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Travels in Negotiations: Difference, Identity, Politics


Avtar Brah
Journal of Creative Communications 2007; 2; 245
DOI: 10.1177/097325860700200212
The online version of this article can be found at:
http://crc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/2/1-2/245

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DOI: 10.1177/097325860700200212

Travels in Negotiations: Difference, Identity, Politics


AVTAR BRAH
There are three parts to the article. First, it addresses the figure of the Asian in British cultural formation,
charting the major changes in its configuration since World War II. Second, it considers negotiations
through the terrain of feminism, with particular reference to the debate between black and white
feminism. And third, it addresses certain debates and issues across the field of difference and identity.

I have lived on four of the five continents of the globeAfrica, Asia, America and Europe.
These experiences of displacement and dispersal have rendered questions of difference, solidarity and identity central to my work. During the 1970s I came to Britain from the USA where
I had been an undergraduate studying agriculture. It was in Britain that I switched to the
social sciences. This was the heyday of political movements such as socialism, feminism and
anti-racism. I was influenced by these movements and the insights gained from this political
activity fed into my academic work. In America the civil rights movement, feminism and the
anti-materialist ethos of the Hippy movement held sway. In Britain the 1970s and the 1980s
were marked by class politics, feminism and anti-racism. Engagement with these involved all
manner of conceptual and political navigation and negotiation. Today I address three strands
of my work. First, I think through the figure of the Asian in British cultural formation. Second,
I consider my negotiations through the terrain of feminism. And third, I address certain debates and issues across the field of difference and identity.

FIGURE OF THE ASIAN IN BRITISH CULTURAL FORMATION


I began my academic career at Bristol University and completed my Ph.D. part-time. In my
Ph.D. I addressed inter-generational change among South Asian and white groups. Among
other things, my thesis entailed interrogating stereotypic representations of young Asians
and their parents. The media, professional and political opinion of the 1970s and 1980sall
tended to depict Asian youth predominantly as the object of culture clash or intergenerational conflict. It was argued that a young Asian growing up in Britain is exposed to
two cultures, one at home
and the other at school, and as a result, the young person experiences
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stress and identity conflicts. This argument was problematic on several counts. First, to posit

Journal of Creative Communications 2:1&2 (2007): 245256

a notion of two cultures is to suggest that there is only one British and one Asian culture.
Yet, as we know, there are some significant differences in the upper-, middle- and workingclass cultures of Britain, with each further differentiated according to region and gender.
Similarly, Asian cultures are differentiated according to class, caste, region, religion and gender.
Therefore, theoretically at least, there would seem to be as many possibilities of intra-ethnic
as of inter-ethnic clashes of culture. To think in terms of a simple bipolar cleavage, then, is
untenable.
Second, the caricature invoked by terms such as between two cultures, culture clash and
identity conflict, which portrayed young Asians as disoriented, confused and atomised individuals, was not supported by the evidence. This is not to deny that some young Asians may
indeed experience conflicts, and that some aspects of this dissonance could well be associated
with specific cultural practices. The problem arises when this explanation becomes a central
paradigm for addressing Asian peoples experiences.
Another variation on the theme of cultural clash came into play when uncertainties of
life cycle transitions were explained primarily by attributing them to the effects of intergenerational conflict. The argument was presented along the lines that young Asians growing
up in Britain internalize Western values that are at variance with the traditional worldview of their parents; and in the process of emulating Western forms of behaviour, youth
comes into conflict with the parental generation. Undoubtedly, the potential for conflict between generations is always there. But, inter-generational difference should not be conflated
with conflict. The emergence of conflict cannot be predicted in advance, not least because intergenerational relationship might easily have been negotiated and managed in such a way as to
favour understanding and shared perspectives. The parental age group may not always be
as inflexible as is sometimes assumed. The great majority of post-War Asian immigrants
were themselves quite young and impressionable when they first migrated to this country.
They too have been subjected to new influences. That is to say that they are not always oblivious
to the cross-pressures that bear upon their children. Indeed, the incidence of conflict may
be no higher than amongst white young people and their parents.
Finally, the emphasis on culture clash disavows the possibility of cultural interaction and
fusion. There is no a priori reason to suppose that cultural encounters will invariably entail
conflict. Conflict may or may not ensue and, instead, cultural symbiosis, improvization and
innovation may emerge as a far more probable scenario, as has been the case with South Asian
groups. Media now talks about Asian Cool and Asian cultural innovations are increasingly
viewed as simultaneously Asian and British. But back in the 1970s and the 1980s there seemed
to be an implicit assumption in much of this debate that cultural transmigration is a oneway traffic. Hence, the centuries of cultural contact and mutual influence between Asian and
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British cultural forms was rarely acknowledged. Indeed, South Asias earlier cultural and
commercial links with Europe extend back to the Greek and Roman times when the Western
hemisphere was not yet known as Europe, and Greece and Rome freely acknowledged their
indebtedness to the East and to Africa (Hiro 1971). Hence, indirectly, Britain has carried the
imprint of Asia, Africa and the Middle East for at least two millennia. The point is that intercultural travel across the globe is an ancient phenomenon, and Britain is constituted out of
these multifarious influences. The more recent, post-War cultural interactions and reconfigurations within Britain have their own historically specific features, but the influence remains
irreducibly multi-directional.
The period since the 1990 has been hugely eventful with wars, genocides, traffic in people,
and political resurrections all over the world as its mainstay. The reconfiguration of the global
balance of power following the demise of the Cold War, the attack on Twin Towers in New
York, and the two Gulf Wars have all combined to create a global crisis. As is increasingly
acknowledged even by sceptics, the contemporary world is being reinvented through a new
form of imperialism. The figure of the Asian has been impacted upon by these global changes
in a particularly acute way. The publication of Salaman Rushdies Satanic Verses and the subsequent fatwa of 1989 by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issuing death sentence on Rushdie
converted a relatively local British event into a global incident of major proportions. For years
the Rushdie Affair, as it came to be known, sharply divided public opinion. There emerged
a simplistic and dangerous binary through which opponents of the book became represented
as deluded, backward and uncivilized in contrast to the supposedly enlightened liberal supporters of Rushdie. This binary became a prime site for mobilizing anti-Muslim opinion in
Britain and abroad. The figure of the Asian was now fractured in a new way across religious
lines creating a post-colonial positionality of Muslim/nonMuslim.
One significant outcome of the wide circulation of this binary was that among Muslims it
became the basis of a new consciousness of a pan-national Muslim political identity. There is
now the powerful discourse of the terrorist that can pounce on and instantly criminalize a
wide variety of suspects. Among these, the young South Asian- or Middle Eastern-looking
young men, especially Muslims, are assumed to be prime suspects. The them and us division
has been fuelled by circulating racist discourses, including gendered discourses that
pathologize the lives of Muslim women. Indeed, the figure of the veiled woman is a significant
icon that is mobilized both locally as in places such as Blackburn, and globally in the White
House by the president of the USA and his colleagues, and indeed at No. 10, when they claim
to have gone to war in order to free the veiled women. Unveiling the Eastern woman is, of
course, a long-standing fantasy of Orientalist discourses. But rarely have we seen her made
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into such an overt centrepiece of transnational politics. The image of veiled woman is seen as
the epitome of Eastern backwardness and unreason.
Orientalism is a key dynamic within current political regimes. For instance, on a visit to
the British forces in Basra in Iraq, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, described the soldiers
as the new pioneers of soldiering who were there to deal with the threat of rogue states and
the virus of Islamic extremism that could reduce the world system to chaos (Guardian 2004).
Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Eric Hobesbwam discusses the dangers of this new imperialism with the USA at its helm. The British empire, he says, was probably the only one that
was global insofar as it operated across the planet. But it saw its purpose as that of championing
British interests. The new empire on the other hand sees itself as having a universal purpose
and, as Hobesbawm argues, Few things are more dangerous than empires pursuing their
own interest in the belief that they are doing humanity a favour(Guardian 2003). All this has
created a state of siege climate amongst South Asian Muslim communities. In contrast to
the 1970s and 1980s image of young Asians, especially those with higher education qualifications, as being supposedly more Westernized and by implication somehow less traditional,
the educated young people of today are more likely to be viewed as posing a threat. This is
partly due to the backgrounds of the young men who are supposed to have masterminded
the attack on Twin Towers as well as the suicide bombers of 7 July in London. Asian British
identities are in flux and whatever form these political and cultural identities, take they are
closely interwoven into the British social and cultural fabric

FEMINIST CONTESTATIONS
The second academic and political development that has impacted centrally on my work is
feminism. I now turn to a particular moment in feminist debate when attention was focussed
on the question of how to address issues of race in relation to gender and class. Among other
things, it entailed a particular intervention by feminists of colour. It is important to revisit
the main points of this debate as it has been critical to feminist transformations in Britain
and the USA. It led to the emergence of women of colour as a political subject.
Feminist theory has been at the forefront of new directions in political, social and cultural
theory. These developments are inherently indebted to the internal critique within feminism
made by women of color who have been pivotal in raising questions of difference around
such social axis as class, racism, ethnicity, sexuality and the problematic of global inequities.
The critique consists of debates that emerged through political contestation both within and
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outside the womens movement. They had a particular resonance in post-World War II North
America and Britain. Hence, my focus is upon the anglophone debate in these two
geographical locations.
Emergence of the Woman of Colour as a Political Subject

The terms women of color and white women throw into relief the political nature of discourses and practices through which these terms emerged as political subjects and became
conceptual components of social, political and cultural theory. They show how seemingly
neutral words such as colour may assume specic meanings in different contexts so that, as
in this instance, the colour of whiteness is placed into question. The political subject of women
of colour decentres whiteness as a modality of power.
In the USA political tensions in feminism surrounding the interrelationship between race
and other factors such as class and gender date back to the anti-slavery campaigns. During
the decade of the1830s, for example, American women became increasingly active in the
abolitionist movement where they learnt to champion their own right to engage in political
work and where their experience of relative marginalization compelled them to form separate
womens anti-slavery societies. The first female anti-slavery society was formed in 1832 by
black women in Salem, Massachusetts, followed by similar societies established by white
women in other locations. Paradoxically, when the motion for womens suffrage was first
introduced amid immense controversy at the Seneca Falls Anti-Slavery Convention of 1848,
black women were conspicuous by their absence. This omission was surprising, especially as
black women already had brought into the arena of public debate issues such as womens
education, which the Convention was only just beginning to address. In May of 1866, when
women decided to establish an Equal Rights Association incorporating struggles for black
emancipation and womens suffrage into a single campaign, a number of eminent speakers,
including the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, argued against it. In class terms, too, this was
predominantly a middle-class womens movement. Whilst a few individual black women, as
for instance Sojourner Truth, were able to participate in specific events, nonetheless, the
movement overall did not take on board the contradictory relationship between racism and
class, or the question of sexuality in any significant way. Nor was the plight of native American
peoples or non-European immigrants an identifiable feature of these debates and activities
(Davis 1981).
In Britain, as in the USA, the early womens rights movement and later the Suffragists failed
to give sufficient priority to the needs of working-class women or the issue of race. This is
not to deny that there were some women as, for example, Annie Besant, who was active on
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the anti-colonial front as well as on gender issues, and Sylvia Pankhurst, who placed considerable emphasis on the conditions of the working class. Nevertheless, the effects of racism and
class inequality did not become a major feminist concern at this stage. Such amnesia about
issues of race cannot be attributed to the lack of presence of people of Irish, Jewish, African
and South Asian descentthe primary target of racisms of the periodbecause they were
far from absent in Britain. Moreover, the history of the discourse of race is inter-linked with
slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust of Jews, gays and gypsies. Racism, therefore, can be
said to be one of the key factors in the formation of Western societies. Yet a significant number
of early publications by second wave feminists seemed to display a certain disregard of racism
as an internal feature of Western patriarchal relations. This neglect drew critical scrutiny
from anti-racist women, especially women of color. One of the first critiques was launched
by the Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian feminist organization from Boston, USA.
In 1977 they produced a document that demonstrates the complexity of theorizing womens
subordination when analysing experiences based on simultaneous inter-section of diverse
forms of injustice: The Collective advocates the development of inte-grated analysis and
practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. Pointing
to the global dimensions of gender, the text speaks of the impact of political- and economic
systems of capitalism and imperialism, and emphasizes the question of institutional racism
as well as what they call racism in the white womens movement. In taking a stance against
biological determinism, this feminist discourse articulates a certain non-essentialism even as
its notion of identity politics would seem to exemplify what Gyatri Spivak later defined as
strategic essentialism. This text challenges essentialist readings of skin tone or physical appearance as inherent difference and disrupts any notion of woman as a unitary category.
Black British Feminism

Black British feminism played a key role in this debate. In Britain during the 1970s the American
term women of colour came to be figured as black. This was a consequence of coalition
politics among women of African, Caribbean, and South Asian descent who borrowed the
black power vocabulary but re-signifed black to embrace all non-white people. The concept
of black was designed to substitute the colonial term coloured. Black British feminism was
forged through the work of local organizations around issues such as wages and conditions
of work, immigration laws, reproductive rights and domestic violence. By 1978 local organizations had combined to form a national organization called the Organization of Women of
African and Asian Descent, generally known as OWAAD. I was involved in the formation of
Southall Black Sisters, a local organization in West London, and later a similar organization
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in Leicester. Both were affiliated to OWAAD, and Southall Black Sisters is still very active in
feminist politics. Intellectual and political conversations within OWAAD addressed issues of
class, race and gender whilst remaining alive to the importance of cultural differences. Cultural
difference was acknowledged and worked through from a position of mutual respect. These
debates prefigured later theories of difference. The publications produced by black women
represent intellectual interventions through work that was the outcome of collective thinking.
Their arguments marked a fundamental shift in feminist thinking and led to new directions.
One major source of intellectual and political sustenance for me has been the journal Feminist
Review, which is produced by an editorial collective of which I am a member. Some of the
key debates on questions of gender, class and racism took place in the pages of the Feminist
Review.
Post-modernism and Feminist Theories

Feminist theories of the 1970s and 1980 were informed by conceptual repertoires drawn
largely from modernist theoretical and philosophical traditions of European Enlightenment
such as liberalism and Marxism. The post-modernist critique of these perspectives, including
their claims to universal applicability, had precursors within anti-colonial, anti-racist and
feminist critical practice. Post-modern theoretical approaches found sporadic expression in
Anglophone feminist works from the late 1970s. But during the 1990s they became quite a
significant influence, in particular their post-structuralist variant. The encounter between antiracism and post-structuralist perspectives provided some novel insights. For example, it was
no longer tenable to conceptualize white feminism and black feminism as if they were mutually
exclusive entities, each carrying some unchanging trans-historical essence. Contrary to
analysis where process is reified and understood as personified in the bodies of individuals,
these two distinctive yet overlapping sets of feminisms came now to be understood as representing historically contingent relationships and contesting fields of discourses. The concept
of agency was reconfigured through post-structuralist appropriations of psychoanalysis in
order to take account of psychic and emotional life. Post-structuralist insistence that meaning
is relational, that subjectivity and identity are not products but ongoing processes, that power
can be both productive and coercive, that subordination can occur through inclusion as much
as exclusionall this means that the post-structuralist paradigm has much in common with
theoretical interventions made by black feminism.
One feature of some recent work, including mine, is a concern with the potential of combining strengths of modern theory with post-modern insights. This work has taken several
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forms. Some developments are grouped under the rubric of post-colonial theory. Scholars
of postcolonial studies remind us that both the metropolis and the colony were altered
deeply by the colonial process, and that these articulating histories have a mutually constitutive
role in the present. Some scholars have attempted to combine post-structualist approaches
with neo-Marxist or psychoanalytic theories. A related development is associated with valorization of the term diaspora. The concept of diaspora is increasingly used in examining
the mobilities of people, cultures, capital and commodities in the context of globalization and
transnationalism. The concept is designed to analyse configurations of power in local and
global encounters. In my work I use the concept of diaspora space as a Foucauldian genealogy
that is reconfigured through psychoanalysis. Questions of identity and difference are central
to this framework, and it is to these that I now turn.

DIFFERENCE IN IDENTITY
Questions of difference, diversity and identity are central to examining diasporic spatialites.
The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a plethora of critiques
that served to interrogate the ways in which certain strands of Enlightenment thought could
legitimate their highly particular and subjective outlook as a universal and objective worldview. Despite these critiques, however, this world-view continues to thrive. Indeed, it may be
argued that it found its apotheosis in the Iraq war and we are still living with its fallout. The
stakes in the analysis and politics of difference are indeed high. The problem is that the term
means different things to different people, and its usage is beset with difficulties. In part the
problem is inherent in language itself, insofar as the words we use as concepts are simultaneously used as part of everyday acts of communication. We tend to assume that we all know
what commonly used terms such as difference and identity actually mean. Of course, there is
a sense in which this is partially true. These terms could not have become part of everyday
lived culture if this were not the case. But it is important to bear in mind that by the time a
word becomes part of what Gramsci calls our commonsense, it has already been refracted
through multiple mediations and is not transparently knowable; certainly, it cannot mean the
same thing to everyone in precisely the same way. Understandably, then, commonsense terminology is likely to become even more opaque when converted into theoretical concepts.
The notion of difference cannot be analysed within the confines of a single academic discipline: its very complexity reveals the limits of disciplinary boundaries. Yet interdisciplinary
study is not without its own difficulties, since the concept of difference is associated with varied
and sometimes conflicting meanings within different theoretical frameworks and subject
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disciplines. Bringing them together into conversation (a task that I have found singularly
productive) may, however, lead to talking at cross-purposes unless the distinctive meaning
of concepts within differing academic or political projects are clarified and spelt out.
In the fields of philosophy and political theory, for instance, the concept of difference has
served as the site for developing a critique of the nature of modern Western thought with the
aim of decentring the concept of identity. Within linguistics and literary theory, the concept
has played its part in the critique of structuralism. Post-structuralist theories of difference
draw upon insights from philosophy and theories of language in rethinking the process of
signification. In anthropology and the emergent field of cultural studies, attention is centred
on the problematic of cultural difference. In feminist theory the concept of difference has been
productively utilized in interrogating differences within the category womandifferences
of class, ethnicity, generation and so on. In psychoanalysis difference signals the trauma of
separation, an ongoing process throughout adulthood but one that is set in train during infancy. In post-colonial and anti-racist theory the idea of difference has been theorized as the
relationship of metropolis and colony as articulating elements. On the other hand, there are
essentialist constructions of difference. An example of this would be the discourse of race as
a basis for dividing humanity into categories of inherent, immutable differences, the effects
of which may be witnessed in the multifarious processes of racism.
This partial and far from exhaustive list of different intellectual discourses of difference
has a special bearing on the analytical frame for the study of alterity with which I have been
trying to work, in that it draws on insights from these various sources. This frame operates
with a complex of concepts designed to address questions of subjectivity and identity in their
entanglements with socio-economic, political and cultural processes, which, in our era, entail
encounters with late capitalist social relations.
How might we simultaneously hold on to social, cultural and psychic dimensions in our
analysis of the problematic of difference/identity? I have tried to do this in part by analysing
difference along four intersecting axes:
1.
2.
3.
4.

theorized as social relation in the sociological sense;


explored in terms of human experience;
understood as subjectivity; and
analysed in terms of social identity.

Of course, the problematic of difference is also the problematic of identity. Here, like many
others, I have found Derridas singularly innovative concept of diffrance especially helpful
with its simultaneous invocation of differ and deferral. Identity, then, is always in process,
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never an absolutely accomplished fact, although experientially it may feel much more solid
and finished than a process. Analytically, the issue is to tease out what it means when someone
refers to having identity. How is the term being used? Here it may be helpful to make a distinction between social identity and identity understood as subjectivity. This distinction is
crucial even though the two facets of identity are far from mutually exclusive. Processes involved in the constitution of subjectivity are marked by contradictory processes of identification, projection, disavowal, desire and ambivalence. But when we proclaim a specific social
identity, this is a conscious action seeking to make sense of self in relation to everyday life.
To the extent that any conscious claim to identity is both socially and psychically contingent,
the coherence and centred quality of self that is invoked is a deferral of difference, as Stuart
Hall has so cogently and persuasively argued for many years. On the other hand political identities are by definition attempts at creating shared, common goals through conscious agency.
The two need to be distinguished in analysis even as they are virtually impossible to separate
in life.
Social and political identities entail bringing issues into the public arena. In saying this, I
do not wish to endorse the public/private binary that feminist scholars have so convincingly
critiqued. I merely wish to indicate that political identities are formed through social practice
and belong, in large part, to the arena of public action. I have come across opposition to
post-structuralist notions of identity as decentred, fragmented and in process, on the grounds
that such a conception does not provide a basis for political action. I do not think that this is
the case. The idea of identity as fragmented refers predominantly to the processes of subjectivity, and not to conscious political action, although conscious action is always marked by
interior emotional investments, ruptures and contradictions. Jane Flax makes a helpful distinction between a sense of coherent self that all subjects need for purposeful action, in
contrast to the idea of an essential core that a human is born with and which merely flowers
in the fullness of time. Unconscious life continually articulates with conscious action, making
voluntaristic notions of agency problematic.
Conscious agency and unconscious subjective forces are enmeshed in the everyday rituals
of eating, shopping, watching television, listening to music, attending political meetings or
other social activities. These rituals provide the site on which a sense of belonginga sense
of identitymay be forged in the process of articulating its difference from other peoples
way of doing things. I have called this desire to belong a homing desire (Brah 1996). But what
is socially important is the way in which these differences are understood. It depends on
whether such differences are simply accepted as unproblematic ways of doing things differently,
or whether they are invested with negative value.
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Identity may be understood as diasporzed time-space. In terms of our identifications, we


are all diasporized across multiple social and psychic borders, and the homing desire is a
desire for security and belonging. The political question is how we help create socio-economic
and political conditions that are conducive to the nurture of caring and empathetic subjectivities. My thinking about diasporicity across space and time is embedded in the memory
of an incident in my undergraduate days in California when I was studying Einsteins theory
of relativity alongside poetry. I was fascinated by common insights and thematics in these
two very different discourses of physics and poetry. Recently, I went back to the theory of relativity that I find fascinating but still hugely difficult to fathom. But this time something
that Einstein says made a different kind of sense: I wished to show that space-time is not necessarily something to which one can ascribe a separate existence, independently of the actual
objects of physical reality. Physical objects are not in space, but these objects are spatially extended. In this way the concept empty space loses its meaning (1961: 2).
Space, then, does not exist outside of its conditions of existence, outside the meanings it
assumes in discursive practices. Einstein is referring to physical objects, but his ideas seem to
apply also to human subjects. If the metaphor of space-time is to serve as an analytical tool,
it is necessary to specify the conditions under which designate spatialities and temporalities
assume particular configurations of power. A focus upon the spatiality of global relations today, for example, draws attention to the varied discourses of globalization emanating from a
wide range of sources: from the high citadels of the IMF, World Bank and corporate capital,
through political discourses of nation-states, to the voices of environmentalists and other campaigners, and to the narratives of displacement by refugees, asylum seekers and labour migrants. These different discourses have different consequences. As Doreen Massey argues, some
discourses of globalization ignore economic and political forces that treat people as disposable
labour, and subject large sections of the worlds population to poverty, hunger and disenfranchisement. Faced with the uncertainties unleashed by radical social change, people
become increasingly susceptible to appeals to political discourses of identity such as nationalism. It is not surprising, therefore, that appeals to essentialist forms of group identity lead
to situations of conflict all over the world. Few of us are impervious to the emotional undertones of the discourse of my people. So we need to be aware of our own responses as much
as those of others.
The need to address questions of difference and identity remains important for both political and analytical reasons. Politically, it is important that we challenge practices that subordinate and oppress people deemed to be different.
We need an everyday politics geared to foster networks of solidarity and connectivity
without erasing the uniqueness of others.
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REFERENCES
Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London and New York: Routledge.
Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race and Class. London: Womens Press.
Einstein, A. (1961). Relativity: Special and General Theory. New York: Crown.
Guardian. 2004. 5 January.
Guardian. 2003. 14 June.
Hiro, D. (1971). Black British, White British. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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