The Forum for Research into Equality and Diversity (FRED) – Launch Event 'The Challenges for equality in the 21st Century'.


  • ‘Race’ and ‘Post-race’: Moving beyond Identity Politics
  • Dr Gurnam Singh,   Department of Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies, Coventry University.
  • Binks Building, Room CBK 1.07 University of Chester


Much of the existing UK equality legislation has been framed within the historical struggles/demands of different social groups and the attempt by the State to assuage these. This has resulted in a dual track approach that has sought to balance the principles of universal human rights on the one hand and, subsumed under the general idea of multiculturalism, celebrating diversity on the other. Whilst this dual track approach has its advantages, it is not without its problems. Indeed, in some senses, equality and diversity represents an oxymoron; one pointing towards convergence, whilst the other divergence. Moreover, an uncritical valorisation of diversity runs the risk of cementing people in identities that are in reality in a state of flux and largely ideologically constituted. Employing the notion of ‘post-race’ this presentation will seek to offer a new perspective on approaching the question of race equality. It will be argued that although in need to much development, the idea of post-race offers new and exiting possibilities to understand the dynamics of social oppression and possible ways of addressing this.


I would like to begin by thanking the organisers and in particular, Chantal Davies, for affording me the honour of addressing this conference to launch The Forum for Research into Equality and Diversity (FRED). Today’s conference theme is aptly stated as 'The Challenges for equality in the 21st Century'. I would like to extend my congratulations to all involved in the Centre, both within the university but most crucially practitioners working in the field.

There will be no person in this room that would disagree that questions of equality, justice and valuing diversity are perhaps, other than global warming the greatest challenge facing most human societies in the world. Today across the world one would be hard pressed to find a law or social science faculty that did not have some kind of research center on justice and equality. I did a Google search for the phrase ‘justice and equality’ and it revealed 87 million hits. ‘Diversity and equality’ revealed 55 million hits. This is not a fringe issue, but a defining question of our age.

But this has not always been the case. Up to the mid 17th century, certainly within European societies there was little ‘official’ concern about equality or valuing diversity. Indeed, there was a wide spread belief to the contrary, namely, that human beings were naturally unequal. From ancient times up to the birth of the European Enlightenment in the 17th Century, theologians would invariably justify inequality in terms of the consequences of the original sin and/or certain rules that naturally arranged humans in a hierarchical order.  And so, inequality was simply inevitable and, as Aquinas asserted in the Summa Contra, ‘ men of outstanding intelligence naturally take command, while those who are less intelligent but of more robust physique, seem intended by nature to act as servants’ (Anderson and Bellenger, 2003:275). Inevitably it is through the history of humans encountering other humans, that present day conceptions of identity become constructed. We find that through the process of documentation and recording, identity becomes solidified in culture and traditions. And perhaps more than any other time in history it is the period between 16th to 19th when, as Anderson (1991) points out ideas about ‘race’ and nation become articulated and embedded in the national imaginary like no other period in history; a period that not insignificantly saw the rise and fall of both the Atlantic Slave trade and European Colonisation of much of the world.

Alongside the political and cultural developments resulting in a shaping of the modern world and how we think about groups of human beings in relation to ‘otherness’, diversity, nationality, ethnicity and religion, we are also witnessing the unfolding of the ‘age of enlightenment, one of the effects was to displace the prevailing theological justification for the unequal treatment of human beings with ‘rational’ scientific reasoning. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this somewhat paradoxical position of the enlightenment philosophers is that of the Scottish thinker David Hume. In his essay, “Of National Character”, David Hume exhibited his aversion and contempt for the black man as biologically inferior beings that he felt were incapable of logical thinking and is therefore intellectually unproductive. As he notes:

 “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion; nor even any individual eminent inaction or speculation…” (Cited in Wiredu, 1998).

And so, whilst there can be no doubt the from the 17th Century onwards we are in the European Enlightenment seeing new insights into questions of justice and equality, perhaps most clearly articulated through the political ideals of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights in 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1793, and the Polish–Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791, the governing powers are still struggling to justify the on-going inequality, bigotry and racism so spectacularly and tragically displayed in the actions of the Nazis in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s culminating in the Jewish Holocaust, along with a whole number of less well documented genocides of both colonised people and ‘indigenous’ Europeans populations.

However, there are three significant outcomes of the realisation of gross inhumanity of the holocaust, the Atlantic Slave trade and colonialism that forms the main thrust of my argument, that is:

  1. We still live with a material legacy of racism which has an uneven but nonetheless significant impact on the lives of many people in the UK and further afield
  2. We live in a syncretic world of increasing Super Diversity – i.e. multi-culture is not a policy choice but a given reality.
  3. We have come to realise that ‘race’ is a myth created and sustained to justify oppression and it lives on in our imaginary, our language and our social policy discourses.  That despite a broad consensus that there are no ‘races’ as such and that we all belong to the one human race, ‘homo sapiens’, for a complex set of reasons, we have been incapable of consigning ‘race thinking’ to the dustbin of history

We have made much progress over the years, not least on the legislative front. Much of the existing UK equality legislation has been framed within the historical struggles/demands of different social groups and the attempt by the State to assuage these. This has resulted in a dual track approach that has sought to balance the principles of universal human rights on the one hand and, subsumed under the general idea of multiculturalism, celebrating diversity on the other (See Parekh, 2000). Whilst this dual track approach has its advantages, it is not without its problems. Indeed, in some senses, ‘equality and diversity’ represents an oxymoron; one pointing towards convergence, whilst the other towards divergence. Moreover, an uncritical valorisation of diversity runs the risk of cementing people in identities that are in reality in a state of flux and largely ideologically constituted.

And so despite the progress in legislative terms, along with the structural inequalities we still have, considerable conceptual problems remain when talking about diversity and in particular addressing the question of racism. Indeed, it is bizarre that following the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 which sough to outlaw gender discrimination we had the ‘Race Relations Act, 1976). Clearly a more consistent approach would have been a ‘race discrimination/equality act’.   What I think it did expose is a confusion that is ongoing about how one frames the question of racism. Though we have moved on, there is still a view that racism is a product of the inability of different ‘races’ to co-exist. Today we talk perhaps more about different ‘ethnic groups’ or ‘religious groups’, but what still underpins such sentiments is an ongoing flaw in thinking. So my basic proposition is that if we believe that we all belong to one human race, that ideas of racial superiority and inferiority belong to a past era, then why do we persist in using terms that are directly or indirectly invoking the idea of ‘racial differences’, even if this is a celebratory sense.  

In seeking invoke the notion of ‘post-race’ and, if you like to ‘out law’ the use ‘racial discourse’, I recognise that this is fraught with dangers. For instance, clearly I am exposing myself to an accusation that this is simply a modern rendition of old fashioned liberal colour-blindness.  Other will argue that it is simply delusional to think about a post-racial world given the on-going realities of racism on the lives of visible minorities and the unfinished project of anti-racism. However, it is my contention that unless we exorcise our culture of ‘race’ thinking in ways that in post Nazi Germany all Nazi constructs and ideas were, we will continue to reproduce myths about racial differences, albeit in increasingly subtle ways. What was known as a project of Entnazifizierung or Denazification we in the immediate post war period a sustained attempt to rid German and Austrian society, culture, press, economy, judiciary, and politics of any remnants of the National Socialist (Nazi) ideology and also by removing those involved from positions of influence and by disbanding or rendering impotent the organizations associated with it (Biddiscombe, 2006). Interestingly in the post colonial period, there have never been any sustained attempt to, as it were, ‘decolonise’ our society and culture and for that reason, I content ideas of racial and cultural superiority have managed to reproduce with ease. And so, today, for instance, Muslim young people have become the racial other in a similar way to the racialization of black youth as born criminals in a previous generation.

It has been suggested to me that ‘race’ is like a genie that has come out of the lamp, a kind of curse on humanity that we will have to learn to live with. I am not naive to think that racism can be wished away that easy, but I do believe that an idea which were created by human beings can be defeated and rendered to the dustbin of history the them as well.

Another powerful view often espoused by multiculturalists is that victims of racism need to be helped to reclaim their racial and cultural heritage and that it is through this process that they can develop positive self-esteem. Indeed, rather than confronting racial categories, some authorities have sought to mobilise them in a positive way, as for example the idea of ‘black pride’, or celebration of minority cultures. Though there is clearly space for celebrating cultural heritage, I do feel there are real problems in an uncritical mobilisation of markers of difference. Should we for instance be holding white pride days for the oppressed white working classes? Indeed, much of the rhetoric of the EDL and BNP feeds off the very same ideas, albeit aimed towards different ends that are employed by multiculturalists.  And, as often happens, one set of stereotypes becomes substituted for another. Indeed on top of the on-going white prejudice, though there has ben little systematic research done, powerful anecdotal is evidence which can be found on the net is emerging of very worrying patterns of prejudice amongst 2nd and 3rd generation British Born Black and Asian people against both white people, against each other, and also against Eastern European Migrants.

And so I would argue that there are real dangers in policies that seek to defeat ‘race’ by as it were ‘reclaim race’. To the contrary, we need to focus on reasserting a discourse of universal human rights built upon the essential reality of the unity of human kind. In his book, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment Nick Nesbitt makes some important observations about the way in which universal human rights discourses born out of the age of enlightenment were utilised by black slaves in 1791 to inspire what culminated in the elimination of slavery in Saint-Domingue, and ultimately the founding of the Haitian republic.

The radical transformation of France after 1789 did not determine the appearance of the Haitian Revolution; instead, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a key element in creating … the ontological ground that allowed for a local rebellion’s increasing articulation in terms of universal human rights. (Nesbitt, 2013: 62)

And so, in some senses, whilst idea of ‘post-race’ potentially represents a conceptual turn or even more profoundly a paradigm shift, it does so with one eye on an alternative view of black struggles than those characterised in some formations of municipal multiculturalism and anti-racism i.e. Not a repudiation of everything ‘Western’ as is reflected in much of the post-colonial literature, but rather an appropriation or mobilisation of elements within the enlightenment ideals on universal human rights, that resonated with the broad thrust of black struggles for freedom, justice and equality.

Having spent many years seeking to adopt what might be termed ‘an inversion of race’ strategy, it through the work of William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois, perhaps the most prominent 20th Century scholar of ‘race’ and racism, and the reformation of his own thinking about questions of ‘race’, that I began to formulate my own ideas around post-race In his earlier work, to capture the profoundly different experiences of blacks and whites in the US, Du Bois invoked the idea a ‘colour line’; indeed, in his later book, "Of the Dawn of Freedom" he extended this idea to take in much of the world to "Asia" "Africa" and "the islands of the sea. " There can be no denying that the ‘colour line’ represented one of the most influential and powerful framings of ‘race’ throughout most of the early 20th Century in the US and arguably the post-colonial world.  What is much less well known is Du Bois’ later questioning of his own concept in the early 1950s following a series of visits to post war Poland. Reflecting on his experience in an essay for Jewish Life magazine entitled “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto,” Du Bois outlines how the inhumanity of the Warsaw ghetto and the experience of the Jewish population invoked him to revise his idea about the contours of ‘race’:

In the first place, the problem of slavery, emancipation and caste in the United States was no longer in my mind a separate and unique thing as I had so long conceived it. It was not even solely a matter of color and physical and racial characteristics, which was particularly a hard thing for me to learn, since for a lifetime the color line had been a real and efficient cause of misery (Zuckerman, 2004:45).

In the second of his autobiographies, Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois (1971) outlines the genesis of his own thought; whilst remaining steadfast about the need to fight for racial justice, he entertains the prospect of the banishment of racism, but this would require true social and economic justice.

From ‘race’ to post –race’

So, how can we get from ‘race’ to post-race’? As I noted at the outset, no doubt ideas about human difference arguably form a permanent feature of all human history, but I want to argue that the idea of ‘race’ is a much more recent phenomena. In ancient Egypt there is little evidence that skin colour was used in an evaluative way although it was recognised e.g. in artworks and depictions of other civilizations. Ancient Greek texts suggest that the key differences between Greeks and Barbarians not dependent on physical appearances (much less on skin colour), which were regarded as trivial, and more related to language and political/civic (Blum 2002; Hannaford 1996). The outlook of the Roman Empire, for which we have much more reliable accounts, was not only much more diverse than the movies would lead one to believe, we also know that Emperor Septemus Severus (193-211 AD) was black. And, contrary to contemporary racialised myths of the separation of western and eastern culture (which overlays the ideas of whiteness and blackness) Martin Bernal in his book Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization offers a powerful argument suggests that classical civilization in fact had deep roots in both African and Asian cultures.

As far back as 1954, Ashley Montagu, in his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, (1954) suggests that “the idea of race" represents one of the greatest errors, if not the greatest error, of our time, and the most tragic. He goes on to argue that the reason why this fallacy is not widely believed is that amongst the academic community, not unlike the race relations industry, there are too many scientist who benefit from the idea, which is why ‘most of us continue to believe that "race" really corresponds to something which exists (1954:1). See for example Paul Gilroy’s repudiation of such in his provocative essay entitled the ‘End of Anti-racism’ where he accuses local authority municipal anti-racist policy makers of uncritically deploying the very same radiological thinking (for example in arguing for ‘same-race’ adoption policies) that they were seeking to undermine (Gilroy, 1990). And so it logically follows the starting point for invoking the idea of ‘post-race’ comes from a simple proposition, that ‘there is no such thing as race’ (Nayak, 2006:411) and that, as Paul Gilroy has argued (2000) in essence the fight against racism is the dismantling of ‘race’ as a credible concept. In this sense ‘post-race’ can be seen as a invocation to both face up to ‘race-ism’ as a real practice whilst at the same time rendering the idea of ‘race’ impotent. It's a bit like tackling a virus; it is not simply enough to treat the symptoms, but one also needs to engage in an immunisation campaign until the virus rendered extinct.

What would a post –race project look like in practice?

Having set out, some of the historical considerations and theoretical contours underpinning the idea of post-race’, I now turn to some very practical questions about how might a ‘post-race’ political project look like, i.e. what differentiates it from an ‘anti-racist’ approach.  I assume the first thing to clarify is what I mean by a political project. I see this in two senses, both as a pedagogical enterprise (how we learn and develop our thinking) and a policy objective (How we translate out thinking into practice), or if you like as an idea worth developing and a practice that is in turn informed by the idea. So what does this mean? At the centre of the expression of ‘post-race’ at the level of pedagogy is the creation of a context, which enables racialised subjects to step through and beyond racially constructed subjectivity. In other words, its about enabling the possibility for us to reject the stereotypes that shape our sense of self and others.  However, anyone who has ever attempted this will know that this task is anything but simple or straightforward, and in seeking to understand this level of ‘difficulty’ the work Fanon in Black Skin White Masks (1986), in particular his discussion of the trauma caused by the imposition of racialised identities, is invaluable. It follows that a transcendence towards a post-race mind set cannot take place without addressing that trauma. Paulo Freire, in his seminal text on critical pedagogy and emancipatory education in his conception of a ‘double consciousness’ provides an interesting take on the psychological challenge faced by oppressed more generally who:

… suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being.  They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically.  Yet although they desire authentic existence, they fear it.  They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized. (Freire, 1970:30).

The desire to transcend ‘race’ evokes the same combination of yearning and resistance, and it is engaging with these that need to be at the heart of pedagogical strategies whose objective is to allow people to, as Freire says, “regain their humanity” (1970:30).  In this sense, the idea of ‘post race’ can acts as a heuristic tool, a basis for developing a pedagogy of ‘hope’ which offers an understanding of the construction of ‘race’ as essentially a misrecognition of material social relations, but at the same time, creates space for people to see themselves anew outside the real and symbolic violence of racialised categories.  At the heart of such as pedagogy is the desire to promote critical dialogue, reflexivity and political awareness. Celebration of difference may be of some assistance in creating the conditions of mutual dialogue, but it can be nothing more than a staging post in the desire to escape the categories that lock-us into relations of dominance or subjugation. This approach contrasts with the dominant diversity based approaches, which are often expressed in terms of ‘managing difference’, ‘cultural sensitivity’ or a celebration of origins. The main problem with such approaches is that they fail to see that assertions of all cultural identities, and strategies based on the celebrations of origins in particular, can be regressive, not least for those people whose ‘diversity’ falls outside that which is being celebrated. Worst still, in spite of being formally classified as “anti-racist” such strategies, as mentioned above, can end up re-inscribing the very same racialised subjectivity one is seeking to transcend.

If perhaps in a previous period it was deemed apposite to ‘reclaim’ a sense of positive blackness’ as a bulwark against racialised negative stereotyping by ‘fighting fire with fire’, then today the challenge is to find ways of declassifying ‘race’ through articulating a new narrative of human sameness – if you like moving from celebrating diversity to celebrating sameness, in a world in which old ‘tribal’ markers of community, be they in the form of ‘race’, ethnicity, religion, language etc. become displaced by a notion of sociality, or a unmarked space in which creative social intercourse takes place (Hill, 2009). In a very practical sense, we are already seeing the emergence of such physical spaces cosmopolitan within our great cities where it is difficult to imagine the space other than a multicultural melting pot of negotiated identities, where both physical and psychological segregation has in a real way become undermined.

Similarly, Martin Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006) talks about the importance of conversation to the possibility of transcending boundaries of identity, ‘be they national, religious or something else’. For Apphia conversation is not only a ‘literal’ act but also ‘ a metaphor for engagement with the experience and the ideas of others’ (2006:85). Henry Giroux has characterised this process as “Border Crossing” (1993).  A border in this sense is an inherited enclosed psychic space in which one resides; becoming a ‘border-crosser’ allows one to articulate a critical distance from aspects of one’s inscribed identity/world view.  As the metaphor suggests it implies stepping away from ones secure location into “new spaces in which dominant social relations, ideologies and practices are able to be questioned”  (1993:178). Above, at the level of self it requires and enables one to enter a creative imaginary space exploring how life would be freed from the influences of the non-existence of racial difference, of the absolute realisation that, as Dr Martin Luther kind envisaged in his ‘I had a dream’ speech where human beings will ‘not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’.



Dreaming about a better future for humankind is fraught with dangers. Historical record would suggest that despite our apparent abundance of intelligence, as a race or species we find it much easier to destroy than to build. Despite our personal beliefs, as a collective we seem to be adept at producing and reproducing systems of exploitation and oppression. Indeed, as John Holloway remarks, “today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (2010:7). Let me add my emphasis, “today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of racism.” Whilst this might reflect a realistic evaluation of how we have managed to make a mess of our precarious world, I believe it also represents a poverty of the imagination, which I feel is uncharacteristic of black peoples struggles against European oppression. Indeed, black peoples survival against the brutality of the oppressor was to never give up hope of a better future which is so powerfully captured by the Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire's in his poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Return to My Native Land) which he wrote in in France in 1938 (Quoted in James, 1984, inside cover):

… For it is not true that the work of man is finished, That we have nothing more to do in the world, That we are just parasites in this world, That it is enough for us to walk in step with the world, For the work of man is only just beginning and it remains to conquer all, The violence entrenched in the recess of his passion, And no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and, There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory. Aimé Césaire (1938)

Indeed Cesaire’s words that inspired C.L.R James to write his last book entitled “At the Rendezvous of Victory” in which, reflecting on struggles of the oppressed, particularly in relation to anti-colonial movements in Africa, he made a powerful case for people to reject old oppressive relations born out of a marriage between capitalism, colonialism and slavery and to have ‘new visions of themselves, so that they will find new ways to express them and create new ties, new bonds and new understandings.’ (James, 1984)

Whilst we continue to remind ourselves and be reminded, often in very painful ways, of the reality ‘race’ and racism, we also need to cherish an absolute belief that they are neither natural nor inevitable. And a good starting point would be to place much more emphasis into celebrating our sameness and perhaps less in celebrating diversity. Ultimately and somewhat paradoxically, what makes us all human beings is that we are all mostly all but not quite the same and by seeing our sameness with new eyes, we may also be able to see our differences in no threatening and mutually enriching ways.



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