Race and Racism

Published 2 March 2015 / By Rachel Humphris

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Notes from a COMPAS Debate Forum Meeting

The forum opened with short overviews of the four readings above.

Firstly it was widely agreed that racism is considered as a mechanism of otherness and in creating ‘others’.

The key opening question of the debate concerned the definition of race. Does it have to be visible? Is it passed from parent to child? Is it a social group? What about sexuality, gender, ability? What’s the difference between racism and other forms of intolerance?

A key concern regarding the definition of ‘post – epidermal racism’ is that it may become too broad and cease to have any analytical meaning.

Bearing this in mind, what is the defining feature of this new form of racism? Is it mobility? Is it the foreignness implied by ‘xeno-racism’? And how do we operationalise it and ensure that we afford individuals appropriate protection? What is the essential characteristic on which people are being denigrated?

What is racial opposed to other forms particularly if it is not about mobility and not about colour? Is it a continuum of different kinds of otherness?

Racism is mixed up with gender, able – bodiedness, and sexuality. They are not distinct. The white able bodied, property owning male citizen is considered neutral and everything else is the deviation of the norm. There are moments when there are particularly virulent ideas that can be brought forward. However it was acknowledged that place has a certain salience over race.

Is there a better concept we could use instead of race? For example when talking about ‘chavs’? It was suggested that dominant narratives use race because it’s powerful. The reason they present chavs in this form is perhaps because it’s the most effect way to ‘other’.

There was general scepticism towards ‘xeno racism’ and the idea that there is a new kind of racism at all. Bridget Anderson noted that it is not a new thing and that it is actively made. This makes the concept very slippery and difficult to pin down. Different people, with different intersecting characteristics come into view at different times depending on the researchers and researched particular positions.

However, a key element of racism that separates it from other forms of discrimination is the reduction to the body and in this way race works in a similar way to gender, at the moment of being reduced the body. However, this is also more complex as bodies are about your way of being in the world and therefore are also infused with various meanings.

Therefore race is a slippery concept (i.e. people will always think of a counter example) however, that’s part of its power and also the challenge. It also on some level merges with ‘culture’. For example Pegida defends itself not on grounds of race but on grounds of culture – ‘we don’t want the Islamicisation of Europe’. Culture is the mediator rather than race.

Another interesting aspect of racism is its relationship to nationalism and its relationship to poverty.

This slippage between nationalism and racism manifests in the idea propagated by Frank Field in the reading from The Independent. It is the idea that the white working class need to be protected from immigration.

Nationalism is always a racial and racializing project. Even when we try to imagine ‘the civic’ it is still raced. A key element of this is held within notions of inferiority. Nationalism suggests that there are separate nations. Racism and race conveys an idea of inferiority and that somehow an individual is not as worthy of respect. There is a hierarchy of difference.

Similarly race can easily slide into notions surrounding poverty and it was noted that this has a long history. It was suggested that the anti-racist organisations in the 1970s reduced racism to skin colour and neglected the impact of poverty and how racism plays out in practice.

Racism and immigration

What is the relationship between race and immigration control?

Race is produced by immigration control.

The debate then turned to question the relevance and usefulness of race as an analytical lens when examining immigration controls. It was suggested that this might be potentially misleading. If the focus is on race when actually race is not the primary axis on which discrimination is being practiced.

However, it was argued that the focus on race is important as any term that is used comes with concomitant histories and weights. Terms such as native and indigenous tell us something about the whole history of ideas. The word has come into the policy ‘tool box’.

What is a ‘chav’ and what has it got to do with race?

Ben explained that a ‘chav’ stereotypically wears Burberry and lots of jewellery and partakes in conspicuous consumption.

However it was then asked whether this is not just class prejudice rather than racism.

The debate then turned to address how race is not a category but singles out biological inheritability. It is genetically carried and ‘in the blood’.

The same kind of language is used to describe some portions of the working class such as vermin and breeding, implying a tainted blood line. This, Ben argues, differs from old snobbery. Historically the English under-class were seen as ‘darker’.

Why is it useful to discuss the ideas that are chavs as racism?

Politically it is really helpful. The so called chav and the immigrant are set up in opposition to each other and therefore to use the same lens to talk about them is analytically quite useful. Both have lots of things that are in common but they are placed against each other.

However, while recognising the process that is going on with chavs – what is distinctive about it is the social and political function. It helps us to see what the similar processes are.

What are the political functions of racism?

The debate turned to address how the political discourse regarding refugees and asylum seekers was turned on its head during the course of the 1990s. Why did the government feel as though they needed to turn public opinion against asylum seekers at this time? Was it fiscal implications? Public opinion was then behind asylum seekers. Now, we see that media representations depict a very different position on asylum seekers and claims to be representing public opinion.

It is therefore useful to trace the different uses of racism: in government, as a nation building project and by members of the public.

There are different configurations of racism: the language of the bogus asylum seeker, social rights and entitlements, chav discourse, the notion of the undeserving poor. They all place people outside the community of worth.

This also coincides with the rise of the worker citizen. It is very clear in immigration and critical to EU mobility. It is important to use the same lens to look at the ‘chav’ and the migrant. This is not about the policy relevance but about the inherent racism within the liberal project. Liberalism and racism reinforce each other and it is good to embarrass liberalism.

However the debate then turned to address whether we can separate the analytical and the political. And if we are using this lens only to be political is that a good a reason to see things in this way?

It was argued that the political lens is important when critiquing liberalism. The ideology we inhabit: you can’t pull the analytical and political apart.

Is may be helpful to think about different forms of racism however it must be born in mind that the content may be different but the process and mechanism is the same.

We should be interested in the making of racism, rather than the qualities of the people who are being made.

Xeno –racism

Race is something that is made and therefore having different ‘types’ is not useful. One of the challenges of racism is the different hierarchies of being.

Therefore when addressing xeno-racism is it difficult to answer whether it is worse or better than previous racism? If we follow this line of though perhaps it would be best if we we don’t put too much weight on this category. Racism mutates and perhaps at this particular socio-political moment, xeno-racism is potentially the most useful way to look at racism.

Two aspects of racism

It was posited whether it would be useful to see two aspects: the content and the political. The content would include a continuum with other ‘outgroups’ for example the nature of the negative stereotypes that may not be that different from class. There is then the political aspect for example, gender. This does have political function.

Perhaps we could build a definition around both these things?

The idea of the worker citizen then returned again to the debate because it works for gender and class and race and ability. However this is not in terms of political process. They have the same political function at the meta level.

There is something about the liberal self and the way that it is imagined. White, able-bodied, independent, self managed, property owner as the norm: this is helpful in thinking about the content of the political function of race.


What are the ethical implications of this? Where does the ethical come into this discussion?

Ethics might be helpful because racism was seen to be about colour and therefore most people think they are not affected by it. Once we posit that people are denigrated on the basis of many different characteristics we can open out an understanding of what is going on. There is an appropriation of stereotypes in different situations.

Thinking about the ethical implications will also lead us to question the terms that we use and the ways that we help to reproduce these sorts of knowledges.

Reduction to a body is very helpful and brings certain vulnerabilities into focus.


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