Gary Younge - Margins Define the Mainstream

At any given moment an identity's borders may shift and blur according to prevailing attitudes and political realities. Those who were black, Jewish or British yesterday may find themselves differently designated tomorrow. The recent case of South African sprinter Caster Semanya illustrates even sex is not as definite a category as many assume. It is precisely in those borderlands - the margins - that the mainstream is defined. Gatekeepers, both official and popular, attempt to police these frontiers. But humanity, ever dynamic and evolving, finds ways to evade their grasp. So what is marginal and what is mainstream are both relative to each other and in a constant state of change within themselves.

This presentation was part of The Sackler Conference for Arts Education - From the Margins to the Core? - An international conference exploring the shifting roles and increasing significance of diversity and equality in contemporary museum and heritage policy and practice held at The Sackler Centre, V&A, 24-26 March 2010.

The Margins Define the Mainstream
Gary Young, (Journalist, The Guardian)

I want to start with a tale of two white girls. Sandra Laing from Mpumulanga in South Africa and Bliss Broyard who was raised in the blue-blood world of Connecticut's twee suburbs and private schools. Broyard’s racial identity was ensconced in the comfort of insular whiteness that had always known there were 'others' but never really considered them. 'I'd never had a conversation about race,' she confesses, in her book One Drop. 'In the world I was raised in, it was considered an impolite subject. Although I grew up within an hour's drive of three of the poorest black communities in the United States those neighbourhoods seemed as distant as a foreign country.'

But in early adulthood Broyard would discover that on one level she had a greater connection to those neighbourhoods than she imagined. For on his deathbed her father, Anatole, confessed that he was in fact a black man who had been passing as white throughout most of his adult life. Initially she was thrilled at the news. It was, she wrote, "as though I'd been reading a fascinating history book and then discovered my own name in the index. I felt like I mattered in a way that I hadn't before."

But then came the heavy lifting. The family her father had left behind, many of whom lived in the South, and her relationship to those poor black communities that she had known of but never actually known, forced her to reassess everything she had once thought about herself. "I felt unsettled: I'd already experimented with describing myself as black on a few occasions and it hadn't gone over well."

The other white girl, Laing was born to two white Apartheid-supporting Afrikaaner parents in the small town of Piet Retief near the Swazi border. Her grandparents were also white. Blood tests proved she was her father's daughter. Yet Sandra emerged dark-skinned with afro hair - a black girl. And under the strict segregationist laws of Apartheid the fact that she had two white parents could only mean so much. Sandra was removed from her whites-only school and reclassified as "coloured".

Sandra's parents fought the reclassification hard. "Sandra has been brought up as a White," her father explained to the Rand Daily Mail. "She is darker than we are, but in every way she has always been a White person. If her appearance is due to some "coloured blood' in either of us, then it must be very far back among our forebears, and neither of us is aware of it. If this is, in fact, so, does it make our family any different from so many others in South Africa?"

Eventually Sandra would be reclassified as white. But in a country where segregation was rigid and nobody accepted her as white, this legalistic change was more than a technicality but less than an objective reality. Eventually she decided that since black people were prepared to accept her literally on face value while whites were not that she would reclassify herself back to coloured.

Two white girls in two nations founded in no small part on racial classification and segregation, discover that they are both in different ways black. These we might broadly agree are two marginal tales. In all likelihood we know relatively few people who have these racial experiences.

But for the purposes of this contribution, and I would argue this conference, they are instructive because they shine considerable light on how the relationship between the margins and the core is understood, misunderstood, assumed, accepted and all too often unacknowledged. There are 4 specific ways in which this plays out in society in general that are illustrated here that I want to dwell on in the rest of this talk.

First, that the margins in no small part define the core. They establish the boundaries within which the core can be understood. Without the margins there can be no core, just as without borders there can be no nation. The two concepts are not only inextricably linked – they are logically symbiotic. A lot was riding on Sandra Laing’s classification. Far from being a personal matter, her race becomes an affair of state. If she’s white who isn’t; if she’s black who’s family could be next? In a system founded on racial separation there has to be some clear distinction about where one ‘race’ starts and another one ends. Without it the entire social fabric starts to fray. Those distinctions, by definition, take place at the margins.

Second, the categories that we are working with when we talk about what constitutes the marginal as opposed to the core are almost never definite or often even definable. Both of these girls are both white and black. In ordinary conversation we assume we know what these terms mean. But since race has no basis in biology, geneaology, science or performance, we really don’t. As soon as we start to define most of the terms we commonly use in identity and culture things fall apart. South Africa’s Population Registration Act in 1950 defines a white person as “any person who in appearance obviously is or who is generally accepted as a white person, other than a person who, although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a Coloured person. Far from being water tight they are in fact incredibly porous. So while we have to work with the categories that exist we have we should never be under the illusion that those categories are not open to challenge.

Third, that what is categorised as marginal and what is understood to be core has, at its root, nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with power. There is a reason why Bliss Broyard’s father decided to cross the colour line or why the Laings wanted Sandra to remain on their side of it. The lines in question divided society into a life with or without resources, privilege and power – decisions are made at the core, consequences are felt at the margins. So en route from the margins to the mainstream are many gatekeepers – some official, others self- appointed – keen to stamp their imprimatur of authenticity and exact a price for entry. Oftentimes the line is determined in court. And somebody has to draw it. All too often what we insist is marginal has in fact simply been marginalised.

Fourth, and finally, that the relationship between the margins and the core is never settled but in constant flux. The categories we work with are not only not watertight, they are positively fluid. Identities and cultures are in a state of constant evolution, both within themselves and in relation to the other things. They change not just as a result of time and tide but as a result of struggles either within the margins and the core, between the margins and the core or usually both. In a post-Apartheid South Africa Sandra Laing could have harnessed her racial identity for affirmative action; while Anatole Broyard, who was raised in the segregated South, ran away from his blackness his daughter in a post-civil rights America could run towards it. What is marginal today could well be core tomorrow and vice versa.

The manner in which the core is defined by its margins is best illustrated by recent events in Israel where more than 40,000 people were told they were no longer Jewish with the stroke of a pen. The story starts on the margins. In 2008 a woman known as “Rachel”, an immigrant, who had been converted by Drukman went to file for divorce. The rabbinical judge asked her a few questions about her conversion and, evidently unimpressed, then probed her on her observance. Left with the impression that she did not observe the Sabbath or otherwise meet the standards he believed worthy of a Jewish convert, he ruled her conversion invalid. This also meant her marriage of the last 15 years had never been valid and that her children were no longer Jewish in the eyes of the Rabbinate either.

Rachel had been converted by Rabbit Chaim Drukman who became the head of the Israeli conversion court. When a three judge panel hear her appeal they decide not only to uphold it but to disqualify all the conversions performed by Drukman since 1999. In one fell sweep 40,000 people who were told they were Jewish were now no longer Jewish.

This is no small thing. Israel is a Jewish state. That is not just an incidental description but its deliberate intention. The express aim of its political class and popular culture is to keep it that way. So the question of who is deemed to be Jewish, by whom and on what basis is central to the nature of Israel’s existence. Indeed it is an affair of state. And how that question is defined in turn defines the state and its relationship to international Jewry. That definition takes place at the margins – the point at which someone may be included or excluded. But it is of the utmost importance tot he core. For what it means to be let inside is shaped to a large degree by what it takes to be left outside.

The truth is that relatively few Jews would have passed the tests for observance set down by the Rabbinate. In 2007, a poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that only 27% of Israeli Jews kept the Sabbath, while 53% said they do not keep it at all.

But if the core makes little sense without the margins, the efforts to definitively establish where those margins lie all too often produce nonsensical results also.

The Rabbinate’s, stiffer criteria for recognising conversions and acknowledging Jewish heritage would, according to one campaigner, exclude 80% of the American Jewish federation, the pillars of US Jewry, who run the country’s principal philanthropic and cultural organisations, would not qualify. "The problem I have is not proving that people are Jewish," explains Rabbi Shaul Farber, whose organisation itim helps Jews navigate the demands of the Rabbinate. "The problem is certifying that they are Jewish to a certain threshold. The trouble is the threshold keeps changing.”

Which brings us to the second point: that the definition of what constitutes inclusion in the margins as opposed to the core is invariably highly subjective and problematic. The lines we draw to categorise human difference are never straight and always blurred. Trying to make sense of human difference is a valiant and important effort. But just because we find words for things doesn’t necessarily mean we have found meaning for them.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”

Just a few examples. The French government's efforts to combat Islamic extremism by banning headscarves in schools were not triggered by girls whose fundamentalist parents made them cover up but by converts to Islam whose father is a Sephardic Jew who did not want them to wear it but respected their right to do so. Even those categories with which we are most familiar and most comfortable can prove less certain than most thought. The 800m women's world champion, South African Caster Semenya, had to undergo gender verification tests in 2009 to prove she was actually a woman. "If it's a natural thing and the athlete has always thought she's a woman or been a woman, it's not exactly cheating," explained a spokesman for the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Take Barack Obama. The son of a black immigrant from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii, he is commonly acknowledged to be the first African American president. But is he? True, his father is from Africa. But he’s Kenyan American. African American refers to the ethnicity of people who were taken from Africa as slaves. The reason they get a continent and everyone else gets a country – Italian-American, Japanese-American, Irish-American – is because African Americans cannot say with any certainty where their ancestors come from. During his 2004 Democratic convention speech that launched him to prominence he said his father came to America “A magical place.” Few African Americans thought America was magical in 1959.

But he’s black right? Well, it depends who you ask. A poll in 2008 showed that, after being told his parent's race and nationality more than half more than 75% of whites and 61% of Hispanics classified Obama as biracial, while two-thirds (66%) of blacks regarded him as black. Most of us here, I would hope, understand that race has been constructed in a certain way that makes some descriptions more feasible than others. But just because a description is viable does not make it rational.

And these definitions matter. In the past we have referred to Asian when we meant muslim, muslim where we meant Pakistani, urban when we meant black, black where we meant youth, Western where we meant European, British where we meant European or alternative where we meant gay - to name but a few.

A few years ago there was an intense debate over the fact that two-thirds of the black students admitted to Harvard - some of whom were beneficiaries of affirmative action - were the descendants of Caribbean or African immigrants as opposed to African-American slaves.

"You need a philosophical discussion about what are the aims of affirmative action," said Harvard sociology professor Mary Waters. "If it's about getting black faces at Harvard, then you're doing fine. If it's about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then you're not doing well. And if it's about having diversity, that includes African-Americans from the South or from inner-city high schools, then you're not doing well, either."

We should also recognise that we have multiple identities. We are many things at once and at all times we are also the same thing - ourselves. A black man, a white woman, a straight Sikh, a gay millionaire – in all sorts of ways it is possible for us to simultaneously occupy the core and the margins simultaneously.

One of the problems with diversity as it is currently understood is that it can often take precious little account of economic difference – an omission that leaves the white working class stranded without a sponsor. In the world of multi-culturalism, as it is often portrayed, they are assumed to have no culture. They are told their whiteness is a mark of power they have never felt and maybe lead to believe is a signifier for potential bigotry they may not harbour. Caught in a pincer between the battle for scarce resources and the battle for equality, he does not argue for more resources but against others getting the cut he has 'earned'. He experiences race and class not as identities but as a besieged grievance which the Right are only to happy to leverage for political gain.

The fact that we have a multitude of affiliations does not mean that certain identities might not come to the fore at certain moments but any attempt to diminish that multiplicity, or rank identities into some pre-ordained a definitive hierarchy will inevitably end in distortion. “We are the sum of the things we pretend to be,” wrote the late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut. “So we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

These complexities should neither paralyse nor petrify us, but simply make us aware that that any attempt to categorise the diversity of human experience is inevitably flawed even when it is necessary.

Two of the many principles that might help us navigate this complexity. First, everyone has the right to call themselves whatever they want. But, second, with this right comes at least one responsibility - that if you want your identity to have any broader relevance beyond yourself it must at least make sense and to make sense, in the words of philosopher, Anthony Appiah, “it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one's own choices."

Far from being neutral, these facts are rooted in material conditions that confer power and privilege in relation to one another. Which brings us to the third point. The means by which things are categorised as core or marginal is shaped by who has the resources and capacity to frame that discussion with all the limitations inherent and implied in that state of affairs. What masquerades as core is all too often simply “powerful”.

Any push for diversity that refuses to challenge that power structure is really not worthy of the name. We don’t need institutions that look different and behave the same. To create them is to mistake equal opportunities for photo opportunities.

There are two main problems with this. First, like most marketing ploys, it leaves many cynical and paves the way for a backlash. It exposes the few beneficiaries to charges of tokenism and its lack of integrity lends succour to those opponents of equal opportunities.

Second, it is of absolutely no use to those who are underrepresented to have the underlying reasons why some groups are not recruited, promoted or retained, left in tact, while a few identifiable faces are moved to more prominent places.

Such institutional cosmetics ill-disguise a social and pervasive mindset in which the margins are subject to relentless examination while the core coasts by with eternal presumption. Nobody ever asks: "when did you first realise you were straight?" or "how do you balance fatherhood and work?" “Only when the lions write history,” goes the African proverb. “Will the hunters cease to be the heroes.”

The hunters are still out there. Nowhere has this been more evident that in discussions about the position of Islam and muslims both in Britain in particular and Europe in general. In Britain, the emergence of "home-grown bombers" from the Muslim community has been mentioned as though this is a new development, when in fact we have been growing their own bombers for years. Indeed we have a whole evening dedicated to burning one - it's called Guy Fawkes night. Meanwhile the government has frowned upon Pakistani arranged marriages to foreigners while somehow forgetting that arranged marriage forms the basis for many British literary classics and that of the six British monarchs of the last century five married foreigners and most of those unions were arranged.

Following rioting by black and French-arab youth in France in 2007, Jacques Myard, a nationalist deputy, explained the disturbances thus. "The problem is not economic. The reality is not economic. The reality is that an anti-French ethno-cultural bias from a foreign society has taken root on French soil."

The French may need to import many things - from trashy popular films to fast food - but the one thing they have long produced themselves is a culture of riotous assembly. There is nothing foreign about rioting in France - the country was built on a riot.

All of which is to say that, for better and for worse, Muslims in Europe are far more European than many of their fellow Europeans care to admit. Given the colonial links, the prevalence of Western culture in the global arena and the power of the Western economy this should really come as no surprise. For many it is the only place they know. And yet in Britain each time a terror cell is found the media gasp at the discovery that the bombers or potential bombers played cricket, worked in chip shops and supported Manchester United.

So those who exist at the margins have little option but to be aware of their marginality; those who occupy the centre have the luxury of assuming that if people are not aware of their experiences, at the very least they should be.

"When you're my size and not being tormented by elevator buttons, water fountains and ATMs you spend your life accommodating the sensibilities of 'normal people'," says Cady Roth, the protagonist of restricted growth, from Armistead Maupin's novel, Maybe the Moon. "You learn to bury your own feelings and honour theirs in the hope that they'll meet you halfway. It becomes your job, and yours alone, to explain, to ignore, to forgive - over and over again. There's no way you can get around this. You do it if you want to have a life and not spend it being corroded by your own anger. You do it if you want to belong to the human race."

But all too often those at the core do not see the need to meet people halfway and thereby fail to recognise that everyone else is doing all the travelling. For them, being at the core is an objective position in itself. It lends them not a perspective but an orthodoxy in which every food with which they are unfamiliar is 'ethnic food' and every month is their history month.

“Every human being at every stage of history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society,” argued noted historian E.H.Carr. “Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others. His first words come to him from others. The individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless.”

Denial in this regard raises two crucial problems. First, that those at the core are likely to remain cripplingly unaware of their bias. Second, the inability to recognise and interrogate one’s own perspective paves the way for their experiences to be evoked not as an identity but as a grievance. The only political force prepared to talk about whiteness in Britain is the BNP; similarly it is left to the fox hunters to defend the countryside; and the Daily Mail to talk about Middle England. Each, in their own way, will evoke the threat of marginalisation as a pretext to build a fortress around the core.

This sense of siege usually demands a bespoke reality. Every victim needs an aggressor; every aggressor has a tool of oppression. And in the event that these do not exist they must be invented. In this case the aggressor is usually the "liberal establishment" and their instrument of social control is “political correctness”.

Given the rightward shift in politics and economics over the last 30 years it is difficult to work out quite where this establishment resides. Finding a working definition of political correctness is not easy, which gives it the added benefit of meaning anything you want it to mean so long as you don't like it.

In the space of one month in 2006 "political correctness" was used in the British press on average 10 times a day - twice as frequently as "Islamophobia", three times as often "homophobia" and four times as often as "sexism". During that period it referred to the ill-treatment of rabbits, the teaching of Gaelic, Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito, a flower show in Paris and the naming of the Mazda3 MPS.

But what they are generally actually complaining about are constraints on their rights to be offensive and insensitive without consequence. In the past racially offensive remarks, comments about your female colleague's breasts or "spastic" jokes were considered part and parcel of daily banter both in and outside the workplace. Now they are not. We have abandoned them for the same reason we no longer burn witches at the stake or stick orphaned children in the poor house. We have moved on. Values change, societies develop and their language and behaviour evolves with them. That's not political correctness but social and political progress. It was not imposed by liberal diktat, but established by civic consensus.

Which brings us to my final point. That the relationship between the margins and the core are in constant flux. And while specific changes have to be assessed on their merits, opposition to the very idea of change is untenable since it would be contingent on peoples’ lives, capacities and aspirations standing still.

“Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories” argues Stuart Hall. “But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous “play of history, culture and power.”

Precisely when and how these shifts in people and societies happen is often difficult to fathom. It could be a century, a generation or – if we think about how America changed after 9/11 – a day. But even those single events do not appear out of a clear blue sky. More often than not when identities change are the product of organic processes that shift the plates of ingrained prejudice, institutional power, popular presumption, orthodoxy and common sense over time at such a glacial pace that we barely notice them until they have changed form entirely.

While time may be facilitate change it cannot do it by itself. The principal reason why the relationship between the core and the margins change is because people make it change. There will always be those who are resistant to these changes, not on their merits but in principle. But in order to enforce their worldview they must perform three solipsistic maneuvers.

First they must distort history. For if something is essentially unchanging then it must be the same now as it ever was. Second, they must quash all speculation about their future – for if it is essentially unchanging then it can never be different.

Both of these stances come together in arguments against gay marriage. As Andrew Sullivan argued in The New Republic: "If marriage were the same today as it has been for 2,000 years, it would be possible to marry a 12-year-old old you had never met, to own a wife as property and dispose of her at will or to imprison a person who married someone of a difference race. And it would be impossible to get a divorce."

Third they must ignore all the other changes that happen around them. One of the reasons that opinions about gay lifestyles have changed is because views on straight lifestyles have undergone a radical shift also. Between the 1950's and today divorce rates more than doubled in the US and the age at which people got married climbed nearer 30 than 20. Meanwhile between the sixties and 2005 the percentage of births to unmarried women increased seven-fold. In a world where people do not stay married, feel the need to get married to have children and or have children when they are married, the link between marriage and procreation and sanctity and fidelity are at least tenuated and for the most part completely broken. Such is the defence of “tradition”. Not to make an argument but simply repeat a fact.

So to conclude, there is an inherent tension in the relationship between the margins and the core. How could there not be? It is a tension in part shaped by a battle for definition and in part by a struggle for resources. A strain between who we are and what we need. Power, resources and opportunity are in play in how we choose to understand (or misunderstand) the value of ourselves and others.

There is little to be gained by fetishising that tension. First of all if managed in the right way it can be extremely creative. Insensitivity never achieved much. Baiting, ridiculing and humiliating are poor substitutes for satire, irony and humour although they often masquerade as such. When they are employed by the powerful against the powerless it is not clever but cowardly.

But oversensitivity never achieved much either. Not every nuance, challenge, wordplay and ignorance is a slight; not every slight is worthy of escalating into an incident; not every provocation need be indulged. Just because someone claims marginality does not mean they have to be believed or that they cannot also have power at the core. Identity is a crucial place to start, it is a terrible place to finish.

But there is little to be gained by ignoring it either. The relationship between the two is not only symbiotic but unresolved. While there is great opportunity for anxiety in this there is also the potential for creativity is no less great. Pretending that power relationships are not there does not make them go away; it simply means you refuse to see them. I have a three year old. When his friends’ parents tell me that their child doesn’t see skin colour I usually tell them to get their kid’s eyes tested. In all sorts of ways our differences make a difference; and in any case it is not the difference that is a problem. It’s what people choose to make of that difference.

The journey between the margins and the core is one that most of humanity makes every day – be it geographically, culturally, linguistically or politically. Whether it’s a white middle class kid listening to hip hop or an immigrant worker coming into central London to clean offices. The best we can do is travel from A to B safely and intelligently, with due regard for our fellow passengers, in the knowledge that without A there would be no B and that neither A nor B will necessarily be in the same place when we come to make the return trip.

Post Comment
Thank you! Your comment is awaiting moderation.