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)


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.


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

‘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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 14.32.33

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.



Introducing the plenary speakers: Professor Anoop Nayak

How might we examine new ethnicities in young lives, beyond cities which are obvious hubs of multiculture? Anoop Nayak’s work takes forward some of the concerns of New Ethnicities and Urban Culture namely, changing forms of identities and racism in the lives of young people, but in a different set of contexts which in turn generates new questions for the study of race and youth. Focussing on the North East of England, Anoop’s book Race, Place and Globalization: Youth Cultures in a Changing World is an ethnographic examination of how young people forge belonging in post-industrial settings. This involves a careful examination of formations of whiteness, youth and gender on shifting ground. This work problematises an image of this region as a place of unchanging (flat?) whiteness and examines how global flows and changing econmic circumstances feed into the production of identities. For example, how is being a Geordie, an identity that was previously tied up with forms of industrial labour, recast in a city that is now based more on consumption than production? How is this identity raced, classed and gendered?

This deconstruction of whiteness as produced and performed, and its entanglements with class and gender, builds on earlier research on skinheads in the West Midlands where the theme of the performance and the doing of race is central. Anoop writes:

‘The nostalgic portrayals of white working-class men are voiced in bodily descriptions of them as ‘the backbone of the nation’, ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘the heart of the country’ etc. Such earthy metaphors not only articulate notions of class and gender, but are premised on static notions of a rooted white community. Rather than seeing whiteness as the unchanging, anatomical identity fetishized here, I want to suggest that white masculinities are given the appearance of substance in embodied action and synchronized routines…’ (1999, 76)


Unsettling whiteness in these ways seems particularly important when ‘whiteworkingclass’ is continually used in ways that ossify and naturalise this categorisation.

While I’ve pulled out one strand of Anoop Nayak’s work here, he has also written on  gender and youth, as well as providing theorectical reflections on theories of race in contemporary sociology. His current research focuses on Bangladeshi youth and multicultural encounters in coastal areas and makes a critical contribution in thinking through the co-existence of racism and conviviality – which is what this conference is all about.

Anoop will be speaking on the panel ‘Researching urban multiculture’.

Introducing the plenary speakers: Dr Yasmin Gunaratnam

When you picture ‘new urban multiculture’ what kinds of spaces do you envision? What can we learn about a city from its spaces of dying? Next in our line up of plenary speakers is Dr Yasmin Gunaratnam, a Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths. In her outstanding book Death and the Migrant, Yasmin writes about the coming together of migration histories and end of life care in experiences of transnational dying. Her work examines the pain of racism and the possibilities of care in moments of interaction and negotiation at the borders of bodies, and of life and death. Yasmin’s work and her focus on these intimate moments serve as a reminder that encounters between and across difference do not only happen in the street but on the ward and in the bedroom. And that what happens in spaces of care can resonate with other forms of social pain. She writes:


‘[S]ome of the ways in which the felt injustices of diagnostic care can resonate with the injuries of class and racism, producing a layered distress. Mita’s story is about an Indian Hindu patient with terminal cancer. The man’s cancer had been repeatedly misdiagnosed leaving him feeling angry and distressed. The patient had been a teacher in India and on settlement in the UK could not get a teaching job, and so had worked in factories and as a bus driver. Here is Mita’s story:

I think it (his feelings of being discriminated against (in employment) had an impact on how he dealt with his condition, because unfortunately his diagnosis had been quite delayed.  For a year he’d been going backwards and forwards to the GP, telling him all the classic symptoms of what he’d got… he still had this idea and he said “I know I’m educated and I know I’m completely in the wrong box. I think they haven’t treated me properly because I am who I am, because saying I was only good enough for bus driving, not for teaching and for the same reason they didn’t think I was important enough to be diagnosed early enough to be treated in the right way.” And I found that very hard.’

 In order to convey these embodied stories of care and of pain, Yasmin uses many different ways of telling, including drawing on her skills as a poet. You can hear a reading of one of these ‘The Prince and the Pea’ here.

Yasmin does not only experiment with different ways of telling but also different ways of doing ethnography. For example, the Every minute of every day project examined the relationship between the Richard House hospice and Newham through the use of a live sensory team ethnography.

Yasmin will be speaking on the ‘Researching urban multicultures‘ panel. You can read more about her work here.

Introducing the plenary speakers: Dr Christy Kulz

When putting together our plenary panel session on ‘Researching New Urban Multicultures’ we were keen to assemble a group of people at different career stages, conducting methodologically innovative and cutting edge ethnographic research. Christy Kulz’s ethnography of a contemporary urban English academy immediately sprang to mind.

This piece of work, which examines neoliberal governance within schools and how class, race and gender are formulated within this setting, also addresses tricky methodological questions about the ethics of carrying out research with young people and working with institutional settings.

Christy’s work serves as a provide a nuanced and powerful critique of the academy as a means for ‘dealing with urban children’. Her arguments have an added urgency, given the government’s recent proposals for forced academisation. She writes:

‘Beaumont’s [school] ethos is steeped in pathological representations of Redwood as home to a raced, classed deficit culture in need of transformation through a return to law and order. Unstructured unhappiness becomes synonymous with the ‘urban child’, as several teachers use this shorthand to describe ‘Redwood [the neighbourhood] kids’. This urban child is contrasted with the ideal student – the suburban middle-class, predominantly white child.’ (Kulz, 2014)

Christy%20This research was the basis for Christy’s PhD thesis,  completed at Goldsmiths, and which won the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Doctoral Dissertation Award, in 2014.  It will be published as a monograph ‘Factories for Learning’ by Manchester University Press next year.

Christy recently started an Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education where she is carrying out her new project ‘Governing schools, governing subjects: academies, mobility dreams and inequality’.

You can read more about Christy’s research here.