The challenges of defining Racism

“….the plurality of multiple definitions must be encouraged as they bridge the explanatory lacunae that are present between the abolition of slavery and lived experiences of people of colour.”

Racism can loosely be understood as a social construct that involves hierarchical relations within racial groups based on biological, cultural, and/or material attributes (working definition). Through racialisation, these processes are reproduced within institutions and social contexts, that differ across time and space. Due to the nature of racism remaining in constant flux, its conceptualisation remains problematized, and different definitions of racism lead to normative debates relating to terminological,  lexicology, and theoretical ontology. This essay seeks to discuss the challenges of defining racism and subsequently highlighting the politically generative implications it has. For this purpose, the essay will follow the historical trajectory of racism, which can be divided into various themes -biological racism, new racism, cultural racism, institutional racism, and everyday racism. It will be argued that due to the diversity of such competing definitions, a singular, all-encompassing definition cannot epitomise such a complex social phenomenon without risking reductionism or conceptual inflation. However, not having clear definition subjects the concept to arbitrary use by interlocutors who may strategically contort the ambiguity of the term to fit their counterarguments. Hence, definitions should be adopted at the same pace as the evolution of society. In this way, theorists must utilise these multifaceted approaches to gain a comprehensive understanding of racial inequality that will shape contemporary discourses.

A key difficulty in defining racism is that it’s meaning changes over time. Hence, it is vital to map its historical transition from old forms of scientific racism to newer interpretations of cultural and institutional racism and its political implications. From the perspective of symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1962), the different typologies of racism can be explained by the meanings we attached to race which are always evolving across sociohistorical contexts. While some scholars restrict it to ideologies (Banton, 1991; Miles, 1982), others extend this concept to actions and structures (Carmichael & Hamilton, 1968). Although untenable, biological or scientific racism is rooted in the parochial structuring of society based on phenotypical features and mental dispositions. In line with functionalism (Nash, 1964), this ordering of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races emerged with enlightenment as a means of explaining modes of human organisations which, were then used to justify the colonial project and racial segregation. In the UK, this notion was popularised by the anatomist Robert Knox in The Races of Men (1850) which devised the idea of a biological dichotomy between racial groups and accorded white people the absolute right to dominate, subjugate and exterminate black people (Richards, 1989). This was accelerated through racial engineering in the Eugenics movement and Social Darwinism which proposed the erasure of such weaker competitors (Lentin, 2008). Such a narrow understanding of racism had political implications which can be evidenced by the enactment of the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913 as a result of Winston’s belief in racial sterilisation (Miles & Brown, 2003). Due to the anachronistic nature of old racism, it is assumed that such definitions hold no significance in today’s world. However, this view is mistaken as many studies have confirmed a return of racial essentialism and biological determinism (Byrd & Hughey, 2015). For instance, such misleading value judgements have been replicated within political discourses, used by the British National Party’s rhetoric against Muslims as being inherently ‘prejudicial’ (Goodman & Johnson, 2013). Some geneticists are also disseminating false information regarding the alleged correlation between race and intelligence (Skibba, 2019). While society has rejected these  past definitions, its implications in the form of racist beliefs and policy paradigms are still prominent. These attitudes are internalised and disseminated through generations, originating from outdated biological and scientific articulations. Overall, transposing previous definitions that do not capture contemporary sentiments highlights the very challenges of defining racism. Nonetheless, acknowledging what prior definitions meant is useful for identifying them in prevailing circumstances.

      As old forms of racism evolve into a newer typology, orthodox definitions become problematised as they do not represent contemporary meaning. Newer forms of racism took the ‘rational’ justification of old racism a step further by applying it to cultural characteristics, thus forming more nuanced understandings of racism. Barker’s (1981) terminology of ‘new racism’ elucidated the ‘new’ right-wing political context in the UK throughout the 1970s under the Conservative Party wherein, living among one’s ‘own people’ was naturalised. This ‘common sense’ ideology was intensified in response to multiculturalism and post-war immigration and the focus shifted to protecting the cultural homogeneity against ‘outsiders’. Conservative politicians such as Cyril Osborne were at the forefront of the ideological war, framing and problematising the existence of the ‘coloured immigrant’ (Ansell, 1997). Enoch Powell, a senior MP, encapsulated the campaign by emphasising a ‘sense of Britishness’ in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (Sloan, 2018). Such dominant views were materialised as most immigrants were forced into poor housing which was concentrated within larger industrial cities (Rhodes & Brown, 2018). Settlement patterns such as ghettoization mixed with deindustrialisation reinforced the moral panic for separate living as racialised bodies became synonymous with racialised spaces. This was reflected in neoliberal policy practices such as the Urban Programme which targeted such problematic dwellings which were purportedly rampaged with squalor and crime, thus consolidating the discourse surrounding immigrant communities (ibid). Such forms of racism are still prevalent which can be evidenced by incidences such as the Grenfell Tower fire or the Windrush Scandal  which demonstrates state racism in praxis. Thus, new racism is distinct from old forms of racism as it makes no mention of hierarchical categorisations of race. Indeed, this aided the movement as racism was initially characterised by superiority versus inferiority in the past. In this way, the racist undertones in new racism were concealed under the veil of silence regarding such assertions. However, by making no attempts to identify features that would permit racism to operate as an ideology, Barker has been criticised for conceptually inflating this definition as it eliminates the contrast between racism, nationalism, sexism, etc. Moreover, he has been factually incorrect in claiming that racist ideologies do not usually exhibit a superior-inferior hierarchy (Miles & Brown, 2003). Finally, this theory can be critiqued from an ethnocentric perspective as its applicability to other social contexts remains inconclusive. Overall, while sociologists have adopted newer definitions of racism, they distort factual validity.

      In a similar vein as new racism, cultural racism is the extrapolation of such concepts in a constructivist paradigm. Combined with modernisation, cultural racism asserts that non-Europeans are not racially, but culturally primitive in comparison to Europeans and thus remain intellectually and culturally underdeveloped. This theory was supported by Weber who emphasised the European mentality as the source of modernity (1958). Similarly, Eurocentric diffusionism argues that the West is at the centre of the world as it is innovative and progressive because rationality is only peculiar to Europeans. Contrastingly, the periphery consists of the non-European world because it remains stagnant and traditional (Blaut, 1987). From a neo-colonial viewpoint, such understandings of racism have adverse implications for the realm of academia where knowledge disseminated by non-white scholars is considered less credible as compared to white researchers (Aquino et al., 2016). Like new racism, cultural racism depends on the value that interlocutors assign to visual representations. According to Hall, race can be considered a ‘floating signifier’ as its mechanisms imitate language (1997). As a social construct, its meaning is relational and redefined across cultural settings. This reproduces stereotypes, generalisations, and assumptions that reduce, essentialise, and naturalise fixed differences such as ethnicity and religion (Lentin, 2008). Instances include the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour in media (Terry, 2018) who are considered as either mysterious or objects of sexual promiscuity. Similarly, in the aftermath of 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims rose in the UK (Mandaville, 2009) while cultural representations such as the hijabs were banned in France in the name of secularism (Al Jazeera, 2021). However, such readings of racism have come under criticism for conceptual stretching and ambivalence. Rattansi argues that the definition is only useful as a ‘rhetorical ploy’, thus, it obscures more than it reveals (2007). Additionally, Siebers and Dennissen (2015) observe that while the term gains universality, it lacks ‘historical precision’ and contextuality of specific prejudices. Through analysing new and cultural racism, it is axiomatic that the definitions are flawed due to conceptual inflation, historical ambiguity, and cultural bias. Nonetheless, the existence of the very definitions means that such understandings are protected from debates where they can be manipulated.

     One major departure from past theorisations is the terminological shift from locating racism in individual attributes to social forces and structures. Institutional racism refers to instances of racial discrimination and exploitation within organisational contexts (Clair & Denis, 2015). While overt, cases mostly arise in covert circumstances in societies that disproportionately allocate more resources to one racial group than the other. While subtle in its form, its impact is observable through patterns of systemic inequalities that are reproduced by bureaucratic structures (Murji, 2007). In the UK, this idea was prompted by the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson Inquiry (1999) that was launched to spark debate about policing and racism, remnants of which can be seen by the murder of Sean Rigg in 2008 (Qasim, 2020). In fact, police forces are 37 times more likely to use stop and search powers (Section 60) on black people than white people (EHCR, 2012) while blacks are more likely to be victims of personal crimes (Ministry of Justice, 2015). In terms of employment, studies have shown that due to implicit biases, many white managers hold prejudicial views against BAME (Blacks, Asian, and Minority ethnics) applicants (Jenkins, 2009). While black applicants are deemed as disruptive or lazy, Asian applicants are considered to be obedient and hardworking. This can be confirmed by Implicit Association Tests which reveal that individuals associate more positive attributes with whites than other races, despite exhibiting anti-racist attitudes (Livingston, 2002). Such iterations provide meaningful understandings of racial discrimination but are still subject to criticisms. Miles (1989) suggests that it weakens the meaning of racism and imputes moral disapproval when it is undue (van den Berghe, 2001). It also needs to be questioned whether it is accurate to label an organisation as ‘racist’ if the intent is lacking. However, some scholars have asserted the unimportance of intent (Craig et al., 2012). Furthermore, the reliability and validity of IATs also come under scrutiny as such experiments cannot be generalised across different cultural contexts. Overall, institutional understandings of racism are not devoid of fallacies ¬– they are reductive, morally accusatory, and vague. Nonetheless, these expressions of racism are integral to explicating the implications of institutionally embedded racism e.g., within incarceration and the employment sector.

Lastly, communicative practices have had the transformative power to shape racist discourses which manifest in the form of everyday racism (Dijk, 2003). These occurrences are subtle and indirect, gradually separating the ethnically dominant group (Us) from the racial minorities (Them/Others) through the use of pragmatics, semantics, and syntax in verbal interactions. Such lexicalisation informs negative representations of immigrants in the news, biased arguments against the Other in parliamentary debate and racist rhetoric in articles wherein They are aggressive perpetrators, and We (police) are the victims (ibid). It is important to not underestimate the power of nonverbal messages through semiotics and visuals. They generate stereotypes that become internalised by individuals on repeated interactions with such materials (ibid). For example, animated movies have recently come into the limelight for being laden with racial stereotypes (Rose, 2014). The villainization of ethnic minorities in animated movies is achieved by assigning antagonists phenotypical and cultural features which are racially motivated (e.g., a Jew with a big nose counting money, thus equating capitalist greed with racial peculiarities). These issues become exemplified through the means of technology – racism proliferates within unregulated digital spaces where social platforms have triumphed for free speech. While social media amplifies the voices of minorities, it is also monopolised by anti-immigration or pro-fascist actors that dehumanise and subjugate these voices through the normalisation of derogatory comments (Ekman, 2019). On a macro level, public discourses are inundated with the very debatability of racism (Titley, 2016). Believers of post-racialism remain in denial and seek to censor the very existence of racism. Such colour-blindness has led to ‘reverse racism’ as the idea is stripped of its ‘historical basis, severity and power’, and in the pursuit of equality, the lived experiences are ‘relativised, silenced and erased’ (Song, 2013). However, such forms of racism are yet to be utilised due to the illusory persistence of ‘race conscious’ in the UK (Rhodes, 2009). Thus, contemporary notions of racism recognise the discursive use of language in the formation and dissemination of stereotypes. Once eclipsed with technology, it becomes hard to define such concepts of racism as research remains preliminary. Finally, the myth of post-racialism becomes evident as actors weaponize ‘reverse racism’ as a defence against being ‘called out’.

In conclusion, by exploring the historical trajectory of racism, it becomes clear that racism is a ‘fluid, transforming and historically specific concept’ which is influenced by ‘theoretical and social discourses’ for the ‘meaning it assumes at any historical moment’ [Goldberg, 1993]. The political and social implications of different typologies that persist elucidate the importance of such definitions which inform future policymakers and discourse. One of the main features in following its chronology is the facet of ideas that present themselves as ‘anti-racist’, even though there are uncertainties over what constitutes as ‘anti-racist’. This essay explored the varying concepts of racism (biological, new, cultural, institutional, and every day) analytically. What became evident is that racism is dynamic and there is a multitude of challenges that arise within its conceptualisations. These included conceptual inflation, reductionism, unreliability, historical inaccuracy, ethnocentrism, and theoretical obscurities. While a singular definition seems redundant, the plurality of multiple definitions must be encouraged as they bridge the explanatory lacunae that are present between the abolition of slavery and lived experiences of people of colour.


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Samiya Usmani is a Sociology and Social Policy undergraduate student at the University of Bath. Born and raised in New Delhi, Samiya migrated to the UK in 2017, achieving academic success at A level before progressing to university. Having moved around the globe, Samiya understands the importance of multiculturalism. With a keen passion for social research work, Samiya has hopes of influencing policymaking after she graduates – possibly within the civil service sector. Her curiosity for understanding the world in which she lives in is what drives her love for academia. Her research interests include human rights, race relations, social activism and political participation. In her free time, Samiya enjoys listening to podcasts, reading books, and playing the ukulele.

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