Campus & Community

When does racism begin?

6 min read

At Radcliffe, Yale scholar talks about Great Britiain and ‘brown babies’

World War II, with its influx of multiracial colonial volunteers and billeted American troops, was the caldron that created Great Britain as a state in which race became an instrument of policy and a tool of cultural division.

That’s the thesis brought to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Nov. 2 by Hazel V. Carby, a Yale University scholar of race, gender, and literature. The war, she said, prompted the emergence of Britain “as a modern racialized state.”

Many cultural historians use another, later, date to describe the turning point in British race relations. On June 21, 1948, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, a port on the Thames River east of London. On board were 492 Jamaican immigrants – whose widely publicized arrival came to represent an iconic moment, the beginning of a multicultural postwar Britain.

Next in the 2006-2007 Dean’s Lecture Series, at 4 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium, will be ‘A Field Guide to Sprawl: How to Read Everyday American Landscapes,’ a lecture on suburban landscapes between 1820 and 2000 by Yale professor Dolores Hayden.

A list of events at Radcliffe

As anti-immigration sentiment increased in post-war Britain, said Carby, “the name ‘Windrush’ was derided as a powerful image of the origin of Britain’s ‘racial problems’ – an invasion of the British body politic.”

In the late 1940s, the same negative feelings against black immigrants were accelerated by Britain’s demise as a colonial power, she said, and its diminishing potency on the world stage.

But Carby – the daughter of a Jamaican Royal Air Force veteran and the Welsh woman he met during the war – said the deepening cultural enmity toward people of color happened earlier. “It had its roots in war,” she said.

To challenge the iconic importance of the immigrant ship, Carby goes seven years further back, a time of “racialized responses of sectors of the British government to the presence of black civilian and military personnel,” she said.

Mobilized British women and mobilized men from the colonies collided sexually on British soil, creating “the problem of half-caste children,” said Carby, whose lecture before an audience of 75 was titled “Brown Babies.”

The first wave numbered only 12,500 volunteers – most of them from Jamaica – who converged on Britain to join the RAF, work in munitions factories, or – improbably – to be foresters in Scotland.

But starting in 1942, the real challenge arrived with the first of what were eventually to be 3 million American troops – 130,000 of them African-American.

The British responded with a series of measures, most of them covert, to control the influx of non-white soldiers. From those policies, said Carby, “we can trace the emergence of the U.K. as a modernized racialized state.”

As early as February 1941, recruitment of colonial civilians from the Caribbean was accompanied by discussions of limiting their terms of employment as a way to get them back as soon as possible after the war. One memo from the colonial office even suggested “African peoples” be sent back to West Africa.

A year later, the British government started lobbying the United States to limit the number of black troops it sent over, “asking for the maximum number of white engineering regiments.”

British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden suggested to the American ambassador that “the British climate is badly suited to negroes.”

Americans resisted any strictures, and exclusion was impossible. But subtler controls were instituted, with the America military cooperating. One example: White and black soldiers were given leave on alternating days.

In Britain during World War II, black American units were for a time quarantined on base, and then eventually confined to separate rooms in pubs and separate blocks of seats at theaters. Dances and other events were ‘by organization’ – a means of de facto segregation, since units were racially separate.

In Britain’s West Country, where Carby grew up, racial separation became overt. Black American units were for a time quarantined on base, and then eventually confined to separate rooms in pubs and separate blocks of seats at theaters. Dances and other events were “by organization” – a means of de facto segregation, since units were racially separate.

Carby described “a frantic exchange of covert memos…and wrangling among ministries …about the social management and control of white and black bodies.”

Officially, the British armed forces were still opposed to segregation, and blamed any overt racism on imported American culture.

But a different reality simmered underneath. By August of 1942, one British commander published a memo that drew a clear line in the racial sand. Women were forbidden to go out with black troops, who were described as “of simple mental outlook” and lacking “the white man’s ability to think and act to a plan.”

In 1943, when Carby’s Jamaican father arrived in Britain from RAF training in Canada, he and other black airmen were shown “in meticulous detail,” she said, how to use the showers, washbasins, and toilets.

By January 1944, the British Women’s Territorial Auxiliary forbade women to speak with black troops except in the presence of a white person. Local constabularies chimed in, stretching local laws to arrest or report white women caught with black troops. Some were fined for damaging crops while lying down in fields with their lovers.

As early as 1942, the British Colonial office worried “what the future population of the nation would look like” in the face of a sexual invasion by black soldiers.

By 1947, orphans of mixed race probably numbered in the hundreds, but the numbers were regularly inflated. “The lonely piccaninny” became a staple of the popular press, said Carby. It was an image that hid deeper fears of British cultural identity, and anxiety over a disappearing empire. Showing one tabloid image, Carby said, “A British subject is what this piccaninny is not.”

In the end, she said, it was this war-induced “homegrown composite racial consciousness … that gave the English national culture its character, its meaning, its substance, and its resonance.”

Homi Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center, introduced Carby, whose work he called a robust confrontation with “intellectual pieties and scholarly orthodoxies.”

Bhabha also praised the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, for interdisciplinary lectures and workshops that give the Harvard community “a space of conversation and collaboration.”