Miri Song, University of Kent
In the last several years, charges of ‘racism’ have been rife – whether on the football pitch, reality television, or in the halls of Parliament. Both John Terry and Luis Suarez were accused of racist acts towards Black football players. And more recently, Nicolas Anelka, a Black French player, has been accused of anti-Semitism for his ‘quenelle’ gesture, thus generating debate about whether or not he has been racist. In Britain, last summer, there was controversy about vans which were driven around in towns, with messages telling illegal migrants to leave the country and warning of likely prosecution. While some politicians and ‘ordinary’ people believed that such an initiative was racist, others claimed that this measure was entirely about upholding the law.
At the same time, we increasingly hear charges of ‘reverse racism’ (toward White people) not only in the tabloid media, but also in the myriad public forums whizzing by us today, especially with the widespread use of social media like Twitter, which tend to evoke sound-bite exchanges of views which are not conducive to nuanced and careful argumentation (or the provision of evidence). For instance, in early 2012, Black Labour MP Diane Abbott was accused of being racist, because she tweeted about White people engaging in ‘divide and rule’ politics which hurt Black people. Rather than question whether this was in fact an instance of racism, Ed Miliband demanded a public apology from Abbott. Furthermore, many Britons appear to believe that race equality policies constitute a form of ‘reverse racism’ because they can penalize White people, and are therefore, ‘racist’. In fact, in many scenarios, any reference to someone’s ‘race’ is automatically read as racist.
These examples are simply a small sample of the kinds of daily debates that characterize much of British society at both local and national levels. While Britain is, of course, only one country with a distinctive history and population, I believe that many of the issues I raise in relation to Britain are applicable to other multi-ethnic societies in Europe.
We live at a time when our understandings and conceptualizations of ‘racism’ are often highly imprecise and the word is used to describe a wide range of racialized interactions and phenomena. Because the term ‘racism’ is used so frequently and indiscriminately in relation to such different scenarios, interactions and people it has suffered from conceptual ‘inflation’, as Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown (2003) put it.
This over-use has resulted in what I call a dangerous culture of racial equivalence, in which quite disparate interactions and phenomena are deemed racist (and comparable), but without sufficient explanation for why something or someone is or is not racist. A key manifestation of this culture of racial equivalence is the growing number of allegations of ‘reverse racism’ against ethnic minority people and race conscious policies. This growing tendency is problematic and worrying because it fails to differentiate among a diverse range of racialized phenomena – not all of which should be understood as ‘racism’.
This culture of racial equivalence has gradually emerged during a time when a more relativistic understanding of racism has been employed by some analysts to make sense of the often ‘messy’ and less than straightforward nature of many modern societal interactions. For instance, some postmodern analysts of racism, such as Rattansi (2007) have argued against the binary of ‘racist’ v. ‘non-racist’, and argued for a more nuanced and complex understanding of racial incidents and people, especially involving people’s (often ambivalent and contradictory) beliefs and behaviours. According to this way of thinking, many people are neither racists or non-racists, but capable of a range of beliefs and behaviours. These are valuable insights, but this relativistic trend has made it increasingly difficulty to define racism and therefore to challenge erroneous charges of ‘reverse racism’.
How do we challenge this culture of racial equivalence? One immediate difficulty is that there is no one definition or criterion by which we determine that someone or something is ‘racist’. Historically, racism has been conceptualized (implicitly or explicitly) as something perpetrated by White people. However, significant changes in society — such as growing ‘super-diversity’, diversification within ethnic minority groups, and awareness of White working class disadvantage — have engendered new ways of theorizing racism so that it is no longer automatically seen as something that White people and institutions ‘do’ to non-White victims.
Nevertheless, we need some consensus on how we define racism, so that we avoid an overly relativized and ‘wishy-washy’ conceptualization of it – after all, such understandings inform policies. Even if we recognize that there are multiple perpetrators of racism, some of whom may not be White (something that is still contested in academic debates), we must remember that not all racisms are the same — in their origins, social implications, and severity.
While there is no one definition which analysts agree upon, one widely used theorization is very useful in assessing specific interactions on a case by case basis. Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994) have argued that for something to be racist, it must a) draw upon racially essentialist categories (e.g. beliefs about racial differences and stereotypes) AND it must b) create or reproduce structures of domination based upon these racial categories and generalizations. So in addition to identifying modes of (often negative) racial thinking and categorization, this conceptualization points to the creation or reproduction of structures of domination.
If we apply this definition of racism to the Diane Abbott furore, it is clear that while Abbott’s remark racially essentializes White people in a negative fashion, her remarks do not create or reproduce structures of domination; on the contrary, her remarks constitute a form of strategic essentialism in which she knowlingly critiques forms of White dominance and power. Can we really couple Abbott’s remark in the same category with the statements of various far right parties and movements?
We need to employ such criteria in our assessments of the numerous social interactions and policies dubbed ‘racist’. The trend toward a growing culture of racial equivalence is worrying, as it denudes the idea of racism of its historical basis, severity and power. These frequent and commonplace assertions of racism in the public sphere paradoxically end up trivializing our understanding of racism. A culture of racial equivalence, in which ethnic minority people are regarded as equally likely to be ‘racist’, is also troubling because it can bolster neo-conservative arguments about ‘old style’ racism being something from the past; it can also deflect attention from the continuing privileges attached to Whiteness.
We need to retain the term ‘racism’, but we need to differentiate more clearly between ‘racism’ (as an historical and structured system of domination) from more individualistic conceptualizations of racial prejudice. This historically informed understanding of racism should not be confused with instances of racial hostility (e.g. against some White people), and we should employ a wider vocabulary (e.g. xenophobia, ethnocentrism) to discuss and debate interactions which are deemed to be ‘racial’ or ‘racist’.
R. Miles & M. Brown (2003) Racism, London: Routledge.
M. Omi & H. Winant (1994) Racial Formation in the United States, New York: Routledge.
A. Rattansi (2007) Racism: a Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Miri Song is professor of Sociology in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent. An article on challenging a culture of racial equivalence is forthcoming in The British Journal of Sociology in Spring 2014]