| 6 mins read
Following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 by the police in Minneapolis, a wave of anti-racism protests spread across the United States and then different parts of the world.
The protests that swept the United States were squarely focused on dismantling anti-black racism. Elsewhere their spread took on contextual specificities reflecting different histories and social impacts. In Western Europe, Islamophobia and Sinophobia in Britain, anti-Arab racism in France, and anti-Turk and anti-migrant racisms in Germany have been variously highlighted.
Despite these contextual differences, across these European examples and that of the US, the focus has been on societies that have an operative ‘White Privilege’. Nevertheless, what has also importantly emerged in this international spread is the need to extend beyond the US and Europe, not just geographically but in how we think about and understand racism and antiracism.
Significant in the way these debates have spread and occurred in different contexts is that the various forms of racism that are highlighted do not just refer to the use of biological features, such as skin colour, but also to perceived cultural features in the way that particular groups are perceived. Whereas biological racism, or what is sometimes referred to as scientific racism, is based in physical differences, for cultural racism, it is understandings based in cultural differences that draw sharp boundaries between groups and put them into hierarchies where some are held to be more advanced, more civilised, and so on than others.
The move to cultural forms of racism has particularly been the case for analysing racism against ethnic or ethno-religious minorities. Antisemitism, at times referred to as the oldest form of racism, is a prime example of this use as contemporary antisemitism rarely refers to a Jewish biology. Another example is its application to white minorities with no distinguishing visible features from the white majority, such Eastern European migrants in the UK, where racism is rendered as a form of xenophobia.
Possibly the principal example of ‘cultural racism’ today in the West relates to Muslims and the concept of Islamophobia. While appearance is part of the depiction of Muslims, it is cultural features of Muslims and of Islam (inherent violence, backwardness, misogyny, for example) that are most emphasised. As Muslims themselves have argued, forms of racism focussed on colour fail to capture the forms of discrimination they face, and resultingly, also fail to reflect the claims they want to make for inclusion in the public and political spheres, both being grounded in perceptions of culture and religion.
One way of thinking about this development is through what Wittgenstein referred to as ‘family resemblances’. It is not a precise sameness but, as with members of a family, a likeness that is shared such that it makes sense to see them as members that come under a general term, here racism.
In a globalised world where disciplines such as sociology and politics are increasingly challenged to better reflect and think in globally oriented and connected ways, understanding racism in this way helps bring more comparative and global surveys, into view.
In this endeavour it is central to move away from over-privileging European and American frameworks, what we refer to as Euro-Americancentricity. We need, rather, to draw from understandings derived from the relevant contexts in order to broaden the purview to include other empires, cognitive traditions and political agendas, and the legacy of their racial hierarchies today, as well as the development of new forms of racism outside the West, under the orbit of racism as ‘family resemblance’.
We can firstly note that some phenomena under discussion in Europe also exist elsewhere. Islamophobia in India may be present on a scale greater than in Europe, for example. Secondly, phenomena not (historically) present in the West, such as Caste, may be usefully interrogated as forms of racism, which some Dalits have started doing, including diaspora populations in the West.
Thirdly, it enables us to study racism and anti-racism in contexts in which white people are not contemporarily present. This can be a contribution to a study of legacies of European colonialism (as say in parts of South-east Asia or the Middle East) but, more radically, it raises the possibility of forms of racism without Whiteness.
These racisms (or quasi-racisms) can be levied against historic minorities in the context of new exclusionary nationalisms. Cases of this kind, for instance, include the Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Uyghurs in China, Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka, the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslims in India and Christians in Pakistan. They might alternatively represent debates around the ideas of ‘neo-Imperialism’ or ‘neo-colonialism’, as with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or the Chinese in Tibet, for example.
In these ways, then, we can develop our understandings and intellectual resources to talk about and tackle forms of discrimination and injustice which traverse ‘race’, ethnicity, culture, nationality and religion, as well as different contexts. We can also deepen the idea of ‘decolonisation’ by not just looking at how white racisms constitute the global North and South but also at racisms in the global South in their own terms and not just as a derivation of the West.