New Racism and the insular identity



Liana Lewis



In contemporary England refugeeness has been one of the main issues throughout de British identity has been imagined. The article seeks to analyse how in this context of forced migration racism has been acquiring a new pattern that goes beyond the black/white dualism, although such a dynamic still plays an important role on the way groups of people have been othered.

Key Words

Racism. Contemporary England. Identity. Refugees. Childhood.



Na Inglaterra contemporânea a questão dos refugiados tem sido um dos principais pontos através dos quais a identidade britânica tem sido imaginada. Este artigo busca analisar como, no contexto da migração forçada, o racismo tem adquirido um novo padrão que vai além do dualismo negro/branco, embora tal dinâmica continue a representar um importante papel na forma como grupos de pessoas têm sido transformados em Outro.

Palavras Chave

Racismo. Inglaterra contemporânea. Identidade. Refugiados. Infância.


New Racism and the insular identity

Are you one of us?’ Margaret Thatcher’s question, widely plagiarised, can be taken as a perfect summary of the politics of identity that defined the relations towards migrants from Commonwealth countries who came to Britain from the 1940s to the 1960s in response to the national need for an additional workforce. The prospect of people from former British colonies making up part of the national identity was received with an attempt at building a mythical belief in a nation racially unified by its whiteness. This attempt dismisses the contradiction of the formation of the nation-state. The paradoxical configuration of a delimited boundary regarding the national geographical space, economy and culture was possible through an expansionist colonial mission which ensured that, through exchange of commodities and culture, hybridization became one of the nation’s constitutive features (HALL, 1993).

However, if, during the colonial phase, the English were going there, getting in touch with “new” people through maritime enterprise, guaranteeing the comfortable illusion of purity regarding national borders, the contemporary prospect of receiving people from former English colonies in its territorial space threatened the illusion of homogeneity. One response to such a threat was the political right’s construction of a theory that, at the end of the 1970s and during the 1980s, propagated racism, not in terms of difference in colour or on biological grounds, but through difference of culture, identity and way of life. This discourse was forged on the grounds of the constitution of the notion of oneness in opposition to the outsiders – immigrants – and insiders – African-Caribbean and Asian people (BARKER, 1981).

In this respect, Lawrence (1982) identifies how African-Caribbeans were regarded as a bastard, misplaced people who did not have a precise identity since they occupied a problematic space in-between Britishness and the slave inheritance, which in its turn, linked them to a lost route from Africa via the Caribbean. The Asian community, on the other hand, was seen as composing an identifiable national identity, made possible through a strong cultural link that represented a threat to the British identity.

The writings, speeches and political programmes based on the New Racism focused on the avoidance of race as signifier, seeking to evade accusations of racism. Cultural differences became the privileged concept, as a way of excluding the “different”. Blackness and whiteness became opposite categories not because of biological differences, but because black and white people were seen as having cultures essential to their races while their cultures were seen as incompatible with each other. As a result, their identities were seen as irreconcilable (SOLOMOS; BACK, 1996, p.19).

In this context, from a culturalist perspective - which essentializes culture and considers it to be homogeneous, immutable and irreconcilable in relation to “other” systems - ethnographies were carried out positioning African-Caribbean and Asian children as caught between two cultures. Culture was considered to be the sole determinant of the relations between these children and the hegemonic society. As a way of interpreting, for example, the low performance of African-Caribbean children at school, this perspective saw the family configuration of these children as the main factor responsible for their academic “failure”. The main problem was seen as related to the absence of a father-figure. This model of family structure was seen as highly problematic because it was incompatible with the classical model of nuclear family. In this way, the family structure of some sectors of the African-Caribbean community, and its children, were pathologized (LAWRENCE, 1982).

Regarding the political response, an assimilationist ideology based on the monoculturalist paradigm was adopted as an answer to what was seen as a cultural deficit. This perspective sought the eradication of ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences with the purpose of absorbing the immigrants and their descendents into an imagined homogeneous British society. In the school’s context, language centres were set up for provision of English as a second language and a policy of dispersal of black pupils was introduced under the argument that too many black students in a school would have a negative consequence to white students as well as to the plan of a harmonic multiracial institution (BRAH, 1998; TROYNA, 1992).

A parallel can be observed between the politics of marginalization of African-Caribbean and Asian children and refugee children in the present context. For example in the year 2002, a clause in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill proposed the exclusion of newly-arrived asylum seeker2 children from the mainstream educational system (CURTIS, 2002). African-Caribbean and Asian children were dispersed throughout schools in order to not threaten the majority of white children; asylum seeker children have been, under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, dispersed around the country with the pretext of decreasing the workload on London and the South East.

In the present context, refugee children have become one of the primary depositaries of the notion of the Other. Other, here, relates to those persons who are considered to be outside the norm, and who do not fit a desirable set of qualities and expectations. They are then excluded, positioned as outsiders in order to maintain the social and symbolic norm (HALL, 2003b). This is not to say that discrimination and governmentality do not make up part of the lives of African-Caribbean and Asian children. Instead, I suggest that the presence of refugee children makes the interplay of identity more complex, with Britishness becoming ever more positional.

Racist assumptions and practices never reach society in a uniform or absolute way. Dissident voices have always represented opposition to racist movements in the European context (SOLOMO; BACK, 1996). We shall now look at two perspectives that emerged as reactions to the new racist perspective and its monoculturalist ethos.

Celebrating and opposing (?): the multicultural and anti-racist perspectives

The multiculturalist perspective, which constituted a reaction to monoculturalist and assimilationist practices imposed by the New Right, saw racism as a consequence of ignorance in relation to “other” cultures (RATTANSI, 2003). According to Donald and Rattansi (2003), in proposing the celebration of cultural diversity, it presented a positive as well as negative consequence. The affirmative aspect refers to the fact that communities had their claims acknowledged and valued on the official level.

The negative aspect relates to the fact the celebration of “diversity” dismisses disparities of opportunity regarding class, gender, ethnic and racial background that still traverse the lives of diverse communities in Britain (BRAH, 1998; DONALD, RATTANSI, 2003; TROYNA, 1992). It welcomes diversity, but not on the basis that all cultures are different in relation to each other. It exoticizes diverse cultures since they are understood as different when positioned against the notion of a dominant national English culture. In this way, such an approach still displays the logic of political assimilationism (DONALD; RATTANSI, 2003).

In the school context it has provided what is seen as a culturally relevant curriculum and teaching assistance, with the objective of making the home and the school cultures compatible (TROYNA, 1992). According to Brah (1998) it constitutes a discourse and practice that ‘minoritises’ the other and ‘ethnicises’ ethnicity through the over-valorisation of certain attributes. People are then locked into a rigid set of assumptions, which dehistoricizes the relations among several groups at the same time that culture is considered in an essentialist and homogeneous way.

The anti-racist perspective saw the multiculturalist over-valorisation of culture as the main or unique site of racial issues as highly problematic. It drew an important critique against the idea of racism as being constituted as an individual experience. Anti-racists were also suspicious of the term “culture” because it was coined as the main concept around which the New Racism expressed and legitimated its prejudices. In this way they also challenged the notion that different traditions are the core of racial tensions. They claimed that racism should be located in the institutional context, revealing a history of power inequity among groups of people distinguished on the basis of race (DONALD; RATTANSI, 2003).

At the present moment there is an acknowledgment, based on the post-structuralist paradigm, that culture is not a rigid set of beliefs. It is, rather, mobile and is played through the multiple constitutions of identities of its members. In this way, the experience of racism is not constituted in a single fashion. It has to be thought of in conjunction with other sources of inequalities such as gender, social class, generation, sexuality, etc (BRAH, 1998; CONNOLLY, 1998a, 1998b; GILROY, 2002; HALL, 2003b, MAC AN GHAILL, 1999). On the other hand, a singular and essentialist version of blackness can be utilized in a strategic way. For example, Mercer (1994) argues that the black community can appropriate the concept of blackness being constructed as a way of reversing a notion embedded with negative connotations into a positive affirmation.

On the way to negotiation? When multiplicity became part of the encounter

As we have observed, during the 1970s and 1980s the social sciences and the anti-racist movement in Britain considered the process of racialization exclusively through the signifier of the black and white dualism. Here, the privilege of colour racism subsumed other forms of racialization that would multiply the mechanisms and experiences of differentiation (MAC AN GAHILL, 1999). According to Hall (2003a) the term black was employed as the sole signifier for building an identity that could give a sense of solidarity among ethnically, culturally, linguistically diverse populations in their resistance against racism. Hall points to the fact that nowadays a new politics of identity and racialization has been, not replacing, but displacing the one above cited. The new, multifaceted politics of identity and differentiation fragments the individual and/or community into a set of subject positions that multiplies and makes more complex this kind of power.

Now is the time for plurality. The post-modern paradigm has as its main strand the decentring of the rational and unitary subject of modernity epitomized by the figure of the white middle-class male European. Notions of singularity and purity have been contested under the argument of a fictional absolutism that denies the inescapable factuality of diversity (HALL, 1992, 1997, 2003a). We are all hybrids. But what does that mean in terms of the politics of daily life? Does it mean that giving up the notion of purity makes us all the same in terms of power and privilege? Does it mean a celebration of plurality in itself? Who celebrates? Under which conditions is each plurality constituted?

Why is plurality important in the context of this article? I found in Gilroy’s words the reasonable answer, not simply because of its complexity, but because it directs itself to the politics of the daily life: “The plural is important here for there can be no single or homogeneous strategy against racism because racism itself is never homogeneous. It varies, it changes and it is always uneven” (GILROY, 2003, p. 60 - 61).

Plurality is also important because refugees represent a new threat, since the signifier ‘refugee' is in itself plural. They represent, in racial terms, an infinite possibility of fragmentation/contamination of the notion of purity that continues to prevail nowadays, however much under the facade of a multicultural society.

How multi is the contemporary multicultural Island? When refugees became part of the matter

At the beginning of my fieldwork I went to discuss the condition of the refugee children with one of the coordinators of the Educational Local Authority (LEA) of Moulton3. Speaking about the difficulties the LEA faced when refugee children originating from diverse countries arrived in the city she observed, with a smile on her face, that the professionals had to deal with ‘bizarre languages’. Her statement does not point solely to the pragmatic fact that they had to communicate with children whose languages were semantically and structurally so different from her language. Rather, it is traversed by an adjective that has a negative connotation. Bizarre amplifies the notion of difference, transforming it into the complete Other. This concept of Other has no point of identification, of commonality; it means the negative of the acceptable, the complete opposite of normality. The trouble for her seemed to reside not only in this extreme difference, but was because this difference became, all of a sudden, multiplied.

Until the 1980s – a moment of significant increase in the number of persons seeking asylum in the UK – Irish people and people originating from Commonwealth countries were the main population from which a sense of Britishness was constructed through opposition. Several nationalities, religions and languages were dismissed by the majority white population mainly under the terms African-Caribbean and Asian. These expressions simplified and compressed the numerous subject positions occupied by its members as a way of managing an anxiety that could become overly multiplied. Instead of directing this anxiety at the Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Barbadian, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Punjabi speaker, Patois speaker, and so on, this anxiety could become more manageable and easier to cope with if it was directed to just two signifiers: Asian and African-Caribbean.

Refugees disrupt this logic. People are aware that they come from dozens of countries, speak several languages, and are practitioners of diverse religions. The unevenness of their presence can be attested by the government’s obsessive attempt to be aware of the origin and constant change of the ranking of the countries of the arrivals through the annual official statistics of the countries of origin (HOME OFFICE, 2002). What Home Office’s statistics show is that the pattern is never absolutely stable; it becomes, in this way, in imaginary terms, out of control.4

In this respect, in an article published at The Guardian, the Labour Party’s former Home Secretary David Bluncket, defending an assimationist project that targets immigrants under the notion of shared citizenship, observes that:

My contribution to this debate has been an emphasis on the development of shared citizenship. I have long argued for a self-respect and respect for others, and an understanding of our identity and sense of belonging. (…) That is why I introduced tuition and tests in English for those seeking citizenship for the first time, as well as citizenship classes and affirmation ceremonies. (Paragraph 7)

The article was published some months before the general elections of 2005 where the Conservative Party constituted the main opposition to the Labour Party’s attempt at reelection. Immigration constituted the main agenda of the Conservatives’ campaign, which constantly claimed that Labour had been adopting soft policies towards immigration, which opposed the interests of development of the national state. In this context, national belonging becomes one of the privileged guidelines of the confrontation.

If during the 1980s the politics of the constitution of identity had as its major opposition the population from Commonwealth countries, from the 1990s onwards it has been, not replaced, but primarily focused on another kind of migration; the forced one. Asylum seekers and refugees became, at least at the official level, the main population from which a sense of Britishness can be constructed. In this way, the black/white dualism is no longer a category that can alone explain the politics of racialisation and contestation in England. Nevertheless, the discourses and practices that were drawn throughout such a dichotomy during the 1980s like ethnic absolutism, assimilationism, multiculturalism and anti-racism have been utilised by diverse institutions in order to make sense of a population that demands a reconfiguration of the notion of Britishness. This reconfiguration points out to the possibility of a multiplicity more complex than the one achieved during the post Second World War era.

Introducing Green Park Primary and Nursery School

Green Park Primary and Nursery School was chosen to make up part of the research project because it is the school in Moulton that has the greatest number of refugee and asylum seeker children; approximately twenty four. I carried out my research in the years three, four and five.

The majority of students are predominantly non-white English (80%), principally Pakistani, (55%), while 8% are Indians. The refugee children are immersed in the 17% that is constituted by mixed race, black Africans, African-Caribbeans, Bangladeshi, Kurds, Afghans, Iraqis, Turkish and Eastern Europeans. Although gender distribution is not specified, it seems to be quite balanced. Even though the institution is located in a predominantly Asian locality and the vast majority of its pupils are Asian, the teachers are predominantly white, including the head teacher and her temporary replacement during the former’s maternity leave. Besides these, there are two black male teachers and one Asian female teacher. The assistant secretary is a white woman and the school secretary is Asian-Kenyan. A white and an Asian woman occupy the position of dinner ladies.

I found it important to specify the racial background of the students and the staff, since this position, together with age, gender and class, will inform the relationship between both groups of people and among the individuals in each group in diverse ways.

Since we arrived in England we are becoming white’5. The (im) possibilities of whitening for black refugee children

Although the complex ways racism operates have been giving space to new discursive strategies that takes ethnicity and culture as means of “othering” (SOLOMOS; BACK, 1996), the issue of colour has not been displaced. Since the germinal times of colonialism, up to the so-called “post-colonial” era, it continues to exist, operating as a differentiating signifier that transforms peoples in races. The binary dynamic black/white constitutes a complex battlefield, since its performance is not actualised solely outside, where black and white divisions are made explicit through discriminatory social interactions. It operates inside, given that whiteness became desirable for peoples of both colours.

In the book Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon analyses the constitution of the subjectivity of the black man as a result of the colonial encounter. Concluding that as a consequence of the colonial violence whiteness became the norm, he states that:

The black man wants to be like the white man. For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white. Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence. (1986: 228)

According to the author, there is an impossibility of ontology per se of the black man since it is always constituted in relation to the white man. The black man no longer exists alone; his action is always directed to the other. It is through this movement towards the white man that the colonised man searches for self-recognition.

Although Fanon contextualises his work, warning us that he is solely referring to the Antillean man, several times throughout his book he recalls the possibility of universalization. Even though his generalisation is extremely insightful and carries the important common pattern of internalisation of the white norm, it does not allow space for a more complex set of interactions, one that is multiplied by the several social positions that interrelate with the blackness; in other words, the various possibilities of being black.

One of the possibilities not fully developed by Fanon is gender difference. Homi Bhabha calls our attention to this lapse when, in the foreword of the book, he points out that Fanon’s use of the category man ‘usually connotes a phenomenological quality of humanness, inclusive of man and woman and, for that very reason, ignores the question of gender difference’ (1986: xxvi). I would observe at this point that Fanon’s intention to produce a phenomenology of the human kind does not only exclude the gender category legitimising the male as the norm; it is also generationally oriented. I propose that the male adult model has to be decentred to allow the recognition and analysis of other interplays of unequal relations.

Through immersion into the white world, the black children conceptualise blackness and whiteness in a very positional way. The construction of their racial identity is confronted with the white norm, cross cut by gender, family discourses, country of origin and the desire – and its absence – of identification with the dominant culture. It is these interconnected narratives and experiences that we are going to address now.

Mariana is an eight-year-old girl who came to England from Angola with her mother and two teenage sisters in the year 2002. She originates from Cabinda, a former protectorate of Portugal which is very rich in petroleum. In the year 1975 troops from Angola invaded the territory, annexing it their construction of the Angolan national state. Both of Mariana’s parents were members of FLEC (Front of Liberation of Cabinda’s Enclave), a political group which fights for the region’s independence. Cabinda has had its minerals exploited by multinationals while the majority of the population lives in a condition of extreme poverty (UNPO, 2005).

Mariana’s father was sent to jail and assassinated by the Angolan government. Her mother, Conceição, was also sent to jail and tortured, but, being left alive and set free, managed to flee the country together with Mariana and her two teenage sisters. I met Mariana and her mother in the school when they were being introduced to the institution. From that moment we developed a relationship based on friendship, where our experiences of life abroad were often exchanged.

Mariana is a very lively child, extremely charismatic and quite self-confident. She engages with people around her very easily, being a very pleasant child to be in contact with. During the Art Club6, Mariana makes a drawing of three girls and one woman as white with blond hair. Suspicious that she is representing her nuclear family, I ask her who they are and she confirms my prediction. I point out that the people in the drawing are white, to which she replies: ‘When we were in Angola we were morena7, but since we’ve arrived in England we are becoming white.’ In this respect Bhabha observes that

the black child turns away from himself, his race, in his total identification with the positivity of whiteness which is at once colour and non colour. In the act of disavowal and fixation the colonial subject is returned to the narcissism and the Imaginary and its identification of an ideal ego that is white and whole. (…) looking/hearing/reading as sites of subjectification in colonial discourse are evidence of the importance of the visual and auditory imaginary for the histories of society. (2002, p. 76)

Mariana’s denial of her blackness – ‘when we were in Angola we were morena’ - can be interpreted in two ways. Since arriving in England she realises that her colour is out of order; she denies that she has ever been black. In this way, the desire to be white is uniquely attributed to the experience of migration. Another possibility is that the process of whitening has started back in Angola, becoming more dramatic on the way to completion in England. At this point I want to bring in her family’s narrative, since in her discourse she points out collectively - ‘we are becoming white’ - in referring to her whole nuclear family.

In informal conversations with her family, during afternoons we spent together enjoying ourselves, we tried to build up some identification between our cultures, a process very common among foreigners as a way of constructing relationships through commonalities. While I was trying to make sense of Brazilian culture in terms of our heritage in relation to Africa8, I ask Conceição what identification they have with Portuguese people - the people who colonised the region where she comes from - and Brazilian people. She says that they do not have any identification with Portuguese people since they do not have the Portuguese blood running in their veins9. On the other hand she says, referring to Brazilian people, that “We have their blood running in our veins” and in a contradictory way she states ‘We came from you’. Surprised, I reply that it is the opposite: we are the ones who came from them.

What I could not make sense of at that moment was the fact that she was speaking about the present situation. She and her two teenager daughters were telling me how they know how to dance samba (a famous Brazilian dance), how in Angola they buy clothes imported from Brazil and, most importantly, how they often watch Brazilian soap operas.10 Brazilian soap operas not only represent, but reproduce without challenging, the result of a society that has the colonial condition as its heritage; a racially stratified social structure with black people occupying its lowest layers.

Throughout the mass media the satellites emit images of black people on the margins. With rare exceptions they are the submissive housekeepers, the manual workers, the criminals, the children who live in the streets, the uneducated, the ones who live in the shanty towns or are locked up in jail, and so on. White people are the ones who interpret the desirable models. They live in nice houses, have highly skilled jobs, are the patrons, the romantic couples, the main characters. Even though they also play negative roles, such villains exist to operate in the dynamic of the white world. White people are the centre and the very end of the narrative. In short, they are the models of identification.

All the actresses and actors Conceição and her daughters refer to are white. If that is the Brazil they know, is that the Brazil Conceição was referring to when she stated ‘we come from you’? The lapse of the mother is captured by Mariana and appropriated as a transitional mask – “in Angola they were morenas” - but now that they have reached the metropolis11, they are becoming white.

An intricate net of family history and desire allied to the process of migration collaborates in Mariana’s whitening process; and the body is the very locus of the transformation of her subjectivity. Speaking about the care of the body and about concern with appearance, Conceição recalls her childhood making sense of her body through a colonial situation that is also crosscut by adult and school’s authorities. She relates, with a tender and nostalgic expression, that during her primary-school years, the teacher, who was a Portuguese woman, a settler12 was often telling the girls that a woman should always take good care of her nails and hair. Referring to this teacher as “senhora”13 Conceição says that she tries to transmit her idea to her daughters.

Following the teacher’s instructions and taking care of the body, Conceição internalizes the master’s discipline, identifying with her and transforming her demands into a way of life that must be transmitted to the new generation. To paraphrase Fanon, for the black woman there is only one destiny and it is white. Following the mother’s history, Mariana’s identification with the white world is processed through her body, with the school as a site of consummation. But such a process is intimately linked to the experience of migration and to Conceição’s expectations in relation to the new life.

When I first met Conceição, she had been in the country for about six months without have been going through the painful and uncertain process required by refugee status. At that time, England was the land of possibilities. When in Angola, her elder daughters did not go to school for four years and Mariana has never attended one. Now the older children are studying, and in her words, ‘even having singing classes’. One of her daughters said that maybe she could become a famous singer in the future14. Conceição says she would probably like to study as well, that maybe she could go to university and become a doctor, something she always dreamed of being. The idea of change of perspective is clear: ‘I want to do in this country what I’ve never had the opportunity to do in mine’.

Conceição evokes the projection of her desire in relation to Mariana when she says that her daughter wants to become a doctor as well, and that this aspiration is probably due to the fact that this is the profession she herself wants to pursue. She points out again that England received herself and her daughters and is giving them opportunities that they could not have in their own country. The way of responding to the country’s benevolence is through a movement of assimilationism: “I have to adapt myself to the new country”.

The body that disciplines is the body I want to have

Body, migration, and the mother’s expectations interconnect to compose Mariana’s process of whitening, and here this process will be examined in the context of the school. In such an institution, the norm is the disciplined body. Teachers constantly use an authoritarian voice to remind the children how they are supposed to behave while sitting on the carpet: always directing their gaze at the teacher; keeping arms crossed, the back straight, the ‘bum’ leaning against the floor; not establishing any kind of parallel conversation or commentary. The atmosphere is of absolute control and formality. When I ask Mariana if there is anything at school she finds difficult or uncomfortable she answers:

M: What I don’t feel comfortable with is for me to stay, is for me to stay all the time like that. Is to stay all the time sitting down. Because the teacher is all the time making in the board.

L: So you think it is boring sitting down all the time?

M: Yes. Is boring. But when it is on the chair it isn’t boring.

L: So why do you think it is boring to stay on the carpet and not on the chair? What is the difference?

M: The difference is that we always stay in there like that. We are always waiting, always waiting [at this moment she crosses her arms]. Always waiting, always waiting, always waiting [with an emphatic tone]. And I stay there looking at the teacher. The teacher always talking, always talking. And after, when we sit on the table, it is a bit tiring, but we are writing. And later on we can make everything we want.

L: Ah, I see. What you find boring is to stay still?

M: To stay like that [she makes a very serious expression, keeping the spine straight and the arms crossed; the posture the teachers impose on them].

At the same time as being clear about the discomfort in relation to the school’s discipline, Mariana is extremely conformist in relation to such demand. During one of the first observations of Sarah’s lectures – Mariana’s first teacher - I noticed that she was the most disciplined child. Although I felt fairly uneasy in the setting and realised that some children had apprehensive expressions, Mariana remained focused on the teacher’s demand, responding with a serious face and immobile body.

I felt extremely suffocated in the classroom. The atmosphere was very oppressive and the demand of discipline higher in relation to Grace’s (Mariana’s second teacher) lectures. I felt like Mariana wanted to conform to the setting like her mother wants in relation to England. When the children were asked to be ready15, Sarah observed that Mariana was the most well behaved child, facing the front and putting the finger on her lips, being in complete silence. (Field Notes – 27/06/03)

Her body is the docile body described by Foucault’s obsession in deconstructing the disciplinarian society. In the book Discipline and Punish (1991) he argues that during the eighteenth century the body became the privileged site of the exercise of power. What is the novelty of such phase if, according to Foucault, in every society the body is supposed to be located under the constraint of strict powers?

To begin with, there was the scale of the control: it was a question not of treating the body en masse, ‘wholesale’, as if it were an indissociable unity, but of working it ‘retail’, individually; of exercising upon it a subtle coercion, of obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself – movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body. Then there was the object of the control: it was not or was no longer the signifying elements of behaviour or the language of the body, but the economy, the efficiency of movements, their internal organization; constraint bears upon the forces rather than upon the signs; the only truly important ceremony is that of exercise. Lastly, there is the modality: it implies an uninterrupted, constant coercion, supervising the processes of the activity rather than its result and it is exercised according to a codification that partitions as closely as possible time, space, movement. (FOUCAULT, 1991, p. 136 - 137)

Foucault refers to the disciplinarian power as a force that cannot be localised or possessed by any individual or group. Instead, it works as a chain, circulating, traversing everyone in the social body (1980, 1991). Even if power acts on people in an asymmetric way, with some groups being especially exploited and dominated by its workings, nobody is free from its subjugation; power relations permeate all the levels of quotidian life (HALL, 2003c). Commenting on the Foucauldian conception of power, Gandhi speaks about its ‘claustrophobic omnipresence’ (1998, p. 14).

Although I agree with Foucault in relation to the pervasive character of power, I would suggest it must be localised since it establishes hierarchies positioning people, reinforcing roles and propagating inequalities. The picture of the classroom is a representation of such inequalities: a white teacher sitting on a chair directing her gaze upon (“looking down on”) mostly non white children who are sitting on the carpet (in a physical and symbolic lower position in relation to the teacher), ordering them about how their bodies should look.

Similar to her mother, Mariana follows precisely the commands of the white body. It is a desirable body, a body to be identified with. During the interview process, she was the only child who qualified the teacher in terms of the body. When asked what she thought about Grace, she first replied ‘Beautiful’. The classroom, the privileged location of intellectual production and cultural assimilation is one of the sites where Mariana performs her acknowledgement of white supremacy. The discipline is internalised not only through the manifestation of a conformed body, but also by the surveillance of the bodies of other children, through the identification with the role of the teacher:

During Grace’s lecture, Mariana was sitting very quietly. When she got into the classroom she didn’t speak to me. It seems that any expression of affectivity is left outside; she behaves in a much-disciplined way. She even disciplines other children bossing around, giving them their notebooks, and directing her to them with a very serious expression. She tells a white friend of hers to make silence during the exercise.

Grace reminds the children that in the day before she asked them to think about a work they would like to do in the classroom. ‘Which job would you like to have as a monitor of the class?’ She writes on the whiteboard the first task: “trays on the table”. Mariana puts her hand up straight away. She seems to be very keen on taking part of the activities of the school and to please and even internalise and reproduce the authority. (Field Notes – 10/09/03)

In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972), Paulo Freire warns us about the identification of the oppressed in relation to the oppressor:

at a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressor and his way of life. Sharing his way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressor, to imitate him, to follow him. (1972: 38)

A way of life is predominantly actualised and expressed through the body, which is, in its turn, traversed by the culture materialising its rituals. In the classroom, Mariana’s usual expression of affection towards me throughout a body communication - touching me, directing her gaze at me while smiling - is substituted by indifference. Her body is becoming the individualized body, a body disassociated and distant from other bodies.

In addition, her eyes wonder around; they have no mercy toward other children. Her willingness in exercising the role of monitor is interpreted as a searching for approval by the white woman connected to a desire of occupying a powerful position mediated by the institutional setting. Fanon (1986) reminds us that the action of the colonized is always directed to the other. Such movement is not exercised as a means of communication, but as a search for self-validation through approval. In order to receive the endorsement of the white woman’s gaze, Mariana has to become like her. Or, in order to become like her, Mariana searches for the unconditional approval of the white woman’s gaze. Either way, the result is the same: she is becoming white.

Mariana’s monitoring gaze is reinforced by the institutional approach of positioning the children, not only as the aim of surveillance, but at the same time as its perpetuator. The children who internalize discipline should apply it to their mates. In this way, the surveillance not only becomes more effective through its application where the teacher’s gaze cannot reach, it also positions some children as models to be followed:

When Grace asks the children to ‘be ready’ she says that are always the same children who behave well, Aamir and Mariana. Mariana looks at the other children smiling proud of herself. (Field Notes – 05/11/03)

Mariana puts her hand up and tells Grace that two girls in front of her are speaking. Afterwards she repeats the same action, informing Grace that two boys are talking. At both times Grace thanks her and tells the kids off.(Field Notes – 17/09/03)

Wright points out that in the classroom context, teachers have a tendency to typify students based on the notion of an ideal pupil. Such notion

is a construction which is drawn primarily from the lifestyle and culture of the teacher concerned. (…) The ideal pupil for teachers is likely to be a child who acts in ways which are supportive of teachers’ interest-at-hand, who enables them to cope and so on.’ (1992: 28)

Being a model means an unconditional conformism in relation to a set of values and expectations. It is attending to the demands of the other through the internalization of its assertions. Mariana’s compromise with the predominately white new country is going to be completed through the acceptance of a new name.

When Mariana became Mary

During the classroom observation I notice that the teacher and children are anglicising Mariana’s name by calling her Mary. I ask her how come people are calling her by that name, she responds that in the first day at school the teacher asked her what she would like to be called, Mari (the short name for Mariana, that her family and I use to refer to her) or Mary. She responded Mary. I ask her why she made such a choice and she replies that the teacher and the students would not ‘understand’ her name.

A closer look at the interview transcript reveals a more intricate process of assimilation through the emergence of her double consciousness:

L: There is something I am curious about. Why at school people call you Mary?

She responds recalling her own choice, implicating herself as an agent regarding the alliances that are established in the new country:

M: Because I prefer the name Mary.

L: And how did it start the idea of calling you by Mary?

M: My teacher Miss Stuart [Sarah] asked me ‘Do you want to be called by Mary or Mariana?’ [both names spoken with English pronunciation]. Then I said ‘Mary’. She said ‘That’s fine, we are going to call you Mary. So we will keep it like that, that’s fine, it is Mary’. Then one day, my teacher Miss Bell [Grace] saw at the Register that my name is Mariana [spoken with English pronunciation]. So she said, ‘Is it your name Mariana [English pronunciation]. Is it your name Mary? Do you want me to call you Mariana [English pronunciation]? I said ‘Yes’. Everybody started calling me Mariana [English pronunciation]. But I was not liking it very much.

Although Mariana studies in a multiethnic school where children are named via several linguistic backgrounds, she seems to understand her name as being out of place, since she affirms that neither the teacher nor the students would understand it. Being outside the possibility of intelligibility of people surrounding her, at the same time as being offered an English name, Mariana seems to see herself as the estrangeira/estranha. In Portuguese the word estrangeira (foreigner) clearly derives from estranha (stranger). In this way, Mariana understands her name and herself as strangers since they are foreigners.

Sarah offers Mariana two possibilities of being named that are going to locate her discursively in relation to the cultural politics of the new country. Being Mary - adopting a new name, an English one - demarcates a rupture with her past. Africa is erased from her identity in favour of a total assimilation. Language, in this context, is clearly utilised as a tool of deculturalization (MAC AN GHILL, 1988). The second option, her name spoken with an English pronunciation, points not to a denial of her past, but to a process of ‘redimensioning’, demonstrating what can emerge in the new context.

L: You prefer Mary? (English version).

M: Um hum.

L: So why didn’t you say that your name is Mari? Because Mary is an English name, isn’t it?

M: Um hum. Because they are not going to know that.

L: Do you think so?

M: They are going to say that loosely.

L: Do you think so?

M: Um hum. Because one day, I didn’t know how to speak English when I was in Miss Stuart’s lecture. I just said Mari, they didn’t understand.

L: She didn’t understand?

M: Who?

L: Miss Stuart.

M: The teacher? No. I had to write it down on the white board.

Mariana perceives the impossibility of people saying her name with a Portuguese pronunciation/reference as an impossibility of addressing her old sense of self. She seems to reject the possibility of translation of her name, where a negotiation could be established between what she brings – her name, her self – and the cultural referential of the new people surrounding her. Past and present are forced into negotiation under the circumstance of geographical and cultural dislocation. In this respect Hall claims that:

There can, therefore, be no simple ‘return’ or ‘recovery’ of the ancestral past which is not re-experienced through the categories of the present: no base for creative enunciation in a simple reproduction of traditional forms which are not transformed by the technologies and the identities of the present. (2003a, p. 258)

In Mariana’s case, the impossibility of negotiation of her name/identity seems to be due to her perception that the politics of daily life in the school polarizes people between colours. In this way, she clearly demarcates the institutional spaces, doubling her consciousness as well as the ways she presents her self:

L: And by which way do you prefer to be called, by Mari or by Mary?

M: Um... (Pause). Here at home they call me Mari. At school they call me Mary.

L: And which way do you prefer?

M: Um... (Pause) Both.

L: Both?

M: Um hum.

Indeed, at school, Mariana becomes Mary; she internalises the rigid institutional discipline and chooses to make a radical rupture with her origin through the adoption of an English name and the representation of a blond nuclear family. At home, by contrast, she is lively and warm and constantly referred by her Portuguese name.

A way to conclusion

Returning to Hall’s conception of identity, he proposes a notion that opposes the modern project of stableness and fixity. Identity now is not about an essential subject. It is about a politics of representation which points to diverse possibilities of being or becoming according to the interplay of discourses, histories, practices and positions that do not operate in an unproblematic fashion. Now is the time of contradictions and antagonisms (HALL, 1997).

For Mariana there is no going back. Since Sarah proposed to her the desirable white world, she chose to be Mary and Mari. The conscious split that demarcates the impossibility of being Mariana with an English pronunciation makes it clear that, at the present time, her fate is, in the words of Hall, ‘’not a matter of black-skin, white-skin’ but of ‘Black-skin, white masks’’ (2003a, p. 256).

Realising the inappropriateness of her colour and country of origin when reaching the white world/metropolis, Mariana accepts an English name as way of assimilating herself to the politics of race of the new country. The choice of an English name is not only a matter of semantics, it is the possibility - together with the choice of a disciplined body - of dismissing the history that determined who she is – or who she was. “Mariana” relates to a black African girl. “Mary” relates to a “morena” girl who is making a compromise with the painful seductions of the colonial world.

When arriving in a new country, refugee children are confronted with specific responses that are a result of the politics of race of the host place: the diverse ways different groups in such a country represent them as children; and how the children themselves will experience the new place and respond to the multiple questions that their presence evokes. As such, being a refugee child does not constitute a uniform experience. A net of positionalities associated to race – gender, social class, language, country of origin, and religion – and past experiences is constructed throughout their existence, crosscutting the diasporic condition.

Mariana’s experiences in the new country are representative of the way old fashion perspectives of race, assimilationism, black and white dualism, have been reconfigured informing the way the several agents must act on daily basis. The everyday life encounters a parallel on the Government’s discourses and broader population fantasies. British identity must be challenged and not essencialized if there is a hope to build up a new pattern of race relations. One that difference is not regarded as a threat, but as a way of broadening the perspective of self and nation.


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1This article is based on my PhD research acquired in England, the same country where I carried out my field work in a primary school at the year of 2003.

2In Britain, the official definition of asylum seekers states that they are those individuals who are waiting for a decision from the Home Office about whether they can stay. Refugees are the ones who have acquired a permanent leave to remain. Throughout the article I am going to utilise both concepts in an interchangeable way.

3City of approximately 300.000 inhabitants, where the research token place. The name of the city, as well as the school and all the members are fictional to maintain the confidentiality of the participants.

4A way of escaping the anxiety of dealing with such multiplicity is to appeal to the strategy of stereotyping. Hall (2003b) observes that one of the characteristics of this mechanism is to reduce and fixate “difference”, banishing what is not acceptable. In this way, the various possibilities of being the Other are simplified around the signifier “refugee”. In research carried out in the South West, West Midlands and London to understand the patterns of prejudice of white adult people towards minorities groups, Valentine and McDonald (2004) observed that travellers, Gypsies, asylum seekers and refugees are the groups which figure at the very top of the list, being followed by ethnic minorities. This last group is the target of only half of the number of those who express prejudice against the first two groups. According to the authors Asylum seekers and refugees constitute the group towards whom the most open and transparent prejudice is directed, often expressed through anger. It seems that the prejudice towards such group is socially accepted, since there is no disavowal in its expression. Another conclusion reached by the authors is that there is a tendency for the interviewees to identify any non-white person as an asylum seeker.Such results seem to validate my suggestion that, at least on a manifest level, there seems to be a partial, though problematic, acceptance of African-Caribbean and Asian as constitutive of the national identity. This seems to be a result of decades of contestation.

5This title was taken from a conversation with Mariana, the child to which this article is related to, during one of the art groups.

6The Art Club was an initiative taken by the Local Education Authority with the purpose of providing a space for the refugee children to express themselves.

7Portuguese word for white people with brown skin.

8During the colonization of Brazil, people from the western and south-western regions of Africa were brought by Portuguese people to work as slave force. The city where I come from (Recife) was one of the first and most important ports of entry of African people. Therefore, the culture here, as in other parts of the country, has a very strong African heritage.

9Such speech is going to be contradicted later by her account of identification with the settlers during her childhood.

10At another moment, when speaking with another Angolan woman, she tells me that in England she listens to ‘Cidade Alerta’ (Alert City), a Brazilian television program based on a police/ investigative style drama, which describes crimes that occur daily in Brazilian bigger cities. It is interesting to point out that it is common practice among foreigners to have television connection with the countries of origin. It seems that at the present moment, with Brazil being localized as a new power in relation to Angola and possibly with another African countries as well as Portugal, it is happening a reconfiguration of the process of economic and cultural colonization. Regarding the colonial condition, Leela Ghandhi’s observes that ‘the colonised’s predicament is, at least partly, shaped and troubled by the compulsion to return a voyeuristic gaze upon Europe.’ (1998, p. 11). At the present time however, even on reaching Europe, some Angolans direct the gaze to Brazil.

11Although historically England has not formally colonised Angola, I consider the dynamic established between the people of both countries as a colonial encounter, since a superior value is inexorably attributed to the population of the former.

12At that time Cabinda was a formal colony of Portugal.

13Portuguese word for female master.

14This initial optimistic perception of life in England was soon transformed by racial harassment experienced by the girls in the school context. It was also accompanied by the harsh response of the Home Office towards their claim of asylum, which stated that the reasons they offered for the claim were untruthful.

15Expression used by the teachers when demanding a disciplined attitude.


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