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Academic Armchair: Brexit, Trump and Methodological Whiteness

In this week’s edition of the Academic Armchair we talked with Gurminder Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial studies, about her upcoming article “Brexit, Trump and Methodological Whitness: On the Misrecognisation of Race and Class”. In this article, Gurminder explores how political actions by the white majority were misrepresented as being the action of a white working class who have been portrayed as ‘left behind’. Gurminder examines how this could be a potentially dangerous viewpoint that legitimises or excuses racism, and distorts the narrative to create a climate in which white people can persecute and marginalise groups under the guise of ‘taking their country back’. Here’s what she had to say…

To kick off our interview, we sought some clarity on the proposal of a ‘Methodological Whiteness’. We asked Gurminder what exactly this means, and how this conception of race is significant.

‘Methodological whiteness’ is a way of reflecting on the world that does not acknowledge the role played by race in the very structuring of that world or of the ways in which knowledge is constructed and legitimated within it. It fails to recognize the dominance of ‘whiteness’ as anything other than the standard state of affairs and treats a limited perspective– that deriving from white experience– as a universal perspective.

At the same time, it treats other perspectives as forms of identity politics located within its own universal (but parochial and lesser than its own supposedly universal) understandings. For example, standard social scientific discussions of race tend to understand it primarily in terms of issues of identity or inequality. In contrast, I’m making an argument for us to understand both the ways in which race, as a structural process, has organized the modern world and the impact that this has had on our ways of knowing the world.

Understanding race simply in terms of identity places it outside structural processes (e.g. economic processes) that are presented as race-neutral. However, if we actually look at the ways in which the economy has developed and been shaped then we would need to acknowledge the ways in which race is part of this fundamental structuring. To not acknowledge this is what I term ‘methodological whiteness’.

Gurminder refers to deliberate skewings of actions in our post-Trump, post-Brexit world. We asked whether she subscribes to a view that actions are being distorted in order to hide or legitimise racism, and whether it was more nuanced than it first appears.

Many commentators have claimed that the vote for Brexit and Trump was delivered by the white working class in both the UK and the US. However, in both places it has been demonstrated that the vote of the white working class was less significant than that of the white middle class. So the question needs to be asked, why are the actions of the white middle class being presented as the actions of the white working class? Perhaps to deflect consideration of race in the motivations of the vote?

If the white working class had voted disproportionately for Brexit or Trump then the racism implicit in such a response could potentially be mitigated by economic reasoning– they are not racist, they are concerned about their jobs, economic anxiety, etc. If we accept that the white middle class have disproportionately voted for Brexit and Trump then it’s less plausible to deflect consideration of race on the basis of the same presumed economic anxieties and a more serious conversation on race would need to ensue.

My chief concerns upon reading Gurminder’s claims were that the appropriation of a working class perspective by the white middle class could be offensive or damaging. We asked Gurminder whether she believes this, and what it could mean for our political climate.

I think the presentation of white middle class anxieties as being those of the white working class is problematic in terms of being able to offer an adequate explanation of the situations we find ourselves in and also dangerous in terms of the politics that are enabled and justified as a consequence. There have been a number of reports, for example, about the rise in racist and xenophobic hate crime subsequent to the vote to leave the European Union.

It seems fair to argue, if it is taken as true that voter identities are being skewed in order to legitimise racism, that the real issues at play were not those of the votes themselves, but rather of the race and class issues they eventually came to be utilised in order to distort. We asked Gurminder whether she believes the Brexit vote and Trump’s election were, in fact, less about their supposed outcomes and more about race and class.

‘There is a (possibly apocryphal) story of the highest searched for term on Google, the day after the referendum, being ‘what is the EU?’.’ If this is true, it points to the EU not being the reason for the vote cast in many cases. There has also been a significant increase in race-related attacks on non-UK EU citizens and darker British citizens. The refrain ‘we voted to Leave, why haven’t you left yet’ is also being reported as heard on the streets of Britain.

As such, I believe that the vote for Brexit (and for Trump in the US) was much more an expression against the progress made in the last 50 years towards racial equality than simply about the anxieties produced by economic globalization. This is particularly so, given that the latter processes have disproportionately affected Black and Minority Ethnic populations adversely (as the recent Government Race Audit demonstrates) and yet these citizens voted overwhelmingly to Remain (and in the US context, voted for Hilary Clinton and not Trump).

Gurminder’s article is not yet released, and work on it is ongoing. We asked her how the research process has surprised her, and whether she has come to any unexpected conclusions along the way.

When the result of the vote was announced in the UK the immediate reaction of the media was to label this as a vote of a disenfranchised white working class. It provided them with a narrative that enabled them to sidestep the increasingly racist and xenophobic rhetoric that had characterized the Brexit campaign in the months immediately preceding the vote. It enabled them not to have to take stock of how their own journalistic practices may have contributed to the increasingly toxic climate of that time and simply make this a story of the ‘left behind’ where the only issue to do with race was about ‘them’ taking ‘our’ jobs and Brexit as a legitimate response to this.

The research process of Academics, perhaps, can be argued to have questioned the narrative around these votes, and could perhaps offer us a different perspective. It was only as colleagues such as Danny Dorling and Lorenza Antonucci began delving deeper and examining whether such a narrative accorded with the data that a different picture began to emerge. The picture they presented suggested the plausibility rather of a different narrative, one of ‘imperial nostalgia’ that a number of postcolonial scholars and theorists have been arguing for over the last few decades. It also accorded with the history of Britain understood in imperial terms, rather than the inaccurate account of it having been a nation.

To wrap up our interview, we asked Gurminder whether there was anything else she would like readers to understand about her work and this article’s message.

The campaign in the run up to the referendum on the EU was explicitly oriented against ‘experts’ and much of the media (and some academic journals) seem to rely on putting out soundbites or clickbait to drive traffic to their sites. As such, the space for serious analysis has diminished and it is something that we, as academics in particular, need to reclaim.

The idea of reclaiming space for free thinking and serious analytical work uninhibited by common perspectives is something I’m sure all students feel to be deeply important. Gurminder told us how she feels this can be ensured, and why it is in danger.

It matters that we have open spaces for debate and discussion and it matters that we have the skills with which to examine the data and evidence (and question what constitutes data and evidence) and come up with plausible explanations that are themselves open to being reexamined as and when new data/ evidence come to light. One of the places in which we can learn such skills and develop them is at universities– universities that are free from the strictures of state and market and are public institutions whose goal is to serve the public.

Democracy relies on an educated citizenry and the processes of democratization in the latter half of the twentieth century were concurrent with the opening up of universities to working class people, to women, and to ethnic minorities. This demographic diversity and public mission is essential to the health of universities and to the possibilities of healthy public debate that in turn make for healthy politics. I think we are currently in a situation of unhealth with regard to the political sphere and that the ongoing privatization of universities has contributed to this situation of unhealth.

Demographic diversity is essential to the health of universities and to the possibilities that make for healthy politics. To remake universities as institutions with a public mission would also be to contribute to the deeper democratization of our societies.

You can read more of Gurminder’s work, find her books and listen to her talks at web address gkbhambra.net.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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One Comment

  1. The extraordinary and largely unchallenged assertions in this article beg for a response – so here it is.

    Professor Bhambra’s basic argument is more clearly expressed in her research abstract on Sussex Research Online. The rhetoric of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, she suggests,

    “…was grounded in conceptions of the past as the basis for political claims in the present. Both established the past as constituted by nations that were represented as ‘white’ into which racialized others had insinuated themselves and gained disproportionate advantage. Hence, the resonant claim that was broadcast primarily to white audiences in each place ‘to take our country back’.”

    For the sake of discussion, let’s keep this debate to the UK context. Professor Bhambra’s assertion, rooted in a racialised Black/White model of the world, fails entirely to account for the factual reality that the biggest victims of anti-immigration sentiment during the Brexit process were Polish and other East European immigrants – who, let’s be honest, are as ‘white’ as white can be.

    It fails, too, to acknowledge the parallel rise in the number of anti-Semitic attacks on a Jewish community that one would be hard pressed to corral into a ‘non-white’ victim camp.

    In fact, the only proposed community-under-attack that falls into Bhambra’s racialised black/white model and supports her analysis of Brexit is arguably the Muslim community. Although that’s only true if a) you conveniently ignore, as Professor Bhambra does, the three in ten UK Muslims who voted to leave the European Union, and b) you imply that all Muslims are black – which may come as something of a surprise to the Syrians, Palestinians, Bosnians, Chechnyans, Turks and the 7.8 percent of UK Muslims, around 210,620 people in total, who described themselves as “white” in the 2011 census.

    And as for the easy and conveniently implicit assumption that racist attitudes (and presumably violence) are inherently and necessarily the result of ‘methodological whiteness’…well, Professor Bhambra of all people should know better. We should remember that the 2005 Birmingham riots derived from ethnic tensions between the British African-Caribbean people and British Asian communities following the alleged gang rape of a teenage black girl by a group of South Asian men. And we should at least consider the implications of the 2016 poll conducted for Channel 4 which found that 25 percent of British Muslims said Jews are “responsible for most wars” and 40 percent said Jews have too much power over financial markets.

    But the ignorance and manipulation of fact is only part of the problem with Professor Bhambra’s thesis.

    Despite invoking anti-racist intentions, she makes disturbingly racist assumptions. Nobody who voted to leave the European Union, she implies, could have done so for honourable reasons. “They” (and the suggestion is that “they” are all disaffected white middle class bigots) deliberately or unwittingly fed into “racist and xenophobic rhetoric” while cunningly blaming the ‘No’ vote on the ‘left behind’ white (there’s that word again) working class vote.

    Aside from the insultingly reductive and racist portrayal of white Brexit voters (whose horizon of thought and moral engagement, she implies, is limited to the depth and colour of their skin – the very definition of racism), she brings an equally reductive and essentialist ‘class’ dimension to her thesis. Lurking behind the xenophobia and its justifications were, it seems, “white middle class anxieties”. Really? The same white middle class anxieties that led 92 percent of middle class liberals to wholeheartedly support remaining in the EU, according to analysis by social research institute NatCen? How about the 75 percent of voters aged 18 to 24 who plumped to remain (many of whom, anxious white middle class though they may be, study right here at Sussex?)

    Indeed, what Professor Bhambra ignores in her argument is as instructive as what she includes. She ignores the impact of education, for instance. Seventy percent of voters whose educational attainment is only GCSE or lower voted Leave, while 68% of voters with a university degree voted Remain.

    She also ignores the impact of age. The under 25s were more than twice as likely to vote Remain as Leave.

    Most ironically of all, she ignores some of the most intriguing aspects of race and its impact on the vote. She could have chosen to engage with the fact that many jurisdictions with large South Asian populations delivered Leave votes, including Luton (56.5%), Slough (54.3%) and Bradford (54.2%). Or she could have attempted to explain why in two of London’s most multi-ethnic boroughs, Ealing and Hounslow, non-white ethnicity was in fact associated with voting Leave.

    But it’s clear that addressing these wider issues would fatally complicate her essentialist, binary and racially divisive narrative, so she chooses to ignore them instead.

    If this kind of partisan methodological analysis is what passes for professorial-level academic output at Sussex University these days, we should all be worried.

    Reply

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