Hybrid Identities Instead of “Überfremdung”

On Why the Death of Stuart Hall Is a Loss for our Academy Programs

Stuart Hall, the renowned British cultural theorist and sociologist, passed away exactly one month ago, on 10 February 2014. His death prompted in us a deep sense of personal loss. His groundbreaking writings on cultural studies, in particular on racial inequality, were first translated into German in the mid 1990s—a time when people here were beginning to acknowledge the importance of racism as an issue.

Demonstrators in front of a memorial with the Magen David and a poster with the words "Ausländerfeindlichkeit" (xenophobia) and "We need more courage."

Silent vigil of the Jewish Community at the Putlitz Bridge Deportation Memorial
Photo: Michael Kerstgens, Berlin Tiergarten, 1992

Hall’s approach incited a new discussion and coined a new vocabulary: until then, Germans in the Federal Republic had spoken of “Fremdenfeindlichkeit” (xenophobia), which they regarded as a marginal social phenomenon. Politicians and the media spoke matter-of-factly of society “reaching breaking point” when “the boat gets too full” owing to “Überfremdung.” The latter term denotes the state of ‘being overrun by foreigners.’ It is itself deeply racist and was accordingly voted Non-word of the Year 1993. “Being overrun” was presumed however to be explanation enough for the fire-bombings and other attacks then being carried out almost daily on asylum-seekers’ accommodation centers or immigrants’ apartments—and likewise for the hate campaigns, man-hunts, and pogrom-type riots erupting in Rostock, Hoyerswerda, and elsewhere, or the emergence of no-go areas in other towns and rural centers. In consequence, the law on asylum was altered in 1993 such that judicial opinion held it to have been “de facto repealed.” Therefore, anyone who wished to address the issue of racism as a structural phenomenon and thereby draw on theoretically sound academic sources had necessarily to turn to authors from England, France, the USA, or Canada—and repeatedly to Stuart Hall. 

Portrait of Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall
This is published at blackpast.org as an explicitly public domain image.

Hall posited that racism serves among other things “to justify the social, political, and economic practices that prevent certain social groups from gaining access to material or symbolic resources” (cf. his talk in Hamburg “Rassismus als ideologischer Diskurs” [Racism as an Ideological Discourse], published in: Das Argument 178 (1989)). Racism is therefore always much more than an individual prejudice or resentment, for it is deeply ingrained in social institutions and structures. Hall also ranked among those pioneering researchers who identified the problem of “a racism without races”—which is to say, a form of racism that has adapted to modern sensibilities and has exchanged the word “culture” for “race.” As Theodor W. Adorno wrote: “The elegant word culture steps into the place of the now abhorred term race yet does nothing but disguise the brutal claim to power” (cf. Adorno: “Schuld und Abwehr”). Hall put his finger on how racism serves to engender identity when he argued that: “The English are racist not because they hate the Blacks but because they don’t know who they are without the Blacks” (cf. Hall: “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference,” in: Radical America 23 (1991) 4: 16).

Hall’s work had to be translated in several senses of the term, since the concepts he applied and further developed looked rather odd in Germany’s reunification-cosmos. Cultural studies dealt with political resistance, race had less to do with biology and nature than with class, identity was never fixed, and hybridity was to be understood as something more than the equation three quarters A plus one quarter B. Ethnicity stood for a group’s collective awareness of how it had come to occupy its own particular socio-historical position, and insofar for the very opposite of blood and soil, or fate and jingoism. Authors like Hall turned black and white into comprehensible political categories.

Hall’s theories and questions have lost nothing of their edge. They help us analyze and name social inequalities and keep an open mind regarding what it means to be German and a part of society. And that is why, when debating such issues, we will sorely miss Stuart Hall!

Rosa Fava, Diversity in Schools, and Yasemin Shooman, Academy Programs on Migration and Diversity

PS: Here, you can see a trailer of the documentary “The Stuart Hall Project” by John Akomfrah, 2013.

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