Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Race and Ethnicity

Understandings of race have changed throughout history – including conceptions of race as malleable and based on environmental factors, notions of scientific racism utilised to justify pseudoscientific racial hierarchies and eugenics, to a more recent general acceptance of race as a social construct. Some have adopted a position of racial eliminativism; an argument to discard the concept of race entirely, as discrete, essentialist, biological races have been proven not to exist. However, to describe race as a social construct is not to deny its social reality with significant consequences, and the issues of ‘not seeing colour’ have been well documented.


The idea that race is a social construct does not remove its analytical utility for historians. The influential scholar Stuart Hall described race as a ‘floating signifier’, whose meaning is never fixed but is dependent upon cultural context. Differing understandings of race have, unsurprisingly, impacted on how history has been written and can tell us much about the societies and periods producing them. Panikos Panayi highlighted how writing about race developed differently in different locations, for instance between the USA and Britain – where increased postwar immigration prompted social scientists in 1960s Britain to turn their attention towards so-called ‘race relations’. This week will consider how the concept and study of race relates to power and identity, the intersections of race, class and gender, developments of critical race theory and whiteness studies, and raises key methodological questions such as approaches to the study of race that seek to avoid replicating oppression.


Essential Reading

See Moodle for links to readings.

  1. Miles Rosenberg, ‘Race, Ethnicity and History’ in Stefan Berger, Heiko Feldner and Kevin Passmore (eds), Writing History: Theory and Practice, 2nd edition (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), pp. 313-29.
  2. Caroline Bressey, ‘Forgotten Histories: Three Stories of Black Girls from Barnardo’s Victorian Archive’, Women’s History Review, 11:3 (2002), 351-74.
  3. Deborah Cohen, ‘Who Was Who? Race and Jews in Turn-of-the-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 41:4 (2002), 460-83.
  4. Harry Garuba, ‘Race in Africa: Four Epigraphs and a Commentary’, PMLA, 123:5 (2008), 1640-8

Overview: CWHT, ch. 22.


Truffle Hunt

As demonstrated by the readings for this seminar, histories of race or racialised people have often been characterised as ‘forgotten history’ – but how and why have these histories been ‘forgotten’, and by who? It has frequently been suggested that existing sources need to be ‘read against the grain’, in order to identify who is recording these histories and to locate the gaps and silences: from whose perspective has the source been produced? Whose voices are not present? What does this suggest about how the past is being constructed, and by who? (For an exploration of these questions, see for instance: Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).)

The University of Warwick holds the collections of both the Sivanandan Collection of the Institute of Race Relations and the Collection of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations. This is an invaluable resource for the study of race and ethnic relations, spanning the mid-1960s to the present with a UK and international focus. The collections provide access to pamphlets and reports, periodicals, newspaper titles and press cuttings. Most of the holdings are in the University Library catalogue and can be searched for by selecting ‘Advanced Search’ and choosing ‘Ethnicity & Migration’ or ‘Sivanandan Collection’ in the Collection field under the ‘Options for Catalogue tab’ section.

Oral history interviews have been of great significance and importance for the study of race. For instance, the understanding and use of oral traditions in African historiography has questioned ‘the misconception of [western] historians to equate documentary materials with history and absence of these definitely means no history’ (Monsuru Babatunde Muraina). As with all methodologies, oral history is not without its issues – but it can be a uniquely productive way to engage with oral traditions and to attempt to counteract the inequities of written historical records. There are many collections of oral history interviews that you can engage with, as well as potentially undertaking your own oral history research. An interesting reflection on a researcher’s involvement with the Black Cultural Archives’ oral history project on the Black Women’s Movement can be found here:

Most general primary source collections can be searched to find relevant sources, for instance through newspaper or media archives, governmental records or parliamentary papers, research projects such as Mass Observation, etc. etc. There are also various specialised archives or collections, including:

Further Reading

Allen, Theodore W., The Invention of the White Race (London: Verso, 2012)

Bressey, Caroline, ‘Geographies of Belonging: White Women and Black History’, Women’s History Review, 22:4 (2013), 541-58

Broussard, Albert S., ‘Race and Oral History’ in Donald A. Ritchie, The Oxford Handbook of Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 186-201

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (London: Hutchinson, 1982)

Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1968)

Christienna Fryar, Nicole Jackson, and Kennetta Hammond Perry, ‘Windrush and Britain’s Long History of Racialized Belonging’, African American Intellectual History Society, 31 July 2018,

Gilroy, Paul, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Hutchinson, 1987)

Hall, Catherine, ‘Doing Reparatory History: Bringing “Race” and Slavery Home’, Race & Class, 60:1 (2018), 3-21

Hall, Stuart (et al.), Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978)

hooks, bell, Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2013)

Malik, Kenan, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996)

Satia, Priya, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020)

Spindel, Donna J., ‘Assessing Memory: Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives Reconsidered’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 27:2 (1996), 247-61.

Many of our modules consider race through study of various time periods and geographical locations – you can search module reading lists through Warwick’s Talis Reading Lists website.