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Racism in Britain on the basis of Patrick Wilmot's "The Train to Walthamstow" and Paul Gilroy's "Frank Bruno or Salman Rushdie?"

Seminararbeit 2005 18 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1 Defining ‘black British writing’

2. Racism in colonial history
2.1 Anxiety-based racism
2.2 Pseudo-scientific and teleological racism
2.3 Evolutionary racism

3 Racism in post-war Britain
3.1 Blacks as criminals
3.2 Blacks as illiterate savages and unskilled workers
3.3 Blacks as a danger to British society, culture and lifestyle

4. Future prospects for racism in Great Britain


Secondary sources

1 Defining ‘black British writing’

In order to analyse the occurrence of racism and racial prejudices in pieces of black British writing, it is important to define these terms at first individually and then in their relation to each other. To subsume immigrants of all ethnic minorities under a generic term the expression ‘black’ emerged in the 1960s and 70s. This term carried significant meaning for a huge group of immigrants as Kobena Merces put it:

When various peoples – of Asian, African, and Caribbean descent – interpellated themselves and each other as /black/ they invoked a collective identity predicated on political and not biological similarities. In other words, the naturalized connotations of the term /black/ were disarticulated out of the dominant codes of racial discourse, and rearticulated as signs of alliance and solidarity among dispersed groups of people sharing common historical experience of British racism.[1]

When the term ‘black’ was arising the main integral parts of its meaning were founded on the common need of a homogenous group of immigrants against a white racial majority in Britain. During the 1980s, however, the meaning of this expression shifted and from then on became an important “political and aesthetic signifier, characterised by difference and alterity”[2]. Stuart Hall stated that at first “‘[t]he Black Experience’, as a singular and unifying framework based on the building up of identity across ethnic and cultural difference between the different communities, became ‘hegemonic’ over other ethnic/racial identities”[3] but within the following decades the stressing of significant differences within the ethnic communities became increasingly important and Paul Gilroy emphasizes the “demand [of] an alternative formulation – ‘black and Asian’ […] to remind ourselves that by invoking the term ‘black’, we are not ‘Africanizing’ our struggles or declaring everybody to be the same”[4].

‘Black’ therefore does not only describe people of African or Asian descent but has a much wider meaning of “ethnicities [like for example] Indo-Caribbean, Bangladeshi, gay, woman, Muslim, Christian, middle-class and so on”[5].

In comparison to the term ‘black’ the expression ‘British’ in black British writing is not any easier to define. In seeing ‘British’ as an adjective that describes significant characteristics of the British people it becomes clear that it has to be defined what these characteristics actually are. Due to the mixture of people from different ethnic origins within the British society it is hard to link certain qualities to the British people. This mixture of people in Great Britain is not merely limited to black and Asian immigrants during the post-war period but also contains former immigration during the last centuries from various nations within Europe and from more distant parts of the world as well as the cultural and ethnic differences within Great Britain consisting of Scottish, Welsh and British people. However, defining unique characteristics is not the only difficulty in analysing the expression ‘British’. In combination with the term ‘writing’ it has to be examined if ‘British’ means either of British descent and living in Britain or just living in Britain and of different ethnical background or just British in origin and living somewhere else. As Ingrid von Rosenberg wrote:

For some time the label ‘black British’ […] was widely used as a kind of political umbrella term denoting all kinds of art – visual art, literature, film, photography – produced by artists living in Britain and descending from a visible ethnic minority, i.e. of African and Afro Caribbean origin as well as Asian.[6]

The definition of ‘writing’ is easier, although from the quotation above it can be sensed that black British literature is only a small part of the immense production of black British art which also contains film, music, photography and so on.

In this essay the term ‘black British writing’ should only refer to pieces of literature produced by artists of African, Afro Caribbean and Asian origin living or born in Britain.

2. Racism in colonial history

To understand racism in Britain towards immigrants of different ethnical background it is essential to look back in history when Great Britain was a huge colonial empire where slaves and slave trade was common. During that period many owners of plantations, visitors and travellers but also missionaries and scientists established a quite common negative view of the indigenous peoples in the British colonies. Peter Fryer distinguishes between race prejudice and racism. Popular beliefs, which “spring from ignorance, fear, and the need to find a plausible explanation for perplexing physical and cultural differences […] tend to be corrected, sooner or later, by observation and experience”[7], whereas race prejudices persist especially in countries “ethnically homogeneous, geographically isolated, technologically backward, or socially conservative, with knowledge and political power concentrated in the hands of an elite”[8], which was true of Great Britain during that period.

2.1 Anxiety-based racism

The colour black versus the colour white with its long history and tradition of representing the evil, the devil and death is probably the first and most obvious connotation with black people. Being confronted with Blacks the English people immediately associated them with an evil character and the lack of ethics and morals but what had the most fatal repercussions was to view them as inferior to the English people. The Blacks not being Christians was one of the reasons why the English thought of themselves as being superior for they had morals and laws based on a Christian mind and point of view. Stories from travellers about the Blacks copulating with apes and being cannibals inflamed the British fear of black people. Reports about the Blacks having enormous penises and almost incredible sexual lust combined with having various sexual partners formed the belief that Blacks are sex-crazed and mostly ill with certain unknown diseases.[9]

2.2 Pseudo-scientific and teleological racism

Apart from the racism based on the anxieties of the English people a pseudo-scientific form of racism emerged. Various scientists during the 18th and 19th century tried to prove the inferiority of Blacks and therefore the superiority of Whites. Supported by the common belief of ‘The Great Chain of Being’, in which Blacks were situated between apes and Whites and probably come from a different type of human beings, scientists experimented with skulls of white and black people and came to the conclusion that Blacks had to be mentally inferior to the Whites due to the shape of their skulls.[10] For Fryer “[h]ere, no doubt, lay the main secret of phrenology’s success. The British were already convinced of their high destiny. Phrenology told them why they were lucky and how to remain so”[11]

Due to this pseudo-scientific view of Blacks a teleological racism arose. Several representatives of this point of view argued that Blacks were made to serve the Whites because of their mental inferiority and the physical differences between black and white people.

A variant of the teleological view, favoured by the medical profession, held that blacks were capable, whites incapable, of working in the tropics. Since the resources of the tropics had been put there for the whole of humanity to enjoy, they must be exploited by the labour, forced, if need be, of those capable of working there.[12]

This teleological explanation served almost perfectly for justifying slavery. If black people were made to serve the white people, there would be no possibility in proving that the exploitation of slaves was wrong.


[1] Qtd. in James Procter, Writing black Britain 1948-1998: An interdisciplinary anthology (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000) 5.

[2] James Procter, Writing black Britain 1948-1998: An interdisciplinary anthology (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000) 5.

[3] Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities.” Writing black Britain 1948-1998: An interdisciplinary anthology. Ed. James Procter (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000) 265-275. 266.

[4] Paul Gilroy, “Frank Bruno or Salmon Rushdie?” Hurricane Hits England: An Anthology of Writing about Black Britain. Ed. Onyekachi Wambu (New York: Continuum, 2000) 244-250. 249-250.

[5] James Procter, Writing black Britain 1948-1998: An interdisciplinary anthology (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000) 6.

[6] Ingrid von Rosenberg, “Young, British, Black. An overview of recent black British fiction with special reference to the search for identity and gender relations.” From Empire to Multicultural Society: Cultural and Institutional Changes in Britain: Proceedings of the Ninth British Cultural Studies Conference, Würzburg 1998. Ed. Ulrike Borgmann (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1999) 151-167. 151.

[7] Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984) 133.

[8] Ibid., 133.

[9] Cf. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984) 137-140.

[10] Cf. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984) 160-170.

[11] Ibid., 171.

[12] Ibid., 173.


ISBN (eBook)
401 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Regensburg – Institut für Anglistik
Racism Britain Patrick Wilmot Train Walthamstow Paul Gilroy Frank Bruno Salman Rushdie Proseminar Black Britain

Titel: Racism in Britain on the basis of Patrick Wilmot's "The Train to Walthamstow" and Paul Gilroy's "Frank Bruno or Salman Rushdie?"