Is it racism?


…The answer doesn’t always seem so black and white

In today’s post-Trump, post-referendum, politically polarised, petty, platformed, Peppa Pig world, the debates rage on about immigration – who should we let in, and under what conditions? But seemingly just as controversial is the question: are these debates underpinned by racism? Is it racist to want to cut immigration? Is it racist to oppose certain types or groups of immigrants? And who gets to decide whether or not it is?

Since the atrocities of the Holocaust came to light, the Western world has generally been in agreement that it is wrong to discriminate against or persecute someone because of their ethnicity. The idea that there is an inherent hierarchy of races is widely condemned and has been proven to be biological nonsense. But unfortunately, despite this, the world has not seen the end of racism. In fact, social scientists argue that racism has simply changed or evolved.

Over 30 years ago, Martin Barker used the term ‘new racism’. He observed debate around tightening immigration policy, and the reasons used by the British Conservative Party to justify such policy changes. This included that Brits were feeling ‘swamped’ by the presence of newcomers in their neighbourhoods, and that, whether or not the danger was real, it was only natural that they should feel this way when confronted by so many ‘outsiders’.

The claim was that these politicians were only speaking for the concerns of the ‘common’ people, but Barker argued that this was in fact racism in a new form. His claim was that any theory that justified hostility towards members of other populations as a natural and inevitable phenomenon should be treated as a form of racism.

Thirty years on, the arguments against immigration have changed little. Many argue that diversity is undesirable because certain groups of people bring with them cultures and ways of life that are incompatible with ours. This has been called cultural racism.

The deprivation seen in black communities in Britain and the US has been depicted as a cultural problem. In other words, not the skin colour or race of these people, but rather their culture is blamed, as though they are culturally predisposed to criminality, laziness and violence. Other groups of immigrants have been dismissed as not being able to ‘fit in’ or ‘adapt’ to the British or Australian or American ‘way of life’ because of their culture.

But wait – if we aren’t talking about people’s race, then how can it be racism? The fact is, this is still a form of exclusion that involves ascribing characteristics to people based on the group they happened to be born into. It is still a hierarchy – where we assume our group to be superior to others.

Now that coloured racism has become taboo, immigration and culture have become substitutes for race. The ‘great British culture’ or the ‘great Australian culture’ is seen to be something sacred, that should neither be tainted nor changed, and that is under ‘threat’ from outsiders. Whether or not either of these ‘great’ cultures exist in the idealised way in which we portray them is a debate for another day (many Britons aren’t particularly polite and all Australians aren’t necessarily friendly).

In fact, if racism were only about the colour of people’s skin, the Holocaust would not have been the turning point for the denouncement of biological racism. Are Jewish people a separate race? Or simply a particular religious, ethnic, or cultural group? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that assumptions were made about them based on their membership in that group, that they were blamed and demonised.

This is why Islamophobia is also described as a form of racism. While Islam can be found in countries as far apart as Algeria and Indonesia, and Muslim minorities all the way from Israel to India, Muslims have been racialised by media and political discourse. That is, despite their diversity, they are portrayed as one homogenous group (as though they are a race of people) with undesirable or inferior characteristics.

While we are on the subject of what does and does not count as racism, is there a such thing as ‘reverse racism’? Accusations of reverse racism have been popping up in response to multicultural policies for decades. Some ask, if white people are not allowed to disadvantage minority groups, then why are they allowed to disadvantage us? Why do they get special provisions when we don’t? Isn’t that racism?

Of course, discrimination can be committed by someone of any group towards a person of any other. But whether or not this constitutes racism is another matter. Racism is experienced on a number of levels – it is not just individual discrimination, but institutional and structural disadvantage that has developed over many centuries and cannot simply be resolved on the individual level. For those who belong to minority ethnic groups, racism is systemic, a repetitive and constant reminder that one is different to the expected norm and may always be judged on the basis of one’s race. This is something that white people in Western societies do not experience on a day-to-day basis.

Racism needs to involve power, and power is held by the dominant group in society. In the case of many Western countries, that group is white people. This power is held in sheer numbers, in disproportionate parliamentary representation, disproportionate representation at high level corporate positions, and different starting points in terms of the socioeconomic conditions in which people grow up, which have been affected by local and global histories of colonialism, theft, enslavement and oppression.

Multicultural policies aim to recognise and try to rectify the disadvantage and disrespect that goes hand-in-hand with this imbalance of power. Because the starting point differs so greatly between whites and non-whites, such policies could never constitute racism equivalent to that experienced by ethnic minorities.

So are we over-using the word racism? When it comes to talking about immigration, we need to consider the wider context behind why opposition to certain immigrants is louder than others – the historic legacy of colonialism, exploitation, and global racial hierarchies. The fact is that no matter what word we call it by, making assumptions about people based on their ethnic, cultural or religious group is unfair and wrong. But this is most harmful when done from a position of power in society.

Using the term ‘racist’ in a derogatory sense or to shut down argument is never helpful. I like to believe there are few racist people, just many ideas underpinned by racist assumptions. While it has been claimed that the word racism has been overused, to the point where it has lost its meaning, I would argue that if being labeled racist still invokes such passionate reactions from people, clearly little meaning has been lost.

We need to be able to draw attention to the racist assumptions underpinning debates about immigration, because of the way they contribute to continuing disadvantage for minority groups. If we ignore the wider context of immigration debates, we can never hope to work towards ethnic and racial equality.


Basic reading on new racism, cultural racism and racialisation:

Barker, M. (1981) The New Racism. London: Junction Books.

Fekete, L. (2009) A Suitable Enemy. Pluto Press.

Garner, S. (2010) Racisms. Sage.

Hage, G. (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Psychology Press.

Solomos, J. (2003) Race and Racism in Britain, 3rd edition. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.






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