An American Sociologist in London

By Matthew W. Hughey

I owe thanks to the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey.  They served as host for my six-month Fulbright Scholar Fellowship from May to November 2022.  Now back home across the pond, I am analyzing the data from a multi-year ethnographic study of majority-White British organizations in the larger London area.*  My study is situated within a larger comparative examination of both the US and UK White defensive reactions to social change: From Nativist expressions via “Brexit” and “Trumpism” to a rise among both White British and White American attitudes that White people are under attack, and from a parallel rise in hate crimes in the US and UK against people of color/BAME to a White revival of symbolic ethnicity that stakes a claim of belonging within the “multicultural” and “superdiverse” societies.  In brief, I make the argument that there exists similar forms of White meaning-making in the US and UK which constitutes what I call the “White Atlantic.”

While I have studied these worldviews among White Londoners for the past six years—amongst a British heritage conservation group and an environmentalist group composed of roughly 100 people across both organizations—I was not fully prepared for their visceral expression during the profound social changes in the UK over the past six months: ongoing political discourse about the arrival of Syrian & Ukrainian refugees, energy shortages, record heatwaves that damaged national infrastructure, rising inflation & a volatile Pound, and debates over Commonwealth membership . . . not to mention three Prime Ministers and two Monarchs.  What a time to have been An American Sociologist in London!

For those unaware, my title draws from John Landis’ cult classic, An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Itself a hybrid of An American in Paris (1951) and Werewolf of London (1935), and despite its campy style, the film gestures toward themes of belonging and threat.  Mythical creatures have long stood as potent metaphors for social anxieties.  Hobbes coined an enduring pseudo-biblical reference of the strong sovereign as “Leviathan.”  Marx famously described capitalists as “vampire-like” who survive “only by sucking living labour.”  And in combining Greek mythology with Mary Shelley’s subtitle for Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, W. E. B. Du Bois asked why the White man was a “modern Prometheus” who hung “bound by his own his binding, tethered by a fable of the past?”  In this vein, the werewolf represents a bifurcated if not schizophrenic character—all marked by intense transformation, violence, and loss.

Don’t worry, as an American sociologist in London, I found no metamorphic force under the full moon of London’s skies!  But I did witness the monstrous dynamics of White British interpretations of real and imagined social changes.  At one moment, many would “keep calm and carry on”, while at another instant, the fangs and claws of White Britain would emerge.

During my interviews, an older White British woman sat with me, waxing on about the strength and vitality of a diverse and modern Britain.  But upon a sudden reminder of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, she bemoaned the loss of “Old England” which she laid at the feet of “woke culture” that “Black Brits have pushed on the rest of us.”  During my ethnographic fieldwork, I overheard middle-age White Brits praise the benefits of life in a world-class metropolitan city where nearly any good or service was available.  But after encountering a group of Bengali-speaking Brown people, they decried the inability to find “proper English food” in London and that, with a curl of disgust upon the lip, “The national dish of England will soon be curry. That ain’t right, innit?”  And I had many encounters with middle-age White British men, who upon hearing my American accent, took it upon themselves to teach me about UK politics and the unique character of the British commonwealth—a “commonwealth for all people” I was told repeatedly.  Yet, in one stance, after hearing news that Jamaica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent might leave the commonwealth, I inquired about the Canadian or Quebecois movements to leave: “The Caribbean islands can leave if they want.  They aren’t really like Canada.”  Performing the right tone of American naiveté, I replied, “Oh, how so?  What is the difference since they are all Commonwealth nations?”  After awkward pauses and verbal fillers, I was finally told in a plain but hushed tone: “The Commonwealth is Anglo-Saxon at heart . . . a culture, of being White, makes us relatable to one another.”  The “White Atlantic” indeed.

As I recently wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, many now commonly speak of our contemporary moment, and especially about attitudes among White Americans and Brits, as “polarized” —a “grouping of authoritarian, racist attitudes versus another alliance of progressive, antiracist attitudes—an increasingly racialized culture war.”  However, many White people often speak about People of Color /BAME people in positive ways one second, and negative the next, marshaling both characterizations to defend, rationalize, or improve their racialized subject position.  While it may appear irreconcilable, these supposedly contradictory stances exist, a lá the werewolf, within the same White self.  This lycanthropic condition—the sudden shifts and transformations evidenced in White British discourse—helps maintain a sense of self-efficacy and coherent White racial identity against the many conflicts and changes inherent to a racially-unequal society. 

Part of our difficulty accepting, if not defanging, such White shape-shifting is the always-already elision of Whiteness with normality and demonizing individual people as racists.  While there are no silver bullets, I would humbly suggest a shift in attention from individual racists, to the ways that white normativity functions—in laws, policies, customs, and habits—to legitimate racial inequality.

* The methodological limitations of studying two majority-White British groups disallow generalizable conclusions to all White British people.  However, they do not disrupt the illumination of “transferable” and “generalizing effects.”  As James Holstein wrote in Institutional Ethnography, “Ethnography highlights concrete modes of inquiry used to discover and describe these activities. The researcher’s goal . . . is not to generalize about the people under study, but to identify and explain social processes that have generalizing effects” (2006: 293).

IRB (institutional review board) approval attained from the University of Connecticut.

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