What is (and isn’t) racism: : Islamophobia and privilege theory

May 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm (islamism, posted by JD, Racism, reblogged)

    

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By Camilla Bassi (at Anaemic on a Bike):

the construction and reproduction of the idea of ‘race’ is something that requires explanation.” (Miles, 1989: 73)

I. The idea of ‘race’

Primarily to offer an explanation of European history and national formation, the idea of ‘race’ entered the English language in the early sixteenth century. The idea of ‘race’ came under scientific investigation from the late eighteenth century. A scientific discourse of ‘race’ was extensively reproduced in the nineteenth century across Europe, North America, and the European colonies. That said:

“the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not replace earlier conceptions of the Other. Ideas of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it.” (Miles, 1989: 33)

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the scientific idea of biological ‘races’ was discredited, and yet the idea of ‘race’ has remained (to date) as a “common-sense discourse to identify the Other” (Miles, 1989: 38). Racism makes sense of the world, regardless of the fact that it makes sense of the world in a nonsensical way.

 

II. Europe and the idea of ‘race’

It is important to observe that:

“for the European, the Other has not been created exclusively in the colonial context. Representations of the Other have taken as their subject not only the populations of, for example, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas but also the populations of different parts of Europe, as well as invasionary and colonising populations, notably from North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the Other has been created not only externally to the nation state, but also within, most notably in the case of the Jews.” (Miles, 1989: 39)

Historically in Europe, the idea of inferior ‘races’ has focused on the Irish and the Jews on the basis of the supposed biological superiority of the Nordic ‘race’.

With this in mind, I would suggest that Said’s concept of Orientalism, of a dual camp dichotomy between East and West (in part emerging from a European corporate institution of the late eighteenth century onwards), falls short in analytical sharpness and explanatory power; and ought not to be conflated with or substitute for an understanding of racism.

 

III. Racism and conceptual inflation and deflation: Islamophobia and privilege theory

As a crucial legacy to conceptualising racism, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collective and Stuart Hall (in the vein of Frantz Fanon) were reluctant to specify the analytical content of racism, which Robert Miles problematizes as follows:

“Hall recognises that racism is a concept (a ‘rational abstraction’) that identifies a particular phenomenon but warns against ‘extrapolating a common and universal structure to racism, which remains essentially the same, outside of its specific historical location’ (1980: 337). However, if there are ‘historically-specific racisms’ (1980: 336), they must also have certain common attributes which identify them as different forms of racism.” (Miles, 1989: 65)

Robert Miles identifies two forms of conceptual inflation with regard to racism:

“On the one hand, a number of writers have continued to confine the use of the term to refer to specific discourses, but have inflated its meaning to include ideas and arguments which would not be included by those who initially formulated and used it.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

While:

“On the other hand, other writers have inflated the analytical meaning of the concept so as to refer largely to individual and institutional practices which have as their outcome the determination and/or reproduction of ‘black’ disadvantage, regardless of intention or legitimating ideology.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

Alternatively put, there is the continued use of the concept of racism which is either inflated as a discourse of the Other that has new ideological content, or inflated – or rather, I would propose, contrary to Miles, deflated – so that a discourse of the Other is secondary or largely irrelevant. I would suggest that contemporary examples of this conceptual inflation and deflation are, respectively, Islamophobia and privilege theory. The problem with this, as identified by Miles, is that we are left with a concept of racism that has inadequate discriminatory power and makes identifying determinacy hard:

“The case for limiting the use of the concept to refer exclusively to ideology is based on the assumption that the analytical value of a concept is determined by its utility in describing and explaining societal processes.” (Miles, 1989: 77)

 

IV. What is racism?

“What matters is not difference per se but the identification of difference as significant, and this requires an investigation of the conditions under which processes of signification occur.” (Miles, 1989: 118)

Racism entails a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

“In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.

12 Comments

  1. What is (and isn’t) racism: : Islamophobia and privilege theory | OzHouse said,

    […] May 11 2014 by admin […]

  2. Mike Killingworth said,

    It makes no analytic sense whatsoever to talk of anti-Muslim racism. Ethnicity and religion are two different things.

    At least, they are to everyone except, apparently, the author of this article.

    • Howard Fuller said,

      Agreed.

      • Jim Denham said,

        This is a difficult area, but I note that the author of the piece writes:
        ***

        I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

        “In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

        It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.
        ***
        This is a serious attempt to address the issue, though I grant that the term “anti-Muslim racism” is debatable.

  3. camilabassi said,

    Hello Mike Killingworth and Howard Fuller. I hope you are both well.

    Mike, you write: “It makes no analytic sense whatsoever to talk of anti-Muslim racism. Ethnicity and religion are two different things. At least, they are to everyone except, apparently, the author of this article.”

    I am the author of the article. Firstly, there is a crucial difference between the idea of ‘race’ and ethnicity. Secondly, there is indeed a difference too between the idea of ‘race’ and religion. Thirdly, implied in the concept of Islamophobia is racism against Muslim people, yet the discriminatory power and ability to identify determinacy in the concept of Islamophobia is weak. For example, if I criticise Islam, am I Islamophobic and by implication racist against Muslims?

    I define racism (following the work of Robert Miles) as entailing a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

    Post 9/11 somatic markers like skin colour along with turbans and beards, and the hijab, and niqab, have spilled into a particular form of racism that is based on the categorisation of ‘Muslims’ as having negative characteristics and/or inducing negative consequences.

    Comradely, Camila

    • Mike Killingworth said,

      I am not familiar with the Robert Miles to whom you refer, nor does a Google search produce any relevant result. More to the point, I don’t understand why you wish to make separate categories of “race” and “ethnicity” (the latter word is really only the Greek for “race”) when the issues between the West and Islam are cultural and religious.

      The West believes that it tolerates, or is open to, all religions and none. It isn’t, of course: Western believers and non-believers alike define religion in a certain way – as a confessional practice which is subordinate to certain cultural norms, e.g. concepts of equality (particularly between men and women) and the separation of politics and religion. Of course these Western values are deeply inimical to most Muslims who prefer to rely on tradition rather than reason – as indeed did Westerners until the Enlightenment.

      I daresay you agree with the whole of the previous paragraph – so what is it that you believe you are adding to understanding when you apply the concept of race to Islam? Is this not yet another form of Orientalism?

  4. camilabassi said,

    Hello again Mike, thanks for your reply.

    1. I am simply trying to analyse prevailing racism and how, post-9/11, the idea of ‘race’ and the ideology of racism intersect with a particular prejudice, discrimination, and discourse against a ‘Muslim Other’.
    2. Do you argue Orientalism is a form of racism? If so, by default, all Marxists are racist (see Edward Said on Marx and Orientalism). Is that helpful?
    3. How do you define racism?
    4. On Robert Miles: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01419870.2011.595808#.U3Cjal67nIo
    5. The distinction between ‘race’ and ethnicity is critical. As a British Asian woman, I do not belong to a given ‘race’ since ‘race’ is an idea and a construction which naturalises, homogenises, crudifies, and solidifies difference on the basis of somatic markers. But my British Asian identity relates, importantly, to ethnic and national cultures.
    6. Delineating the world into a dual camp of East and West is not helpful in understanding conditions of existence through temporal and spatial specificities and universal commonalities (as I seek to do).
    7. How do you explain anti-Semitism? Is it not racism against a ‘Jewish Other’?

    Comradely, Camila

    • Mike Killingworth said,

      I have to go out now: I will reply this evening.

  5. Mike Killingworth said,

    [Substantive reply to 4]

    (1) If you are seeking an academic analysis, so be it: I can only refer you to Marx’s famous comment about philosophers. If, on the other hand, you are seeking to write a thesis for a higher degree, I wish you all the best.

    (2) Equating Marxism with Orientalism may well be helpful in the pursuit of certain political objectives by certain people. I should perhaps also notice the widespread “Occidentalism” amongst people in your position (whether of Asian or African racial descent) – I find it very hard, as a white male, to know whether such positions are progressive or reactionary.

    (3) Ideally, I would leave the definition of racism to non-whites. However we do not live in an ideal world and perhaps all that can be said with certainty is that the word is used in two ways: as a description of the behaviour of white people (in order to be racist it is first necessary to be white) and – perhaps more commonly – as a term of abuse.

    (4) Thank you.

    (5) That is a choice. I have no problem if you perceive “race” in purely negative terms, and “ethnicity” purely positively. However I would regard it not so much as a sociological description as a political programme and I would ask the classic questions: who gains? who loses? who pays?

    (6) I do not understand your point

    (7) The word “anti-Semitism” is indeed a useful example of the way in which language develops and changes over time. It is now more or less a synonym for “anti-Jewish” (as you write) but this is a consequence of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Freud, for example, admired Hannibal as a Semitic hero but the world was very different at the time he did so.

    More generally, I would ask: why does this matter to you? Why not just accept the admittedly woolly commonplace usage of the term. If your determination is grounded in Lenin’s wilful misunderstanding of Marx’s view of religion, then perhaps we have nothing further to say to each other.

  6. camilabassi said,

    Hello there Mike

    Please don’t leave the task of defining what racism is to “non-whites”, as you put it.

    Your starting point, however, of defining racism is, as: “a description of the behaviour of white people (in order to be racist it is first necessary to be white) and – perhaps more commonly – as a term of abuse”. This doesn’t help us to understand the history of anti-Irish racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-gypsy / anti-Roma racism, for example.

    BTW, ‘my’ title of my original piece, as posted on my blog, is “Racism 101: what is it?” It has been reposted here under a different title of “What is (and isn’t) racism: Islamophobia and privilege theory”. The primary focus of my piece is to define racism, and I use the example of Islamophobia to talk about the conceptual inflation of the concept of racism and privilege theory to talk about the conceptual deflation of the concept of racism. Why bother? Because anti-racist politics matters.

    Comradely, Camila

    • Mike Killingworth said,

      I do occasionally put my tongue in my cheek…

      If racism is alternatively defined as “prejudice plus power” then I am not actually sure that anti-racist politics does matter since both elements in that equation are fundamental human characteristics which aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

      It is possible to legislate for equality of opportunity, but not to abolish institutional racism or indeed to suppose that a minority can ever have the same status as a majority: the example of the Irish, victimised by the English but victimising their own “Travellers” makes this very clear indeed.

      I suspect a great deal more has been achieved by mere propinquity (particularly of schooling) than all the political programmes you or I could devise in a lifetime or longer – certainly if I compare my children’s attitudes to my own, however “anti-racist” I might wish to be. They were brought up in multi-racial north London in the 1980s, I in wholly white provincial towns thirty years earlier. “What’s bred in the bone” and all that.

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