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On Racial Literacy: "A White Side of Black Britain"

[Cover of France Winddance Twine, [Cover of France Winddance Twine, "A White Side od Black Britain"

France Winddance Twine, A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Despite the central role they play in our lives, the intimate spaces of family life have unfortunately remained beyond the reach of most sociological research. This empirical blind spot has led to a surprising lack of knowledge around how people, in their private spaces shared with loved ones, think and act about social issues. There are some perfectly understandable reasons why this enormous gap in sociological knowledge exists, even given the unquestionable importance and value of research into how people really manage issues like race, class, and gender. One reason is that performing empirical research within intimate spaces requires a researcher to build trust with many individuals and families over many years. Such a project would mean a decade or more of painstaking effort. France Winddance Twine undertook exactly such a project, and she has produced a detailed, evocative, and moving study of transracial families in A White Side of Black Britain. With this study, Twine aims to reveal the operation of race, class, and gender in the usually obscured intimate spaces of family.

The book’s central concept, racial literacy, arises from Twine’s finding that knowledge about race and racism is a resource that is unequally distributed, even within transracial families. In other words, Twine shows that living in transracial spaces does not necessarily provide a greater understanding of race and racism. This racial literacy concept will prove essential for scholars working to develop knowledge on the macrosociological and microsociological dynamics of race. As implied by the book’s title, Twine takes as her focus British white women who have families with black men. The result is a fascinating text that makes contributions to the methodology of social science in addition to some surprising insights about the intimate realities of race and racism. Specifically, Twine’s concept of racial literacy is essential for scholars attempting to understand ethnically and racially diverse communities of all kinds.

Racial literacy refers to a “form of intellectual and antiracist labor…a reading practice, a way of perceiving and responding to the racial climate and racial structures that individuals encounter daily.” Those who have gained racial literacy in a given context have the ability to “recognize, name, challenge, and manage various forms of everyday racism.” For instance, racial literacy allows for an understanding that the process of buying a home is fraught with the historic and contemporary effects of racial conflict. Indeed, even something as basic as a house’s geographic location has inextricable links to racial segregation and exclusion. The complex negotiations over mortgage financing and rental agreements are profoundly impacted by racial dynamics. But for some (especially white people), these kinds of racial dynamics are all too easily ignored. Developing an awareness of these kinds of racial realities, and understanding how they impact life for individuals and at the level of the social and the political, is what it means to gain racial literacy.

After establishing this concept early in the book, Twine goes on to show how the transracial family is a key engine for teaching and expanding racial literacy throughout social networks—especially (but not exclusively) for white people. The everyday experiences of people in transracial families can provide an incubator for racial literacy in subtle and unique ways. Not every transracial family is the same, however, and Twine details many patterns of difference as well as similarities in the families that she studied. While doing so, Twine employs and extends the concept of racial literacy to connect the macrosociological elements of race and racism with the microsociological processes that she investigates with her empirical research.

Twine’s research centers on the city of Leicester, “a hosiery-manufacturing city” of around a quarter of a million people that has a small black population (2.3%) and a large South Asian population (23.7%). In her thorough description of the city’s demographics, Twine explains that Leicester was chosen as one of three designated resettlement areas for Asians expelled from Uganda. She observes that in some “local political discourses,” South Asians are both “included and excluded in the black category.” The social position of these South Asians (many of them Muslim), then, takes on a special significance for Twine’s study. She notes that the arrival of Asian immigrants led to an increase in organized white nationalism and the formation of white supremacist political parties in Leicester. Interestingly, at the same time as this surge of white nationalism, a 1991 analysis found that about half of the black men in the city had white romantic partners. Twine chose an excellent site for a study of transracial families, and her decision to focus on white/black transracial relationships is well justified. Even with her focus on white/black dynamics, she devotes considerable attention to the history of the South Asian population in Leicester, and she provides some intriguing insights into the multifaceted relationships between the different communities in this multicultural city.

Along with her empirical analysis, Twine endeavors to make a significant methodological contribution with this study as well. She conducted her research between 1995 and 2005, during which time she worked with some eighty-five members of transracial families. She calls this project an example of “longitudinal ethnography.” She devised an innovative and multi-method approach, including “racial consciousness interviews, participant observation, shadowing, archival research, media analysis, and photo-elicitation interviews.” The photo-elicitation method involves interviewing a respondent while looking through family photo albums, in order to recast memories in a different light than what was discussed in previous interviews. Twine’s methods are quite innovative, and she endeavors to place these methods into the mainstream of social science.

Throughout the book, Twine goes out of her way to discuss the ways that mainstream sociology has ignored or dismissed qualitative methods—methods that must be employed in order to understand complex, microsociological issues like race and racism. For example, while telling a story about a conversation about confronting racism between a mother and child, Twine abruptly interrupts the narrative to state that such conversations between parents and children are “practices that sociological analyses have not registered precisely because [these conversations] are improvised, informal, and in response to children’s particular daily experiences.” Later, again, she breaks into her analysis of a photo-elicitation interview, to ask why “certain forms of data collection become defined as political, while other forms are defined as neutral and scientific.” These interjections about methodology and the biases of previous sociological studies appear rather frequently in the book, and they occasionally distract from the analysis. Still, Twine demonstrates the importance of her innovative methodology, and her effective reference to previous research allows her to show in detail how this research illuminates and fills in the blanks of earlier studies.

Twine is also an expert storyteller, and it is through the book’s richly detailed stories that she demonstrates the importance of researching transracial intimacy to gain a better understanding of race, class, and gender, along with nationalism and ethnic tensions. Take, for example, her nuanced and pithy description of one of her respondents:

Justine…was described to me by several black Caribbean women as “a white woman who lives black.” Justine is employed as a youth and community coordinator for the African Caribbean Centre and lives with her daughter on a housing estate in a neighborhood that has more children of dual heritage than black children. Justine met the father of her daughter when she was fourteen, and although they never married, they remain close friends. She strongly identifies with the political and cultural battles of the African Caribbean community and views black women as her reference group.

Twine goes on to describe her meetings with Justine, showing the ways that Justine is an “ethnic equivalent” in the community. A woman who “lives black,” Justine gained a “cultural repertoire,” a concept that Twine informs us was developed in Ann Swidler’s 2001 study of white couples in the United States. Through her relationships with black men and her children, Justine has gained this “cultural repertoire,” and Twine shows how Justine’s family fits some patterns (and does not fit other patterns). Twine seamlessly integrates her data about Justine into the existing sociological literature, and thus gives us an updated framework for developing knowledge about cultural transmission through intimate spaces.

It’s easy to see the remarkable potential for this kind of research in other venues. For example, Twine’s methods and insights suggest important questions for scholars studying Arabs and Muslims, even as Twine’s empirical focus is white women in the United Kingdom. For one thing, the United Kingdom (and the West more generally) has been exporting racial ideology throughout the world, a development that unavoidably impacts Arab and Muslim communities globally. It seems likely that with the ever-increasing level of global cultural exchange, the concept of race and the prevalence of racism may affect how transnational families navigate the world, no matter the geographic location or social context. Twine’s study provides some guideposts for investigating these dynamics. In addition, Twine’s analysis reminds us that the concept of whiteness as applied to “Middle Eastern” populations (in the West and elsewhere) is contradictory and complex. In short, Twine’s innovative research, which uses a combination of cutting-edge sociological methodologies, suggests new avenues for study in diverse communities around the world.

Twine’s research exposes how the links between political, macrosociological forces and the private, intimate, microsociological events of everyday life remain sadly unexplored. Virtually any context with racial/ethnic/nationalist diversity would greatly benefit from the kind of “longitudinal ethnography” developed by Twine. Leicester specifically, and Britain more generally, should learn a lot from Twine’s analysis, which takes into account the local, regional, and global dynamics that are refracted by transracial intimacy.

Consider Twine’s conclusions about the significance of racial literacy among white members of transracial families, for example. Twine demonstrates emphatically that intimacy itself—having transracial children, building a family—does not automatically transmit racial literacy to white people. She goes on to give five specific patterns that

distinguish the white members of transracial families who acquired forms of racial literacy from those who did not: 1) the racial and ethnic composition of their friendship networks…; 2) informal education from friendship networks, political affiliations, and experience in antiracist political groups; 3) exposure to overt white racism…; 4) relationships with black women; and 5) the racial consciousness of their children’s black father or their domestic partner. White parents, like black parents, can learn to decode, recognize, evaluate, and counter the racist climate in their neighborhoods.

Imagine a similar study of transracial families in Jerusalem, for example. This study might identify similar patterns about the discursive transmission of racial and cultural literacy between Palestinian and Israeli family members (and/or between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, or between Muslim and Christian…).

The research strategies and microsociological dynamics that Twine has identified in this book will undoubtedly prove essential for any scholar undertaking such difficult and valuable projects.

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