On Race and Racism

by Enzo

so, the usual definition of racism (power + prejudice) seems to only work in the Western Europe, Canada and the US since race functions differently in other places among other things. so, are we satisfied with using a definition of racism that is tied to one region? should we make something more universalizable? abandon racism altogether?

I wrote the above on tumblr a week or so ago, and it was initially just me wondering out loud about racism. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, since I read Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung-fu Fighting. It seemed to me at the time that a number of discussions on race were using race-relations in the United States as a universal experience throughout the world; meaning that White Supremacy functioned in the United States the same way it functioned in the rest of the world. And to a certain extent, that may be true. European colonialism affected most of the world and instilled racial domination everywhere it colonized. It propped up its economic dominance with a ideology of white supremacy. However, Europe itself was not homogenous and the racial categories, forms of repression, etc. were not uniform. Because of this, local/indigenous concepts of race and ethnicity are not going to be universal. Race-relations in other countries are not going to be the same as in the United States. That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in other countries but that thinking about race is a much more complicated exercise than just taking what was written in the United States about the United States and applying it to whichever country you’re analyzing.

That is why I wondered whether we are satisfied with the current thinking of racism in the United States. Is it enough for us to have a localized theory of racism? Should we explore ways of universalizing the concept of race and racism? Should we move away from racism as a category of analysis completely (since it’s possible that it can’t be universalized at all)?

I want to start off by saying that the last option is not something I promote. I think that the analysis of racism is important. I also think that removing it as a frame of analysis does a great injustice and erases the horrors that have been done under White Supremacist ideologies. Racism as an ideological component guides how certain groups in the United States relate to the means of production. Because black and brown bodies in the United States suffer under White Supremacy, they are often kept from jobs and forced into the black market of labor. Additionally, black and brown bodies are policed at a higher rate, forcing them into prisons with forced labor. To ignore these problems would create a shallow analysis that erased centuries of pain.

However, the opposite problem, of universalizing racism in the United States (where a good many of the analyses of racism that I know of have come from) creates a shallow analysis as well. It also erases the lived experience of those in other countries. Although many ethnic groups such as Armenians, Persians, Greeks, etc. have been assimilated into the ‘white’ racial categorization in the United States, that has not been the case everywhere. So applying the label of white to these various groups outside of the United States ignores and erases the colonialism and violence that Europe committed upon these groups.

And the questions remain, can and should we create a concept of racism that is universal; a concept of racism that can be applied to the entire world rather than speak specifically to the status of race in the United States? I don’t think that it is too necessary to do that. I think that a number of areas are contributing their own work to the experience of colonialism and imperialism that racism as a universal concept is not too needed. However, workings around all of these concepts need to be grounded in an actual analysis of the material conditions that created them.

But it would seem that this entire post was for nothing; that I’m accepting of the current conception of racism in the United States. But that’s not true. I am extremely worried about the internalization of Western concepts of race into the discourse on race and racism. By that I mean that our homogenization of racial and ethnic categories seems to always fall under the Western conception of race (Latin@, Black Asian, White) and never seem to be able to consider conceptions of race that are not as rigidly defined or dangerously internalized. By internalizing these ideas, we always look at a concept of race that is separated and distant, with all the groups antagonistically relating to each other. By building these walls we avoid/prevent creating collaborations that would be helpful in eliminating oppression. And I’m not saying ‘we all bleed red’ because I do think that acknowledging race and racism and understanding how ideology puts some races in different relations to each other is a necessary part of building these collaborations, but I do think that imbuing skin color specifically with the properties that Western ideas of race say they have is a dangerous internalization.