Books – Whiteshift

Whiteshift, by Eric Kaufman, is an easy book to recommend you read, in part because it is a thoughtful, detailed presentation of some challenging ideas and in part because its subject matter couldn’t (coronavirus aside) be more important. There are aspects to the thesis I don’t accept or understand, but I now accept, more clearly than before, that others just feel differently about the importance of their white appearance, but more generally, others feel differently about the salience and/or volume of ethnic change in their communities and always have done. What matters is how we go from here.

I’ve never before had a book challenge me to inspect my own identity, by which I mean, the concept of my own ethnicity. I’ve read very little on the topic, however, and I imagine this book falls foul of critical race theorists as much as it falls foul of the ‘racial genetics/white genocide’ types. Do please engage in the comments with your own thoughts if you have read or come to read this book. I’m always looking to learn.

Whiteshift sets out to demonstrate that whiteness, or white appearance, is in decline, that over the next century or two, there will be fewer and fewer people of white appearance. This has already caused populist surges of anti-immigration sentiment and stronger ‘in-grouping’ sentiments. Kaufman hopes to show that, to avoid the hatred and division caused by this, there is a need to understand better what it means to belong. He summarises the book thus:

I set out a vision for a new centre, which entails accepting the legitimate cultural interests of reconstructed, open ethnic majorities….The West cannot simultaneously accept large inflows and maintain culturally neutral immigration policies. Yet I am not arguing that it should adopt the exclusive East Asian model. A better solution is to balance liberal and minority preferences for more immigration with the restrictionism of ethnic-majority conservatives. The key is that the majority be an open rather than a closed ethnic group. (emphasis mine)…Minorities should not be compelled to assimilate to a state-defined national identity, but, like white majorities, should be free to express their ethnically distinct versions of the common national identity – an arrangement I term multivocalism.

So, if you’re like me, reading this in the book’s introduction, you’re bristling a bit, some alarms are going off in your head. Good. It’s a bloody difficult subject to think about and discuss. It’s highly emotionally charged and I almost didn’t come to write this post because of how emotive a response might be (well, in the ten or twenty people I get on average :) ). But it taught me that it’s precisely the fact that this topic is emotionally charged that makes it so important to take time to understand where the emotion comes from, and what one’s identity is.

Before I attempt to outline my concerns over his conclusion, and what I value in that conclusion, I’ll run over some of the things you’ll find in this book, but there are mountains missing, for it’s 550 densely data-driven and researched pages. It’s heavy going and took me a long time to read and process. If you have any reasonable interest in nationalism, ethnicity, racism and immigration this is an important read, however you swing.

Being new to literature on this topic, the most useful aspect of this book was its concept of ‘cultural markers’. Traditionally these have been religion, race and language. The distinction between the boundaries of these markers and the sense of one’s national identity is often blurred, but one’s ethnicity can be strongly defined without a single nation, for example through a common ancestry. Ancestry and nationhood are not identical, even if they are commonly intertwined. There are thus national myths and symbols that feed into the sense one has of one’s ethnicity.

Historically, the importance attached to each of these three principle markers has been different in different places at different times. In the US in the 19th century the Irish Catholic immigrants arriving caused an anti-immigration backlash from the Protestants keen to affirm their Anglo-Protestant identity. The American Protective Association apparently enrolled millions in support of it. It happened similarly in Scotland. The ‘religion’ marker remains an important source of positive and negative sentiment for Jews and Muslims (and traces of the Catholic/Protestant sectarian rivalry can still be found in The Old Firm football matches). Needless to say, skin colour has been an important marker for discrimination and anti-immigration sentiment for centuries, and that hasn’t changed.

Kaufman gives a good historical overview of the various flavours of anti-immigration sentiment over the centuries. He demonstrates that immigration restriction became a plank of the Progressive movement which advocated improved working conditions, women’s suffrage and social reform, while, up until the last decade or so, republicans and the right generally were more for lowering immigration restrictions if it meant markets could operate more efficiently through larger labour pools and the increased pressure that put on unions and their attempts to wage-bargain. This confounds our more recent experience of left and right wing sentiments on immigration. Nowadays, Catholics and Jews are part of America’s ethnic majority, the ‘concerning marker’ shifting to skin colour. Whiteness, in the last few years, has become a core ethnic trait among the right, and Protestantism, once the defining cultural marker of the United States, is nowhere to be seen in the national conversation. As an aside, Kaufman gives an interesting example to illustrate the distinction between ethnicity and nationality, regarding them as separate ethno-cultural dynamics:

“…(the separate dynamics are of) white ethnic decline and the attenuation of the white tradition in American national identity. Only whites will be concerned about the former, but conservative-minded minorities may be attached to white ethno-traditions of nationhood. That is, they will wish to slow changes to the America ‘they know’.”

Trump took a third of the Latino vote in 2016. The distinction is real even if it feels weird and Kaufman shows that the US religious right is multi-faith, pulling in conservative latinos alongside mormons, helping Trump to get elected.

Kaufman’s view on this more recent shift of concern to skin colour (and Islam is bound up with this) stems from the population explosion globally and the great disparity in wealth between the global north and south (yep, sounds like capitalism is causing the pressures of immigration). There has been a greater influx of immigrants to the global north, 2015 being a clear example of the pressure European countries were under. With increased numbers and increased pressure there always has been, he argues, a concomitant increase in anti-immigration sentiment; that the salience of immigration to the native population determines the level of anti-immigration sentiment, a fear he believes is grounded in the perception that the host culture, its myths and symbols, are under threat. He spends time demonstrating, effectively in my view, how anti-immigration sentiment was the real driver behind the Trump vote and Brexit. He also argues that the threat is routinely overplayed and misperceived as a result. In particular, the rise of social media in the last decade has increased the salience of all kinds of arguments on immigration and concomitantly increased and shaped the hostility of liberal and right-wing views on all of this.

The cohort of a given culture or nation that raises immigration concerns is, essentially, either conservative, authoritarian or both and that this mindset is more prevalent than the multicultural/cosmopolitanist mindset. He demonstrates how this latter mindset indexes heavily among graduates and the cultural elite, though it doesn’t index on wealth. He calls us the left modernists, and like many, he fears that there are some that are overplaying their hand with regard to inclusion, diversity and the necessity of signal boosting and valuing minority ethnicities over majority ethnicities. Needless to say I think he’s weak on structural inequality and racism. But there is absolutely a great discomfort in very many people regarding perceived change to their ethno-social environment. To be honest, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the extent of it, though I was, given there is a neural propensity in all of us to patternise, to seek order and predictability in the world which, presumably, lies in the evolutionary need to identify anything out of the ordinary or new as a potential threat.

Do I buy this as a causal factor? No. It makes sense, in a way, and I understand the mindset, but, in Kaufman’s words, I’m cosmopolitan. I’m comfortable with anyone’s cultural markers being different to mine, so long as they don’t impinge on mine, which I’ll return to. So if such deep drives aren’t affecting me, they need not affect anyone necessarily.

But conservatives and authoritarians exist. They’re classified throughout the book variously as ethno-nationalists or ethno-traditional nationalists (the former seeking ethnic homogeneity, the latter seeking to maintain the proportions of ethnic diversity present, or at least keeping the influx ‘manageable’, whatever that means.)

The persuasiveness of this book will be determined by the extent to which you believe the conservative mindset is legitimate. For all the data about the roughly 2/3 to 1/3 split between conservatives and what he calls liberals or cosmopolitanists, for all the data that shows that even in highly ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, whites tend to stick with their own, even while having more respect for their neighbours than less diverse neighbourhoods, the question that isn’t really asked is whether any of this is right.

It’s all very well asserting that because these conditions exist we must find a solution that respects them, but that’s only true if you feel the conservative mindset is as valuable as a more cosmopolitan mindset. I get how provocative this is, so I’m going to dig into that.

Who am I?

Here lies the great utility of this book, for it made me ask myself this very important question. It isn’t really a question about my beliefs per se, but a question about my identity and the role my beliefs and sense of belonging, that deeper emotional well that fills my heart, play in my identity.

What cultural markers are important to me? Not religion, I’m atheist, not colour, I couldn’t give a shit about colour. Language? Well, that made me think, I’ll be honest. I’m fine with people speaking different languages. But how well can anyone learn to understand and respect anyone else without the ability to speak each other’s languages? Whether it’s a common language or a drive to encourage us brits to speak a few more ‘like everyone else does’, the valuing of finding a way to talk to and understand each other is immensely important. How else do you progress society and resolve conflict if you cannot understand each other?

So I value having a language in common with people around me, even if I don’t mind whatever else they are and value. I can see therefore that I would find myself wanting to be surrounded by people that I could talk to, or, conversely, learning another language if that helped, such as I’d do if I wanted to move to a country that has its own language. But that’s about respect. I’d hope that someone coming to live in the UK would, out of respect, wish to learn English, because they would desire to understand and communicate better with their new neighbours. It’s something which I’d actually be happy about having to do as a citizenship requirement in any other country I wished to settle in, so I’d be happy to see it as a requirement (supported and funded directly of course) here in the UK.

Then I think about being Welsh. What’s interesting about the Kaufman book is that he returns to a point about this idea of civic nationalism, being proud to belong to a country, as being too weak a bond for anyone to build an identity around and seek to protect such an identity. For him, ancestry and tradition, though often bound up with nationhood, has the deeper pull. My sense of ancestry is tied to Wales the country (or province if you prefer!). But the rootedness I might feel in going home to Barry lies not so much in its history or the legacy of my family there as in my lived relationship to it.

My earlier point about my being cool with others’ cultural markers as long as they don’t impinge on mine is actually key to my identity. I feel like the tradition I’m part of in the UK has, through its democratic, economic and legal institutions, none of them perfect, created the capability for its citizens to speak truth to power, to demonstrate, to oppose, to satirise, to welcome and to tolerate (what Kaufman calls ‘negative liberty’). And in Kaufman’s conclusion, summarised above, he demonstrates the unresolvable problem of surgically separating notions of ethnic and civic sentiment. For his multivocalism is entirely civic but actually fundamentally important, and to illustrate this I want to talk about class and ska.

I said earlier that I didn’t really get why someone would value the colour of their skin such that they would seek to maintain it in their offspring and otherwise maintain proximity to it at the cost of discriminating against others. It seems like the least important thing in the world compared to the possibility of losing out on someone’s great sense of humour, creativity or empathy, never mind their distinct experience of this or other cultures they might know of.

I have only hazy memories of ska, except that it was all-consuming for me at the age of 11 to 12 years old in Barry, as nutty and cool to me now as it was then. I would pore over the Spillers Record Shop window displaying ska badges and patches at the centre of Holton Road (Barry’s high street), and I had a Harrington jacket that was covered in both. It was my pride and joy, along with my Sta Prest trousers and Fred Perry polo shirt.

Pretty much all the ska bands were mixed race. I never gave it a thought when I was watching them on Top of the Pops, or looking at their record covers. It made perfect sense of course, given the musical influences, which Madness talk about here (the whole interview is great!):

WOODY: Immigration shaped a lot of our musical landscape. Any ethnic influx that comes into the country obviously changes it, and London was just a brilliant melting pot of musical influences. The stuff that the Asians did, and the Jamaicans who came over in the ’50s – blimey, that was just an explosion. The influences they brought over were part of our heritage.

SUGGS: You had the second-generation of West Indian Brits coming through. You had Bob Marley on the Old Grey Whistle Test on TV. I remember going to the Roxy Club in Covent Garden, which was the punk club where Don Letts was the DJ, but there weren’t enough punk records to play so he would intersperse them with reggae tracks.

DON LETTS: There were literally no punk records to play, so I had to play something I liked, which was reggae: Big Youth, Prince Far I, Toots and the Maytals. Lucky for me, the audience liked it as well and wanted to hear more. So I guess it did turn a few people onto it.

SUGGS:  You had The Clash doing a version of Police and Thieves and, all of a sudden, what had been completely polarised was bleeding at the edges and we were all starting to share a little bit, musically and stylistically. Certainly all those old Mowtown records had a huge influence on us. The connection – and you can only make this in hindsight, because when you’re a kid you’re just listening to records that get you going – was reading about The Skatalites and that whole ska thing; just a load of guys in a studio making four or five records a day with very little ego. I found it was the same with Motown and the Stax
 people, you know they were churning them out. I think for us that was a great inspiration the whole time after progressive rock, when everything seemed pretentious and long winded.

LEE: All the band other than Woody were brought up on a diet of Jamaican and Motown music. Mike was more interested in the ruder side of reggae, like Wet Dream and Wreck A Pum Pum. It was easy to play as well. As the interest in ska and reggae grew, we dropped stuff like Walk On By and Lover Please.

MIKE: We were listening to Bob Marley but reggae then [in the late 1970s] wasn’t as good, I didn’t think, as the older stuff. It was more about the producers. There were stars, of course, in Jamaica but it was more of a team thing.

SUGGS: We used to love Linton Kwesi Johnson and Bob Marley. But we found the righteous, Rastafarian stuff out of our league in terms of burning down Babylon. Punk bands were doing contemporary reggae but to me it didn’t seem as realistic as us just playing the songs we liked. No one else was doing ska, so we found our niche. The political message of Rastafari also wasn’t necessarily as clear for us as it was for punk rockers. I understood it but it didn’t resonate for us. [But] we loved the attitude of people who smoked dope and wouldn’t just sit around in a huddle in their bedroom, they’d be bowling down the street. You started hearing reggae in punk clubs and then you start thinking, ‘Yeah, I like this.’ So you start going back, investigating where these tunes come from. It was like, I had friends who were into rockabilly, and they started looking into bluegrass and hillbilly, trying to find other stuff that was more obscure and elitist.

CHRIS: The Jamaican thing was really important, but we had so many influences that get overlooked, like Pink Floyd and Genesis.

SUGGS: I thought ska was just reggae. I had to go and read all these Trojan liner notes so I could come back and say, ‘Oh yeah, Prince Buster this… Prince Buster that’.

I was particularly fond of Madness and then discovered Monty Python before being besotted with The Young Ones. They tap into a vein of unhinged satire, parody and Lewis Carroll-esque humour that again feels utterly British. But these cultural markers sit alongside a previous generation’s Vera Lynn, or Carry On, or TW3. Ska (and punk) was as enmeshed in working class culture as The Young Ones and Monty Python were born of elite university graduates that appealed to all classes. Alternatively, Westminster, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are the stalwart cultural symbols of the Establishment, filling souvenir shops. What any of these cultural markers mean to various cohorts of British citizens varies massively, but they are all legitimate cultural markers. Madness will have spoken to me much more faintly than it would have an older teenager growing up in north London. Kaufman’s multivocalism speaks to this:

“Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ has been an anthem for humanists, Nazis, Soviets and the European Union. If we stop thinking about national identity as a hymn sheet everyone has to sing from and begin to see it as a set of resources people shape in different ways, this opens up new vistas…national identity today is more of a bottom-up, emergent phenomenon which people take an active part in constructing.”

Here lies the crux of it. The ska bands took their influences from the Windrush generation, punk, Motown and wherever else and constructed a new aspect to British identity. Monty Python did the same, adding to the symbols that shape people’s perception of us around the world along with the Spitfire and our former Empire. And thank fuck for that, because when, alongside Britain’s positive contribution to the Enlightenment we have a shameful history of colonialism and slavery intertwined with it, we need an identity that isn’t entirely negative, because who can be proud of an identity that requires one to only say sorry and otherwise remain silent? For me, conservatives appear to pick a point in the past, a set of cultural markers and ethnic mix, depending on the ingredients, and then are calcifying it, holding the concept of belonging, of Britishness, to it, using it to ‘other’ what’s different. It is set, unchanging. It denies the possibility of ska if the cutoff date is set far back enough and surely fails because of that. Worse still, it also denies agency and sovereignty to anyone hoping to create new expressions of this nation’s identity, it ‘others’ any set of cultural markers of Britishness which, for example, ethnic minorities might hold with as much fervour as the set of markers rooted more in ancestry, be it our myth of King Arthur or our union movement. Set far back enough it denies us the NHS and Suffragettes, or the freedom to be gay.

But the biggest crime of the conservative mindset, and the anti-immigration and populist right mindset is not that its fuelled and directed by the new and old media billionnaires, which it is, but that it focuses on identity, on a set of ‘acceptable’ cultural markers, predominantly ancestral ethnicity and colour. Yet, as the Youtube satirist Jonathan Pie pointed out, and I paraphrase, you’ll find white nationalists, single mothers, Indians, Muslims and transgender people all rubbing shoulders in a foodbank and all proud, in their own ways, to be British. Inequality and poverty should unite us. The concept of class is being eroded, and while it’s as tricky to categorise as one’s identity, the erosion is removing one of the great unifying forces for generations past, a force which itself has created important ‘Britishness’ markers, such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Kaufman is right to point out that we need to build an understanding that many cultural markers represent Britishness (or any other nation’s sense of itself) and we don’t all happen to agree on them. And that’s ok. It’s ok at least in part because of the civic institutions that enable us to even talk about this, and the erosion of that is something which the authoritarians would love to have control of. It is, in opposition to Kaufman’s view, the civic institutions that enable the ethnic and cultural markers to vary, yet root themselves in us as my own identity is rooted in me, is precious to me, though it’s a cosmopolitan, welsh and socialist-lite, distinctly individualist identity. I value the melting pot, I value what Kaufman calls the contradictory tension in civic nationalism between the universality of our legally enshrined rights and the particularity of each distinct minority ethnicity’s cultural and foreign-national ancestry. For they blend, they are allowed to. The civic institutions empower us to evolve our cultural markers and allow us to savour some (The Open University) and regret others (Moseley’s ‘Rivers of Blood’) without denying their part of the tapestry exists. It is the recognition of them and their maintenance that offers a path to a more peaceful future and if there is a threat to our Britishness it is not from a would-be caliphate, it is from a disempowered majority being manipulated by authoritarian populists who have no use for a nation seeking to right the wrongs of social injustice and inequality. It is a hopelessness borne of decades of regional under-investment as economic globalisation and neo-conservative individualist agendas reign supreme. This erosion of wealth and pride and of belonging got people seeking to change the status quo only to find that the only meaningful sovereignty they could excercise wasn’t in regional assemblies and a fiscally empowered devolved government that might have replaced Westminster tyranny, but in the Brexit ballot box. The majority then voted in two elections for a government, cowed by its own right wing and other more populist parties, telling us that citizens and EU nationals with particular identity markers were the real culprits behind the falling standard of living we face even as they executed a decade of ideologically driven austerity that has left our community resources, our NHS, social care networks and industry in a state of near collapse if not destruction. It isn’t immigration that’s doing it, for all that its salience and volume is as high as its ever been. Kaufman is, in my view, effective at proving the importance of anti-immigration sentiment in all this.

Sadly, it’s taken the coronavirus sweeping through our country to refresh an awareness of our connectedness and of our government’s true power when it comes to protecting its citizens. Millionnaires are queueing for food behind the elderly and vulnerable; the least valued workers in our society, the contract cleaners, delivery drivers and nurses are now recognised to be essential to any semblance of normality, the foundation the elite once deemed invisible. Kaufman’s ‘weak’ civic institutions, embodying fairness, kindness and respect are surfacing again, though their wounds are plain to see.


The header image was kindly approved for use by Toni Tye. To see more of her beautiful photos, head here.

For a far more robust analysis of Whiteshift, the ever excellent LRB has this review. My thanks to Darren Sharma for finding this and sending it to me.

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