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Race/Racism

A mode of classification of human beings which distinguishes between them on the basis of physical properties (e.g. skin colour, facial features) which pruportedly derive from genetic inheritance. The key problem with this mode of classification is that the processes of selection regarding what ought to count as “racial” and therefore “natural” (i.e. non cultural) differences are themselves inextricably linked to the existence of cultural norms concerning what defines a “difference” as peculiarly “racial”. the criteria of differentiation between what are designated as “races” may, it follows, be established as a result of other factors that have a predominantly social dimension and are related to, for instance, socially determined questions of power and representation. This particular point has been made by writers such as Edward Said. In his book Orientalism (1978) Said argues that the concept of the “oriental” (taken in the sense of both a subject and a culture) as outlined in the European discipline of “Orientalism” in fact represents a projection of European concepts and values on to the « oriental » subject. Thus, purportedly “objective” descriptions of the oriental can be read as expressions of the European imperialist desire to conceptualise and thereby control the identity of the colonised subject. Equally, when the oriental is discussed in negative terms  (for example, by attributing the characteristic of ‘irrationality”) this, too, can be interpreted as a projection of western fears rather than as an accurate description of the oriental subject’s “racial” and “cultural” attributes.

 

The belief that physical differences in turn validate the attribution of additional characteristics which are not simply physical but denote the existence of, for example, a determinate set of abilities, propensities or forms of behaviour, is associated with the attitude of racism. The reader will scarcely need reminding that the twentieth century has seen some of the most powerful and disturbing expressions of racist sentiment, and indeed of the catastrophic outcome of this sentiment in the form of German National Socialism. Although it may not always be toot difficult to describe racist attitudes, how one accounts for racist phenomena such as anti-Semitism is a difficult question. Doubtless, it is possible to point to a wide number of intellectual domains (including even the physical sciences) and claim that racism has at various times found expression within them.

 

Whatever the causes of racism, it is clear that racists subordinate purportedly “significant” physical or normative (i.e. behavioural) differences to the presuppositon that the possession of one particular set of characteristics does not merely signify a physical difference but also an inherent difference of identity, nature and “intrinsic value” (c.f. stereotype). Racism thereby draws a hierarchical distinction between races, opening a gulf between them and setting one racially designated group over and above another on a scale of moral worth, intelligence or importance. A racist ideology, therefore, is constructed on the basis of hierarchical distinctions drawn between different groups. From the point of view of such ideologies, race is taken to be a more fundamental basis for the social differentiation between individuals and groups than, for example, that of class. Racism thus embodies the attitude of a rigid and naturalised conception concerning the nature of individuals and groups. Whether or not racism should therefore be defined solely in terms of the norms and practices of a given society is a matter of some debate. In this connection, a number of commentators on racism have pointed to the role of representation in contemporary society, e.g. the construction of racial identity through the presentation, for instance in the media, of stereotypical images of different cultural groups (a factor which, once more, raises the question of the links between racism and mass culture in the modern world).

 

The significance of racism is not necessarily limited to active discrimination against people, whether through the institutions, ideologies, or norms and practices of a given society. The sense of self that those subjected to racism may have, may likewise be affected. In the context of European colonialism, for instance, the construction of racial identity and its consequences have been studied not only by Said, but also by Frantz Fanon whose book Black Skin, White Masks (1952) considered the damaging influence of colonialism on the self-image of colonial subjects.

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