The Politics of Kindness

by Les Back

I want to extend my deep gratitude to everyone who came to the New Urban Multicultures event on 17th May, 2016. What an extraordinary day it was. It meant so much to me to be honoured in this way by the words of so many people I admire but also by such a gathering across different generations of writers, researchers, musicians and artists. So first and foremost my deep, deep thanks to organizers, Emma Jackson and Anamik Saha, the speakers and also the attendees, many of whom travelled great distances to be there. Your presence was a truly prodigious gift.

I don’t think I have ever been at an academic event where time passed so quickly, or where I felt almost physically torn between clashing sessions that I wish I could have attended somehow simultaneously.  The generous appreciation and imaginative reading of that old book was nothing short of a marvel. It was like listening to a life summed up in a posthumous tribute without having to go through the indignity of suffering my own demise.

George Shire’s characterization at the end will stay with me always: “Listening to understand not just to respond.” That is exactly what I have aspired to in my work. George caught something deep too – as he very often does – when he named this style of thought and reasoning as a “politics of kindness.” As I looked back at you all from the podium that idea took on a kaleidoscopic human face.

At the end after a very long but exhilarating day, I spectacularly faltered in answering the question “how would I have done the research differently” or how “I would advise a student doing a similar study today?” I had to smile to myself because later I realized it was a staple PhD viva question, one that I’d exasperated many a PhD candidate with myself.   Looking down the list of speakers too, I realised that I had examined the PhDs of nine of them. It served me right. I said in response I’d “need to think about it” and indeed I have.

While New Ethnicities and Urban Culture contains nods to feminist, postmodern and postcolonial critiques of ethnography, it was written within a standard mode of anthropological realism. The lone ethnographic participant and documenting what was seen and heard. I felt a deep tension between being part of those social worlds, while the act of writing about them set me apart at the same time.

I tried to stay in contact with many of the people but by the same token I lost connection with so many. That unevenness is still haunting because of the imbalances of power, control and ultimately reward within the process of writing. Perhaps that is why I have given the royalties away to the Pete Jones Fund and why I struggled to answer ‘the viva question’.

I think one of the things I would do differently would be to have developed a deeper sense of ongoing dialogue, not just a live sociology but also a more sociable one. I am imagining an augmented ethnographic practice that would allow and facilitate a greater openness of representational space where the voices and understandings of participants can appear alongside the ethnographer’s interpretations.

Culture here would be written within but also beyond words. Texts collaged alongside pages that also become screens including moving images, still photography, soundscapes and music. A kind of ethnographic practice that would make residents into the observers of their own lives, it would generate a mode of commentary on their own lives in their own voices. Curated digitally this gallery of commentary might be linked across common questions or coded themes. These voices could be assembled and then reassembled logarithmically through the variegated dimensions of their relatedness.

While I don’t go back to New Ethnicities and Urban Culture, perhaps for some of the reasons I have mentioned already, it was truly wonderful to listen to the presenters at the conference doing so.   I was struck by how Gargi Bhattacharyya and Hannah Jones took quotations from the participants in the book to set up and support their own arguments. These voices – initially scribbled in notebooks or transcribed from tape recordings thirty years ago – sang out with such vitality and still seemed so relevant.  I was so proud of that.

So thanks again, particularly to George Shire for summing up better than I am able to. I would be happy with his words as an epitaph, perhaps etched into a Deptford pavement slab repurposed as a makeshift tombstone: “Here lies Les Back – an exponent of the politics of kindness. Rest in Peace.”


(‘back to Back’ by Alex Rhys-Taylor)


Keeping the conversation going

Wow, what a day! Once we get our breath back I am sure Emma and I will write a short reflection on the wonderful conference we had yesterday. Thank you to everyone who
participated and who made it such an engaging, thought-provoking and fun day.

In the meantime, do check out a 2-day conference organised by our good friends Malcolm James (one of our plenary speakers) and Naaz Rashid at the University of Sussex, called New Racisms II: Neoliberalism and its Others. It has a truly amazing line-up of speakers and will develop many of the themes and issues discussed yesterday.

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Metropolitan Paradoxes: Then and Now

by Les Back

Stuart Hall reflected towards the end of his life that he never thought that the drift towards a deeply profound ‘never going back multiculture’ was ever going to happen without conflict. It has been 20 years since New Ethnicities and Urban Culture was published, it was my first big project, going back to that book and thinking about it again, I was always committed to exploring the paradoxical combinations of hybridity and how soundproofing around culture never holds, and that more complex forms of tradition are carried in combination with emerging forms of improvisation or change. That is just how people live.

When I was trying to make sense of what I had learned from trying to understand south London life in the late 1980s, the writing of Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Parminder Bhachu, Kobena Mercer, Ann Phoenix all offered interpretive tools to understand what was unfolding at the bus stop or in the youth club.   It was always paradoxical, it was always in my mind a matter of trying to makes sense of the structural damages of power and also trying to find ways to attend to listen and record the complexity of how people lived. The relationship of the past and the present coalesce as people move into the future.

Our society suffers tremendously from the affliction of forgetting. Our intellectual spheres and intellectual cultures also suffer chronically from amnesia. Questions of new ethnicities and cultural hybridity had a kind of affective grip at the time because they offered a way out of the straight jackets of cultural pathology that post-colonial migrants were subjected to. Whether it is cultures in crisis and all of that stuff, those ideas had a real political edge that I think has been forgotten. That was the politics of the intervention around culture.

Now writing about cultural hybridity, diversity and creativity, and I don’t think they are unimportant things, can suffer from not seeing those forms of expression as profoundly situated within the structural limitations of economic division, surveillance and racially coded policing and all of those deep structural cleavages. The danger is of operating within a ‘thin culturalism’ or a ‘thin understanding of hybridity’ in that it doesn’t connect with economic and political power and inequality.   What is inspiring to me is that this event has brought together such a wealth of work and people who are committed to understanding how racism co-exists with patterns of culture that embody its convivial overcoming.

In/visible femininities, whiteness and migration

Given the strong links between national/ist discourses and the idea of the family in a wider context where who is ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ of state resources is constantly picked over by the press, perhaps it is unsurprising that ‘the migrant mother’ has emerged as a target of tabloid angst. Too many children, not good enough English, not doing enough to prevent radicalisation, the migrant mother becomes held up as a figure of blame. However, exactly who the figure of the ‘bad migrant mother’ is is enmeshed with racialised fears, islamophobia and shifting anxieties about particular forms of migration. As some of the papers in our conference explore, there are ‘new hierarchies of belonging‘ within the category of ‘migrant’ (see also Kirsten Forkert and Sukhwant Dhaliwal’s paper).

Agata Lisiak‘s paper on the experiences of Polish mothers living in UK and German cities approaches these questions about visibility, whiteness and migration, asking: ‘Can whiteness render the migrant condition invisible? Can Poles pass for Germans or Brits in their new places of residence? Do they even want to?’ The paper focuses particularly on how ‘blending in’ is bound up with particular performances and judgements about femininity.

Agata’s findings also make an important contribution by contextualising migrant mothering experiences – particularly, in the case of her research participants, feelings of relative safety and security – within the bigger picture of austerity in Europe, she writes:

‘As austerity policies in Britain have disproportionately targeted women and children, it may seem surprising that recent immigrants feel safe there. It is important to remember, however, that Poland and other not-so-new-anymore EU member states have been experiencing austerity ever since the demise of communist regimes in 1989-1991 – and that it is predominantly women who have been acutely affected by these transformations. Feminization of poverty is a widespread phenomenon across Eastern Europe and South East Europe as Slavenka Drakulic discloses in her essay evocatively titled How Women Survived Post-Communism (And Didn’t Laugh). To those familiar with everyday realities of mothering in postcommunist countries, having children in the UK appears to be a much easier task – despite all the cuts, despite the exorbitant cost of childcare, even despite the geographical distance separating immigrants from their families and friends they could have otherwise relied on when it comes to child rearing.’ Affordable Mothering and Respectability

You can read more about Agata’s research here and the larger TRANSFORmig project here

Agata Lisiak will be presenting her paper ‘In/visible femininities and whiteness in migration and urban contexts’ in the panel New (new!) ethnicities/identities in PSH 314 12-1.15pm.


Back to Back: Revisiting Ethnographies, Past and Present

by Teresa Piacentini and Alistair Fraser

In New Ethnicities and Urban Culture (1996), Les Back begins by discussing the partial nature of the stories told by ethnographers. Quoting James Clifford, Back notes that ‘even the best ethnographic texts … are systems, or economies, of truth. Power and history work through them, in ways their authors cannot fully control’ (Clifford 1986: 7, cited in Back 1996: 5). This conference, in some ways, will revisit and reflect on Back’s contribution in precisely this way. Through modesty and reflexivity, Back sought to render explicit the partialities of his ethnographic story-telling. Yet, as the quote from Clifford attests, broader social forces will undoubtedly have worked through the text in ways that were not visible at the time. In our paper, titled ‘Friendly City, Violent City’, we aim to contribute to this discussion of ethnographic practice, and the revisiting of ethnographic texts, through reflection on our own studies in the city of Glasgow.

Alistair’s study was carried out in the years 2006-2010, and consisted of a community-based ethnography examining young people’s understandings and experiences of youth ‘gangs’. The study was carried out in Langview, a deindustrialised working-class community in Glasgow, and focused on a group of ‘likely lads’ in the community, a group of white, Scottish males aged 14-16. Teresa’s study (2007 – 2010) explored the associational experiences of mainly Francophone African asylum seeker and refugee-led groups in dispersal sites cross Glasgow. The research studied processes of community, identity and belonging in a number of predominantly white, working-class neighbourhoods. A few years ago, we wrote a chapter for a book called New Directions in Race, Ethnicity and Crime (Phillips and Webster 2013) in which we tried to bring these two projects into dialogue. In brief, we argued that there were notable points of intersection between these disparate groups: both street-based youth and precarious migrants are often co-located in spaces of urban marginality; receive censure through societal labelling as ‘gangs’ and ‘asylum-seekers’; experience territorial immobility and stigma; and seek out strategies for creating belonging and security within these confines. In particular, we engaged with Soja’s concept of ‘thirdspace’ and Back’s notion of ‘neighbourhood nationalism’ to work through these ideas.

Since the publication of this chapter, the spaces of encounter we charted in our respective research sites have changed, as has the city of Glasgow and our own research interests; we thought it might be interesting to bring these into dialogue once again. In the paper, we re-evaluate the concepts of ‘thirdspace’ and ‘neighbourhood nationalism’ against this backdrop.


Back, L. (1996) New ethnicities and urban culture: racisms and multiculture in young lives. London : UCL Press

Phillips, C. and Webster, C. (eds.) (2013) New Directions in Race, Ethnicity and Crime (Routledge).

Teresa Piacentini and Alistair Fraser will be presenting their paper ‘Friendly City, Violent City: Youth Gangs, Precarious Migrants and ‘Neighbourhood Nationalism’ in the panel Multiculture in public spaces and neighbourhoods in PSH316 10.30-11.45.

‘Bench men’ in the square

While much urban research focuses on encounters with difference in public space – characterised by Neal et al (2013) as ‘the convivial, everyday turn’ – an under-explored element of this is a consideration of how different kinds of encounters are made possible or shut down by processes of urban re/development and the construction of new spaces. This is one of the reasons I am looking forward to Ben Rogaly and Clare Rishbeth’s conference paper on the social life of a newly developed square in Woolwich. Their paper explores how such places, which may look inhospitable, can be adapted and used in ways by other publics than the imaginary figures who pepper architectural designs. In a blog from ‘The Bench Project‘ Ben writes:

1446738844.png‘It was the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, a warm July day. The big screen in the middle of Woolwich’s General Gordon Square broadcast live coverage of the memorial service at St Paul’s. Immediately to the north of the square a developer’s billboards proclaimed the ‘luxury of choice’ for new residents with the imminent arrival of Crossrail: a fourteen minute journey into Central London or working from home. Yet people lingering, loitering and passing through the square spoke to Samprada and I of their enjoyment of this part of the newly gentrifying space in very different terms, as a space of social connection, of hope, and of respite’ Ben Rogaly ‘The Luxury of Choice’

The people Ben encounters in this square include a mother and her disabled daughter, school children and the self proclaimed ‘bench men’ who drink and socialise in the square. While the square provides ‘mutual regard, recognition and acknowledgement’ Ben and Clare’s paper also poses questions about the future of these kinds of spaces, given the  whitening and gentrification of the wider area.

The paper is based on a bigger project on the social life of benches and I’d recommend a look at a clip from one the films from the project, available here.

Clare Rishbeth and Ben Rogaly will be presenting their paper with Jasber Singh from the Greenwich Inclusion Project  ‘A space of hope, here and now: temporary respite and sociality sitting outside in a Woolwich square’ in the panel Multiculture in public spaces and neighbourhood in PSH316 at 10.30-11.45.


Crossing borders, moving on

The study of cultural production in its urban contexts – and particularly music production – is very revealing about the politics of contemporary multiculture, and is an important theme that runs throughout the conference, and not least on the Music and Urban Identities panel.

The Grime music scene in particular, which has a strong presence in east and south London, provides a ripe site to explore the dynamics of urban multiculture. Grime is commonly seen as an expression of disavowed and marginalised urban and racialised youth, known for the intensity of its lyrics and sound, coming together to form what  Dan Hancox describes as an ‘incendiary energy’. It’s also a highly demonised genre, whether it is vilification in the press, crackdowns on pirate radio or the shutting down of grime club nights (and even the banning of specific songs being played in a venue).

In her paper ‘Crossing borders, moving on: the urban music economy as a transformative realm’ Joy White considers the radical potential of the ‘urban’ music scene in the context of everyday practices. This was a truly immersive project that spanned over five years and encompassed interviews with over 40 people involved the urban music economy. Joy’s research also entailed participant observation of where this creative practice was carried out, for example, backstage at music video shoots and on location at pirate radio station broadcasts.

As Joy, explains the urban music economy acts as a transformative realm for young people – which, drawing from Les Back’s work, she describes as a ‘cultural intermezzo where young people of Caribbean, African and English heritage work together; crossing borders and drawing on global and local influences to create music that has an international reach’.

To give a flavour of her paper, below are two clips from her research. The first video clip is from a visit to a pirate radio station in 2009 (the rules are clearly displayed on the wall). The DJ is an ‘old hand’ that came up through the sound systems, playing UK Funky on his morning show. The second is from a 2010, a ‘behind the scenes’ look from a video shoot for a Grime MC.

As Joy continues in the abstract to her paper, ‘an exploration of the cultural dynamics of the Grime music scene provides a partial view of the cultural dynamics of everyday life in a contemporary urban environment’.

Joy White presents ‘Crossing borders, moving on: the urban music economy as a transformative realm’ in Panel 1 ‘Music and Urban Identities’, PSH302, 10:30-11:45.


A Perfect Fried Urban ‘Problem’

by Alex Rhys-Taylor

London’s first fried chicken takeaway and restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken, opened in Finchley in 1968. As any Londoner will know, however, the more recent growth in annual fried-chicken consumption in urban areas (of around 4.5% a year), has been driven by aassortment of independent entrepreneurs,working within smaller franchises – Perfect Fried Chicken, Morley’s and Chicken Cottage. Notably these have clustered particularly in the city’s poorer areas; Hounslow, Hackney, Tottenham, Barking and Stratford; Mile End’s ‘chicken mile’, Lewisham’s New Cross Road or Whitechapel Road.

As well-established as the fried chicken takeaway is on London’s corners, a taste for them amongst Londoners is equalled, if not exceeded, by a deeply visceral distaste. In fact distaste is perhaps too less-of-a-word to describe the deep corporeal disgust that, for some, is elicited by the sensoria of the fried chicken takeaway. Importantly, very few of the many critical commentaries on fried chicken present their disgust as simply arbitrary. On the contrary, the gut-felt revulsion is readily justified with reference to any one of a number of specific ‘problems’ with fried chicken. In efforts to rationalise the gut-felt anxiety Londoners feel around frittered poultry, concerns about animal welfare and industrialised slaughter are perhaps second only to anxieties about feckless working class consumers and ‘the national obesity crisis’ they engender.

As prominent as these rationales are, however, they are not the only ‘reasons’ that fried chicken takeaways are seen as a problem. Perhaps equally significant, if rarely acknowledged in rationalisations of disgust, is the clear relationship between fried chicken and already-problematised youth subcultures. That is, the fried chicken takeaway is an integral part of urban subcultures that have been widely problematised for decades already for the significant challenges they pose to traditional understandings of ethnicity and identity. In north America, of course, fried chicken has a long history of negative association with racialised urban cultures. While not directly translated from the United States, this historical association with ‘race’ inflects both the appeal of the dish to London’s multicultural youth, while also informing the ways in which the food and its consumers have become seen as the primary symptom of an urban crisis.

In contrast to the widespread stigmatisation of the fried chicken shop, its culture and its consumers, this session will present a short film  exploring the place of the fried chicken takeaway in the lives of East London’s young people, followed by a Q and A with the filmdirectors.

Hoodfort’s film “Chicken” is made by a local community project and explores the fried chicken phenomenon in Tower Hamlets, providing an insight into what fried Chicken means to different communities. It has won multiple awards, and has been featured on ITN News and the Guardian.

Alex Rhys-Taylor and Mile End Community Project will be discussing Hoodforts’ ‘Chicken’ in Panel  5 – Aesthetic/methodological responses to multiculture  PSH LG02  12pm-1.15pm

Sounding New Cross

For many people participating in the New Urban Multicultures conference, this will be their first time in New Cross. Located in inner south east London, New Cross has a rich history, particularly in relation to race and racism that is troubling but also signals the potential and possibilities of urban multiculture.

What better introduction to New Cross than this unique “Audio walk’ delivered by Les Back, whose work is very much shaped by south east London’s past and present.

‘It all comes together in Croydon’

In a piece entitled So… fucking Croydon Les Back recalls a quotation from David Bowie, ‘I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about somebody or something: ‘God, it’s so fucking Croydon!’”.

Croydon facelift, the racist Croydon tram woman, ‘so fucking Croydon’, these representations of place mount up. Croydonisation has even been used as a verb. Les argues that Croydon has been repeatedly used to represent ‘a place of living torment, a culture vacuum, the negation of style, an example of ‘Where it’s not!’.’ More recently, Yasmin Gunaratnam tweeted about the ‘casual vilification’ of Croydon.

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What do these representations erase or exclude? One of the papers at our conference is based on a blog project by Ashwani Sharma called ‘Must we Burn Croydon?‘ The blog’s description promises another perspective. One that explores ‘the art of (sub)urban existence after the modernist ruins: an experiment in re-imagining urban everyday (multi)culture through the archival poetics of South London’s outercity as spectre of the future-yet-to-come’.  I’d highly recommend a visit to Must we Burn Croydon‘s Tumblr page where Ornette Coleman, Will Self and the swimming pools of the future jostle for position. Ash will be drawing upon this project to argue that ‘an ‘outer-city’ suburban space such as Croydon is where the contradictions of neoliberalism, racism and everyday urban life are now most intensely experienced’.

Ashwani Sharma presents ‘It all comes together in Croydon – re-imagining the future pasts of (sub)urban multiculture’ in Panel 5 – Aesthetic/methodological responses to multiculture – PSH LG02 12-1.15pm.