Difference, Love, Prejudice and Belonging in 20th century Britain: An interview with Mica Nava
Mica Nava is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London. She specialises in studying 20th-century cultures including cosmopolitanism, race, difference, feminism, art, commerce, politics and metropolitan cultures. Her insights on being different, belonging and what is unusual about London make her a fascinating commentator on what it is to be an outsider.
On sympathy and cosmopolitanism:
Devi: In your book, Visceral Cosmopolitanism you show how, throughout the 20th century, British women were more accepting of black and Asian people than men. There was real discrimination, but there was also sympathy which is less well-known, and which at times would lead to loving relationships between white women and black or immigrant men.
Mica: For very good reasons postcolonial historians and race theorists have focused on difference and racism in the 20th-century. My project was to look a little more closely at what was going on in the spaces of connection, at antiracism.
Tracking the history of the last one hundred years the argument in my book is that, in Britain, women were the drivers of what I call cosmopolitanism.
I’m certainly not talking about all women; it’s important to stress that my comments refer to only a section of the population.
One of the ways in which this might have occurred is through a complicated process of identification with difference, a kind of sympathy for outsiders arising from women’s own marginal status.
It emerges from some of the accounts of people’s engagement with ‘other’ men over the century. Even in the 1930s, for example, when the Trinidadian scholar, CLR James, first came to London, he observed that in general the women were very sympathetic to him whereas the men were hostile.
The empathy displayed by many women towards outsiders has been a recurring feature in the culture.
In this sense I argue that Britain is very different from the United States. The meaning of race difference is not the same all over the world. We mustn’t assume that the American model is hegemonic.
On the differences between Britain and America:
Mica: In America, as we saw in the recent film, Twelve Years A Slave, white slave-owner men (and post-slavery, white men in general) tended to have children with black subordinated women. These children were brought up as black.
Until very recently, this was the dominant mode of race-mixing in the US, where it existed at all.
In Britain the mixing has been of a different kind. There was not a substantial black population in Britain until the middle of the last century.
Most of the early non-white migrants were men. First the African-American GIs stationed here during World War II. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, migrants from the Caribbean and former colonies.
Many of these men formed relationships with white indigenous women. The mixed-race children that ensued from these relationships, although brown, although visibly different, grew up with white mothers in predominantly white families.
That has made a big difference to the way in which race difference has been both experienced and understood in the UK.
Devi: So, the way that the children of these relationships would grow up would be within the mainstream.
On the difference between Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago and London
Mica: The fact that London was bombed meant that social housing in the postwar period tended to be built in the bombed spaces, across the whole of London. Indigenous and immigrant kids went to the same schools and grew up next to each other.
Other comparable capital cities, like Paris and Amsterdam, which also have long postcolonial histories, were occupied so not bombed. As a result the newcomers tended to settle in the periphery, not in the centre, because housing in the city centres was already owned by the existing populations.
Chicago is another example of a city markedly different from London. There, and in many US cities, neighbourhoods are almost entirely divided along racial and national lines.
In London, post-war social housing criss-crosses the city and people of different national and racial origins live side by side. This has made for a very different kind of atmosphere.
Of course, that is now under threat as a result of Government policies on housing support and the apparently uncontrollable housing market. Many people are being extruded to the periphery. The suburbs are becoming more like the suburbs in Paris and Holland where the poor tend to live, and the rich are increasingly living in the centre. But this wasn’t the case in the immediate post-war.
On the ordinariness of race difference
Devi: What difference does the pattern of housing make to society more broadly?
Mica: I think race difference is very ordinary in London. If you go to the centre of Paris or you go to the centre of Amsterdam, you do see people who are not of European origin. But on the whole they have less status and less visibility than in Britain.
In Holland which is apparently a very liberal culture, you don’t get nearly as many high profile non-white people in positions of power as you do in the UK.
It’s not good enough here. There are a lot of complaints, quite rightly. But nevertheless there is a widespread acceptance of the fact that this is not a white culture any more, and that’s very significant. Only 6% of people in Britain think it’s important to be white to be British.
Devi: Wow. That’s a huge change, isn’t it?
Mica: Isn’t it? Isn’t it amazing!
On the changing nature of cosmopolitanism in 20th century Britain
Mica: In the book I focus on Selfridge’s and the way in which the founder Gordon Selfridge said he loved the fact that London was becoming more cosmopolitan and how he promoted a sort of cosmopolitan atmosphere in the store.
He wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t going to be commercially popular. His store became the most successful in London partly because it was a modern, cosmopolitan space – part of an oppositional culture in which difference and abroad were celebrated.
Although popular, this was not the dominant attitude towards foreigners and outsiders.
Cosmopolitanism was definitely undermined during World War I. The period between World War I and World War II was notoriously conservative.
Yet even then there was also a radical interest in literature about the allure of ‘abroad’, in American movies and perhaps most relevantly for this discussion, in the African-American Paul Robeson. Robeson moved to London in the 1930s because it was less racist and became the most popular singer on British radio. He was also an actor who performed in the West End as well as radical alternative theatre and films. He was a left-wing activist who raised money for refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe and supported many of the social innovations of the USSR.
The most significant transformation is probably that difference and foreignness is now ordinary.
Partly it’s numbers. When I was growing up it wasn’t very normal in my provincial town to find anybody else who was different or who spoke another language at home. Although I’m not as dark as you, I was called ‘dark’ a lot when I was a girl which was a way of pointing to the fact that I was not ‘properly’ English.
Devi: You’ve done a wonderful segue, because I was going to ask you about your history, because your work, like that of the Outsiders’ Network itself, ranges across the personal and the social, where each informs the other.
Your family history is an amazing example of that. You’ve written an entire chapter on this with layers of complexity but could you just give us a little sprinkling of it.
On growing up in a family where ‘difference seems normal’
Mica: My father came from a secular Jewish family in Eastern Europe and grew up in Vienna. My mother came from a Dutch Theosophist family. Theosophy at the time was a cultish yet progressive religion which believed in ‘universal human brotherhood without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour’. Both were social democrats.
They met in Vienna, got out in 1938, came to London and ended up living in the home counties. So I grew up outside London as a child of a mixed foreign family.
As soon as I could I left the English countryside and moved to London. Then I went abroad. I lived in New York for three years, before going to Mexico, where I met and married a Mexican. His mother was of African origin and his father was part indigenous and part Spanish. We came back to London and had three kids who are visibly part of the mixed-race community of Londoners.
They in turn have all hooked up with people from somewhere else. All are with partners who were either born abroad or whose parents were born abroad and who look different.
And it’s not only my immediate family. The daughter of a first cousin from New York also married a Mexican. The sons of my Dutch cousin have married out as well: one is with someone whose father was from Surinam and the other with a Serbian…
It’s not quite clear why some people choose people who are very different from their immediate family. Yet somehow families reproduce an engagement with difference. Difference seems normal.
Devi: I love that phrase, difference seems normal. The experience of being different is something that you have in common and the experience of finding something rich in difference is something that is normal.
Mica: And stimulating
Devi: Yes, and enlivening and broadening.
On the stimulating perspective derived from being an outsider
Devi: I thoroughly believe this idea, that the experience of being an outsider gives us unique perspective, gives us new ways of learning and growing. Could you say a little bit more about your own views of that? Or, in your own case, what kind of impact has it had on what you have chosen to do with your life?
Mica: Well, I’m an academic and on the whole academics don’t explore their personal lives and don’t link their personal lives to the research that they do.
But I was part of a generation of feminists fully aware of the interrelation of the personal and the political, so inevitably I reflected on the way my personal life influenced the academic work I did. I foregrounded those issues in an earlier book. I tried to analyse how feminism and my own subjectivity affected what and how I wrote.
That spilled into an interest in ‘otherness’. I was working on women and consumption and, as I mentioned earlier, discovered that the Selfridges archive was full of materials promoting cosmopolitanism. That got me interested. Then I started analysing and relating my own history to those questions.
I suppose, really, all intellectual work is rooted in some kind of personal experience but very often people don’t make that apparent. I specifically do because I think it’s relevant.
Devi: So, the relevance is both as a subject to study and illustrating what you’re explaining in your book, but also as something that has prompted you and driven you to find meaning in your own experience and therefore meaning in the experiences of a wider society.
Mica: Yes. I think that if people have feelings that they don’t quite understand they read around the area in an attempt to make sense of their own experiences and dilemmas. Some will read academic books, others will go to a blog or a website and others will go to a music scene that they identify with.
On being a Londoner
Devi: Talking about ‘making sense of’ identity, you describe yourself as a Londoner. You’ve mentioned a little bit already about what’s different about London compared to other cities. Could you just say a little bit more about what makes London so interesting and unusual?
Mica: First of all one in three Londoners was born abroad. That’s an incredibly high number. Moreover, a lot of the people who were born here had parents who were also born abroad, so it is an extraordinarily mixed city. And most of the people whose families have been here for a long time love that vitality and are proud of it. As the recent elections showed, Londoners have not subscribed to the anti-immigration rhetoric.
What is particularly interesting is that the city is not only diverse, it is also mixed. People with very distinct histories and geographical origins are marrying each other. The distinctions that used to count for so much – where you were born or what skin colour you have – are no longer as important as they used to be.
One in ten children born in Britain today, not just London, are born into a ‘mixed’ household. And, significantly, that is the case across the class spectrum. For example, the Queen’s cousin is married to a Nigerian.
I argue in my book that in Britain, unlike in America, class and class culture override differences based on ‘race’. This has been one of the paradoxes of the UK. Here people are more likely to connect on the basis of status, education and occupation, whereas in the US caste – that is to say skin colour – continues to be more determining.
On multi-faceted identities and belonging
Devi: Quite often when you see people personified in the media, you’ll have the token something-or-other, the token disabled person or the token black person. But the token disabled person is always white. And the token black person is never also gay or disabled or whatever it is.
The media seems to see one thing that makes you different and that is enough. But people are complex and multi-faceted and have layers. We don’t have a single identity. And there is no such thing as normal.
Mica: Yes. I agree. Identity is a problematic term because identity does pre-suppose that there is some kind of coherence and there never is.
There are always contradictions. People are different in different ways and in different spaces. You can be an Arsenal supporter and live in Chelsea. These things are much more problematic than the notion of identity pre-supposes. So I think it’s not a very helpful term. Stuart Hall talks about the importance of “identification”, which includes that notion of becoming, of change, of contradiction and so on. It is complex.
Devi: How would you describe what belonging is? Where does belonging come from? Where do we find ourselves?
Mica: There are psychoanalytic explanations for how you feel you belong in the world and I would probably go along with quite a lot of those.
Our experiences in childhood and in our families are very important in determining how far we feel we belong. But feelings of belonging are also, of course, affected by the wider society: by exclusion, racism, and marginalization, or conversely, by hospitality and a sense of location and entitlement.
There are loads of ways of belonging and not belonging. Sometime I think that some people are just disposed to be a bit more optimistic while others are more pessimistic.
Devi: We’ve covered a lot of ground here. If people would like to read your books or other materials and find out more, how would they get hold of them?
Mica: If you Google “Mica Nava Academia” you’ll find final drafts of most of my publications, though not the books. You can order those from your local bookshop or library.
You can also get a lot from the University of East London institutional repository. And if people can’t find what they are looking for, feel free to write to me. I’ve got a UEL email.
Devi: Thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been really fascinating and I have certainly learned a lot in just a short time. Thank you.
Mica: You’re welcome.