What we talk about when we talk about race

Today, we use the words race, racism, reverse racism and Islamophobia without a second thought. But what do these terms actually mean in our 'post-truth' world and how do they relate to you? SBS explains the real meanings behind these emotionally-charged words phrases.

What is racism?

‘Racism’ in its most common definition is the belief that certain races of people are inherently superior to others.

However, to understand how racism works and how to combat it, we cannot rely on such a simplistic definition since reducing racism to merely a “belief”. Why? Because that overlooks the fact that our concepts of race and racism are both deliberate inventions created in order excuse already existing discrimination and persecution of specific groups.

To put it another way, the oppression came first and the justification for it – race – was its justification.

This means that the power to oppress is what lies at the heart of what is and isn’t racist. As civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael put it, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power”.

However hurtful individual acts of bigotry can be, racism is so much more than slurs and hurt feelings – it is systemic and entrenched prejudice that privileges some groups and marginalises others, creating a vastly unequal society.

Types of racism

Today, racism is so entrenched and ubiquitous, it’s assumed to be an innate human trait, something we have to accept as part of our nature.

Likewise, because race is associated with biological features, we sometimes assume it is a biological reality. However, race is not a scientific concept but a social construct. The categorisation of people into ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘brown’ and so on, did not exist before European colonisation of the Americas in the dying years of the 15th century. It was created first to justify the theft Native American land and the replacement of local cultures in favour of European ones, and shortly after, the enslavement of transported Africans.

Whereas previously, slaves did not pass on their status to their children, meaning no one was born a slave, Atlantic slavery made being a slave an essential aspect of a person’s condition, and this condition was decided by race.

Although slavery had existed for many centuries, Atlantic slavery differed in important ways that reverberate to this day. Whereas previously, slaves did not pass on their status to their children, meaning no one was born a slave, Atlantic slavery made being a slave an essential aspect of a person’s condition, and this condition was decided by race.

Why? Because European Christians sought to justify what most of them already knew was a moral wrong, and they did this by denying the humanity of their slaves.

This concept of European superiority soon spread across the world, including to what is now Australia, as Europeans distinguished themselves from all other peoples, declaring their imperialism as both a moral right and obligation to subdue and “civilise” the inferior races.

This legacy lives on and manifests in societies all across the globe. Black people suffer discrimination from India to Israel to Brazil, the Hazara in Afghanistan are brutally repressed by the Pashtun majority, the Muslim Royhinga in Myanmar are among the most brutally repressed peoples in the world, and Native Americans remain glaringly absent from much of the discourse around race in the US.

Meanwhile in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to resist what amounts to ongoing colonisation, including disproportionate incarceration rates, discrimination in the health care system, and – although we speak of the Stolen Generations in past tense – the ongoing removal of Indigenous children from their families.

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What is 'whiteness'?

Once upon a time, this was pretty clear cut – a white person was someone with white skin of European background. The term “white people” was created to elevate Spaniards and Portuguese in Latin American colonies, and British, French, and Dutch in the north, above Native Americans, Africans, and mixed race peoples.

Social, legal, and political systems were established to privilege white people and firmly entrench the European way of life as the benchmark by which others are judged - and found inferior. Racism is based on this construct of “whiteness,” and its justification of the violent imposition of European values and culture.

“Whiteness,” then, is not merely about skin colour but about power and privilege. As Paul Kivel writes, “Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”

Whiteness is fluid. When we talk about who is white, we are talking not so much about skin-tone as about who is privileged and accepted in our society. For example, the Irish were once marginilased from the white identity, as were Jews, both of whom are considered “white” today.

On the other hand, Arabs from the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) can be quite fair, leading some to declare them  “white.” However, keeping in mind that Arabs and Arabic culture continues to be demonised by white, western society, to categorise them as such implies they have the privileges of Caucasian whites which is untrue.

What is a 'person of colour'?

Like “racism” itself, the popularity of this term has led to some misunderstanding of its origin and defintion. Although sometimes used interchangeably with “coloured person” – a racist term denoting black people in the US and mixed race people in South Africa –  “person of colour” (POC) is not a biological designation but a political one.

POC emerged out of “women of colour,” a term coined by a diverse group of women actvists in the US, who defined a woman of colour as any woman from a racial minority who has been disadvantaged by living in a society that privileges whiteness.

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Race versus ethnicity

Race is associated primarily with biological characteristics, most notably skin colour, as well as facial features, build, and hair type. Race crosses national and even continental divides (for example, Indians, Chinese, Malaysians are all considered ‘Asian’), while ethnicity refers to nationality and cultural characteristics.

In other words we all have both a race and an ethnicity. So, for instance, white Australians of European descent are Caucasian in race and Australian in ethnicity, while a person born in Pakistan is (South) Asian in race and Pakistani in ethnicity.

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The link between stereotypes and racism

Technically, stereotyping and racism are two different things. Like prejudice, stereotyping can be wrought against any group, whether they are subject to racial discrimination or not, for example, “bogan westie.”

Where stereotypes and racism intersect, however is when the former amplifies the latter. The stereotype of Muslims being unloyal to western and Australian values, for instance, was the impetus behind the backlash over the “Australia Day” billboard featuring two young Muslim girls in hijabs waving Australian flags.

The stereotype that Muslims are disloyal to Australian values leads to the presumption that Muslims cannot both be Muslim and “Australian” –they must choose one, and this perpetuates their marginalisation in society.

What about Muslims?

Yes, Islamophobia is indeed racism even though Islam is not a race. Keeping in mind that “whiteness” refers to European-derived culture as well as race, being Muslim is a racial identity associated primarily with the Middle East where the religion was founded. As such, it is regarded as both “barbaric” and external to the western world.

Islamophobia also demonstrates how racism adapts to changing social climates. Whereas it was once a purely biological description, racism has morphed into an assertion of cultural and national identity. Islam is rebuked as incompatible with so-called western values and the “Aussie way of life,” which are simply other ways of saying Islam is too foreign.  And, as the that “Australia Day” billboard furor demonstrated so deftly, for some, Muslims cannot be “real” Australians, until they shed the trappings of Islam entirely.

Is reverse racism real?

In a word – no. Sure, you can be prejudiced against white people and stereotype them. But because racism, which is not the same thing as prejudice, hinges on power and privilege, mocking a white person for, say, inability to handle spicy food, may well hurt their feelings, but it neither continues historical precedent, nor adds to already existing racial discrimination against white people, because this discrimination simply does not exist.

So while that does not mean it should be open season on hurling abuse at white people wily nily, it does mean that any such incidents are not “reverse racist” since they in no way reflect or cement any widespread, systemic disadvantage or discrimination based on race. Indeed, to equate individual acts of prejudice against white people with the centuries of structural racism against people of colour is to undermine any chance of eliminating racism, because it once again leads us to view racism as an individual rather than societal problem.

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What is reconciliation?

The technical definition of reconciliation is to “restore good relations.” In Australia,

reconciliation is about bringing non-Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people together based on a process of mutual understanding and respect.

According to the Aboriginal Council for Reconciliation (ACR), the success of the process is contingent on a true reckoning of the violent and unjust past of colonialism – and its continuing legacy. This includes understanding the Aboriginal concept of Country, valuing Aboriginal, culture, sharing history, addressing structural disadvantage, and accepting that Aboriginal people  must control their own destiny.

In other words, reconciliation is not the assimilation of Aboriginal people into mainstream culture, but an acceptance of them, their own culture, and their right to autonomy. Or, as Patrick Dodson, former chairman of the ACR, put it, “The river is the river and the sea is the sea. Salt water and fresh, two separate domains. Each has its own complex patterns, origins, stories. Even though they come together, they will always exist in their own right.”

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What you can do?

Since racism is a problem of power inherent in the system, not merely one of individual attitudes, it requires changes to all our social, political, and legal institutions.

Nonetheless, there are initiatives we can undertake on a personal level to encourage and foster such a change. For starters, we can identify and combat any unconsious bias we may have that disadvantages other racial groups.

Educators, for example, can be aware that Aboriginal schoolchildren routinely receive punitive punishments for behaviour for which other students barely get detention, a problem that criminalises them unfairly at a young age and is directly linked to disproportionate rates of incarceration.

For starters, we can identify and combat any unconsious bias we may have that disadvantages other racial groups.

Employers can keep in mind that resumes with Chinese and Middle Eastern sounding surnames are routinely passed over for job interviews by recruiters, without them even realising they are doing it. 

As a society we can challenge the assumption that white men in powerful positions get there on merit, whereas the rest of us are decried as owing our success only thanks to “unfair” quotas. We can also object to the lack of representation in our media and popular culture that continues to position whiteness as the default setting on our screens.

Finally, we can all distinguish between the individual and the system, and acknowledge that racism will not be solved with acts kindness and “love,” no matter how much we want it to be, but through political action that demands and fosters systemic change across all spectrums of society.

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Face Up to Racism

Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.

Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand


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