Hanif Kureishi's "The Buddha of Suburbia" and the Topic of Racism

Term Paper, 2015

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content


1. The Term of Racism
1.1 Racism and the Term of Race
1.2 New Racism, Cultural Racism and Racism Today
1.3 The Ideology of Racism
1.4 The Understanding of Racism for this Work

2. Introduction of the Novel and the Main Characters

3 Passages of Racism Expressed in The Buddha of Suburbia
3.1 Racist Discrimination and Attacks
3.2 Immigrants and their Racist Ideas
3.3 Racism and the Police

4. Parallels between the Biography of H. Kureishi and The Buddha of Suburbia

5. London – its Society in the 1970’s and Racism

Conclusion – Racism: an Intended Topic of the Novel?



My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care – Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. (Kureishi 3)

The first lines of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia strongly stress the nationality of the protagonist and first-person narrator – he says three times he is an Englishman. Based on these first lines of the novel it seemed to be a topic in the 1970’s London how you look like - if you look or behave English or different. It is also alluded to the colonial history of England and the difficulties a non-English background could cause.

I am interested to find out within this work if Kureishi made racism to a topic in the novel The Buddha of Suburbia and if it is intended or if he might think along different lines. To find an answer to these questions I will start with a definition of racism. Therefore a short look into the history of the term will lead us to the current understanding of racism and the topics connected to it. When the understanding of racism within the bound of this work is defined the work on the novel starts and I will quote different passages where racism becomes obvious. The third part of this work examines if Kureishi intended to write about racism or if it happened unintended. To find an answer for this part I will focus on Kureishi’s biography to find probable parallels, and at the society in London at the time, as well as the politics. After these three steps a conclusion will be drawn to answer the question of the beginning.

1. The Term of Racism

The appearance of racism is not new; it reaches back in history, why there is no single definition for racism and no single explanation how racism is experienced or expressed. Racism is changing over time, due to its contextualisation. Hall says, there “have been many significantly different racisms – each historically specific and articulated in a different way with the societies in which they appear” (qtd. in Miles and Brown 107). To grasp the present understanding of racism I portray the scientific discourse focusing on the 2nd half of the 20th century; because the understanding shaped out in this chapter is to be applied on the novel examined, which was published in 1990 and plays in the 1970’s London (more in chapter 2).

In the first part of this chapter I clarify the term “race” used for human beings, which is fundamental for the idea of racism, what it contains and why it is problematic and in not used anymore. The second part introduces another kind of racism, which does not focus biological differences between humans but cultural aspects and which is treated as the present kind of racism. The third part sketches what it needs to understand racism as an ideology. At least I summarise the findings in part four and take an attempt to show what I am looking for in the novel to identify racism.

1.1 Racism and the Term of Race

Fundamental for racism is the creation of the Other, which allows the inclusion or the exclusion of groups, say Miles and Brown (50; 101). Therefor a population is characterised by certain criteria to identify it as an Other, which can be, in most cases, physical, e.g. skin colour, or cultural criteria, e.g. religion. The criteria set are those the person characterising the Other represents oneself. This is a procedure of exclusion of the Other and at the same time an inclusion of the Self in a certain population. The definition of the Other transforms within time and is connected to historic events, why it is important to consider the context of the representation of the Other for an analysis. This creation of the Other existed before scientists started to theorise racial typologies to categorise populations.

The division of “races” of humans started in the 16th century, writes Nothwehr (5). The term “race” was used for humans like for breeding animals - it was to explain phenotypical features connected to certain cultural traits (Modood 6). Those showing racial discrimination base their attitude on two purportedly facts; first, human groups have innate value differences and second, they form stereotypes out of the supposed hereditary characteristics of the members of those groups (Hiernaux 9). The division of humans into “races” was used to rate a person “civilised” or qualitative equal to the people judging. The use of “race” to rate human beings is a social construct (Nothwehr 5; Miles and Brown 89). Slavery and colonialism or Hitler’s ideology of the Third Reich are exemplary appearances in history where that becomes visible.

The Unesco published 1969 a book based on the findings of its research and conferences, which focused among others the term of “race” used for humans. Hiernaux (9-16) summarises in an article for the Unesco publication the scientific reasons why the biological term “race” cannot be used for human beings: Many anthropologists “define a race as a population differing from others by the frequency of certain genes” (11) and that implies a certain “stability of the hereditary endowment from one generation to another, or at least the tendency towards such stability” (10). This is only possible with genetic isolation and intermarriage, but humanity is characterised by genetic mixture. Many scientists tried to find a specific combination of genes which are responsible for phenotypical features or character traits of different populations, but the findings overlap too much or the rate of deviation is too big and hence too close to another population. That leaded to the conclusion that human beings are not classifiable in “races”.

Miles and Brown argue 1989 also that the concept of “race” for human beings does not exist of an epistemological and ontological point of view (7; 91; 95). There are no naturally occurring populations that can be seen as “races”. The scientific understanding of “race” used for humans is strongly linked to the historical construction and reproduction of common sense in the European world and its economic and political consequences. Therefore “race” is a pseudo-biological, obsolete concept, but nevertheless fundamental for the idea of racism.

1.2 New Racism, Cultural Racism and Racism Today

The scientific opinion, Modood argues, that racism base on biological theories of superior and inferior “races” of humans, more specifically the white domination of non-whites, which he names colour racism changed. Since the 1980’s the sciences define a new racism, which is opposing the old understanding of racism and is based on cultural differences (27).

The new racism is about the assumption that human beings have a natural preference for their own cultural group and different cultures are not compatible; therefore it is a predictable occurrence that a mix or a coexistence of different cultural groups within one country lead to violent social conflict and “the dissolution of social bonds”, Modood explains (27). To see the cultural racism as new is not quite correct, Modood argues, because Europe’s probable oldest kind of racism is anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which is cultural as well. He says the current racism is rather a combination of biological and cultural racism (28). Biological racism describes “the antipathy, exclusion, and unequal treatment of people on the basis of their physical appearance” (Modood 28), especially skin colour; and the cultural racism builds on it in the aforementioned way.

People suffering under cultural racism belong rather to a non-white than a white minority, Modood points out (37). That means regarding the new racism, that colour racism only becomes significant in combination with cultural hostility and prejudices, which makes cultural racism to the dominant factor. Modood implicitly shares the concept of the Other, but he calls it alien. He says, “groups with a distinctive cultural identity or a community life defined as alien, will suffer an additional dimension of discrimination and prejudice” (38) and this happens especially intense if their community is an adequate alternative to the norm (38).

Hall asserts racism arises “because of the concrete problems of different classes and groups in the society. Racism represents the attempt ideologically to construct those conditions, contradictions and problems in such a way that they can be dealt with and deflected at the same moment” (qtd. in Miles and Brown 106). Miles and Brown illustrate this quote on the following example (107): In the 1970’s London housing, various social facilities and services were short. The racism identified in the working class at this time and place used the skin colour to identify the Other, who was considered to have an advantaged and illicit access to those resources. It can not be said that the stereotypes derived from Britain’s colonial history were not present in the heads of the racists, but that explained not their present condition, why they constructed a new explanation. In their way they made sense of the world through racism.

This directs us to another important point Modood (38) states. Racism can be directed towards a single individual or communities and groups. Normally racism links a “difference in physical appearance and a (perceived) difference in group attitudes and behaviour” (38). Contemporary racism, as he says, rests “on history, social structure, group norms, values, and cultures” (38). That means also it is possible not to act racist in a individual relationship, but to be racist in the attitudes towards groups, even if the individual belongs to the discriminated group (39).

The complexities of racism go even further, namely with the finding that different groups, victims of racism are exposed differently intense to discrimination and prejudices. Modood (34) portrays an example from Cohen 1988, from London, where Afro-Caribbean subcultures were prestigious under white working-class youth due to aspects of their subcultural style, like wearing dreadlocks, smoking ganja and going to reggae concerts, whereas they insulted Asians.

What becomes visible is the convertibility of racism in time and place or context. To clarify what specifically is changing, here a summary of the aspects from Miles and Brown is given: “The group that is identified as its negative object; the features signified as natural; the characteristics attributed to both Self and Other and the respective evaluation of these characteristics” (109). This process creates a diversity of “races” that are associated with specific biological or cultural characteristics.

1.3 The Ideology of Racism

Racism becomes an ideology if the following aspects, summarised by Miles and Brown (104-106), are given. The ideology of racism presumes a racialization of humans and the representation of the Other that reflects the representation of the Self at the same time, which functions as an instrument of including and excluding. The Other is represented with negative characteristics, whereas the Self is represented with positive characteristics. Furthermore it suspects certain observed regularities and constructs a causal interpretation, which presents a solution to perceived problems.

Wieviorka bases 1995 his work on the concept of racism as ideology and defines three different types of racism: “A set of prejudices, opinions and attitudes that may be held by individuals or groups; a set of exclusionary practices, including exclusion from the labour market and subjection to violence; and a political programme or ideology” (Miles and Brown 9).

1.4 The Understanding of Racism for this Work

In this first chapter I described the different facets of racism - biological/colour and cultural/new racism, as well as the aspects of racism as an ideology. Here I summarise the basic aspects of biological and cultural racism and point out what I am looking for in the novel.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Hanif Kureishi's "The Buddha of Suburbia" and the Topic of Racism
University of Erfurt  (Literaturwissenschaft)
Multicultural Britain: Class & Ethnicity in Recent Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
707 KB
literature, racism, Rassismus, London, Kureishi, englische Literaturwissenschaft
Quote paper
Karolin Liebig (Author), 2015, Hanif Kureishi's "The Buddha of Suburbia" and the Topic of Racism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/321406


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Hanif Kureishi's "The Buddha of Suburbia" and the Topic of Racism

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free