Race, Ethnicity and Class in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album

Writing from my room in Bloomsbury

Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album was filled with tension between races and classes, so much so that it’s difficult to discuss all of the representations in one blog post. Another reason this post is difficult that due to the amount of political and historical content in the novel that I didn’t understand, a lot of reasoning behind the tensions in the novel was lost on me. That being said, I’d like to focus on the tensions between Deedee Osgood and Riaz (and his friends), and Shahid and his sister in law. Deedee Osgood, a professor of English, is portrayed as the privileged professor with all of the knowledge. In the beginning of the novel, Shahid, the narrator, is entranced by her wealth of knowledge. “How had he lived so long without this knowledge?” he wonders while in one of her classes, “Where had they kept it? Who else were they concealing it from?” (36). Because of her white privilege, Deedee exists freely in the world. She is invited to insane parties where she has access to whatever kind of drugs she wants to take, her and her husband cheat on each other as long as the person they are seeing doesn’t come into the house, and she can teach the material she deems important to her students. Her position in society had given her these liberties.

Unlike Deedee, Shahid, Riaz and the rest of his group exist in a restricted part of society. They aren’t ascribed with privilege and by the first few pages of the novel, the characters are acutely aware of it. “Why can’t I be racist like everyone else? Why Do I have to miss out on that privilege?” Shahid exclaims to Riaz. The  Muslims in the novel are oppressed and seen as others in the society. Deedee tells Shahid that another student in his position felt that he felt “I am homeless…I have no country,” and this is true for the others in the novel. They are confined to certain parts of the city, specific building, even on the streets; they must be very careful of the space they inhabit. If they don’t stick to the space they’ve been allotted, it might have horrible consequences.

What’s important about Kureishi’s novel is that in the end, both Shahid and Deedee must deal with the repercussions of trying to exist in parts of society they are not allowed to occupy in this tense turning point in history. In one of the last scenes of the novel, Deedee tries to interfere with the burning of the book and the crowd gets angry at her. Deedee is asked, “are the white supremacists going to lecture us on democracy this afternoon? Or will they permit us, for once to practice it?” then told to “get off, white bitch!” The white privilege she uses to get her way throughout the novel is no longer protecting her; the people her privilege has oppressed have taken action against her. 

Later that night, Riaz and everyone else invade Deedee’s home with Shahid inside. The Muslims are trying to regain the space that they were denied because of their lack of privilege, and physically storm Deedee’s house as an extreme display of their struggle. Shahid, Deedee and Chili (Shahid’s brother) are all somewhat injured from this attack. At the end of the novel we see that both sides of the battle have suffered some sort of loss. The only person that presumably remains unharmed is the only white male character of the bunch, Dr. Brownlow. Throughout all of this tension and violence, he escapes and isn’t directly affected by it. The most privileged one of the bunch, Brownlow, escapes, while the two oppressed groups duke it out and leave with damage. Kureishi, in the last few chapters of the novel, show the reader through Brownlow that the white privileged male chooses to stay safe and let those less privileged groups, women and Muslims, fight for something beneath him.

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