Mythical English National Culture: The Politics of Race and Nation

Let us return to film critic Al-Kadhi’s apt analysis of the Oscar-nominated British films from 2017, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. He comments sharply on Dunkirk's white racial framing: “I’m not sure if Christopher Nolan [who wrote and produced the film] has an aversion to people of colour, because there is not a single one in his movie. Its dystopian quality is only accurate in how it relays what the world would be like if solely inhabited by white men. The film ... literally erases the fact that almost 5 million Commonwealth soldiers ... fought in the war, and that British Indians had a prominent role at Dunkirk.” Of Darkest Hour, Al-Kadhi writes that it is “one in a long line of British period dramas that view [Sir Winston] Churchill as a national hero, conveniently muting the reality of his racist tyranny (it’s telling that many of Churchill’s imperialist exploits abroad are not widely known).”167 These and other recent films regularly perpetuate white-virtuousness mythologies that remain central to the UK’s dominant white racial frame.

A major challenge to the UK’s enduring white racial frame is found in social historian Paul Gilroy’s brilliant examination of anti-black racism and contemporary culture in his book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Gilroy’s study of major black contributions to British culture, typically framed as standing on a purely white Christian history, provides a conceptual model that allows one to make sense out of a highly racialized UK society.168 As one reviewer wrote, Gilroy “shrewdly refrains from the usual explanations of racism as a peculiar evil on the margins of British society and shows how the history of British racism is bound up with an imaginary English ‘national culture’ which is supposedly homogenous in its whiteness and Christianity.”169 For example, Gilroy demonstrates that black music is a major illustration of a counter-culture in Britain. His work comes to mind when reflecting on the meaning of Markle in the era of Brexit and the related debates over non-white and other immigration to Britain. Take, for example, the black gospel choir performing Stand by Ale at her racially diverse wedding, a song influenced by an early black American gospel composer (Charles Tindley), and composed by a black songwriter (Ben E. King) and his white associates. Markle’s deviation from conventional white royal norms attests to the importance of Gilroy’s message, which critically questions white notions that black culture has meaning in Africa only and that European culture is purely white.170

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