A Fantasy of Whiteness

“We could desperately use a clear-eyed assessment of the messy, complicated country that ruled much of the world not so long ago.”

Here’s a British history factoid to wield this winter: Margaret Thatcher was born in Grantham, a market town in southwest Lincolnshire, where her father, famously, was a grocer (as well as mayor). If you are one of the many American viewers of the hit British television series Downton Abbey, which returns next week for its last season on PBS, the name should ring a bell. Lord Grantham is the show’s patriarch, a flawed but lovable aristocrat who huffs and puffs but ultimately, generally, does the right thing for his family and dependents. And his name is highly appropriate: Lord Grantham, like the former Conservative Prime Minister, is fond of “Victorian values” and highly suspicious of replacing hierarchical benevolence with a centralized welfare state. Thatcher had her own prime-time moment in American politics earlier this fall, when, during a Republican primary debate, Jeb Bush named her as the woman he’d put on the US $10 bill. He was, it seemed, inspired by the debate’s setting in the Ronald Reagan presidential library, since he quipped: “I would go with Ronald Reagan’s partner, Margaret Thatcher. Probably illegal, but what the heck?”

Like Downton’s popularity, Bush’s answer suggests the depth of the Anglo-American connection. But when taken in comparison with the most popular answer to the $10 bill question—Rosa Parks, offered by no fewer than three candidates—it also suggests a more troubling pattern, one that relegates “race” to American history, and celebrates British history as a specifically white field of cultural connection. In other words, British history, in American popular discourse, frequently becomes an aesthetically appealing fantasy about whiteness and stability. This is inaccurate, but also tragic: We could desperately use a clear-eyed assessment of the messy, complicated country that ruled much of the world not so long ago.


<em>Emmeline Pankhurst</em>. Photograph courtesy of BBC Radio 4 / Flickr.

Emmeline Pankhurst. Photograph courtesy of BBC Radio 4 / Flickr.


Take another recent example. The recent movie Suffragette
(directed by Sarah Gavron), which portrays the British militant suffrage movement from the perspective of its working-class members, was no blockbuster, here or in Britain. But its publicity material generated a brief, illuminating debate. It started when Meryl Streep, who appears in the film as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, posed with fellow cast members on the cover of
Time Out London wearing a t-shirt with the tag line, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” The image sparked an immediate negative reaction and was criticized for trivializing actual slavery, particularly the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. When it was released, the film, too, earned criticism for its relentless whiteness.

What interests me is how “British history” came to be figured in the debate that followed. In the US, the film’s defenders frequently cited context. In a generally positive review published here in Public Books, for example, Linda Gordon, a prominent historian of American feminism, writes that American viewers “might be excused for not knowing that very few black people lived in England at the time, but these accusations can become viral and damage unjustifiably the reputation of a film and filmmaker committed to social justice.” Critics of the t-shirts, too, she suggests, were missing the relevant context. In the Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, Johanna Neuman rehearses the complex, tortured historical relationships between US feminism, racism, and abolitionism in support of her conclusion that “criticizing a film—and, by extension, its stars and its marketing—for portraying the passion of the times, however ill-phrased, seems an attempt to erase a past that discomforts those of us in today’s audience.” For Gordon, British historical context is all-important and ultimately absolving; for Neuman, it’s beside the point, and the film instead illuminates American historical complexity. Talking about race, it seems, means talking about the United States.

Nevil Shute’s 1947 novel The Chequer Board contrasted the systematic, vicious racism of the US Army with the open-mindedness of small-town England, where local residents welcomed Black American servicemen on equal terms. The scene of the first encounter is emblematic: some white American surveyors have spread the rumor that Black American soldiers are so “primitive” that they will bark like dogs when hungry. The patrons of the local pub, which bears the rather heavy-handed name The White Hart, agree that the story is “improbable” but take a cautious, wait-and-see approach. The Black soldiers, having heard the story, bark good-naturedly on their way into town, and the local people take the joke in their stride. “By the time they reached The White Hart, the village had come to its senses; in the bar they were accepted as interesting strangers to whom was owed some sort of apology.” The English novelist apparently worried about the reaction this portrayal would elicit in the United States: he called the novel “a sincere book which I genuinely thought would ruin my American sales.” But he was pleasantly surprised, both by sales figures and by the personal reactions he heard on a bus tour of the country later that year.1

By the time Julian Fellowes was writing the fourth season of Downton, the pattern was well-established: historical Britain is white, and “race,” as a category and a problem, comes from America. In that season, Fellowes introduced the character of Jack Ross, a Black American jazz singer. Ross and Lady Rose, the show’s lightweight flapper character, become romantically involved. Eyebrows are raised, but in general the central characters react phlegmatically: the two head servants, Carson and Mrs. Hughes, even conclude that Ross is rather nice. Ultimately, Ross ends his relationship with Lady Rose, on the grounds that British upper-class society is not ready for an interracial union. However, the overall impression is one of gentility and awkward, but sincere, acceptance of Ross, as a musician and visitor if not as a future in-law. True British aristocrats, when given the chance, somehow rise above the petty constraints of racism (not to mention anti-Semitism and homophobia).

We are ill-served by the beautiful escapist fantasies offered by Downton, Suffragette, and, before them, The Chequer Board.

Numerous British historians have done extensive work countering the notion that the island of Britain was simply “white” prior to the postcolonial immigration that began after World War II. Edwardian Liverpool was famous for its polyglot population, which included men and women who could trace their roots across the British Empire, from North America and the Caribbean to Africa and Asia.2 The areas of working-class London that featured in Suffragette were home to Chinese, Jewish, and other minority populations. Jazz was described as a “new American invasion” by a British music magazine in 1918, but Jack Ross would have been joining an entertainment sector in which non-white musicians had been performing for British audiences for decades.3 Nor were such populations free from the pressures of racism. In 1919, for example, the year after British women over 30 were granted the vote, there was a wave of seaport riots in which white (often Irish) workers attacked African, Caribbean, South Asian, and Chinese workers and destroyed their businesses and property.4

These aren’t pedantic details: they’re manifestations of a much larger truth, which is that no aspect of modern British history can be adequately understood without reference to the empire. During the eras of Suffragette and Downton, the British Empire was at or near its greatest geographical extent, ruling over nearly a quarter of the world’s land mass and governing millions of non-white people. Empire is the inescapable context for modern British history.

To return to the suffrage example, restoring that context means recognizing a movement that approached empire both inclusively and instrumentally. As Sumita Mukherjee recently pointed out, representatives from India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the West Indies took part in a 1911 “empire pageant” in support of votes for women, and Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of a prominent Punjabi Sikh, was an active suffragette. At the same time, British suffragists argued for their right to the vote based on the existence of empire. British women, they argued, could bring new elements to politics that would benefit imperial as well as domestic governance. In Antoinette Burton’s words, British suffragists “conceived of empire as a legitimate place for exhibiting their fitness for participation in the imperial nation-state,” and indeed argued that they had a special, indispensable role to play in preserving Britain’s imperial role.5 As the famous patriotic song “Rule, Britannia!” (1740) puts it, “Britons never, never, never will be slaves.” Pankhurst’s use of the word “slave” put the realities of women’s legal status in Britain into a harsh, revealing light: upon marriage, a woman lost political rights, property rights, even the right to decline sex with her husband. But it rested upon a claim that British women were being denied their rightful role in an empire structured by racial hierarchy.

The United States has much to learn from British history, especially the rise and fall of its effort to rule the world. We are ill-served by the beautiful escapist fantasies offered by Downton, Suffragette, and, before them, The Chequer Board. England is a green and pleasant land, but it is not, and has never been, a shire in which the difficult problems of racial inequality and histories of oppression that bedevil American political discourse simply disappear. Nor are American racial legacies unique: they grow out of the same larger patterns of colonialism and capitalism that produced modern British society. We can’t come to grips with the current global situation without knowing the history of imperialism, of which our own legacy of transatlantic slavery is just one part. A more complete presentation of the British past would be one way to start learning that history. icon

  1. Julian Smith, Nevil Shute (Twayne Publishers, 1976), p. 78.
  2. John Belchem, Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-century Liverpool (Liverpool University Press, 2014)
  3. Hilary Moore, Inside British Jazz: Crossing Borders of Race, Nation and Class (Ashgate, 2007), pp. 17-18.
  4. Jacqueline Jenkinson, Black 1919: Riots, Racism, and Resistance in Imperial Britain (Liverpool University Press, 2009)
  5. Antoinette Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 207.
Featured image: Highclere Castle, the stand-in for Downton Abbey. Photograph courtesy of Catherine Thackstone / Flickr