|READING GUIDE TO:
Hall S (1990) 'The Whites of Their Eyes: racist ideologies
and the media' in Alvarado M and Thompson J (eds) The Media Reader,
This article was originally presented as a paper in 1980, and published in Bridges G and Brunt R (eds) (1981) Silver Linings: some strategies for the 80s, London: Lawrence and Wishart. The original included comments on an access television programme made by Hall and others called It Ain't Half Racist, Mum, but this section has not been included here [the ghost of the programme reamins though!!]. [I have seen this programme several times, and I comment on it here]. Structured racism is the theme of this chapter, rather than individual practices.
We need an emphasis on the ideological dimensions if we are to engage in anti-racism.'Racist common-sense' is pervasive, so we need to construct an anti-racist common-sense, to build an anti-racist popular bloc, aimed at the winning of popular positions.
'The media's main sphere of operations is the production and transformation of ideologies' (page 8). Ideology is defined as the images, concepts and premisses which provide frameworks through which we represent, interpret, understand and make sense of some aspect of social existence' (page 8). Ideological elements are connected in chains of meaning, producing different ideological discourses: we need to break this chain, working in practice and struggle. Ideologies predate individuals, so they transform the collective, working through the Unconscious, and beneath descriptions -- for example, gender differences seem natural rather than constructed. This goes for race too. Ideologies 'work' by constructing positions ' which allow [subjects] to utter ideological truths as if they were their authentic authors' (page 9). Ideologies both transform discourses and 'subjects-for-action'. However, they are also always a site for struggle, which is supported by real struggles, like those over police practices.
Ideology is a practice with its own specificity. It is not dependent on or a reflection of anything, and even possesses no 'necessary class belongingness', as Laclau argues -- thus 'democracy' belongs both to the ruling class and to the left. Of course, there are connections with certain class places, but these are not necessary: nevertheless, certain 'traces', in Gramsci's terms, are especially resistant to change. Thus a term like 'the British people' has 'nationalistic connotations'. New struggles can revive old traces, as Thatcherism did by articulating workers'demands with those of the Conservative government, and there are some unfortunate connections between racism and socialism/reformism in the Labour tradition too. (page 11) [What a great deal of wriggling here! Presumeably, the absence of 'class belongingness' for ideas like democracy helps stave off the orthodox marxist view that class is more fundamental a category than 'race',which is important for anyone wishing to win the consent of black activists. On the other hand, if ideas are not rooted to classes, who are they rooted to -- anyone? Any groups? This is the banality towards which Lacalu and 'post-marxism' was heading, in my view].
Ideologies are not just produced in the head -- institutions like the media produce them, offering representations of the world, images, or frameworks. Especially for 'race', what it is, and what sort of a problem it is. Ideas are worked on in the media, and complexity added [always?]. 'Critics of the media' [unnamed, but presumably from rival traditions] often reduce and simplify the work of the media, and do so to console the [traditional] left. However the 'autonomy' of the media is not simply a description: the media offer a necessarily contradictory formation, rather than a 'simple transparent instrumentality'. Simple analyses have no place in the concept of class struggle, and 'define no practical terrain on which such struggle could be conducted' [Is this true, and even if it is should class politics lead theoretical analysis?] (page 12). We address complexities because we wish to change matters [we address complexities because we academics like complexities?].
There is both 'overt' and 'inferential' racism: the latter contains implicit assumptions which are unquestioned. Both are found especially in the British press. Overt racism is now even respectable. Inferential racism is invisible and therefore more insidious, and is found, for example in liberal progressives who advocate balance, deny extremism, and yet still see black people as 'the problem'. This was the point of It Ain't Half Racist, Mum. It had an impact because it undermined at the media's claims to impartiality. However it was seen as making a personal attack, whereas the point was to look at discourses, regardless of intentions.
The Whites of Their Eyes [the original paper?] showed the rich vocabulary and syntax of race used in the media.
Other films also display a characteristic 'grammar of race', depicting black people as:
Traces of these images can still be found and are often reworked: the black guerrilla, black criminals, crazy men as in Starsky and Hutch, bullies in Bond, sexy slave girls, cunning black politicians like Mugabe or Amin, native dancers on royal tours, black comics, black victims of disasters, and black athletes. These images are still racist, even if they are now are admired.
Comedy seems to offer a 'licensed zone' and it can seem odd to to be serious, but race is a major theme in Alf Garnett, or It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. Such programmes naturalise the presence of black people, but they still use the old grammar of race. The comedy format protects and defends viewers from their own racism. Black comics, telling jokes about black people, act similarly -- is it black people or racism which is made acceptable? Of course, it is difficult to tell initially. Jewish self-mocking jokes can be acceptable, and there can be jokes within racial lines that are not put-downs (page 18).
In news and current affairs, blacks are often seen as a source of problems [some exceptions are cited on page 18] -- as troublemakers in riots, where television defends 'the law'. Any provocation is usually left out. Authoritative sources, such as the police, shape the story: for example, after the 'riot' in Southall, the story was shaped as a fight between Asians and the police, or as a matter of fascism of both left and right. Nationwide saw it as a struggle between the anti-Nazi League and the National Front, two 'extremist' groups, not involving the ordinary viewer in any way, then as a fight between Asians and the police. Or take the BBC's programme The Great Debate on immigration [one of those used in Hall's programme to indict the media of racism]. There is no intention to attack the broadcasters here, but to focus on the discourse, and this pursued the 'problem of numbers'as the baseline. Enoch Powell's views were used to set the agenda. It is not necessary to argue that the personnel in broadcasting are racist, any more than it is to argue that those of the State are capitalists -- it is the discourse that speaks.
Ideologies work through forms, linking with the debates about realism of the 1970s. [Screen Theory's position, and advocacy of anti-realist aesthetics] was too abstract, as well as, 'rather looney, and quite a-historical' (page 21). Attempts to make all narratives examples of a basic realist text were 'crude... simplistic... naive...' [see file]. This is not to deny the importance of form, or the need to break conventional forms, but it is not the case that only deconstructionist texts can be revolutionary. Hall believes that we can use the formats of conventional television to state different kinds of truth (page 21).
It is 'loony' to assume that all realist forms are bad. Anyway, lots of revolutionary avant-garde texts have been easily absorbed [and far more conventionally critical pieces?]. Breaking the form is no guarantee of revolutionary effect. We should reject Kristeva, and the Tel Quel Group on this. They had pursued 'polite intellectual terrorism' in the 1970s, but the left was right to avoid 'being hustled and blackmailed [sic] by these arguments' (page 21). The same goes with journals: there are lots of avant-garde journals but these are restricted to small middle-class progressive audiences and so too is traditional socialist iconography: we need new forms, styles, and content [perhaps a designer-led Marxism Today?] [What an astonishing tirade to defend his own programme!]
The programme could have been better, but the lesson was learnt. We need more on the tactics of popular anti-racist struggle. We just don't know enough [research is needed, perhaps?] We take absolutist positions and attribute bad faith to our rivals, and thus head for fragmentation. We need to keep open a number of possibilities, as does the anti-Nazi League, rather than using one theory, strategy, or set of tactics. [Stone me -- read between those lines!!]