The Idea of Race in Interwar Britain: Religion, Entertainment and Childhood Experiences.

  • Helen Rajabi

Student thesis: Phd


Historians writing on the subject of race have largely focused on the period after the SecondWorld War: the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948 has become a defining symbol ofBritain's immigration history. Studies that examine the earlier decades of the twentiethcentury privilege either imperial or scientific discourses on race. This focus neglects thevariety of social and cultural discourses through which the idea of racial difference wasdisseminated to the British public. This thesis focuses on the idea of race in the 1920s and1930s and explores how other peoples and places were constructed in the British imaginationthrough three separate but interconnected themes: religion, entertainment and childhoodexperiences. The thesis has three central arguments: firstly it argues that racial discourseswere varied; secondly, that while Britain's cities offered opportunities for interracial contact,most British people's experiences of the racial other were limited to the realm of theimagination, nourished by a variety of constructions emanating from churches, schools,entertainment venues and the home; thirdly, that the racial other was constructed in theBritish imagination as a source of both fear and desire.Religion was one of the dominant forces disseminating ideas about racial difference tothe British public in the interwar years. Religious leaders were able to construct an image ofother peoples and places through their connection to important annual events such as EmpireDay and in their commentaries on current events; their response to the 1919 race riotsillustrates how religion, empire and politics intersected on matters of race and nationalidentity. Missionary groups also played an important role in constructing ideas about race,especially to children, through missionary exhibitions. The role of religion in society in theinterwar years has been underplayed and yet religious discourses on race that were familiar inthe nineteenth century continued well into the twentieth.In the realm of popular entertainment, both blackface and orientalist productionsexcelled in the art of racial disguise. These productions underline the contradiction at theheart of race discourse between fear and desire; fear of a difference that undermined thenotion of white supremacy and thus the strength of Britain's Empire, and a simultaneousdesire to 'know' the 'other', be that through cultural interactions or physical intimacy. Theact of dressing-up as the racial 'other' was a crucial means of exploring fantasies of the'other' without transgressing contemporary racial boundaries. Newspaper reviews of popularentertainments constructed a narrative on race that used both positive and negativestereotypes. The history of licensing and censorship in the files of the Lord Chamberlain'sArchive reveals contemporary anxieties about race focusing particularly on miscegenation.People were encouraged to imagine racial difference in a variety of ways and from ayoung age. The stereotyped images presented to children are open to less nuancedinterpretation than those aimed at adults and more than any other were composed of binaryoppositions between black and white, civilised and savage, ancient and modern. Evidencefrom newspapers and the Mass-Observation Archive highlights how children wereencouraged to imagine racial difference and the variety and complexity of childhoodexperiences that defined people's ideas about race.This thesis builds on an established body of work on the subject of race and uses avariety of sources in order to advance the discussion beyond a narrow focus on empire orscientific debates towards a more comprehensive analysis of the circulation of the idea ofrace in interwar Britain. It focuses on an era that has received less scholarly attention than theyears after 1945 and highlights the variety of discourses on race that permeated the social andcultural life of interwar Britain.
Date of Award1 Aug 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPenny Summerfield (Supervisor) & Charlotte Wildman (Supervisor)


  • Newspapers
  • Childhood
  • Entertainment
  • Religion
  • Interwar Britain
  • Race

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