"The Colour of Power:
Functions of Whiteness in Transcultural Encounters in Ireland since 1990"

The project is funded by the federal ministry for science, research and the arts Baden-Württemberg and the University of Mannheim. Start of the project: 1 November 2011 with a running time of two years.

Project Mission  l   Critical Whiteness Studies  l   Why the Irish?   l   Research Material

Project Mission

The project aims at pointing out the significance of the white skin in transcultural encounters in Europe by examining Irish literary texts and films after 1990. Our assumption is that encounters between the Irish and immigrants to Ireland can illustrate the influences and dynamics of transcultural exchanges. Literary and filmic treatments of such encounters can offer approaches to the problems and conflicts produced by transcultural encounters and highlight the potential benefits of such exchanges for the individual subject.

The skin and its colour are far more than simple bodily facts. It is our contact zone with the outside world and a cluster of signs onto which processes of identification, inclusion and exclusion are mapped. It is the underlying assumption of this project that these signs and identification are not facts or essences, but are prone to change and open to interpretation. In the past, theories have outlined how societies and their ideologies use skin colour to demarcate groups seen as other, lesser or even dangerous. Consequently, the focus of the humanities has often been the study of racial and ethnic groups seen as 'non-white'. Yet, the question of whiteness and its social construction and power has been ignored for a long time.

Theoretical Background: Critical Whiteness Studies

Critical Whiteness Studies address this blind spot by showing that the point of view from which we assess the skin of the other is by no means as objective and neutral as science, theory and history make us believe. The problem is the invisibility of whiteness as a raced position. The point of whiteness studies is to make whiteness visible by revealing the processes of the social, cultural and historical construction of whiteness: "As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as the human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people." (R.Dyer, White, London: Routledge, 1997, 1). This interest in the construction of whiteness has mainly been addressed in American research where Critical Whiteness Studies has been an area of interest since the early 1990s. Little attention has been paid to the question of whiteness in the European context. Yet, Europe's status in the world (as a destination for migrants or international corporations) and its internal heterogeneity asks for an analysis of Europe's whiteness.

Why the Irish?

"Someone born in Ireland meets someone who has come to live here. The love, and the horror; excitement, and exploitation; friendship, and misunderstanding. The plots and possibilities are, almost literally, endless. Today, one in every ten people living in Ireland wasn't born here. The story - someone new meets someone old - has become an unavoidable one." (Roddy Doyle, preface to The Deportees 2007, xiii)

The project focuses on the Irish because they have been perceived as either whiter or blacker in different historical contexts. Depending on wages, place of residence, education, legal status or religion, the perception of the Irish shifts within a flexible continuum between white and black. In this case, the terms "black" and "white" are not neutral descriptions of genetic traits but a metaphor for social positions. The resulting, seemingly biologically grounded hierarchical relation between the white Self and the non-white Other can be put into question by analyzing the contingent nature of whiteness. White becomes the colour of power. Our research project aims at finding out how the white skin colour was attributed this powerful function and how it influences power relations in contemporary Europe.

Our Research Material

In order to transpose the contextual interdependence of the white colour into a contemporary European context, we will draw on Irish literary texts and films since 1990 which have yet been studied only rarely or not at all.

These are novels such as Indian Paddy by Cauvery Madhavan (2001), short story anthologies like The Deportees by Roddy Doyle (2007) or Let's Be Alone Together (2008), edited by Declan Meade, the poems from the anthology Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland (2010) and stage plays like Brian Friels Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), At Peace by Donal O'Kelly (2005), The Cambria by Declan Gorman (2007), Kebab by Gianina Carbunariu (2007) or the productions of the multicultural Dublin-based theater company Arambe Productions such as Not So Long Ago (2005) and The Kings of Kilburn High Road (2006). Films to be studied in the project's context are, among others, Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), Mark O'Halloran and Leonard Abrahamson's Adam & Paul (2004), David Gleeson's The Front Line (2006), John Carney's Once (2007) and the TV show Pure Mule (2004-2005) which is set in a typical Irish village.

In a further step, we will examine the Irish media coverage on immigration, mixed marriages as well as the discussions on citizenship and asylum seekers in order to contextualize the literary and filmic material.



Press Releases in December


Press Releases 2012
recent coverage of the project


Workshop Report