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Title: The idea of race in interwar Britain : religion, entertainment and childhood experiences
Author: Rajabi, Helen Maryam
Awarding Body: University of Manchester
Current Institution: University of Manchester
Date of Award: 2013
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Historians writing on the subject of race have largely focused on the period after the Second World War: the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948 has become a defining symbol of Britain’s immigration history. Studies that examine the earlier decades of the twentieth century privilege either imperial or scientific discourses on race. This focus neglects the variety of social and cultural discourses through which the idea of racial difference was disseminated to the British public. This thesis focuses on the idea of race in the 1920s and 1930s and explores how other peoples and places were constructed in the British imagination through three separate but interconnected themes: religion, entertainment and childhood experiences. The thesis has three central arguments: firstly it argues that racial discourses were varied; secondly, that while Britain’s cities offered opportunities for interracial contact, most British people’s experiences of the racial other were limited to the realm of the imagination, nourished by a variety of constructions emanating from churches, schools, entertainment venues and the home; thirdly, that the racial other was constructed in the British imagination as a source of both fear and desire. Religion was one of the dominant forces disseminating ideas about racial difference to the British public in the interwar years. Religious leaders were able to construct an image of other peoples and places through their connection to important annual events such as Empire Day and in their commentaries on current events; their response to the 1919 race riots illustrates how religion, empire and politics intersected on matters of race and national identity. Missionary groups also played an important role in constructing ideas about race, especially to children, through missionary exhibitions. The role of religion in society in the interwar years has been underplayed and yet religious discourses on race that were familiar in the nineteenth century continued well into the twentieth. In the realm of popular entertainment, both blackface and orientalist productions excelled in the art of racial disguise. These productions underline the contradiction at the heart of race discourse between fear and desire; fear of a difference that undermined the notion of white supremacy and thus the strength of Britain’s Empire, and a simultaneous desire to ‘know’ the ‘other’, be that through cultural interactions or physical intimacy. The act of dressing-up as the racial ‘other’ was a crucial means of exploring fantasies of the ‘other’ without transgressing contemporary racial boundaries. Newspaper reviews of popular entertainments constructed a narrative on race that used both positive and negative stereotypes. The history of licensing and censorship in the files of the Lord Chamberlain’s Archive reveals contemporary anxieties about race focusing particularly on miscegenation. People were encouraged to imagine racial difference in a variety of ways and from a young age. The stereotyped images presented to children are open to less nuanced interpretation than those aimed at adults and more than any other were composed of binary oppositions between black and white, civilised and savage, ancient and modern. Evidence from newspapers and the Mass-Observation Archive highlights how children were encouraged to imagine racial difference and the variety and complexity of childhood experiences that defined people’s ideas about race. This thesis builds on an established body of work on the subject of race and uses a variety of sources in order to advance the discussion beyond a narrow focus on empire or scientific debates towards a more comprehensive analysis of the circulation of the idea of race in interwar Britain. It focuses on an era that has received less scholarly attention than the years after 1945 and highlights the variety of discourses on race that permeated the social and cultural life of interwar Britain.
Supervisor: Wildman, Charlotte; Summerfield, Penny Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Race ; Interwar Britain ; Religion ; Entertainment ; Childhood ; Newspapers