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The real history of race: interview with author and humanist Kenan Malik

Ahead of his upcoming Holyoake Lecture in Manchester on 16 November, we sat down with our patron and 2022 Holyoake Medallist, the writer Kenan Malik, to discuss the timely themes of his upcoming talk.


Hi Kenan! Your new book, Not So Black and White, and this lecture, take a close look at the origins of racism, racial identity politics, and our modern ‘culture wars’. What shortcomings do you see in contemporary debates to do with race and identity?

We live in an age in which, in most societies, there is a moral abhorrence of racism, albeit that in most, bigotry and discrimination still disfigure the lives of many. We also live in an age in which our thinking is saturated with racial ideology and the embrace of difference. The more we despise racial thinking, the more we seem to cling to it. Part of what I want to do in the Holyoake Lecture, and what I try to do in my book, is to address this paradox. And to do so by placing contemporary debates in their historical contexts.

We live in a time saturated by history, and by debates about history, but saturated, too, by historical amnesia. We think of identity politics as a modern phenomenon, and one that is linked with the left. In fact, the origins of identity politics in the late eighteenth century lie with the reactionary right. The first form of modern identity politics emerged with the concept of race. The concept of a ‘racial type’ as it developed through the nineteenth century was of a group of people linked by a set of fundamental characteristics and differing from other types by virtue of those attributes. These included not just mental and physical traits, but also social needs, aspirations, and values. One’s being – one’s identity – determined one’s moral and social place in the world. Here was the original politics of identity, though, of course, it was never labelled as such.

We also think of racism as the result of members of one race discriminating against members of another; that racism is what develops when races collide. Our tendency to categorise people by race, and to infer different qualities in different races, has led, so many argue, to racial inequality.

In fact, the opposite is the case. Race did not give birth to racism. Racism gave birth to race. It is not racial differences that have led to unequal treatment but the persistence of social inequalities in societies with a commitment to equality that has led many to view such inequalities as ineradicable, and hence natural, and to place people into different racial categories. Intellectuals and elites began dividing the world into distinct races to explain and justify the differential treatment of certain peoples. The ancestors of today’s African Americans were not enslaved because they were black. They were eventually deemed to be racially distinct, as black people, to justify their enslavement.

What made such justification necessary was that from the eighteenth century onwards, America and many European nations, most notably France and Britain, began to define themselves by their attachment to equality and liberty. In practice, though, their policies denied both to much of the population. ‘Race’ became the means to bridge that contradiction, the insistence that certain people were by nature different and unequal and not deserving of liberty and equality. It wasn’t so much that race was deliberately created to perform such a role, but rather that as social inequalities and divisions were maintained, indeed often deepened, in societies that had proclaimed their fidelity to equality, so those inequalities and divisions presented themselves as if they were natural, racial.

Today, we also think about race primarily in terms of skin colour or of continent of origin (‘black’, ‘white’, ‘Asian’, and so on). But that was not how nineteenth-century thinkers imagined race which, for them, was a description of social inequality, not just of skin colour. Certainly, they saw blacks and whites and Asians as distinct races. But they also often saw labourers and farmhands in the same way. It may be difficult to comprehend now, but nineteenth-century thinkers looked upon the working class as a racial group, physically and anthropologically distinct from the rest of society, in much the same way as many now view black people as racially dissimilar to whites.

Understanding the real history of race is important not just as an intellectual exercise but also because it challenges many of the ways in which we think about race, racism, and identity today.

You’ve touched on this topic before – including in The Meaning of Race in 1996. If we take for granted that ‘race’ has no grounding in science, why do you think the idea of race is so enduring in societies, along with racism? 

The concept of race emerged for social, not for scientific, reasons. Science became a means of legitimising racial thinking rather than of establishing it.

The issue of race is not simply a matter skin colour or discrimination. It is, rather, a medium through which many of the conundrums of modernity have come to be understood. Most importantly, as I have suggested, it helped make sense of, and provided a justification for, the persistence of inequalities and enslavement in societies that had proclaimed their fidelity to equality. But more than that, the question of race has become a means through which to understand what it is to be human, how we relate to each other, what constitutes a human group, what defines our identity, in what ways human groups are similar but different.

The understanding of the relationship between human differences and human commonalities is often discussed through the link between the ‘particular’ and the ‘universal’, between local, bounded identities and a broader sense of communality and humanity. In reality, human beings live neither in the ‘particular’ nor in the ‘universal’. All humans define themselves both through their many immediate, rooted identities – a woman, an engineer, a Parisian, a Jew, an FC Barcelona fan, a devourer of Satyajit Ray films – and in terms of more universal aspirations. Those aspirations are framed by the character of politics and of social engagement. Humanity manifests itself in concrete local forms and these are the starting points in understanding the more abstract concept of human universality.

Equally, it is the more universal sense of being human that gives our local rooted identities context and meaning. What links the particular and the universal is the conscious activity through which humans make and remake their world, through politics and art and social struggles. These allow us to transcend our immediate, local identities and to reach out and discover more universal forms of our humanness, not as abstract beliefs but in concrete expressions of empathy and solidarity.

From the Haitian Revolution to the Grunwick strike, from the suffragette movement to the anti-apartheid struggle, from hosting Ukrainian refugees to campaigning for the Uyghurs in China, our engagement with the world allows us to move beyond our immediate concerns and to place those concerns in a more expansive, more universal context. The opposite is also true: when politics seems frayed and social movements have disintegrated, the link between the local and the global, between the particular and the universal, becomes strained, even broken.

And that is what has happened over the past few decades. The disintegration of labour movement organisations and of radical struggles, the demise of radical universalist traditions, has detached the relationship between the particular and the universal, between the local and the global.

As hopes for social change have eroded, so many have been led to hunker down in their separate laagers; and the more one hunkers down, the more the laager becomes the only way through which to perceive the world, the more that one’s race or identity looms ever larger in one’s consciousness.

You were one of the most outspoken and articulate defenders of Salman Rushdie in the early 1990s when it seemed like many people in the literary world and in politics, at that time, went quiet. Two months on from the savage attack on Salman in New York, what are your thoughts on how the public and the media have reacted? Were you surprised in any way?

What was particularly shocking about the attack is not just its savagery but also the fact that Rushdie had seemed to have triumphed over the malevolence of the fatwa, and able to live a relatively open life. The attack led to considerable support from around the world. That support was very welcome. At the same time, we also need to appreciate the degree to which attitudes to free speech have changed since the fatwa in 1989, and not necessarily for the better.

The Rushdie affair was a watershed. Many of the issues that it raised – the nature of Islam, and its relationship to the West, the meaning of multiculturalism, the boundaries of tolerance in a liberal society – would become some of the defining issues of the age.

In the wake of the Rushdie affair, many commentators began questioning whether Western liberal democracies could accommodate Muslims, and hostility to Muslims grew apace. The idea of the ‘clash of civilizations’ became more embedded, the very presence of Muslims being seen by many as incompatible with Western values; a worldview, ironically, mirroring that of Islamists.

Attitudes to free speech were also transformed. ‘Self-censorship’, the Muslim philosopher and spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques Shabbir Akhtar claimed at the height of the Rushdie affair, ‘is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.’

Increasingly, politicians and policy makers, publishers and directors, liberals and conservatives, have come to agree. In the post-Rushdie world, it has become accepted that it is morally wrong to give offence to other cultures and belief-systems. For plural societies to function and to be fair, many argue, we need to restrict what we say about, and to, each other. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’

In many ways, Rushdie’s critics lost the battle, but won the war. The Satanic Verses continues to be published. Yet the argument that it is morally wrong to offend other peoples and cultures has become widely accepted. In many ways, the fatwa has become internalised.

What advice would you give to a concerned humanist who wants to challenge racism, live by anti-racist ideals, and advance equality for everyone?

There is no direct relationship between humanism and attitudes to race, racism, or identity. There are humanists who believe in racial categorization and those who don’t. There are humanists who are racist and those who are antiracist. There are humanist identitarians and those who are opposed to the politics of identity. And much the same is true of religious believers.

What humanism gives us is the ability to think through these issues without needing to fall back on a supposed external adjudicator or reference point such as God. The arguments I put forward as to how to challenge racism, what antiracist ideals mean and how to advance equality are all fiercely contested. And that’s how it should be. For it is only through such contestation that we are able to advance the ways in which we think about these issues.


Book your tickets now to see Kenan Malik deliver his Holyoake Lecture, Towards a humanist politics, in Manchester on 16 November.

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