Presentation at Black European Studies in Transnational Perspective, 2nd International interdisciplinary Conference, Berlin, 29.07.06 BEST 2006

by Urmila Goel

Black or White or something else?

- Subjective Attempts at Positioning –


When I enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for the academic year 1997/98 I had to fill in a form for ethnic monitoring. The first option was ‘White’ and I knew I was not meant. The second one was ‘Black’ and by its qualifications I was quite sure that I did not fit in the category. The third one was ‘Asian’ (the British term for people from South Asia) and I knew that I was supposed to belong here but felt that I do not. So there was the last option ‘Other’. Several options here again, the last one: ‘Other other’ was the one I ticked. I felt really othered. It was the first time I was forced to actively adopt one of the categories. Never before had I asked myself whether I was ‘White’, ‘Black’ or something else. I had grown up in Germany, where ‘White’ people do not speak of ‘Whiteness’. And most of the time I pass as ‘White’, not only in Germany but also in India, the country with whose citizenship I was born. In filling in the form, however, I realised that I was solely passing as ‘White’, that I do not really belong in the category.

Then I discovered ‘Black’ as a political position defining ‘Blacks’ as opposed to ‘Whites’ who are the unmarked hegemonial power. Detaching ‘Black’ from ‘skin colour’ and essentialised ‘Africanness’ I could adopt this position. It was a position much more meaningful to me than ‘Asian’ as it did not rely on cultural ‘essences’ but on the experiences of racism and othering. From this position those who share theses experiences can unite, can overcome the classifications of colonialism and challenge ‘White’ dominance.

But then I experienced that “Black does not mean Not-White anymore” as one of the characters in Gurinder Chadha’s film ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ says. ‘Black’ spaces – like the BEST conference – refer to some form of ‘African’ heritage. One may argue that ‘Asians’ have this heritage in the form of being allocated by the ‘Whites’ a puffer function in the colonial order. As a consequence ‘Asians’ were both objects and subjects of racism. Many took advantage of the privileges granted by the ‘Whites’, stabilised the colonial order and discriminated ‘Blacks’. Still today many ‘Asians’ think in this categories, clearly distinguish themselves from ‘Blacks’, consider themselves as ‘better’ and are thus stabilising racism. This keeps me doubly from considering myself ‘Black’. Neither do I link myself to ‘African’ heritage nor can I ignore the ‘Asian’ role in the continuing colonial hierarchies.

Not only this, my own experiences of passing put me in a different position than those who are clearly marked as ‘Black’. I can influence my experiences of racism much more than others. Sometimes racism strikes me unaware, but mostly I first have to ‘come out’ to be exposed to it.

From these experiences several questions arise: Am I ‘Black’? Am I accepted as ‘Black’? In what sense? How much ‘essence’ is there in ‘Blackness’? How much is it a political positioning? Would ‘Person of Colour’ be an adequate alternative? If yes, how and to what purpose? Are these questions important? How can one deal with them? - The paper will discuss these questions from a subjective point of view.

Presentation as pdf

© Urmila Goel, 2006