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Race and the Cultural Industries



Preface and Acknowledgements

As I was writing this book, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Five months later, Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Both the ‘Brexit’ and the Trump campaigns were controversial in their tactics, and in their loose use of ‘facts’ in particular. But what they have strongly in common is that they both exploited strong racial discourses that have intensified in their circulation in and around Western nation-states – the threat of terrorism, the crisis of multiculturalism, the ‘swarms’ of refugees and immigrants flooding the nation, black lives and deaths, and a fundamental sense of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. Living in a multicultural country like the UK, I believe there to be a huge disconnect between people’s actual experience of multiculture – which is mostly undramatic, mundane and indeed, ordinary – and their overall attitudes to others of a different hue, captured in the two aforementioned election victories for the populist right. While anti-immigrant sentiment can be explained in terms of economic inequalities (where racism is regarded as a form of scapegoating during times of scarcity), this focus can neglect the profound role the media has in shaping society’s attitudes to race (including those of the haves as well as of the have-nots). While it seems rather banal to say that we live in highly mediated times, the fact is that even in a cosmopolitan city like London, from where I write this, people’s encounters with difference occur mostly through the media.

Research into race and the media is dominated by studies of representation, invariably highlighting the destructive and devisive ways that racial and ethnic minorities appear in the news and popular culture. Such studies have shown that when not rendered invisible, minorities are persistently demonized, stereotyped, mocked, exoticized, dehumanized. These findings are indisputable, but I nonetheless find two troubling tendencies in a solely textual approach to race and the media. First, it does not always fully account for contradiction. On a very basic level, if the media were so deeply racist, I, personally speaking, would not consume so much of it. The fact is, the media enriches my life, in keeping me entertained and informed, but also in helping me understand my own sense of self (including racial identity) and the world around me. As I write this, I have been enjoying much media produced by people of colour, including the TV series Atlanta written by and starring Donald Glover (broadcast on Rupert Murdoch-owned channel FX, no less), the music of Solange and the Swet Shop Boys (featuring British Pakistani rapper and actor Riz Ahmed, who also appeared in Star Wars spin-off movie Rogue One), the novels of Jumpa Lahiri, and the columns of Gary Younge in the Guardian. I am currently excited about seeing upcoming horror movie Get Out, directed by comedian Jordan Peele, about a young black man meeting his middle-class white girlfriend’s family (a truly terrifying experience). With their diverse and at times radical depiction of black and brown lives, these cultural texts can seem like exceptions to the rule, sneaking into the (white) mainstream against all odds. But what if, rather than aberrations, we understand them as constituted by the very logic of the cultural industries and industrial cultural production itself? How might this shed new light on the ideological role of the media?

The second problem I have with research focused solely on the text is that it struggles to offer forms of praxis – other than to argue that we need to counter negative representations of minorities with more positive ones. Sometimes scholars articulate a need for better representation of minorities in the creative workforce itself, based on an assumption that more racial and ethnic minorities working in the media will stop misrepresentation and will diversify the images of nonwhite folk in media content. But is this enough to tackle either the complexity of the politics of representation or the entrenched nature of racist ideologies in the cultural industries? In my research into British South Asian cultural production, I frequently encountered media workers who defined their very practice in terms of wanting to reverse the reductive representations of Asian communities, but then I would look at their film, their television documentary, their play or book, and find that they had reproduced the very racialized representations that they had set out to challenge. Why then is this the case? Were these individuals being disingenuous in the first instance, or are there greater forces at play?

In order to answer these questions, this book argues that we need a greater emphasis on cultural production itself: a focus on how representations of race are made. This entails looking closely at the experience of industrial cultural production, its mechanics and processes and the creative workers involved, but also a broader consideration of how the cultural industries are shaped by capitalism and legacies of empire. While research into race and cultural production is relatively minor in the broad field of race and media studies, there is nonetheless a growing body of work examining this topic, though it currently feels like a disparate field. The aim of this book is to pull this research together in order to build a fuller and more complete picture of the making of race in the cultural industries. Its primary interest is to uncover why race continues to be represented according to particular, seemingly immutable, tropes rooted in colonial times. But its also emphasizes ambivalence and contradiction in production in the cultural industries, which can account for those moments when we encounter a cultural good that disrupts common-sense understandings of racial difference. Recognizing that these two apparently different phenomena are in fact part of the same dynamic is crucial to deepening our understanding of how cultural industries make race. Moreover, this awareness is crucial for the formulation of generative counter-political interventions in the media – a way of making race that contributes to its undoing.

This book is based on ideas that have been developing over a long time, mostly through conversations and interactions, both formal and informal, with many colleagues and friends, whom I want to acknowledge here. The book’s core arguments started taking form during my PhD studies, for which I need to thank my supervisors Michael Keith and Ben Gidley for helping to give sense to what was a muddle of ideas. Both David Hesmondhalgh and Les Back (separately, though occasionally at the same time) have been inspiring teachers, mentors, colleagues and now friends. I have learnt so much from them, and need to thank them for the amazing opportunities they have given me – and also for reading drafts of chapters in this book. For also providing comments on drafts, I need to thank my fantastic colleagues Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany; David O’Brien, who, in the relatively short time I’ve known him, has been an excellent and generous collaborator; and the anonymous reviewers who also provided valuable feedback that has helped strengthen the book. (I of course take sole responsibility for any mistakes or inaccuracies.) So much of the book’s arguments were honed following conversations with colleagues on conference panels, seminars and various colloquia, in the pub after those colloquia and, of course, social media. In this category I need to thank (in no particular order) Helen Kim, Georgina Born, Kate Oakley, Kim Allen, Sanjay Sharma, Ash Sharma, Mark Banks, Tim Havens, Nabeel Zuberi, Jo Littler, Angela McRobbie, Dhiraj Murthy, Vivek Bald, Vijay Prashad, Paul Gilroy, Parminder Bhachu, Caspar Melville, James Curran, Sarah Kember, Sarita Malik, Clive Nwonka, Gavan Titley, Nisha Kapoor, Sivamohan Valluvan, Malcolm James, Jonathan Gray, Shilpa Davé, Orson Nava, Charlton McIlwain and Roopali Mukherjee. Most of this book was written during term time while I was teaching and administrating, so I need to thank all my colleagues in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths who provided – and continue to provide – support and good cheer on a daily basis. Special thanks go to my brilliant bosses both old and new who have all been tremendously supportive – Natalie Fenton, Julian Henriques, Sean Cubitt and Lisa Blackman – and those colleagues who have had to put up with me the most, including Clea Bourne, Liz Moor, Aeron Davis, Wendy Jordan, Edwina Peart, Brett St Louis and Yasmin Gunaratnam. Thanks also to the amazingly patient admin staff, especially Zehra Arabadji, Amanda Gallant, Leanne Benford, Sarah Jackson and Bridget Ward. Special mention goes to Bethany Klein, who has been a brilliant, supportive (ex-)colleague and friend, while also telling me how it is when necessary. Sorry for messing up your house.

I need to send my gratitude to those people who supported the writing of the book, probably without them even realizing they were doing so. This was either through exchanging ideas, or just sending out positive vibes in general. I am thinking of Yasmeen Narayan, Nirmal Puwar, Hannah Jones, Milly Williamson, Bev Skeggs, Daniel Burdsey, Kimberly Keith, Eric Woods, Toussaint Nothias, Melissa Fernandez, Eithne Quinn, Shamea Mia, Bradford Bailey, Sophie Watson, Rachael Gilmour, Thomas Zacharias and Rajeev Balasubramanyam. I salute also my musical academics-in-arms: Isaac Marrero-Guillamon (lead guitar), Hilde Stephansen (bass/backing vocals), Chris Moffat (bass) and Rahul Desai (drums). I want to thank too my friends beyond the campus who have not only been so encouraging (or at least feigned interest very convincingly), but have also contributed to the book, whether through dissecting popular culture together, or providing me with insights into their careers in the cultural industries. This includes Sara Bivigou, Andy Lee, Andrew Philip, John Nolan, Gwyneth Holland, Adey Lobb, Geraldine Smith, Sarah Wayman, Jon Raznick, Kat Wong, Paul Thomas, Erin King, Nora Allen-Wiles, Rowan Cope, Jon Butler, Stephen Dumughn, Ilona Jasiewicz and Ewa Jasiewicz. I want to acknowledge also the Amersham Group – my reading group (also the name of the pub where we meet) featuring Alex Rhys-Taylor, Will Davies and Emma Jackson. I feel very lucky not only to have studied with these folk, but also to work with them now. A special mention must go to Emma, who has been such a brilliant colleague and friend over the years (and also a musical comrade) and who is at the centre of the ‘circle of niceness’ for so many of us.

All my family have been so supportive during the writing of this book. I must mention the ever-expanding Collins clan, especially Stevie and Ray for purchasing the academic books that I would put on my Christmas lists during my PhD studies (many of which are cited in this book). My sister Paromita continues to influence my career and work – and cultural tastes – more than she probably realizes, and has been an important source for exchanging ideas (and was of particular help with chapter 2). My parents have always encouraged and supported me even when not quite sure what I am doing: ‘culture something…’. I owe them everything. Watching my daughters Latika and Uma grow up is easily the most fulfilling and joyful thing in my life. Now I’ve finished this book I look forward to having more time to play My Little Pony Top Trumps with them. And all my gratitude and love goes to Kara, my wonderful partner. Kara gives me the time and space to immerse myself in work when I need it, but, thankfully, ensures that I balance this with the really important stuff like spending time with our family. She also keeps me on my intellectual toes and does not tolerate long sentences. I owe her everything too.

Part I