Shilliam’s Undeserving Refusal. Or, why a relational politics of liberation was always (is always) possible

This post, guest authored by Lisa Tilley, is part of a symposium on Robbie Shilliam’s new book Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit and follows related contributions by Robbie, Sara Salem, Naeem Inayatullah, Luke de Noronha, and Rick Saull.

The white working class was first made in the colonies

The white working class, as an unjustly temporally displaced and materially deserving collective (the “left behind”) has become more notably prominent in the collective consciousness from left to right since Brexit. The re-centring of this political construct tells us how much is at stake in understanding this particular configuration of race and class at this conjunctural moment in Brexit Britain and beyond. In Race and the Undeserving Poor, Shilliam’s historical recovery informs us that this white working class, as a political constituency, was first made in the colonies and therefore needs to be comprehended in historical colonial relation. In other words, this formation can only be understood by means of a travelling analysis, one which crosses hierarchies as much as historical and geographical space.

Let me pause for a moment to foreground a provocation: Political invocations centring the white working class (or coded synonyms, such as ‘ordinary working people’) in the present, are always grounded in contempt for the working class: working class whites are always reactionary, relative material descent is enough to ignite their latent, explosive fascism; otherwise-racialised working class people simply do not exist, anti-racist politics is therefore rendered a bourgeois ‘London elite’ concern. From any perspective the white working class is discursive grounds for a divisive politics. Geographically isolated and de-raced histories of class formation, or otherwise ahistorical articulations of race (whiteness) and class, make possible this toxic politics of the present in which class consciousness is actively raised through a frame of whiteness.

Working comprehensively against this, Shilliam rereads historical class formation through the lens of empire. This also disturbs an unwritten rule of Western scholarship: that Europe is to be analysed as uniquely dynamic and self-making. Formations within Europe, including class, have long been strategically understood as immanent, reinforcing the unique dynamism of European societies in contrast with the static Others of the colonies who awaited Europe’s vital influence.

More than this, beyond a real understanding of class formation in global historical perspective, Shilliam’s recovery reveals the relational political possibilities which have been deliberately inhibited by colonial elites and political elites into the present. There is another history of empire in which a relational politics of liberation was always (is always) possible. Read Race and the Undeserving Poor and take a moment to reflect on how the device of the white working class has been designed to work against this radical relational pull.

This other relational politics, at least in my reading, is the terrain grounding Shilliam’s book:

[Consider the] thread of resistance handed down by all those collectively punished as undeserving but who have refused such a system of classification […] the Haitian revolutionaries, the abolitionist movements amongst British workers, the Black Baptists of Morant Bay, Black Power in Britain, Grunwick, Westway, and there are many more. This detritus of empire has rarely been considered the material from which to build new publics, and certainly not in the metropolitan core. But the stone which the builders rejected shall become the chief cornerstone.

Those who’ve engaged with Shilliam’s Black Pacific, a seemingly distinct work in terms of its scope and analytics, might note a familiar essence here which marks these two books as siblings. A relational politics is always (was always) possible.


The undeserving poor were made through the racialised patriarchy

Beyond this political grounding, Shilliam’s analytical journey tracks the coordinates of the racialisation of the undeserving subject; measured against the deserving – originally a figure marked by a straightforward lack of health and ability who qualified for relief under the seventeenth century poor laws. The radical remaking of social life through eighteenth century enclosures recast the English rural poor as potential ‘masterless men’, unmoored from patriarchal land ties and – like the restless enslaved in the plantation economies of the Americas – at risk of radical freedom.

Let me underline this detail, especially for Feminist critics: understanding the racialisation of the undeserving poor is contingent upon a material analysis of the patriarchy, which Shilliam extends through this text. Gendered and racial orders are made in relation. Deserving characteristics are bestowed and cemented through paternalistic stewardship. Enclosures brought anxiety around the breakdown of the patriarchal order, and a future without this order was imagined as dangerously Black, like the functionally genderless and anarchical enslaved socialities of the Caribbean (see also Davis 1981 and Spillers 1987 on ungendered racialised figures[i]). Ultimately, the deserving have been those able to foster and display “industriousness, prudence, and patriarchy” while the undeserving have been exhibitors of the characteristics of the enslaved themselves: “idleness, licentiousness, and anarchy.” The undeserving signalled the possibility of a wholly different society stripped of both the ‘civilised’ and industrious character of whiteness and the order of patriarchy.

Another provocation to be left hanging: Have Western Feminists, in their struggles against patriarchy, reinvested in the racialised deserving/undeserving distinction and crystallised a white and exclusionary notion of womanhood in relation? After all, in the quest for bread and roses: “The rising of the women/Means the rising of the race/No more the drudge and idler/Ten that toil where one reposes…”

As we go marching, marching

We bring the greater days

For the rising of the women

Means the rising of the race

No more the drudge and idler

Ten that toil where one reposes

But the sharing of life’s glories

Bread and roses, bread and roses

From Bread and Roses (Oppenheim 1911).

Let’s go back to 1840 for a moment, when commissioners under Lord Ashley travelled from London to the industrial North of England to gather testimonies and prepare sketches of the conditions of coal workers in the northern collieries. These were also travels across hierarchies as much as they were travels across geography, and the testimonies collected troubled the integral racial and gender order. Working in the pits, they were dismayed to find, were women who did not correspond to the proper moral figure of ‘woman’ in the white imagination. Patience Kershaw, aged 17:

All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot […] I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit; there are about 20 boys and 15 men; all the men are naked; I would rather work in mill than in coal-pit.”

(Ashley’s Commission 1842).

The revulsion expressed by Ashley’s commissioners towards the condition of balding girls working with naked men would usually be parsed today through the analytic of Victorian morality, nationally situated. But the commissioners themselves were more honest than that and their Victorian judgement was cast with global imperial reference:

This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such an one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon.

Shilliam’s analytics allow us to recast this encounter and its outcomes – the prohibition of child and female labour in the mines – not simply as a story of social reform, but as one of the production and maintenance of imperialism and racialised patriarchy. It was a moment in the extension of white womanhood to the wretched undeserving, effected in relation to the sharpening of classed masculinity.

Later, at the turn of the twentieth century, Lord Baden-Powell’s travels across the geographies and hierarchies of empire attuned his own consciousness to the perception that, in contradiction with the racial hierarchical architecture upholding the empire, poor ‘white’ boys of the metropole were plainly inferior in terms of wit, mettle, and skills, to the ‘natives’ of the colonies.

[I]n South America, the boys of the Yaghan tribe … wore no clothes, and before they were allowed to consider themselves men they had to undergo a test of pluck, which consisted in the boy driving a spear deep into his thigh and smiling all the time in spite of the pain. It was a cruel test, but it shows that these savages understood how necessary it is that boys should be trained to manliness and not be allowed to drift into being poor-spirited wasters who can only look on at men’s work. The ancient British boys used to have the same kind of training before they were allowed to be considered men, and the training which we are now doing as Scouts is intended to fill that want as far as possible.

(Baden-Powell 1961 [1908]: 32 [emphasis added])

With these poor-spirited wasters in mind, Baden-Powell would design his social engineering project – the Scout movement – which set out to carefully ‘whiten’ poor boys in habit and discipline. However, the objective was to not whiten them so much that they would forget their place in the hierarchy of empire, expressly as the vital lower bricks in the imperial wall.

Boy messengers during the ‘Seige of Mafeking’, South Africa, 1900

At that time, Baden-Powell was only the latest in a series of “Boy Experts” who concerned themselves expressly with the “Boy Nature” of working class white boys (Rosenthal 1984: 89); however, his movement remains undoubtedly the most far-reaching and influential. In today’s incarnation, ‘Boy Experts’ such as David Willetts, Toby Young, Liam Fox, and of course legions of scout leaders, continue in their concern for, and tutelage of, working class white boys in strikingly unchanged ways. Classed masculinity continues to be produced through race.

To recap, the analysis in Race and the Undeserving Poor tells us that the undeserving poor themselves were considered to be dangerously like the enslaved. In light of this, Baden Powell’s preoccupation over what could be done with those so savagely undeserving of whiteness and who had more in common with the colonised yet who were so much needed as load-bearing bricks in the wall of empire becomes clearer.

Further, Race and the Undeserving Poor also leaves us with a broader inheritance in the form of an analytical lexicon through which the politics of the present can be known more profoundly. Beyond, and in relation to, the deserving/undeserving distinction, Shilliam traces the making of the English genus, the mobilisation of ‘little platoons’, and recasts the history of social reform and welfare in relation to the race science of eugenics.

So, what became of the women liberated from the mines, invested into whiteness and the English genus, whose lives were eased by a racially-written welfare system, and who were charged with raising the poor-spirited wasters so vital to the diminishing empire?

My grandma holds two porcelain figures in rose-powdered hands. I ask her again to tell her great-grandsons the story of their survival, to tell the story again for the sake of the survival of the story. World War Two in the ship-building city of Sunderland, she’s in a shelter while the bombs rain above. Working class communities were targeted for their spatial density, vital industry, and with the hope of breaking their commitment to the national (imperial) cause. Seven thousand would die under bombing raids on the Northeast. When she emerges from the shelter, her rented Victorian terrace is only rubble, but somehow the porcelain ornaments are salvaged. The most delicate figures turn out to be the most enduring. She raised two sons in the aftermath of the war, while her husband died slowly of industry-related emphysema. Being on and off the dole as a result of this condition brought the burden of shame – as Shilliam tells us, being on the boundary of deserving/undeserving status left the family patriarchally invested with whatever the fortunes of the father bestowed – but she scrubbed up, became aspirational, took elocution lessons, outlived two husbands and thrived through the more attentive years of the NHS and pensions credits. Some of the bread, and the rose talc at least, were hers.

A couple of generations before, she might have been a coal-hurrier, had social engineers not invested so much in the whitening of the working class through the sharpening of the gender order, liberating women from the mines and doubling down on the hard and industrial requirements of classed white masculinity. Any comforts brought to her by the welfare state and through labour reforms were, at least in part, eugenically written. She might be typical of generations of working class whites who are unaware that their whiteness was, and is, so manufactured and contingent. And she might be typical of those who have not reckoned with how the manufacturing of this whiteness has come at the expense of racialised others and done so much to inhibit a relational politics of liberation.

Let me end with this repetition. A relational politics is always possible, but a meaningful relational politics is contingent upon the unpacking of the racialised promise of bread and roses, as well as the dismantling of racialised notions of the proper ‘woman’ and ‘working class’ figures. For the relational to move beyond the possible, we need an honest reckoning with history and a determined unwhitening of the bases of struggle. Race and the Undeserving Poor is an invigorating place to start.


Ashley’s Commission (1842). The condition and treatment of the children employed in the mines and collieries of the United Kingdom.

Baden-Powell (1961 [1908]). Scouting for Boys. C. Arthur Pearson Ltd

Davis, A. Y. (1981). Women, Race, & Class. London: The Women’s Press Limited.

Oppenheim, J (1911). Bread and Roses. The American Magazine.

Rosenthal, M. (1986). The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement. New York: Pantheon.

Spillers, H. J. (1987). Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book. Diacritics, 17(2), 65-81.

[i] In an analysis of race and class formation in relation to patriarchy, why not take a moment to speak with Davis, Spillers, and other intellectual sisters who’ve thought through race, class, and gender in relation for many, many decades in relation to other contexts? This is the only real shade I’ll throw on Shilliam’s text in this engagement!


3 thoughts on “Shilliam’s Undeserving Refusal. Or, why a relational politics of liberation was always (is always) possible

  1. Pingback: Race and the Undeserving Poor: Response | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Race and the Undeserving Poor | Robbie Shilliam

  3. Pingback: Imagining Africa: ‘White Civilizational Vitality’ Across Time and Space | The Disorder Of Things

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s