London Calling: Paul Gilroy, Dick Hebdige, and British Multiculturalism


Black man gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick

White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own

– “White Riot” by the Clash

The winds of imperialism blow two ways. While we often focus on the impact of the colonizer on the colonized, in recent years, more and more writers have begun to also consider what colonialism has meant for imperialists on the domestic front.   Few places provide a window into this reciprocity than 1970s London.  Postwar immigration from former colonies to Britain resulted in an increasingly diverse London populace, but one not devoid of racial and ethnic tensions.  By the late 1970s, the nation’s first generation of British born blacks had come of age and looked to claim a larger stake in the public sphere and society more generally.   While the prevalence of the island nation’s West Indian U.K. citizens deeply impacted British political life, it also reshaped identities for many whites leading to new societal archetypes, subcultures, music, and style.

Forging White Identities in a Multicultural Space

In his 1979 work, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige documented the pervasive influence of West Indian culture on British youth. During the 1960s, the close proximity of West Indian and working class white communities led to increased interaction between the groups.  Ironically, this cultural diffusion enabled white working class youth to navigate their own paths to identity through two of the most prominent youth subcultures to emerge in the period: Mods and Skinheads.


Mods aimed for a subtle look that favored an “upwardly mobile” attitude and drew on “emotional affinity with black people” in the U.K. and the U.S.   Their style absorbed influences from soul singers like Tony Clarke or James Brown and Jamaican ska like Prince Buster. “In the midst of all this frantic activity,” wrote Hebdige, “the Black man was a constant, serving symbolically as a dark passage down into an ‘imagined underworld … situated beneath the familiar surfaces of life’ where another order was disclosed: a beautifully intricate system in which the values, norms, and conventions of the ‘straight’ world were inverted.” Black culture existed as a magical other that enabled white Britons to evade rules, bend situations to their own purposes, and construct their own lexicon that obscured as much as it dazzled. “[The Black man] could inhabit a structure, even alter its shape without ever once owning it, and throughout the mid-1960s he provided the hidden inspiration stimulus (‘outta sight’ in the words of James Brown) for the whole mod style,” Hebdige pointed out.

In contrast to their more hipster counterparts, skinheads too adopted their identity via British Black culture, but expressed a much different set of ideas in their stylistic appropriations. Drawing on two seemingly irreconcilable sources, the cultures of white working class and West Indian immigrant communities, skinheads sought to the explore their connection to the lumpen proletariat, in the process presenting an idealized image of the traditional white working class Britain that stood in contrast to the mixed race ghettos of their present.   The values embedded in reggae music – such as an expressed parochialism that protected against the hostility of dominant ideologies or culture and protest over racial exclusion – paralleled those of the British white working class. “Its rituals, language and style provided models for those white youths alienated from the parent culture by the imagined compromises of the post war years,” noted Hebdige. By doing so, he argues, Skinheads alleviated the tension between “an experienced present (the mixed ghetto) and an imaginary past (the classic white slum) by initiating a dialogue which reconstituted each in terms of the other.”


Regrettably, Hebdige admits white-black alliances in this period rested on precarious grounds and in these early years, tensions could be resolved by identifying “others” to target for violence. Scapegoating homosexuals, hippies, and Asians – most notably Pakastanis, notes Hebdige – relieved internal pressures: “Every time the boot went in, a contradiction was concealed, glossed over and made to ‘disappear.’”  However, by the 1970s with economic struggles, post imperial malaise, the decline of working class institutions, and an ideological shift within reggae emphasizing racial themes and often Rastafarianism, skinheads gradually receded from the scene. A 1972 riot in which skinheads joined other white residents in attacking second generation immigrants living in the Toxtech area of Liverpool proved the symbolic break, as the “basic contradictions” inherent in the skinhead movement exploded.

White Riot, Black Inspiration


Few bands of this period captured the diverse sounds and tensions of 1970s post imperial London than the Clash. When the band dropped the 1977 song “White Riot” as its first single (in the U.K.) from its debut album, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon (or Terry Chimes depending on one’s timeline), submitted a symbolic call to arms inspired by the frustrations of Britain’s black population. While attending the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, a tradition started in the 1950s by West Indian immigrants, Strummer and Simonon witnessed first hand and participated in spontaneous protests against police brutality.   “This was one time people went we’ve had enough and we’re going to say so now,” remembered Strummer. “We participated in the riot but I was aware the whole time it was a black people’s riot, . . . they had more of an ax to grind and they had the guts to something physical about it.” Obviously, West Indian culture deeply influenced the band politically but also musically and aesthetically; Strummer, Jones, and Simonon borrowed from the visual imagery and sounds produced by artists like Big Youth and albums like Screaming Target. Therefore, the Clash, in some ways like the Police that followed them years later, infused their sound with reggae, but unlike skinheads or mods, seemed to realize that reggae itself could never truly be theirs.  “When I was seventeen I started wondering about, well this isn’t really my story, even though in one way it was because it was my background,” bassist Paul Simonon told interviewers in the 2007. Of course this didn’t stop them from covering “Police and Thieves,” a move even Strummer worried might get catch them flack from the very musical and cultural communities they hoped to pay respect. Luckily, Strummer told documentarians that Britain’s West Indian musicians “were hip enough to realize we had brought our own music to the party.” In 1978’s “Whiteman in Hammersmith Palais,” the band furthered their calls for unity to a noticeable punk-reggae beat: White youth, black youth/betta find another solution/Why not phone up Robin Hood/and ask him for some wealth distribution?”  Later the Clash would absorb the musical influences of New York’s black and brown peoples with the release of the epic (if admittedly awkward by today’s standards) “Magnificent Seven.”

21st Century Multicultural Britain

Notting Hill Carnival in recent years

Though perhaps not fully integrated politically and socially, West Indian British no longer represented the cultural threat that whites perceived decades ago.  In recent years, South Asian immigrants and Polish plumbers have come to haunt the British mindset more so than its West Indian population. For many immigrants to the UK (though obviously not Poles in this case), Islamaphobia plays no small role in these developments. Poles, Iraqis, Pakistanis and other asylum seekers, one Ipswich resident told the Economist recently might be industrious, “Fair Play to them, they’re hard workers,” but they took jobs from the native born, mooched from the dole, and threatened the future of Britain’s children.  Prime Minister David Cameron, sounding a lot like political leaders in America, warned immigrants: “’You put into Britain, you don’t just take out.’”  Though Britain is surely a less xenophobic place than its 1970s ancestor, twenty first century multiculturalism continues to bedevil British sensibilities especially when one considers, as the Economist did, that newcomers use public services less than the native born and have always been hard workers.  “In short, these are not rational arguments,” the periodical concluded. “They are proxy fears – expressing the uncertainties of a town where, until a few decades ago, three quarters of the workforce had a stable factory job and family, and life was more predictable than it is today.”  Proxy fears they may be, but they have an impact.  As an island nation, Britain’s expansive worldview has always been balanced by a “neuralgic fear of foreign influence”; economic woe and uncertainty have simply ratcheted up concerns.  A recent YouGov poll, reported that nearly 70% of respondents supported reducing net immigration to zero.  So how does Britain negotiate its increasing diversity?

“[T]he feral beauty of post colonial culture, literature, and art of all kinds is already contributing to the making of new European cultures,” noted famed writer Paul Gilory in his 2005 work, Post Colonial Melancholia.  However, art alone lacks the ability to sublimate resurgent xenophobic nationalism and neo-fascism. “We need to be able to see how the presence of strangers, aliens, and blacks and the distinctive dynamics of Europe’s imperial history,” argues Gilroy, “have combined to shape its cultural and political habits, and institutions.” While acknowledging many of the faults of multiculturalism, Gilroy attempts to resurrect the concept but with a new perspective.  Understanding multiracial/ethnic societies in the context of Britain’s imperial and colonial past remains the key to an effective multiculturalism.  Much as Lisa Lowe connected Asian American culture and immigration with American interventions in Southeast and Far East Asia, Gilroy connects domestic conceptions of race, racism, immigrants, and national identity to U.K.’s long imperial reach in South Asia, the West Indies, and elsewhere.  British imperialism surely affected immigrants from former colonies, but as previously noted, U.K. born citizens were also influenced.  In Post Colonial Melancholia, Gilroy promotes attention to the “histories of sufferings” that might better “furnish the resources for the peaceful accommodation of otherness in relation to fundamental commonality.” Gilroy’s tact results in part from his concerns over the failure of Britain to highlight or even explain its post colonial conflicts. The near worship of WWII era Britain obscures these realities and fails to account for the changes that have developed within Britain socially and politically.


Gilroy, whose work The Black Atlantic (not to mention There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack) addresses similar themes, utilizes a wide variety of philosophical, historical, and cultural authors/works ranging from Franz Fanon, W.E.B DuBois, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt to Nick Hornsby, Ali G, and “The Office”. As with works by Derrida and Thomas Bender, Gilroy promotes the idea of cosmopolitanism as one way to envision new conceptions of membership and identity. To a great extent, Postcolonial Melancholia explores the meanings and implications of this cosmopolitanism and suggests that at its source, cosmopolitanism “finds civic and ethical value in the process of exposure to otherness.”  The critical turn lay in valuing both difference as a rewarding and enriching experience that not only results in greater knowledge about the world outside one’s home but also one’s own identity or self-knowledge. In the 1970s, mods, skinheads, and yes, the Clash, all derived greater self understanding, even if problematic, in relation to West Indian culture.

For Gilroy culture has been deployed too often in an attempt to explain difference and division rather than unity or commonality. Writers such as Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations) and political figures such as Slobodan Milosevic and Osama bin Laden among others harness this “absolute culture” such that it does not necessarily confine itself to racial parameters like white supremacy, but continues to marginalize difference. With that said, these individuals did not invent this idea; rather it was during “the bloody penumbra of the Third Reich, that innocent culture took over from raw natural hierarchy as the favored medium through which racial differences would become apparent as common sense.”

From Paul Gilroy’s Black Britain; the NYT described it as photo journalism meets social history

In terms of race, Gilroy undoubtedly believes in its continued existence but he encourages scholars to adjust their ideas of this force with the new realities of the day: “This … requires seeing ‘race’ as moral as well as political and analyzing it as part of a cosmopolitan understanding of the damage that racisms are still doing to democracy.” Gilroy takes society to task for lacking the political imagination to escape a “defensive solidarity” when thinking about and discussing race as people too often focus on minor differences, failing to “see beyond reified and alienated racial categories” as some individuals utilize this as a badge of pride. Gilroy points to both the more obvious examples in history, but also the historical antecedents that contributed to the growth of antiracism movements of Pan Africanism and beyond. Edward Said famously worried about similar tendencies in anti-colonial nationalist movements, believing many resorted to an essentialism that curdled into nativism. “To accept nativism is to accept the consequences of imperialism, the racial, religious, and political divisions imposed by imperialism itself,” Said noted in 1997.

Gilroy spares little criticism of globalization and the “humanitarian” efforts of Britain’s government. Tropes about globalization focus too intently on economic development, ignoring the violence that Gilroy believes accompanies it. Likewise, Gilroy attacks the language of humanitarianism employed by Tony Blair and other Western powers as a refracted vision of previous imperial formulations.

Though Gilroy embraces the idea of cosmopolitanism, he argues that the “meaning and ambition of the term  . . . has been hijacked and diminished by these changes.” While human rights remain an acknowledged positive, the “discourse of human rights supplies the principal way in which this shared human nature can be made accessible to political debate and legal rationality.” For Gilroy this outcome remains stuck in ethnocentrism since the West’s decision to invest in the concept undermined its universalism.  Contemporary human rights debates operate as a reference not to understanding and valuing difference but as an “elaboration of a supranational system of regulation that opposes or contains the nation state from above.”  Moral sensibilities constructed around terms like cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism promote and justify interventions into sovereign territory on the basis of the belief that an ailing or incompetent nation state failed to measure up to Western standards of good practice, thereby abdicating their own civilized status. In the imperial age, Britain used their own interventions as a marker of their own civilization, especially in comparison with the imperial projects of their continental counterparts. Likewise, modern variants like “Blair’s moralism” accomplish a similar task.

Admittedly, while Gilroy’s admonitions are well taken, writers like Samantha Powers have illustrated that at times in the twentieth century, respect for national sovereignty was used as a device to deflect responsibility for preventing genocide in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia.   As demonstrated repeatedly in the twentieth century, reluctance to intervene in clear cases with genocidal intent from the Armenian Genocide of WWI, to the Holocaust of WWII, to the massacres of the Khmer Rouge – who regrettably came to power in part as a result of illegal U.S. bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War – to more recent examples like Rwanda resulted in brutal ethnic-based massacres.  Gilroy correctly notes the long history of imperialism in deploying “benevolent discourses” to justify brutal occupations, but there are also moments when interventions along these principles might very well have been better than the outcome.

White Chapel Mosque, East London
White Chapel Mosque, East London

Returning to domestic British politics, Gilroy draws the reader’s attention to the figure of the newcomer. The body of the immigrant serves as the new center of attention, representing the reach of imperial Britain but also its failures. Hebdige points out that the disappointment of Britain’s second wave of West Indian immigrants in the 1960s led to a stylistic expression of their disillusion at great variance with earlier arrivals, which had adopted more conservative dress and politics. Though discriminated against, this first wave often came with more skills, thereby grabbing a better foothold in Britain’s working class. Fewer economic opportunities, especially for a second wave that included greater numbers of unskilled workers than its predecessor, denuded working class institutions, and institutional racism made for a dodgy socio-economic reality for much of the U.K.’s working class. So Britain’s promise clearly disappointed both its newest arrivals and its native born, a situation perfectly designed for conflict. For many, Gilroy argues, immigrants serve as an unwanted reminder of post imperialism. “They project it into the unhappy consciousness of their fearful and anxious hosts and neighbors,” notes Gilroy. “Indeed, the incomers may be unwanted and feared … because they are the unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past.”

As with American examples, too often observers treat racism as an individual act rather than the culmination of institutional processes that perpetuate inequalities. Gilroy points to reactions over the McPherson Report, which attempted to address racist practices within London’s police force.  The report discouraged overtly racist violence/acts but did not do enough to erode institutional discrimination. Larger societal fascination with Neo-Nazis draw attention away from more insidious threats like the collared politician who masks his or her racism (or possibly in David Cameron’s example, xenophobia) more benignly. Even worse, globalization’s opponents have found utility in critiquing its multicultural foundations. What once may have seen as racist or exclusionary now emerges as a heroic populist defense of “national culture.” Gilroy’s description of these individuals sounds very similar to the nonsense spouted by Lou Dobbs or Pat Buchanaan:

“Arranged reverently around national flagpoles, the mean spirited people who only a short time before sounded like unreconstructed nativist, racists, and ultranationalists, and neo-Fascists turn out instead to be postmodern patriots and anxious, pragmatic liberals eager to be insulated from the chill of globalization by the warm glow of cosmopolitan imperialism, bolstered by newly invented cultural homogeneity.”

Interestingly, though Gilroy mounts a defense of maligned multiculturalism, he draws upon many of the arguments wielded by critics of the concept. If Lowe savages multiculturalism for papering over inequalities and obscuring real and problematic truths about America’s imperial history, Gilroy agrees but suggests by highlighting and engaging with such a past openly, multiculturalism might work. In essence, Lowe provides the blueprint for deconstructing these edifices, while Gilroy wants to use the same to reconstruct them more equitably.  Ultimately, scholars and others must avoid reifying race or ethnic identity while taking “the divisive, dehumanizing power of race thinking more seriously than in the past.” Race needs to be identified as a “web of discourse,” and understood in this context. Moreover, the “fascination with the figure of the migrant must be made part of Europe’s history rather than its contemporary geography.” For Gilroy, “modern racism” must be a central consideration at the heart of today’s political, social, and economic landscape.  Without this, British multiculturalism doesn’t stand a chance.