Racism 101: what is it?

DSCF0103“the construction and reproduction of the idea of ‘race’ is something that requires explanation.” (Miles, 1989: 73)

I. The idea of ‘race’

Primarily to offer an explanation of European history and national formation, the idea of ‘race’ entered the English language in the early sixteenth century. The idea of ‘race’ came under scientific investigation from the late eighteenth century. A scientific discourse of ‘race’ was extensively reproduced in the nineteenth century across Europe, North America, and the European colonies. That said:

“the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not replace earlier conceptions of the Other. Ideas of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it.” (Miles, 1989: 33)

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the scientific idea of biological ‘races’ was discredited, and yet the idea of ‘race’ has remained (to date) as a “common-sense discourse to identify the Other” (Miles, 1989: 38). Racism makes sense of the world, regardless of the fact that it makes sense of the world in a nonsensical way.

 

II. Europe and the idea of ‘race’

It is important to observe that:

“for the European, the Other has not been created exclusively in the colonial context. Representations of the Other have taken as their subject not only the populations of, for example, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas but also the populations of different parts of Europe, as well as invasionary and colonising populations, notably from North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the Other has been created not only externally to the nation state, but also within, most notably in the case of the Jews.” (Miles, 1989: 39)

Historically in Europe, the idea of inferior ‘races’ has focused on the Irish and the Jews on the basis of the supposed biological superiority of the Nordic ‘race’.

With this in mind, I would suggest that Said’s concept of Orientalism, of a dual camp dichotomy between East and West (in part emerging from a European corporate institution of the late eighteenth century onwards), falls short in analytical sharpness and explanatory power; and ought not to be conflated with or substitute for an understanding of racism.

 

III. Racism and conceptual inflation and deflation: Islamophobia and privilege theory

As a crucial legacy to conceptualising racism, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collective and Stuart Hall (in the vein of Frantz Fanon) were reluctant to specify the analytical content of racism, which Robert Miles problematizes as follows:

“Hall recognises that racism is a concept (a ‘rational abstraction’) that identifies a particular phenomenon but warns against ‘extrapolating a common and universal structure to racism, which remains essentially the same, outside of its specific historical location’ (1980: 337). However, if there are ‘historically-specific racisms’ (1980: 336), they must also have certain common attributes which identify them as different forms of racism.” (Miles, 1989: 65)

Robert Miles identifies two forms of conceptual inflation with regard to racism:

“On the one hand, a number of writers have continued to confine the use of the term to refer to specific discourses, but have inflated its meaning to include ideas and arguments which would not be included by those who initially formulated and used it.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

While:

“On the other hand, other writers have inflated the analytical meaning of the concept so as to refer largely to individual and institutional practices which have as their outcome the determination and/or reproduction of ‘black’ disadvantage, regardless of intention or legitimating ideology.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

Alternatively put, there is the continued use of the concept of racism which is either inflated as a discourse of the Other that has new ideological content, or inflated – or rather, I would propose, contrary to Miles, deflated – so that a discourse of the Other is secondary or largely irrelevant. I would suggest that contemporary examples of this conceptual inflation and deflation are, respectively, Islamophobia and privilege theory. The problem with this, as identified by Miles, is that we are left with a concept of racism that has inadequate discriminatory power and makes identifying determinacy hard:

“The case for limiting the use of the concept to refer exclusively to ideology is based on the assumption that the analytical value of a concept is determined by its utility in describing and explaining societal processes.” (Miles, 1989: 77)

 

IV. What is racism?

“What matters is not difference per se but the identification of difference as significant, and this requires an investigation of the conditions under which processes of signification occur.” (Miles, 1989: 118)

Racism entails a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

“In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.

 

Recommended reading: Marxism, racism and the construction of ‘race’ as a social and political relation: an interview with Professor Robert Miles

3 thoughts on “Racism 101: what is it?

  1. Pingback: Privilege theory and political impasse | Anaemic On A Bike

  2. Pingback: Privilege theory: a political impasse? | Anaemic On A Bike

  3. Pingback: Privilege theory: political impasse? | Anaemic On A Bike

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