationalistic, inward-looking popular discourse in an increasingly globalized world. The concept of a globalized world is crucial for constructing cultural identity among the diaspora, regardless of British political activity. Three historical influences shape the cultural identities of “Black Britons:” the Présences Europeanne, Africaine, and Americaine (New World). The cultural influence of each of the latter two continues to instruct the “constant transformation” of their identity as part of the diaspora that had experienced “dispersal and fragmentation” throughout modern and contemporary history.

“Many among the Black diaspora’s left-wing decline to embrace European identities because of a rejection of the historical mistreatment of Black people by the state forces of European countries”

Globalization in the UK is predominantly felt in the cultural, social, and political influence of the United States of America. In Graham Wilson’s 2017 Brexit, Trump and the Special Relationship, he tracked several periods when Anglo-American governments moved their countries in similar directions. In the 1950s, both Eisenhower and Macmillan were Conservative modernizers who were later succeeded by civil rights pioneers of the left in Kennedy and Wilson; the conservative Reaganite and Thatcherite renewal of the special relationship gave way to the third way, the centrist alliance of Clinton and Blair; the 2019 anointment of Boris Johnson (elected by his party after the publication of Wilson’s 2017 study) shows further symmetry with American governing personnel, as Trump and Johnson simultaneously rose to greater prominence through right-wing populist campaigns of 2016. Even “Black Britons” can feel that they share social, cultural, and commonalities with Americans, which would be desirable, while others consider America’s global influence damaging to vulnerable people across the world. For the diaspora living in post-Brexit Britain, an awareness of the historic, albeit unofficial, Special Relationship between the UK and the US can diminish the importance of the Présence Africaine for those among the diaspora who buy into it. Hall’s essay illuminates the challenges faced daily by “Black Britons” to maintain the original conception of a collective diasporic cultural identity.

“Within the terms of this definition, our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people,’ with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning”

Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, 1994

Globalization offers a significant threat to the unification of the diaspora in the face of ever-increasing dispersal and creolization; post-Brexit Britain may be less European than it was before 2016, but it is also no more Africaine.

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