Dattatrya Thombare Mother with children

A slightly shorter version of this essay was published in the Observer, 2 July 2017, under the headline ‘We need to rethink the way we imagine race and culture’.

Last week, Sandeep and Reena Mander were denied the chance to adopt a child. It was not because their local council, Windsor and Maidenhead, thought that they would not have provided a loving family home. Nor because there were no children to adopt. It is rather that the Manders are of Indian Sikh heritage – though both born in Britain – and the only children needing adoption were white. ‘They took the colour of our skin as the overriding reason not to progress with the application’, Mr Mander said.

Many have seen in the attitude of Windsor and Maidenhead council a straightforward case of racism. The councillors are predominantly white, and overwhelmingly Conservative. They ‘appear not to appreciate diversity’ claimed Narinderjit Singh, general secretary of the Sikh Federation (UK).

The problem runs much deeper, however, than the attitudes of the undiverse members of one local council. It speaks to a broader confusion about the relationship between race and culture; a confusion that afflicts anti-racists as much as it does racists.

Few people these days claim that whites and Indians are racially incompatible. But many argue that whites – or, more euphemistically, ‘Europeans’ or ‘Westerners’ – and Indians (and blacks and Chinese and countless others) belong to distinct cultures and possess discrete identities. Many argue, too, that especially for children, it is important not to undermine their sense of identity or create confusion about their cultural attachments.

Windsor and Maidenhead council has refused to comment on an ‘ongoing case’, so it is difficult to know precisely its line of reasoning. Adopt Berkshire, the council’s adoption agency, suggests that it would attempt to ‘identify appropriate prospective adopters for each child who reflect the child’s culture and religion of heritage’. It is plausible the council imagines that to be white is to belong to a particular culture, and that non-whites belong to other cultures. A white child can only be brought up by white parents because otherwise he or she would grow up in the ‘wrong’ culture.

Racism has historically played a major role in shaping adoption practices. From the days when miscegenation was seen as a social sin, and in some countries a crime, racists have baulked at the idea of non-white parents bringing up white children. At the same time, many non-white children were torn from their parents and given up for adoption to white families, a practice promoted as a civilizing mission. Perhaps the most shocking example came not from Britain but Australia, where, between 1910 and 1969, thousands of Indigenous children – the ‘Stolen Generations’ – were forcibly taken from their families to be brought up in white households.

Paul Klee Burdened Child

More recently, though, the kind of attitude that seems to have swayed Windsor and Maidenhead council has been promoted by anti-racists as much as by racists. In Britain, the pushback against transracial adoption began in the 1980s. In 1983, the Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professions (Abswap) gave evidence to a Commons Select Committee looking into adoption. Abswap condemned transracial adoption as ‘a microcosm of the oppression of black people’ and a ‘new form of slave trade’. What a black child requires above all is ‘positive black identity’. The black community could not ‘maintain any dignity in this country… if black children are taken away from their parents and reared exclusively by another race’.

Stripped of its overheated rhetoric, the Abswap view can be seen partly as a response to racism, and to the long, racist history of adoption practices, and partly as an assertion of ethnic pride by a community against which there existed intense hostility. But, as the sociologist Paul Gilroy pointed out, it is a perspective that, far from challenging racism, simply appropriates the core of the racial thinking. In his seminal 1987 book about race and culture in Thatcherite Britain, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Gilroy observed that ‘the definition of race which informs these arguments elides the realms of culture and biology in the same way as the volkish new right preoccupations with “kith and kin”’.

Traditionally, a ‘race’ was seen as a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics unique to it. Every human being belonged to a specific race, and every individual’s character and abilities were defined primarily by that race.

In the postwar world, this concept of race disintegrated. Racial categories were shown to possess little scientific validity, while, in the shadow of the Holocaust, traditional ideas of racial inferiority and superiority became impossible openly to espouse.

But if old-fashioned racial science was buried in the postwar world, many of the assumptions of racial thinking survived. It was not just that Western societies remained deeply racist. It was also that the fundamental ideas that once sustained racial thinking – that humanity could be divided into discrete groups each of which possessed a set of unique characteristics that shaped an individual’s identity – continued to resonate. These ideas came to be recast eventually in the language not of biology but of culture.

This new language of culture has taken both rightwing and leftwing forms. The so-called ‘New Right’ that emerged in the 1970s explicitly looked to culture as a replacement for race. Every nation and people, its proponents argued, had its own culture that had to be protected against foreigners. For Alain de Benoist, the founder the Nouvelle Droite in France, the ‘decisive question’ for the twenty-first century is whether people will ‘find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world?’ Jean Marie Le Pen, the neo-Nazi founder of the Front National in France, drew upon Benoist’s ideas, insisting that ‘We not only have the right but the duty to defend our national personality, and we also have our right to difference.

For the left, too, culture has become the key component of its version of identity politics. Different minority groups, whether African Americans, Indigenous Australians, Muslims or gays, are seen as possessing distinct cultures, identities, and ways of thinking. To confront racism and oppression, many argue, requires a defence of each group’s distinct identities – a mirror image of the New Right argument.

Ellworth Kelly Nine Squares

On both right and left, many now view cultures as fixed, bounded entities, each the property only of certain people. Once, culture was seen as providing the tools with which to open up and transform the world. Today, many regard it more as a protective wall to shield its members and keep out unwanted visitors.

Take, for instance, the immigration debate. Once, hostility to immigration was rooted in racial antipathy – fear of the ‘Yellow Peril’ or of the ‘black invasion’. Today it is more often expressed in terms of cultural differences. Certain groups, Muslims in particular, are deemed culturally incompatible with Western societies.

From the other side of the political spectrum come arguments about ‘cultural appropriation’ – the ‘unauthorized’ use by members of a dominant culture of the products of a less privileged culture. The singer Katy Perry recently apologized for wearing her hair in cornrows, now regarded by many as a distinctively black hairstyle. ‘I have lots of white privilege’, she confessed in her mea culpa.

Other cases are less trivial. When New York’s Whitney Museum displayed Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, an African American teenager lynched by a white mob in Mississippi in 1955, many objected to a white painter depicting a traumatic moment in black history. Some even called for the work to be destroyed. When I wrote an article for the New York Times criticizing such arguments about cultural appropriation, I was accused of ‘defending white supremacy’. Such is the confusion about race and culture, that criticizing the volkish notion of culture that underlie white supremacy is now seen as defending it.

We need to defend the Manders’ right to adopt a white child, the right of Muslims to settle in the West, the right of Dana Schutz to depict a black subject. Most of all we need to rethink the way we imagine race, culture and the relationship between the two.


The paintings are, from top down: ‘Mother with Children’ by Dattatraya Thombare; Paul Klee, ‘Burdened Childen’; and ‘Nine Squares’ by Ellsworthy Kelly.


  1. Much of what you say in this essay resonates powerfully with my own experience, Kenan. I am an unskilled manual labourer living in Dublin, but I spent the 1990s working in outback Australia as a ‘field operative’ in the mining exploration industry. During those years I came to befriend many Aboriginal Australians, and at one stage even considered proposing to one (luckily for her she wouldn’t have me). At that time the issues of importance for every thinking person were Aboriginal land rights and some kind of redress for the historical crimes that had been committed against indigenous Australians by white settlers (crimes that are often still committed today). The Mabo land rights decision in 1992 was a watershed moment for people like myself, because it overturned a lie that lay at the heart of Australian society – the lie of terra nullius, or the idea that Australia was there to be taken in 1788 because it was effectively uninhabited. From that point on the political consciousness of most ordinary Aboriginal Australians really flourished, although at the time the significance of the Mabo decision was not grasped by my indigenous friends in Mount Isa. They resented the idea that Torres Strait Islanders were getting a percentage of the funding set aside by Canberra for ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission). Aborigines were the real indigenous Australians, whereas islanders were something else. I found this sort of rivalry to be depressing, because to my excessively idealized way of thinking at the time, it resembled a mild form of the kind of racism pervasive throughout the white Australian community. Aboriginies should have been immune to that kind of thing. Given their experiences, they should have known better. But they didn’t. They were as stubbornly human as any other group.

    The issue of exactly what it meant to be an Australian Aborigine became a frequent topic of discussion around the bbq. Some of my black friends refused to join in the discussion, because politics irritated them. Others dismissed the whole idea of Aboriginality and preferred to concentrate on the apparently less controversial idea of a common humanity. But there was always one, usually the one who had an arts degree from the University of Queensland, who pursued a degree of exclusivity that would have impressed the most fastidious phrenologist. He’d demand to be referred to by his tribal designation (even though he often didn’t know it), and accuse his cousins of being ‘yellow’ rather than ‘black’ because some of their distant ancestors turned out to be Afghan cameleers. When their cousins retaliated by pointing to the extraordinary number of ‘whitefellas’ in their accusers’ pedigree, he’d blanch and say he was proud of ALL of his ancestors, but you could tell he wasn’t.

    As far as I could tell, the absurdities of ‘black’ identity were as comical – and as potentially dangerous, and tragic, and venal – as those infecting the ‘white’ identity. I met Australian Aborigines who adopted an identity for purely cynical reasons – because there was funding to be had from it, and steady work and academic kudos and compensation from mining companies. I met Aboriginal Australians who were purists of the most intimidating kind, who condemned all whites as genocidal murderers and assumed a right to kill them wherever and whenever they felt justified in doing so. My own Halpin forebears had been Irish Protestants until one married a Catholic in 1883, and some of them were so vehemently anti-Catholic they made Ian Paisley sound like Mother Teresa. They too granted themselves the right to kill, as did their Catholic descendants in 1916, when they fought with the rebels in the Easter Rising – so I know a little about the bizarre ironies that can pollute history from time to time, turning former victims of the most awful wrongs into potential commissioners of, or apologists for, the most appalling crimes.

    This propensity to identify ourselves as distinct from some particular group that is supposedly ‘beneath’ us appears even in the saddest of places. In the Australian town in which I lived, there was a permanent community of homeless people living in the dry riverbed that split the town in two. Most were ‘black’, but some were white, and virtually all were alcoholic. Frequently, a few days after pay day, when the money ran out, fights would break out over dwindling supplies of drink, resulting in injuries (often to women and children) that required treatment in the local ‘base’ hospital, where I had a number of Irish friends working as doctors and nurses. When the patient was asked to provide an address, they’d say – rather pathetically – that they were from the ‘big bridge’ rather than the ‘little bridge’. Seemingly, it was a distinction they felt compelled to make, because those living under the ‘big bridge’ were a cut above those living under the little bridge. Such distinctions (without a difference) made no odds to the town’s police sergeant, however, who maintained the peace by trucking the drunken aborigines 20 miles out of town and dumping them on the side of the road. When I asked him why he didn’t do the same to white drunks too, he said ‘Because they wouldn’t make it back.’ The Sergeant said this over a beer with me and a few of my Aboriginal friends, some of whom thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

    These experiences, and many more like them, forced me to reflect long and hard on the pros and cons of identity, and to view with growing detestation the emergence of an illiberal left-wing variety of identity politics that in effect differed very little from its right-wing counterpart. It became clear to me that identity was being ‘Balkanized’, and that the people insisting on a new exclusiveness were a renascent version of the old moral crusaders who campaigned against the Pill and the decriminalization of homosexuality. Today they attack those of us who contravene the new social norms as violators of the most insidious kind, and dismiss the working class as beyond redemption. To be white and working class in the west is to be guilty of every transgression imaginable, from racism and xenophobia, to homophobia and social redundancy. The sins that were once the province of all whites, are now the sole responsibility of the working class. Corbynite Labour has become the party of metropolitan urbanites and middle class university students, who now tell us that they’ve swung to the hard left because of a fall in their living standards and a difficulty in finding decent work, because of the price of property and the rising cost of education, food and utilities, and the growing inaccessibility of good public services. The working class has been saying this for more than a generation, pointing out how unlimited immigration exacerbates an already difficult problem, only to be dismissed by economic experts on the grounds that there is no ‘evidence’ to back up our complaints. But of course there is ample evidence to back up what working class people have been saying. We and our first, second and third generation immigrant friends and neighbours, in-laws and workmates (immigrants are working class people too, you see), live with the realities of falling living standards every day, but only now – when the matter begins to affect the middle classes – does it receive the attention it deserves. I wonder how keen the so-called experts will be to contradict the middle-classes, and how willing they will be to dismiss middle class complaints as the rantings of fantasists and xenophobes. If some among the working classes succumb to the temptation to focus their frustration on immigrants (a relatively rare phenomenon, but growing all the time and devastating for those subjected to it), virtually all working class people have been subjected to the contempt – to the class bigotry – of the middle classes. This is why politics in the West is polarizing, and why left and right wing populism, in the form of Corbyn and Trump, now blights our democracies. The root cause of this division is a virulent form of capitalism that enriches the 1% and the expense of everyone else. But what prevents us from uniting to defeat the 1% is an equally virulent form of identity politics, one cooked up in university arts departments and released into society to inflame rival hatreds as effectively as a race war or a religious schism. A confluence of culture and economics, of identity politics and crony capitalism, threaten to plunge the west into serious internal conflict, while more authoritarian regimes like those in China and Russia seem enviably coherent and focused (in truth, their economies are a mess and may implode at any moment).

    What is to be done? I think more essays like the one above can help to articulate a reasoned objection to the ideological movements that drive the left and right along parallel lines in the same direction. The left has to be attacked for using the cloak of identity politics to smuggle a right-wing concept like essentialism into an open society. I also think the determination of the EU to punish the 1% with massive corporate fines for breaking EU laws and evading corporate tax offers hope to those of us who are free market democrats – it provides a powerful alternative to the ruinous Anglo-American economic model and to the authoritarianism of gangster capitalist states like China and Russia. Finally, I think it’s vital to keep up a concerted effort to defend the values of the Enlightenment in the face of a dual attack from the far right and the hard left. That effort is crucial if liberalism and tolerance are to survive for much longer.

    Keep up the good work, Kenan. It’s never been more important than it is now.

  2. Fayyaz Sheikh

    The major confusion arises when leaders on the extreme right like Lee Pen make White/Western culture as national culture and identity which leaves no space for immigrant’s heritage culture. National Identity should not be defined beyond law abiding citizenship. Culture and religious affiliations are personal matters and State should have no right to interfere or consider it in making decisions.

  3. I’d imagine you know that precisely what you describe happening to Indigenous children in Australia has happened in America to American Indian children for over 100 years. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) in response, but the problem has persisted.

    As unambiguously awful as removals are, legislation to respond is fraught with difficulty. The U.S. Supreme Court case, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013) centered on ICWA. The excellent Radiolab podcast did an episode and a followup episode on that case.

  4. ” Today, many regard it more as a protective wall to shield its members and keep out unwanted visitors” . Hi, recently in Los Angeles it was discovered that the administrator of a Leimert Park blog was White. A few of the Black people on the blog clearly stated that Leimert Park was for Black people and that White’s were always trying to take what Blacks had. I am Black, I love to hang out in the jazzy leimert park area, and I do not expect to only see Black people in this area. But some do.

    On another site Black women were up in arms because a black hair product company wanted to market to white women. Again, people said “No, that product is for Black hair only”. My question was, are we really saying that we want to bar White women from using a hair product? They we want power over who uses what we consider to be “our” hair product? Unfortunately, the answer I received from my Black sisters was “Yes”.

    Culturally, in Los Angeles many Blacks do not have a strong sense of their own African “culture” and have had to develop a sense of their “culture”. I must admit I was surprised when I saw the administrator of that, supposedly, Black blog was a White person. I was surprised because Leimert Park is Black people. Black barbers, black clubs, black park, black music, you know, Black people. Black culture.

    But for me to say who can use a certain hair care product is none of my business. And if a White person wants to head a Blog about a neighborhood which is predominantly Black, that is their right nd their business, not mine. If White people want to “appropriate” Black hair care products or Blog about Black neighborhoods, my cultural identity will not change.

    Katy Perry should not have apologized for how she wears her own hair. Black people do not own hairstyles. Besides that, we’ve been there and done that; in an old James Bond movie when, (60s or 70s) I can’t remember her name, but she came out of the ocean with Blond cornrows. She was gorgeous. But some Blacks were not happy.

    I have never focused on so-called White Supremacy. I mostly focus on working and eating and living. Culturally I identify as Black. Even though my mother was half-Italian. I don’t know Italy. I know California, Leimert Park, Culver City, the Eastside, the Beach. I would want a child of mine to be adopted by loving people, period. Then there is Reality. One last thing-I worked for a lady once, a White lady, she had two sons. I was a live-in caretaker. We went to visit a Black friend of mine and when the mother heard about it she was livid. Because the boys told her they were, Black (dark-skinned). She never let me take them any where again. I guess I was alright because of my light-skin.

  5. Igumnova Lawson Olga V.

    I am a White Russian living in the U.K. & felt like being behind Americans, British of all colours, EU citizens, people from British Commonwealth countries, Asian, African… I am a British Citizen now; feeling a little bit better. Still with Russian passport and born in Ukraine. That helps to reduce the tension towards the awkwardness of being Russian in the U.K.

  6. This post reminds me of as essay I read recently, written by Agustin Fuentes and called, “The Myth of Race:” The main question was, “Are humans divided into biological races or is it totally cultural?” It also discussed our need to classify everything (including humans) and put them in a first, second, third … order.

    The primary claim in the article was that “Race is not a valid way to talk about biological variation.”

    So my question – if there is physical proof that race is not a biological issue and thus, no race is “better” than another, why are we still having so many issues with racism? To me, it’s just ridiculous, especially when you’re talking about two loving people whose only wish is to have a child.

  7. Anon.

    Do you have any citations for the outlandish assertions made in this post?

    “every individual’s character and abilities were defined primarily by that race.”

    Are you seriously trying to claim that 19th century people were not aware of intra-race differences in abilities?

    “On both right and left, many now view cultures as fixed, bounded entities, each the property only of certain people. Once, culture was seen as providing the tools with which to open up and transform the world.”

    “once”? When was this time when culture was not viewed as a property of certain people? Who held this opinion? Were they correct or not (behavioral genetics certainly supports what you present as the “modern” view).

    • Do you have any citations for the outlandish assertions made in this post?


      “Every individual’s character and abilities were defined primarily by that race.”


      Are you seriously trying to claim that 19th century people were not aware of intra-race differences in abilities?

      Hmm. Are you seriously trying to suggest that you don’t know about racial science?

      Central to nineteenth century racial science was the notion of ‘type’. A type was defined a group of beings, linked by a set of fundamental characteristics and which differed from other types by virtue of those characteristics. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. And there were severe limits to how much any member of a type could vary from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted.

      Citations? Sure.

      From JG Spurzheim, ‘Phrenological Note’ [1829]:

      ‘It is of great importance to consider the heads of different nations… the foreheads of negroes, for instance, are very narrow, their talents of music and mathematics are also in general very limited. The Chinese, who are fond of colours, have the arch of the eyebrows much vaulted, and we shall see that this is the sign of a greater development of the organ of colour… The heads of Kalmucks are depressed from above, and verty large sidewrd above the organ, which gives the disposition to covet. It is also admitted that this nation is inclined to steal.’

      From Samuel Morton, Crania Americana [1839]:

      ‘From remote ages, the inhabitants of every extended locality have been marked by certain physical and moral peculiarities, common among themselves and serving to distinguish them from all other people.’

      From Josiah Clark Nott and George Robbins Gliddon, Types of Mankind [1854]:

      ‘The Earth is naturally divided into several zoological provinces, each o which is a distinct centre of creation, possessing a fauna and fauna, and every species of animal and plant was originally assigned to its appropriate province… The human family offers no exeception to this general law but fully confirms to it: Mankind being divided into several groups of Races, each of which constitutes a primitive element in the fauna of its peculiar province.’

      From Louis Agaziz, Sketch of the Natural Provinces of the Animal World and their Relation to the Different Types of Man [1854]:

      ‘I am prepared to show that the differences existing between the races of men are of the same kind as the differences observed between the different families, genera and species of monkeys or other animals.’

      Etc, etc. There are hundreds more such quotes.

      ”On both right and left, many now view cultures as fixed, bounded entities, each the property only of certain people. Once, culture was seen as providing the tools with which to open up and transform the world”


      “Once”? When was this time when culture was not viewed as a property of certain people? Who held this opinion? Were they correct or not (behavioral genetics certainly supports what you present as the ‘modern’ view).

      The modern concept to culture developed from the late 18th century on, initially through the Romantic movement in opposition to Enlightenment ideas, and especially through the work of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. The Romantic concept of culture subsequently became important in the emergence of cultural anthropology at the end of the nineteenth century, most notably through the writings of Franz Boas. It is the anthropological notion of culture on which popular ideas about culture now draw. Enlightenment thinkers rarely spoke of culture in the plural, but rather of civilization in the singular. I have dealt with the history in my books Strange Fruit and The Meaning of Race. I also deal with some of the issues in this lecture.

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