Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000

Scattered Belongings: Cultural Paradoxes of 'Race', Nation and Gender

Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe
Routledge: London
0415170963 (pb)
£15.99 (pb)

Order this book

Scattered Belongings comes as a timely and welcome contribution to the burgeoning body of work on 'hybridity'. Questioning received definitions of 'race', nation, ethnicity and culture, this book encompasses a wide ranging and rigorous critique of current hegemonic modes of theorising 'mixed race' identities and lives, and thus begins to redress the relative paucity in British literature of critical 'mixed race' theories. Scattered Belongings interweaves the moving narratives of six women of both continental African/African Caribbean and European parentage with critical theory, to better demonstrate how the lived experiences of 'mixed race' individuals can enable a more sophisticated understanding of the processes by which identities are constructed and reconstructed in a global context.

Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe states her two major objectives in writing the text. Firstly, the book is intended as an inaugural step towards redressing the imbalance in British literature on 'mixed race' theories and identities. In commenting on the scarcity of texts by 'mixed race' writers in England during the last six years, relative to the proliferation of comparable North American texts during the same period, the author suggests that these countries' different historical legacies for their immigrant and indigenous communities might go some way towards explaining this discrepancy. The second objective, is to centralise "the everyday words of working-class and middle-class 'mixed race' people in England", (p. xiii). The author's intention is to demonstrate how 'mixed race' narratives delimit and transgress bi-racialised discourses and initiate a profound re-configuration of thinking about both 'race' and belonging. In doing so, she problematises current hegemonic and popular discourses on 'race' by critically exploring their roots in nineteenth century British/English cultural and pseudoscientific constructions of this concept.

Following this, in a chapter entitled "Returning(s): Relocating the Critical Feminist Auto-Ethnographer", Ifekwunigwe aims to contextualise her research by presenting a series of her own narratives under the subheadings of "Turning(s)". She also provides more detailed biographical information about the respondents, their parentage, class, gender and geographical positionings, as examples. She then goes on to describe the research process in terms of the remit of the research, how it was collected and finally analysed. The primary objective of this chapter is to elucidate the reasoning underpinning her appropriation and re-formulation of the West African oral tradition of the griot(te). The West African, Senegalese term griot(te) describes someone "who functions as tribal poet, storyteller, historian or genealogist and whose role is to recount culturally specific and provocative parables of everyday life" (p. 57). Interestingly, the author explains how for the most part, women performers are not recognised as griottes and, thus, the concept is invoked here as a feminist textual strategy "that both destabilises the conventional authority of the ethnographer and forces a tension between orality and literacy or rather the spoken and the written word", (p. 58).

Ifekwunigwe addresses issues around the disproportionate numbers of 'mixed race' children who end up in care. These issues include transracial placements and adoption, and social policy. Then follows the testimonies of the six women selected. Each is introduced by her description of the physical setting and impressions of the participant as well as information about the kind of relationship forged between the researcher and each respondent and details about how the respondent was contacted. Her interventions take the form of often fairly lengthy footnotes.

The title of the book, Scattered Belongings: Cultural Paradoxes of 'Race', Nation and Gender, reflects Ifekwunigwe's central concern with the ways in which the dilemmas for 'mixed race' people of belonging and not belonging transgress bi-racialised discourses and enable possibilities for a profound re-configuration of thinking about belonging itself. To this end, Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe has re-configured the conceptual category 'métis(se)' on three levels. Firstly, as a principal general analytical term métis(se) is used here to refer to individuals who "according to popular folk concepts of "race" and by known birth parentage embody two or more world views or in genealogical terms, descent groups" (p. 19). Second, Ifekwunigwe uses the terms proximate métis(se) and mediate métis(se) to acknowledge the significance of generation in endeavouring to comprehend family formations. The third level of analysis, multiracialised métis(se), depends on popular folk concepts of 'race' and is described as addressing the specificity and multiplicity of individual circumstances in general. She engages with the complex dilemmas of belonging for métis(se) individuals in a context in which she suggests that English becomes shorthand for white and Black is synonymous with anyone who does not match the limited physical profile of a white person, which includes métis(se) individuals with a white birth parent. Therein, the sanctioned constructs of nation, ethnicity and culture are collapsed and become bi-racialised.

The book includes recommendations for political praxis. The concept of 'additive Blackness' is described as both a survival and political strategy for métis(se) individuals, who are unable or unwilling to break links with their white British or white European origins. Here, she borrows from Adrienne Rich's classic essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," (Rich, 1986), in particular, Rich's concept of compulsion, for understanding the politics of Blackness. She extrapolates this concept to argue that compulsory Blackness is a political institution wherein it is presumed that identification with Blackness is the implicit or explicit personal preference of most métis(se) women or men with one Black continental African or Black African Caribbean parent. Ifekwunigwe summarises her concept of 'additive Blackness' as a recognition on the part of the métis(se) individual that their Blackness is both affirmative and a source of social discrimination. The author suggests that an individual must start with her or his familiar social foundation and build forward without having to sever ties with her or his often white English roots. This 'synthesised' strategy, Ifekwunigwe argues, enables a more useful political praxis whereby links may be forged and built upon, instead of the politics of exclusion that are the logical conclusion of essentialist Black identity politics.

Throughout, the author presents her arguments in a lively and engaging way; complex and subtle ideas are conveyed lucidly. This is enabled in part by inventiveness, her re-conceptualisation of existing modes of thinking, speaking and writing about 'race' and also by the creative ways in which she presents these ideas. She uses different fonts, for example, to illuminate the different ways in which the narratives may be presented.

Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe uses the narratives to demonstrate the limitations of one-dimensional modes of addressing identities politics in all their complexity. For instance, one of the women, Yemi, expresses discomfort with the size of her breasts. Ifekwunigwe observes: "In so many words, she is saying: "Being métisse is not an issue for me, I can manage the situations I find myself in." Now having large breasts is a different matter altogether", (p. 169). The book addresses the over-simplified modes of bi-racialised thinking and talking about 'race'. Specifically, Ifekwunigwe uses the six narratives to illustrate and subvert the totalising and subjugating tendencies of discourses on Blackness and whiteness. She interrogates current 'race' discourses, problematising the term 'hybridity' for its epistemological origins in scientific racism. She further critiques much current work on cultural 'hybridities' for its gender-neutrality.

On balance, I found the engagement with issues of critical feminist auto-ethnography rather disappointing, because the author fails to develop or discuss her ideas on this in any real depth. Given her concern with the political implications of language, I was also surprised at her uncritical use of terms such as "seminal" (p. 56) and "potency" (p. 184). At times, discussions of the method and methodological implications of the work arrive at somewhat naively idealistic and glibly resolved assertions. One such example is Ifekwunigwe's claim that invoking the griot(te) tradition as textual strategy challenges conventional perspectives on ethnographic authority and moreover, enables "their [the respondents] powerful voices [to] break free of the heavy hand of ethnographic interpretation" (p. 61). Also, the narratives provided are not the full narratives. Ifekwunigwe's discussion and exploration of the editing process is somewhat scant. The narratives of the six women have been selected from the narratives of sixteen women and nine men, originally collected in Bristol between 1990-92 via open-ended taped interviews. The discussion of the research process tends towards a descriptive reflexivity, rather than an analytical reflexivity. For instance, Ifekwunigwe tells us that each 'testimony' was listened to four times before the editing of the final text; we are told that when faced with the mass of data the decision was made to whittle it down, both in terms of the number of respondents finally selected and in terms of the one or two key themes around which the writing would cohere. Yet what we are not presented with is a more detailed and analytically reflexive account of these processes, which is what I would have most welcomed.

Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe is concerned with "the serious policy implications" (p. 50) which arise from the fact that until recently, demographic statistics show that the majority of English born métis(se) children have white birth mothers. She asserts that the group of individuals with whom she worked reflect this trend and goes on to propose that: "I am mindful that as a matter of great urgency, researchers need to address the psychosocial implications of the fact that many métis men, including those with whom I spoke, have not been fathered by their continental African, African Caribbean or African American birth fathers. There is a gaping hole in the literature on "Black" masculinities, which could be filled by a critical exploration of the lived experiences of métis men who were raised by White English mothers" (p. 50-1). Ifekwunigwe expresses general concern with the psychosocial consequences for métisse women, of the processes of white English mothering, in particular, the primacy of the mothering role in the social rather than biological reproduction of gendered identities. My principal reservations about these arguments cohere around the apparently uncritical deployment of ideas about the links between parenting, gender, and sexuality, and what are postulated as the possible psychosocial consequences of these. This is not to deny that the ways in which 'race' is intersected by other social positionings such as gender and class, to name just two, is central to any examination and discussion of these issues. Yet, it seems that certain assumptions are left unchallenged in these statements. Perhaps more usefully, she calls for more attention to the strategic political possibilities enabled by the understandings fostered by métisse women who have been mothered by white mothers. These strategic political possibilities involve bridging the Black/white feminist divide.

Ifekwunigwe's Scattered Belongings interrogates our current ways of thinking about 'race' and engages with the problematics of identities politics. At a time when more recognition is being given to the contingent nature of whiteness, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in furthering more complex understandings of 'race' and identities.

Maria Summerson
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000