A central feature of colonial racism has been the need to categorize and separate ‘races’. The spurious belief of distinct ‘races’ in 19th-century discourses of scientific racism was based upon an immutable boundary between White Europeans and its racial ‘others’. The term hybridity has been used to describe a condition in which these boundaries of identity are crossed, resulting in illegitimate racial mixing. Derogatory names such as ‘half-breed’ and ‘mongrel’ signify these negative racial encounters. The purity and fixity of a ‘white’ identity has been maintained by labelling those mixed ‘others’ as both racially and culturally impure. The anxiety over racial mixing or miscegenation led hybrids to be associated with disease and moral decay. The existence of inter-sexual relations—the illicit union of ‘Whites’ with ‘Blacks’—also revealed a hidden colonial desire for the racial ‘other’ (Robert Young, Colonial Desire, 1995).
More recently, hybridity has been re-appropriated by social and cultural critics. Its transformation into a positive condition of cultural change and creativity has attempted to challenge fixed or essentialist accounts of identity and culture. The racialized claims of purity of origins have been undermined by a trangressive hybridity which implies that the crossing of racial and cultural boundaries is a normative feature of societal development. Hybridity acknowledges that identity is formed through an encounter with difference. In particular, the condition of cultural hybridity has been highlighted by examining the post-colonial cultures of migrants which are based on fusions and translations of existing elements. The most developed theorization of hybridity by Homi Bhabha (The Location of Culture, 1994) does not consider it as merely fusing existing cultural elements. Rather, hybridity refers to the process of the emergence of a culture, in which its elements are being continually transformed or translated through irrepressible encounters. Hybridity offers the potential to undermine existing forms of cultural authority and representation.
However, positive accounts of hybridity have been criticized for failing to consider other social differences of class, gender, or location (Giyatri Spivak, In Other Worlds, 1988). There is a danger that some accounts of hybridity banally celebrate everyday cultural mixing, instead of analysing the relations of power which produce social differences and political antagonisms. See also identity.