Paper on Ethnicity:
Within the conceptual framework of this research, we will critically discuss Hall’s conception of new ethnicities. In order for the elaboration on this concept to be more contextual, several works by Stuart Hall will be consulted, as well as several works of other writers who might have contradictory perspective on the issue.
Cultural Studies has provided a range of exciting developments for examining ‘new ethnicities’, and with them, the potential for post-race thinking which helps us to consider mixedness in less essentialising ways than in the past. Paul Gilroy suggests that ‘culture’ is ‘a field articulating the life world of subjects (albeit decentred) and the structures created by human activity’ (Frankenberg 1993: 194).
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Stuart Hall’s definition includes ‘the actual grounded terrain of practices, representations, languages and customs of any specific historical society’ (Frankenberg 1993: 194). These definitions provide a useful way to consider cultural practices that inform mixedness.
The role of culture is central to Stuart Hall’s influential work on ‘new ethnicities’. Hall suggested that we can no longer identify a unified, simple ‘black Subject … stabilised by Nature or by some other essential guarantee’ (S. Hall 1992: 257) He argues: ‘it must be the case that they (black subjects) are constructed historically, culturally, politically—the concept that this refers to is ethnicity’ (S. Hall 1992: 257).
Hall undoubtedly moves the debates on, but the impression is that he is speaking to an audience who will still know themselves to be specifically ‘black British’. This is in spite of his attempts to reposition black Britishness as born out of a kind of cultural plurality that constantly creates new and dynamic forms.
While the recognition of cultural translation is useful, many people still do not recognise their ‘mixedness’ in these ‘new ethnicities’. ‘Black’ calls upon an old recognisable ‘racial’ category and, while not supporting it, interpellates an identification with a skin colour. ‘British’ tells us that this is a citizen of a country who claims a national identity; however, this subverts not only the hegemonic discourses of nationality as conjoined with ‘whiteness’ but also that whiteness in conjunction with Britishness implies ‘racial superiority’ (S. Hall 1992: 260-261).
‘Culture’ in this case is seen as constructing both identity and ethnicity, yet ethnicities that are formed through cultural practices must surely have some claim on being ‘cultural identities’. Moreover, in a great deal of work on cultural practices in relation to the term ‘new ethnicities’ there is an implicit gendering at work that is not made clear. In terms of youth, this is almost always dominated by masculinities (Gilroy 2000: 177).
Finally, I believe that in order for this idea to work a fairly sophisticated ‘knowing self’ must surely ‘choose’ and recognise this position over others. Despite these reservations, Hall’s analysis provides a useful way of moving on from essentialising (or racialising) theories of ethnicity.
New ethnicities are not simply additions to existing forms, they are evolved and metamorphosed in relation to ‘cultural hybrids’. Homi Bhabha suggests that cultural hybridity develops not from ‘two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity is … the “third space” which enables the other positions to emerge’ (Bhabha 1990: 211).
This is a difficult concept to grasp, but Bhabha goes on to argue that ‘If the act of cultural translation (both as representation and as reproduction) denies the essentialism of a prior given or original culture, then we can see all forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity’ (Bhabha 1990:210).
This more recognisable aspect of his work offers great potential for deconstructing multiethnic positions in society and may also be of use in investigating self-claimed ‘mixed-race’ positions. It is a clear statement of rejection of the biologism of hybridity, and whilst most researches remain ambivalent about the term, the emphasis on the process of cultural change is useful. Bhabha’s work also shifts the emphasis from essentialising discourses of ‘race’ and the kind of ‘ethnic absolutism’ that replaces ‘race’ with ‘culture’ (Gilroy 2000: 194).
Gilroy cautions against complacency in language and its use in analyses of hybridity, arguing that ‘We do not have to be content with the halfway house provided by the idea of plural cultures. A theory of relational cultures and culture as relation represents a more worthwhile resting place. That possibility is currently blocked by banal invocations of hybridity in which everything becomes equally and continuously intermixed, blended into an impossibly even consistency.’ (Gilroy 2000: 275)
Stuart Hall has described how readers are presented with polysemous texts which contain preferred readings: ‘There can never be only one single univocal and determined meaning for such a lexical item; but depending on how its integration within the code has been accomplished, its possible meanings will be organised within a scale which runs from dominant to subordinate’ (Hall 1993: 30).
Multiple readings of the same text allow for oppositional and counter-hegemonic readings and as a result ‘connotative and contextual “misunderstandings” are, or can be of the highest structural significance’ (Hall 1993:34). This form of reading and re-reading is part of a ‘circuit of culture’ in which individuals and groups are in constant relationship with the production and consumption of culture.
They are interpellated into positions which they also seek to disrupt and in doing so reposition themselves (Hall 1997: 1). Van Zoonen takes up Hall’s work as a framework for feminist media theory and research: ‘In institutionalised processes of media production media is ‘encoded’ in discursive forms that do not constitute a closed ideological system but in which the contradictions of the production process are enclosed. The thus encoded structure of meaning serves in another ‘moment’ of meaning production, the decoding of practices of the audiences. Encoding and decoding need not be symmetrical’ (Van Zoonen 1994: 8).
This plurality in cultural constructions at the level of the group and the individual is essential when looking at the stories of those of ‘mixed-race’ and the way they talk of ‘home’. Hall is looking to debunk the notion of a ‘pure’ indigenous ‘native’, and to suggest a potent way to reduce the power of the ethnic dominant over the dominated, a binary which she eschews. (S. Hall 1992: 280) This is to be commended in a multiethnic, multicultural society that continues to reify notions of ‘race’ and nation.
What he does not consider (in any depth) is how the ‘psychic’ axis to which she refers is mediated by family narratives, and stories of ‘blood and bone’—those to whom we belong in a familial sense. Individuals’ social circumstances, their social geographies, as well as histories, will work through individual psycho-subjective positions but will have their resonances in the body in very immediate ways (Frankenberg 1993: 204). The physicality of the children is the site of border crossings of the ‘racial’; and the physical body mediates the psychic meanings of the children’s emotional responses to family narratives (Frankenberg 1993: 206).
Many of the stories of family construct notions of home that are more conventionally connected to the discourse of diaspora.
One of the interesting findings was how clearly children understood parent’s views about home, and how these ideas differed with the new generation’s understandings of the local and the global. At this stage of their lives children often talked of their families and homes in synchronic fashion, whereas for adults the diachronic themes ran through the narratives and constituted current understandings. (Bhabha 1990: 213)
The way that mothers (and through them, other family members) expressed the ‘homing desire’ played a strong part in how the children understood their own diaspora connections. Home is social, spatial and spiritual and is constructed through family practices, stories and imaginings. It is a complex and important part of the identifications that the children made, and was just one aspect of their sense of multi-locational being. Again, the influence of personal biographies, and different movements and settlements among respondents, produced different responses to a globalised sense of belonging.
Epiphanic moments can be seen in writing on mixedness which identify moments of ‘becoming black.’ (S. Hall 1992: 285) Such negrisence, or ‘coming to terms with one’s blackness’, is dependent on a starting point that is not just not-blackness but, rather, is whiteness. (S. Hall 1992: 286) Taken together the accounts both of children and adults show that although there may be moments that are influential, that these are ongoing processes of racialisation that are changing and not constant, and are often open to significant reinterpretation.
There is in the language of identification an implication that blackness is cultural and learnt, it endorses a form of cognitive ebonisation (S. Hall 1992: 291). The argument about deconstructing ‘race’, refuting colourism, and developing differing levels of ‘mixed-raceness’ is now destabilised through recognition of a learnt identification with ‘black culture’ that can only be taught by a ‘black’ person.