Racialised Constructions of the White, Working-Class: Acts of White, Middle-Class Supremacy

As ‘class’ and particularly the ‘White, working-class’ are being weaponised by those who promote ideological middle-class Whiteness to undermine and resist the furtherance of racial justice, it is important that we have a sense of the history that sits behind their efforts. Let us not be fooled into believing that their façade of championing the White, working-class in their efforts to discredit the reality of White privilege is anything other than their defence of their own privileges. In truth, as throughout history, the intersectionally privileged White, middle-class men and the purveyors of their ideologies have only ever used the White, working-class to suit their own ambitions and ends.

This duplicity dates back to the industrial revolution. Alistair Bonnett’s 1998 paper How the British Working-class Became White: The Symbolic (Re)formation of Racialized Capitalism provides an intriguing and revealing account of the shifting nature of Whiteness, as applied to the working-class. In this, he traces the evolution of the racialised construction of the working-class in Britain. He charts how they were inscribed with rural Whiteness in the pre-Industrial Revolution Era through to being cast as a ‘race apart’ during the Industrial revolution and to the post-World War One era when they were re-Whitened and constructed as an integral part of White British national identity (Bonnett, 1998).  

In pre-industrial revolution Britain, ‘White’ had specific connotations of religious wholesomeness and with high social status. Indeed, the term ‘blue blood’ to denote royalty and aristocracy is derived from a perception that the skin of people from these social strata was so White as to allow a person to see their veins. Thus, being identified as ‘White’ and exhibiting ‘Whiteness’ contained highly positive connotations, and related to superiority and purity (Bonnett, 1998).

What the rural ‘serfs’ and ‘peasants’ thought of this aristocratic Whiteness, or even of their own racial status, isn’t clear, but it is interesting to note that by the mid-1800s the mass internal migration from the countryside to urban centres was deemed to be having a detrimental effect on their ‘national and racial rootedness’ (Bonnett, 1998: 325). Thus, there was an implicit connection between Whiteness and English rurality. The emphasis here on ‘English’ is important as, for a long time, the ‘Celtic races’ were considered backward, untrustworthy, incapable of self-rule and not truly ‘White’ (Langlands, 1999).

The White, middle-classes proceeded to ‘un-Whiten’ the urban working-class by removing from them the connection between Whiteness and English rurality and replacing it with a construction of their physicality, morality, and urban social conditions using the same terms as those used to describe Black and Brown communities of the Global South (Philip, 2002). At the same time as Thomas Huxley, an English biologist and key proponent of Darwinism was stating in 1870 “No rational man believes that the average negro is the equal . . . of the white man”, William Booth (1890/1976), George Sims (1883/1976), and Henry Mayhew (1861/1967) all made direct comparisons between the White, working-class, their environs, and the depictions of the colonial interior and its indigenous peoples.

Booth suggested that ‘as there is a darkest Africa, is there not also a darkest England?’ (1890/1976: 145) and Sims wrote that there exists ‘a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General post Office’ (1883/1976: 64-65). In London Labour and London Poor Henry Mayhew (1861/1967) drew direct comparisons between the working-class of London and the people of Africa, Asia, and the indigenous people of North America. Indeed, he proclaimed his examination of the working-class in London as ‘scientific’, effectively casting them as a race apart from the White middle-class in a similar manner to the scientific racism’s construction of Black and Brown communities of the Global South (Philip, 2002).

Thus, this process of un-Whitening the urban working class of Britain was effected by turning the colonial gaze back on itself. This gaze that had constructed White people as morally, intellectually, and culturally superior to the indigenous people in the lands colonised by Britain, began to construct the working-class in Britain as something other than White (Philip, 2002). Much as the racist philosophical, scientific and political discourses of the 1700s and 1800s were deployed as a rationale and justification for the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Global South, these constructions of the White, working-class were used as a justification for the exploitation of them as well, all for the benefit of White, middle-class expansionist capitalism and imperialism.

As the 20th century dawned a social context emerged in which images of the national ideal, particularly those associated with imperialism, were adapted, and applied to all classes. Bonnet suggests that ‘welfarism both fused and recuperated contradictory and potentially explosively antagonistic social forces into a national project’ (1998: 329), a national project that was universally White, irrespective of class position. However, it was a national project led by the White, middle-class and as the First World War approached, their national project required a supply of men to fight on their behalf. Thus, the White, middle-classes reclassified the White, working class as White to exploit a national identity for military and economic ends.

As the first half of the century progressed, with recession biting in the 1930s and the advent of the Second World War, the Whiteness of the working-class was further imbued with a heroic quality as a stoic and stalwart identity in the face of external threats to the nation (Waters, 1997). Once categorised as a different race from the White, middle-classes, the White, working-class had been transformed not only into White, but also into an integral aspect of the national identity to aid the defence of that nation (Waters, 1997) and, once again, to die on behalf of the White, middle-class.

The post-World War Two era saw a further articulation of a ‘common national identity in victory’ and the welfare system was seen to be some form of reward or return to the working-classes for their sacrifices made during the Second World War. Indeed, there was a sense that this was part of a contract that the White, working-class had with the White, middle-class for their part in defending the nation (Gavron, Dench, and Young, 2006).

It was also, though, at this time that the British Empire began to break up. This occurred at a time when Britain needed a labour supply, and these two social forces led to a significant level of immigration from the former colonised lands. What is evident from the analysis of the ‘colonial frontier coming “home”’ (Schwartz, 1996: 73), and the ‘primal colonial encounter’ (Schwartz, 1996: 66) being reversed such that it now occurred on the streets and in the workplaces of Britain, is that it had a significant impact on the racialised construction of the working-class in Britain.

Due to the immigration policies and the racism of the employers, ‘Commonwealth’ immigrants were forced to take low-skilled, manual, and low-paid labour and with the arrival of significant numbers of Black and Minoritized people within the domains that were previously ‘owned’ by the White, working-class, the working-class sought to claim to a Whiteness that distinguished them from their work colleagues.  The White, working-class felt that ‘[w]orking with a coloured shop mate [was] often interpreted as denoting loss of status’ (Senior, 1957: 305). Thus, while the immigrant worker may well have been doing jobs on the shop floor that were below the status position of the White worker, their very presence in the same working environment was deemed to signify a diminishment of the Whiteness of the working-class simply by association (Rex and Tomlinson, 1979).

The Whiteness of the working-class then became an embattled and threatened identity – threatened not only with becoming un-White again due to having to share with the Commonwealth immigrants the welfare structures that had been seen as both symbolic and material manifestations of their inclusion in the White national identity (Bonnett, 1998), but also with a broader sense of being invaded where they lived and worked, and so denied their rightful status position in White British society. In analysing 2,000 letters sent to Enoch Powell after his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, Whipple (2009) cites numerous working-class correspondents who spoke of being “Whites” who lived and worked among “Blacks” as evidence of their sense of socioeconomic subordination and powerlessness (Whipple, 2009: 720)

However, as the 1970s progressed, the urban White, middle-classes adopted a more multi-cultural Whiteness (Gavron, Dench, and Young, 2006) and, in the midst of a social context in which there appeared to be rising antipathy towards immigrants from the White, working-class, the White middle-class began to construct them as racist and counter to the brave, solid, and respectable ordinariness of the White, working-class who had fought for them in the two world wars (Gavron, Dench, and Young, 2006). In this dynamic, the White working-class were not being un-Whitened as they had been in the Industrial Revolution, rather their Whiteness was cast as ‘dirtied’ due to attitudes that were deemed unacceptable by the White, middle-class – the process of creating ‘dirty White’ as a new form of problematic ethnicity within an ‘underclass’ in Britain had begun (Lawler, 2012).

It was from this notion of the underclass that terms such as ‘Chav’ re-emerged into modern parlance. In the Chav, the White working-class were constructed not just as highly promiscuous, criminal, feckless and overtly racist people who live in areas of poverty, criminality, disease, and dirt, but also as people who are responsible for their own decline, and the decline of the nation (Tyler, 2008; Lawler, 2005, 2012). Through the iconography of the Chav, the White, middle-classes utilised symbolic systems around taste to construct the working-classes as ‘disgusting’ and thus ‘foundationally ‘other’ to a middle-class existence that is silently marked as normal and desirable’ (Lawler 2005: 431). Revealingly, despite the retention of a Whiteness, albeit an unacceptable Whiteness, for the working-class and the accusations of wholesale racism, these constructions of the White, working-class remained comparable to the constructions of Black and Brown communities of the Global South. There is a legacy and more than an echo of the colonialist symbolic systems that constructed both these communities and the White working-class as inferior to the White middle-class in the imperial age. In this construction of the racialized social dynamic, it is both Black and Minoritised people and the White, working-class who are being racialised by the White, middle-classes.

Tyler suggests that this process of ‘fixing people in racial and class hierarchies’ through notions of respectability and value is crucial to the White middle-classes’ efforts to draw distinctions between them and the ‘others’ (2102: 24). It is this process of othering and the allocation of inferior social value to groups in society that erects boundaries and allows the White, middle-classes to preserve their privileges, power, and social status. To this end, we are seeing today another shift in the construction of the White, working-class. They are being constructed most firmly as White in distinction to Black and Minoritised people, and as disadvantaged by society, rather than as the purveyors of their own demise. However, the political right (let’s not forget that these are predominantly White, middle-class men) are constructing themselves as the great White saviour of the White, working-classes, which is somewhat redolent of the colonial civilising mission of old. Thus, the White, working-class are constructed as incapable of self-determination and their Whiteness becomes one that needs the White middle-class to rescue it from disadvantage but, critically, also from race equality work that highlights White privilege.

The emphasis on the White, working-class in these discourses, and the assertion that they are not privileged, works to erase the existence of Black and Minoritized working-class communities and their intersectional experience of disadvantage and discrimination. However, this construction of the disadvantaged White, working-class is also undertaken as part of a discourse that seeks to deny the reality of White privilege. As such, it is not a discourse that is designed to address, or even call attention to the generational disadvantage experienced by the White, working-classes in Britain. In reality, by combining the inequality experienced by the White, working-class with anti-White Privilege discourses, the political right is using class to attack the work of race equality and undermine the existing impetus that they should give up their own privileges. If, after all, they accept the existence of the White Privilege possessed by the White, working-class, then they will be in a position in which they have to give up their own.

Even more threatening to them is the reality that if they accept the existence of White Privilege, they will also have to accept the existence of male privilege and middle-class privilege as well. This will put White, middle-class men in the position of having to give up their intersectional privilege, which constitutes a very real existential threat to them. What we are seeing here then is the White, middle-class political elite constructing the White, working-class of today as possessing an incapable Whiteness, as needing saving by the White, middle-class, and as attacked by race equality work, to maintain class and racial hierarchies and preserve their intersectional privilege. They are not championing the White, working-class but, rather, they are weaponising the White, working-class to reinforce their own position. They are, as ever, only championing themselves.

Bonnett, A. (1998). How the British Working Class Became White: The Symbolic (Re)formation of Racialized Capitalism. Journal of Historical Sociology, 11(3).

Booth, W. (1890/1976). “Why Darkest England?” in P. Keating, (ed). Into Unknown England, 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers, Manchester University Press.

Gavron, Dench, and Young (2006). The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict. London: Profile

Langlands, R. (1999) Britishness or Englishness? The Historical Problem of National Identity in Britain, Nations and Nationalism, 5(1), pp.53-69

Lawler, S. (2005) Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities, Sociological Review, 53(3), pp.429-446

Lawler, S. (2012) White like them: Whiteness and anachronistic space in representations of the English white working class, Ethnicities, 12(4), pp. 409–426

Mayhew, H. (1861/1967). London Labour and London Poor, 4 volumes. London: Frank Cass.

Philip, K. (2002). Race, Class and the Imperial Politics of Ethnography in India, Ireland and London, 1850-1910, Irish Studies Review, 10(3), pp. 289-302

Rex, J. and Tomlinson, S. (1979). Colonial Immigrants in a British City – A Class Analysis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Schwarz, B. (1996). “The Only White Man in there” – the re-racialisation of England 1956 – 1968, Race & Class, 38(1) pp. 65 – 78.

Senior, C. (1957). Race Relations and Labor Supply in Great Britain. Social Problems, 4(4), pp. 302-312

Sims, G. (1883/1976). “The Dark Side of Life,” in P. Keating, (ed). Into Unknown England, 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers, Manchester University Press.

Tyler, I. (2008). “Chav Mum Chav Scum”, Feminist Media Studies, 8(1), pp. 17-34

Tyler, K. (2012). Whiteness, class and the legacies of empire: on home ground. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Waters, C. (1997). “Dark Strangers” in Our Midst: Discourses of Race and Nation in Britain, 1947-1963, Journal of British Studies, 36(2), pp. 207-238

Whipple, A. (2009). Revisiting the “Rivers of Blood” Controversy: Letters to Enoch Powell, Journal of British Studies, 48(3), pp. 717-735

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

Leave a Reply