A reflective report by Tavian Hunter, Library and Archive Manager
On 10 January, we held our first reading group of 2019 on Europeanness. Focusing the discussion on the invisibility of Eastern European identity in the discourse of diversity in the UK, we read extracts from Stuart Hall’s 1997 essay ‘New Ethnicities’ and Anikó Imre’s 2005 essay ‘Whiteness in post-socialist Eastern Europe: the time of the gypsies, the end of race’.
Before we begun reading, we asked the group to introduce themselves and provide one word or phrase they associate with Europe. The responses were a mixture from ‘togetherness’, ‘pride’, ‘hierarchy’, to ‘coloniser and progressive’, ‘Fortress Europe’ and ‘Stroopwafel’. Many of these thoughts came up as we collectively started to read Anikó Imre’s essay.
‘With the collapse of socialism, East Europeans have suddenly awakened from their relative imprisonment within the Soviet Bloc to find their national boundaries vulnerable to influences from a world that had moved on to an increasingly transnational order.’ (Imre, p.81)
Aniko Imre began by stating that Bell Hooks’ explanation of ‘white culture’ ‘as a concept underlying racism, colonization and cultural imperialism’ ignores that fact that ‘whiteness is far from being a monolithic concept’ (Imre, p.80). However, group members mentioned that when analysing whiteness, the author seems to make the mistake of reproducing ‘imperialist narratives’ through the use of language. For example, the sentence ‘with the collapse of socialism, East Europeans have suddenly awakened from their relative imprisonment within the Soviet Bloc to find their national boundaries vulnerable to influences from a world that had moved on to an increasingly transnational order.’ (Imre, p.81) seemed to imply that East Europe existed outside transnational networks and communities which contradicted the point that it was not part of the global context and discourse on race. However, group members stated that diverse groups of people existed and were represented in the Soviet Bloc before its collapse.
In contrast, another group member thought that with the collapse of socialism, East Europeans turning to nationalism as a ‘source of self-confidence’ (Imre, p.81) could be thought of as an act of self-care, protecting their sense of identity and collective belonging. To which others members suggested that the very essence of ‘Europenness’ is whiteness and to belong you have to disassociate yourself from others. For many, nationalism can be seen as colonisation but the author did not seem to draw clear distinction between nationalism as a ‘political movement’ and nationalism as a ‘cultural construct’. This is especially so when the text did not explore transnational order, in detail, in terms of nationality, religion, language and socio-economic issues and nor did it address the alignment of enlightened history with whiteness.
Overall, the group agreed that the author seemed to present an anachronistic view of East Europe and its values with interjections of personal anecdotes. These personal stories added to the essay in some places such as the apparent silencing of the author’s voice, when drawing comparisons between the treatment of African Americans ‘whose ancestors were forced into slavery’ with the ‘historical’ mistreatment of the Roma (Imre, p.83). However, the writer does not provide a straightforward narration of the development of East Europe that could be helpful to those who are not aware of the historical context. Thus, making the text harder to read and interpret, especially for those around the table who did not originate from the region or were less informed.
“In order for racialized minorities, most prominently the Roma, to decolonize “the ethnic” label, imposed on them, and transform themselves into Hall-style “new ethnicities” on the non-innocent ground of differences within similarities, it seems necessary for them to come into representation first” (Imre, p.85).
It is must be said that only the first eight pages of the essay was read and much of the discussion and questions that arose may have been addressed if we read on. However, the group agreed to continue by reading Stuart Hall’s ‘New Ethnicities’ essay to understand what Imre meant by saying that, “in order for racialized minorities, most prominently the Roma, to decolonize “the ethnic” label, imposed on them, and transform themselves into Hall-style “new ethnicities” on the non-innocent ground of differences within similarities, it seems necessary for them to come into representation first” (Imre, p.85).
It was quite clear when reading Hall’s essay that unpacking was required to probe the theoretical terminology on black cultural politics. Hall starts off by explaining that there is ‘new phase’ in shifting away from the oppositional cultural resistance of the ‘black’ experience and asks what is it that currently informs the term ‘black experience’ in British culture? The group felt that to really analyse this text it was important to understand the difference between the ‘relations of representation’ versus the ‘politics of representation’. For example, the group drew similarities between both essays, as black people in Britain and minorities of Eastern Europe where referred to as ‘other’ or ‘invisible other’. These groups of people may be visually represented but they are treated differently structurally in society. One example provided by a group member was that Theresa May as Prime Minister is a strong image of a woman in a high-profile position of power but her politics arguably do not address the issues women face daily in the workplace or society.
The point was then raised that black people are, or the black body is, systemically oppressed and made ‘invisible’ in society and ‘mainstream art institutions’. However, they are ‘hypervisible’ in the need to show diversity through the inclusion of black images but they are often stereotypically reinforced in negative ways. The example provided was the sense of ‘tokenism’ presented by the paintings of black sitters hung at national institutions such as Tate surrounded by paintings of white subjects. The other paintings are afforded in-depth peer-reviewed research about the subjects of work and their artists. However, the black model still remains ‘unknown’ without an identity and simply on display to give the appearance of diversity or representation (terminology that is frequently used interchangeably). As such the model is treated as an object looked upon in a fetishised nature rather than subject worthy of provenance. This lack of research of ‘probably’ black slave imagery in these institutions was thought of as both lazy and unusual by group members, given the fact that slaves were heavily recorded as ‘property of their masters’. Thus, their identity and provenance could be researched more in further depth.
This stirred the conversation to look at hegemony as Hall describes the ‘black experience’ as becoming ‘hegemonic over other ethnic/racial identities’ (Hall, p.441). The group pointed toward Gramsci’s theory of hegemony that suggests there is a dominance and discourses of power placed over an underrepresented group by one leader state or dominant social group. The idea of ‘consent’ to how these groups want to be represented is often forcefully by the dominant fundamental group. For example, black characters in film assimilate themselves into the dominant cultural world view even though it is harmful to them. Hall presented the film My Beautiful Laundrette as a film that does not represent a monolithic black experience. Modern day films suggested by the group that provide rich identities and complex layered examples of the black experience in film were Sorry To Bother You (2018) and BlacKkKsman (2018). In the end, the group agreed that that representation itself is not equal to equity without changing the structure of the institution itself.
Thank you to all participants who attended this reading group. For those who missed the event and the stimulating discussions presented, help us to continue the conversation on our new Facebook group by answering the following question:
Q: What does European identity mean to you and how does it impact your daily life?
Here are some examples from our participants:
A: European identity creates a sense of complexity in my own identity, in relation to self-care though collective belonging (national, racial, ethnicity) and access to representation (and, who has autonomy of representation in visual culture).
A:Despite having lived and worked in other European countries, I have always felt that the European identity is reserved for those “on the continent” – now it is something I try to claim as my own in the face of Brexit and feeling more aligned to EU ideals than British ones right now.
A: European identity is being born here and having a UK passport and still being asked ‘where are you really from?’
A: In the current political climate (and for a few decades now) European identity is a made-up concept that has been produced and monopolised by the bigger countries of the EU to push their imperialist agenda on weaker EU states. To me it means being treated as the ‘wrong kind of white’ as I am from a poor EU-adjacent country.
A: EU identity is a mixed bag of pride and shame. To be EU is to feel ‘nobled’ by it cultural and achievement but also ashamed by the imperialism and colonisation.
A: Tension, conflict and contestation. Also Brexit.
A: Feels like being in and out of alignment; produces connections and divisions based on various encounters in the day; eventually throws up problems and questions continually.