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The Concept of Race Essay

In: Discrimination free essays

The Concept of Race Essay

There is no universally accepted terminology for the concept of `race' (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000). As a highly controversial term (Race Equality Toolkit, 2007) the meaning behind it is constantly subject to historical and social change. Therefore, race is a concept which by no means can be seen as unitary in time. On the contrary, it is a term that is subject to change, with a need to take into account the wider picture that surrounds it; to look at the specific historical context in which it is used and situated in each time, and which it represents.

Back and Solomos in “Theories of Race and Racism” (2004) illustrate an example that clarifies the above. According to the aforementioned editors, W.E.B. Du Bois argued, in 1960, that the problem that needed facing in the 20th century was that of the `colour line' and the relations between people of a different colour (Back & Solomos, 2004: 3); in the twenty- first century, Hall argued that the problem is “the capacity to live with difference” (Back & Solomos 2004: 4). Back & Solomos (2004), argue that by looking at Du Bois' and Halls' statements about race and ethnicity, it can be understood that relevant language and terminology is subject to change, and represents the social context it describes.

The picture of today's society is rather complex and diverse; “subject positions, social experiences, and cultural identities” cannot really be “grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories” being constantly in a position of change and are evolving (Back & Solomos, 2004: 4)

Consequently `race' can be conceived as a “controversial term” (Antiracist Toolkit - Definitions and Glossary, 2006) that has been used historically, in addition to class and gender, as one of the basic criteria from which individuals and institutions have produced “an a priori division of humankind into discrete groups” (Targowska, 2001: 2) “according to skin colour and physical characteristics” (Antiracist Toolkit - Definitions and Glossary, 2006), its existence “subsequently rationalised by society” (Targowska, 2001: 2). As such it represents socially constructed `truths' leading to an hierarchy of racial groups, some of which are considered superior and others inferior (Braham et al, 1992), thus setting the ground for the ensuing concepts of discrimination and racism (Tawil, 2001).

Race was first considered to be a natural phenomenon, that based its validity of existence on biological theories (Winant, 2006).The concept of race does not draw on scientifical evidence anymore, although many societies still conceive race in a well defined and objective way of categorisation (Kim, 2004), something that reflects both “political discources” and “popular ideas” (Solomos, 2003:10).

Race, according to Winant (2006: 999) is:

“…a concept which signifies and symbolizes sociopolitical conflicts and interests in reference to different types of human bodies. Although the concept of race appeals to biologically-based human characteristics (so called phenotypes), selection of these particular human features for purposes of racial signification is always and necessarily a social and historical process. There is no biological basis for distinguishing human groups along the lines of `race', and the sociohistorical categories employed… reveal themselves… to be imprecise if not completely arbitrary”.

The concept of racism

Racial discrimination or racism can be characterised as actions which are directed by members which belong to the majority group towards a racial minority group, and which lead to unequal treatment (Johnson & Arbona, 2006). Racism can be defined as:

“any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior, thus implying that some would be entitled to dominate or eliminate others, presumed to be inferior, or which bases value judgments on racial differentiation, has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity” (Tawil, 2001: 8).

Racism is a phenomenon that can occur at an individual, cultural and an institutional level (James, 1972). Cultural racism occurs when some individuals or groups of people from the majority group discriminate against a minority group in terms of culture, beliefs, values and traditions [mainly acknowledged as “sets of patterns shared across particular groups” often by stereotyping and marginalization (Thompson, 2003: 13-18)]; individual racism refers to the act of discrimination from one individual/group to another due to the fact that one may belong to a particular racial group [mainly defined as prejudice e.g. name calling, bullying or even murder (Thompson, 2003: 13-18)]; and lastly, institutional or structural racism mainly refers to discrimination directed by structures, to policies that are embedded in organisations and institutions [often perceived as institutionalised prejudice and discrimination in services which are based on one culture only (Thompson, 2003: 13-18)] (Johnson & Arbona, 2006: 496).

The origins of race enquiry and the concept of race in Britain

It was not until the earlier part of the twentieth century that the study of race was approached within social scientific inquiry, with most research coming from the US, and Robert Park being one of the most important contributors (Bush, 2004). Park was interested in race, and more specifically in the study of race relations; he believed that racism occurred mainly because of phenotypical differences, conceived as having major influence in defining different races and identities (Park, 2004). According to Park, the emphasis was on a “cycle of race relations leading to the assimilation of different groupings into a common culture”, that contained four stages “contact, conflict, accommodation and assimilation” (Solomos, 2003: 16). Although Park's work was descriptive, and not really based on theory, it was however influential and opened up the debate about race and race relations (Solomos,2003).

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, the study of race relations in terms of “segregation”, “immigration” and “race consciousness” occurred, introducing and opening up the field known as the sociology of race relations; these studies focused on the special contexts of race, which then become socially meaningful (Goldberg and Solomos cited in Solomos, 2003 :15).

Theorisations of race and racism from the field of sociology in the 1940s and the 1960s in the US, viewed group contact and social interaction as the main problem of discrimination between different races (Solomos, 2003: 16). Most of the attention was given to the origins of racial prejudice, prejudice and conflict, the impact of assimilation on Black Americans and how conflicts could be overcome (Solomos, 2003: 16). Up to the 1960s, most literature in America focused on the analysis of the social and economic inequalities that black people faced (Solomos, 2003).

Britain has been interested in the study of racial categorisation from the 1940s and 1950s .Yet until the late 80s “the study of race and racism was still in the margins in the field of sociology and politics”, with only limited research in the field (Solomos, 2003: 1). Only when the Nazis came to power in Germany was it that racial superiority was put into practice, and therefore the terminology of `racism was used in order to define some racial groups as superior and some as inferior (Solomos, 2003: 17).

Benedict was the first to use and define racism as “the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority” (Benedict, 1943: 97), as racial and ethnic groups were discriminated on the basis of biological nature and were considered accordingly as inherent superior or inferior.

At the beginning of the 21st century the picture changed, with more research and theorisations of race and racism in the field, and in many different disciplines (sociology, politics, history, geography, anthropology etc) (Back & Solomos, 2004).

The sociology of race in Britain

According to Solomos (2003), it was two important developments that led to the examination of the concepts of race and racism outside the US. First of all, due to migration from ex-colonies and Southern Europe, ethnic minority communities were established in Britain, France, Germany and Holland. Secondly, the establishment of the apartheid system in South Africa, made social scientists interested in the role of the legal and political system in the enforcement and the perpetuation of racial segregation inequalities that different racial groups face.

Literature in Britain and other European societies, that focused on race and racism in the early years of their study, focused mainly on the theorisations of race and racism, in patterns of immigration and how black and ethnic minorities were incorporated into the labour market, and the role that was played by colonialism in the determination of popular concepts of colour, race and ethnicity in European societies (Solomos, 2003: 18).

Britain first, examined the concept of race in terms of `race relations' in the 1950s and 1960s with writers like Banton Michael, Glass Ruth, Rex John, Patterson Sheila. Most of these studies focused on the relationship between ethnic minorities and the so-called majority in different communities, in different social contexts. However, Solomos argues that up to the 1980s there was no clear theoretical perspective really regarding what was the object of the analysis of these studies, and that there was an absence of a “wider socio-political perspective” on the intersection of race relations and other kinds of social relations” (Solomos, 2003: 18). In the 1960s, attention was given to the new forms of migration and other types of race relations, and growing emphasis was given to the need of understanding the nature of race relations, and to combating racial discrimination in Britain (Solomos, 2003: 18). During the 1960s and the 1970s there was an attempt to make a “generalised sociological framework” in order to analyze race and racism. Leaders in the field were Rex and Banton, who tried to establish the study of race relations in the social sciences during the 1960s and 1970s (Rex, 2004; Banton, 2004).

Studies on race relations in 1950s and1960s, however, did not really focus (with the exception of Rex) on issues of power and politics (Zubaida,1972), especially in relation to the “wider conceptual debates on the theory of racism or into the analysis of processes of racialisation in contemporary Britain” (Solomos, 2003: 21); something that can be said for the 1970s and the 1980s as well. Sociological and neo-Marxist writings on racism were the first to encounter the issue of power and political structures in the debate on race (Gilroy, 1987).

Since the 1990s the debate around race and racism has been viewed within a “specifically political analysis of power” and is interested in how “the latter reproduces ethnoracial domination in particular societies” (Solomos, 2003: 23).

The dominant approach to the study of race and racism in Britain, according to Hansen (2000), comes from the neo-Marxist, feminist and post-Marxist thought that promotes radical critiques to the “existing models of racial and ethnic conflict” (Solomos, 2003: 24; Solomos,2004). Within sociology, the first scholars like Marx and Engels did not really address race as an issue and mainly concentrated on class. The concept of race only arose in relation to the questioning of internal divisions within the working class, and especially regarding nationalism and national identity (Solomos, 2003: 25). These hints into the concept of race provided however, the basis for later on analysis of nationalism and racism within the working class, from Marxists.

It was not until after the 1960s that race was seen in its own right and not as a subcategory of class. During the 1980s Miles was the first one to highlight the importance of the analysis of racism (1982, 1986). According to Miles, “race is a human construct, an ideology with regulatory power in society” (Solomos, 2003: 27); a term that is heavily used in everyday life, but is seriously problematic in theoretical terms. Miles did not constrain his analysis of race to use as a basis for social action; his approach was rather concerned with the “analytical and objective status of race as a basis for action” (Solomos, 2003: 27). “Race is thus an ideological effect, a mask that hides real economic relationships” (Solomos, 2003: 27).

Miles (1988) argues that the

“process of racialisation is related to migrant labour in that it is the result of the contradiction between… the need of the capitalist world economy for the mobility of human beings, and… the drawing of territorial boundaries and the construction of citizenship as a legal category which sets boundaries for human mobility”(cited in Solomos, 2003: 27).

In Britain, this process acts as a “crisis management” of the state, which as a result racialises parts of the working class (Solomos, 2003: 27). Regarding the politics of race , racialisation is conceived as “a process that has specific effects on politics and ideology”(Solomos, 2003: 29).

In the 1980s, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural studies in Birmingham, and specifically the Race and Politics group, was interested in “the changing nature of the politics of race during the 1970s and the new forms of racial ideology” (Solomos, 2003: 28). The group emphasised on the fact that race is a complex phenomenon that is socially and politically constructed, and which is continuously changing. Race creates collective identities between people that belong to the same “group”, within which a multiplicity of political identities can be obtained. For example, there may be a notion of black identity, but within this identity there is a “heterogeneity of national and cultural origins within minority communities” (Gilroy, 1987 cited in Solomos, 2003: 28).

Gilroy highlights that the important question is how can notions of race be “reforged to a political movement of opposition” (Solomos,2003: 28).

The analysis of racism in recent debates has developed by moving away from the idea of biological inferiority to looking at “interconnections between race and nationhood, patriotism and nationalism” (Solomos, 2003: 29). Influenced by poststructuralism and postmodernism, it moved away from viewing racism as uniform and homogeneous, pointing out multiple forms of racism instead (Goldberg, 1990b). The main concern now is “how ideological relations can provide a basis for the articulation of racist discources and practices” (Solomos, 2003: 30).

In short, the public debates underpinning the concepts of race and racism have changed, and from being a neglected study, race study has now become the centre of debate in contemporary Britain (Solomos, 2004; Solomos, 2003).

Race as a biological or physical trait

The concept of race as a biological phenomenon emerged prior to the establishment of the American state and was systematically used as criteria to justify Southern slavery throughout the 18th and the 19th century (Kim, 2004: 338). Scientists in the late 1800s were claiming that all humans could be distinguished into separate groups that differed according to intelligence, beauty and worth (Kim, 2004). Race was conceived as “a matter of bloodlines” in which racial characteristics were related to the blood, ancestry and appearance (James, 2001: 237). `Race' was strictly related to biology and was viewed as something fixed, according to which humans could be distinguished in different groups.

It was not until the early 20th century that the biological nature of race was challenged and criticised by scholars like Franz Boas and W.E.B Du Bois (Kim, 2004). The end of the 20th century can be seen as a signifier of a moving away from the biological essence of race (Durrheim & Dixon, 2000) and towards the acceptance that racial categories were distinguished by, and originated from people in order to exclude and dominate others (Kim, 2004).

Race as a social construction

In the US social construction theory has been highly influential in the theorisation of race, although, according to Kim, there are still parts of the academic territory that continue to naturalise race (2004). Race, according to social constructionism, is a concept that is not based on biological assumptions, but rather constituted socially and as such always evolving depending on the historical, political, social and economical context; current debates on `race' view the latter as a social construction, a product of a continuous and dynamic political debate (Omi & Winant, 1994). Although there are physical attributes that can signify that people may belong to different groups, they are not as important as the social meanings that are attached to them (James, 2001). The social construction of race refers to “the process by which people both individually and collectively negotiate their identities” (James, 2001: 237) and in which process individuals are placed either in a dominant group or an inferior racial group. Although discourses on `race' continually change, they “all tend to construct difference within the human population and act to fashion and reinforce notions of `them' and `us' ” (Conolly, 1998: 16).

According to Omi & Winant (1994), race is continuously defined by current economic, political and cultural factors. Major attention must be given to the current debates of `race' that are taking place, without neglecting however the past, history, and the power and role of colonialism in particular, in creating these current debates (Grosfoguel, 2004).

Critical race theory

Critical race theory involves working against all forms of oppression and hierarchies that prevail in society (Matsuda et al, 1993), and is critical towards the way that institutions like e.g. education, create, maintain and reproduce discrimination between different groups. Critical race theory deals mainly with the concept of whiteness, as it is believed that whiteness has a “powerful utility…” with which “systemic patterns of racial inequality” can be criticised (Bush, 2004: 6). CRT  argues that emphasis has to be given  to the voices and the experiences  of people of color (Bergerson, 2003: 52).

Whiteness has come to act as the `norm', and is taken for granted in today's society where the state of being white entails that one will have more privileges and advantages (Bush, 2004). When discussing about `being white' however, it is not just about `white privilege'; it is most about white supremacy (Gillborn, 2006). White supremacy is not associated only with the “small and extreme political movements that openly mobilize on the basis of race hatred”, but has rather come to encompass the whole of “operations of forces that saturate the everyday, mundane actions and policies that shape the world in the interests of white people” (Gillborn, 2006: 320, see also Bush, 2004). If the analysis of whiteness was constrained to some white people's privileges, then white people would not really appear to have any role in this situation; by engaging with the word supremacy while discussing about whiteness, we take into account that white people do act in a way that reproduces and perpetuates their supremacy.

What critical race theory argues is that there is a need for a critical and reflexive account about how white supremacy operates in today's society, in which the `non-white' are seen as the `other', and the norm therefore constitutes a oppressive role in society. Critical race theory highlights the importance of understanding how structures in society serve white hegemony, something that is totally related to the way we live our everyday lives. It has often been criticised about its focus on race without really engaging with gender or class. However, CRT theorists have engaged with all of these aspects and how they intersect with each other (Parker et al., 1999).

Critiques of the race debate and racial constructionism

Racial constructionism has faced severe criticism for failing to actually eradicate entirely the promotion of race as an essentialist concept (Nayak, 2006; Kim, 2004; Gilroy, 1998). Although the basis of social constructionist theory, as we have already seen, was to signify the abolition of the biological nature of `race', stating that `race' is a socially constructed concept it still however recognizes the nature of `race' as a category, as it still treats it as something real. That essence may change over time, but is still apparent.

Social constructionism was criticised for not really providing an adequate approach towards combating racism. Kim (2004), for example, illustrates how the three main perspectives within social constructionist theory, anti-essentialists, strategic essentialists and quasi-essentialists have failed to address and give a solution to the race debate. According to Kim (2004) the anti-essentialists support that the abolition of racism and racialised processes within society can be illustrated through the rejection of the use of race altogether. The strategic essentialists talk about rehabilitating the notion of race in the name of the promotion of a collective identity and mobilisation for socio-political reform. They do not see the importance in the struggle against racism, and only the quasi-essentialists talk about partially dismantling the notion of race, in which whiteness and the privileges that it entails should be challenged. Blackness is seen as the alternative, as a positive identity that should be embraced by all (see Kim, 2004 for further analysis and critique of the three perspectives).

All of the three perspectives, and within them the social construction theory in general, however, have failed to approach the race debate in an adequate way; they all implicitly or explicitly create a binary between whites and non-whites, which homonogenizes the two groups and neglects to view the existence of multiple groups that has occurred due to different racialisation processes, creating different positioning of each group in society (Kim, 2004; Nayak, 2006).Kim argues that:

“To challenge race as a structure, we need to go beyond ad hoc challenges to specific discriminatory practices that target a particular group and expose the multiple, differential, simultaneous processes by which race works. We need to go beyond identity politics and race consciousness as these are currently construes and move toward a politics of justice and equality” ( 2004: 352).

Kim, however, seems to look at different races as different groups that, despite their multiplicity, still seem to have a common bond and interests within each group. His arguments have a degree of generalisability, that may be the case due to common history, culture, treatment by society due to these theorisations of what it is like to be in a particular group, but yet can not neglect the individual differences of each group because of factors like class, gender, experiences etc. Although Kim (2004: 349) does stress the importance of taking into account that groups can not be seen as all in the same boat, his final arguments do not explicitly support that.

Again, this kind of generalisation is apparent in the analysis of the positionality of each race group. This is not to claim that there is no positioning in today's society, but instead that we are neglecting the existence of racial discrimination that may exist amongst people of the `same race'. The intention here is to stress that we should not treat all people of e.g. same origin, colour, culture or religion as a group towards which general assumptions can be made. Kim fails to do just that, not taking into account the various dimensions of an individual identity (like class, gender, disability) that can act as criteria against which generalisations are not accurate.

Post-race theory

Post race theory, one of the strongest current debates (by scholars like: Gilroy, Derrida, Bhabha), can be initially traced in older writings (Fanon, 1970).

There has been no agreed decision regarding the definition of the theory (Cashmore, cited in Nayak, 2006: 420). Post race theory argues that social construction theory continues to impart an ontological value to race, providing it again with some kind of essence, an essence that continuously changes according to the social context but that still views the concept of race as something real; “race can take a reified status” (Nayak, 2006: 414).

Ali stresses that “social constructionism still holds to the idea of race as some kind of ontological category… and thus provides the basis for questions about equality and difference-and how they might be tied to a “racial identity” (2004:324). Thus I will agree with Nayak (2006) when he questions how the concept of whiteness can be seen as socially constructed, posing the question of whether it can be seen as such if it has always relied on white people? It is obvious here that the power of the body, and specifically of the politics of the body, plays an important role in the constitution of a concept such as whiteness and its relevance to superiority. White people, as well as other people of different colour, are placed in the groups as if all who belong in the same group have been treated by society or act in the same way. The known white class e.g. constitutes a plethora of different people like Irish, Russians, Poles, Italians that carry different cultural and individual experiences and can not be seen as one group.

Nayak argues that post race theory rejects the view of ontological value, and supports that the concept of race is nothing more than fiction obtaining value through “the illusion of performance, action and utterance, where repetition makes it appear as-if-real” (2006: 416).

There have been people from the post-race terrain like Gilroy (1998) that have argued against the use of the terminology of race and have supported the view of a “planetary humanism” (2001: 2). Gilroy argues that the concept of race should be eradicated, as it lacks validity; he argues that while according to social construction theory, race is considered as socially invented, by viewing the term as embedded in the world, and using it in this context, in order e.g. to promote justice, we become a part of the political terrain that reproduces and marks out distinct racial categories (Gilroy, 1998). Therefore, according to Nayak, “race writers choose to privilege the political `demand for justice' which continues to operate as a fixed and inflexible, thoroughly asocial category” (2006: 421).

Post-race theory, like all theories that challenge well embedded truths about the world, has been subjected to criticism. It has been seen as too abstract (see St Louis, 2002: 654), or seen as silencing the common racial historical experiences of minority groups and the notion of a common identity (Nayak, 2006). Nayak (2006), argues that whether one chooses to follow a post-race stance or not, there are some benefits that could be considered.

First of all post race theory paves the way to considering other ways of being that go beyond the colour line; by criticising the ontological value of current race debates coming from social construction theory, it is made explicit that “race comes with no guarantees” and is “a practice with no solid basis outside the discursive, material, structural and embodied configurations through which it is repetitively enacted, performed and, tenuously, secured” (Nayak, 2006: 423). By examining how we `do' race, we can also be taught to `undo' it (Nayak, 2006:423). Derrida (1997) stresses the importance of deconstruction to `strip' meanings and concepts well embedded in our everyday language and practice, thus understanding how the language that we use (oral, written, visual etc.) produces power relations in specific contexts, and questions the meanings and context of words or concepts that are normally taken as de facto truths (Alloway, 1995).

Although Gilroy presents a really challenging debate in which he talks about the importance of the end of the use of race as a concept ,something that could signal the existence of a post-race era, there is a need for a close examination of the practicalities of such a stand point, simply because of the current structure of society. This would entail the fact that there is a need to `redo' the race debate starting from those institutions that reproduce racial distinctions. His arguments do seem to be quite difficult in terms of practice, but there is nothing to lose here; instead, there might be something to gain.

Up to now, even though emphasis has been given to `race', no really worthwhile answer to the problem of racism that is still perpetuated in today's society has been given (Scottish Executive, 2007). Why would I like to research in a terrain that is mainly concerned with, and extensively uses the concept of `race' and `races' then? Researchers try to make sense and to represent the world that they live in. According to current research carried out by the One Scotland, Many cultures campaign that listened to young people's views in Scotland, racism still persists (Scottish Executive, 2007). This entails that racial categorisations between groups still persist, and that in order to represent current reality an abolition of the concept of race would not be adequate. Unless institutions stopped using the term race and act accordingly to racial lines then it would be difficult for researchers, for example, to stop using the term `race' as well when researching racial issues, if the term is heavily used and practised in reality. What researchers could do instead is acknowledge that racial categories are not that well defined in reality as they seem, and take into consideration the multiple racial categories that persist in society not only across existing racial categories (whites, blacks, Asian) but even between the existing categories (Asian Scottish, Black Scottish etc.).

People that belong to the same culture or religion can be seen as part of a group, although this does not mean that this should be seen as the norm and as something generalised. So although belonging to the same `racial group' may entail commonalities in experiences, due to the different cultures or experiences from society, the current racial formalisation of society, and the positioning of racial groups in society we must not neglect the importance of individual experiences in that process, or the increasing cases of people belonging in more than one `race' (Kim, 2004). Gilroy states that “the idea that action against racial hierarchies can proceed more effectively when it has been purged of… the idea of `race' is one of the most persuasive cards in this political and ethical suit” (Gilroy cited in Nayak, 2006: 422) Gilroy, according to Nayak (2006: 422) “is willing to gamble the hard fought political gains that have been made on the shaky terrain of race, boldly asserting that `the first task is to suggest that the demise of race is not something to be feared' ”.

Is the body significant in the `race' debate?

Race is a social construction and as such it is perceived as something real, although in different forms within specific social contexts, and therefore is a highly powerful word that is highly used in our everyday practices and relations (see Ali, 2003). Historically, skin tone has played a really important role in defining people as belonging to different `races', and has been a decisive factor in determining the life chances of each `race' (Herring, 2002). This signifies the importance of the body, and in particular the colour of the body as a main characteristic of the definition of `race'.

“`Colorism' is the discriminatory treatment of individuals falling within the same `racial' group on the basis of skin colour” and “operates both intraracially and interracially” (Herring, 2002: 19). In both circumstances, skin colour is used to make distinctions between people, either within the “racial group”, in the case of intraracial relations or between different “racial groups”, in the case of interracial relations (Herring, 2002). The phenomenon of colorism comes from the time of colonialism and black slavery, and is very much based on “supremacist assumptions” (Herring, 2002: 19) that are based on different physical characteristics “skin colour, hair texture, thickness of lips, eye color, nose shapes” (Herring, 2002: 19). Early studies (Myrdal, 1944; Frazier, 1957) have shown that the whiter the colour of somebody's skin was, the more prestige he/she obtained in the black community. Even in the 20th century, “white” was still seen superior, and distinctions amongst blacks were still evident, although according to Herring (2002) in the 1960s and 1970s the term black was used mainly not only to distinguish between privileged “whites”, but also to unify all “black race”, and therefore was seen in a more positive vein. However, even in current debates, emphasis on race is given by highlighting the importance of colour (see for example Johnson & Arbon, 2006).

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