Understanding Racism in Social Context

Race is a social construction. This means that biological or phenotypic traits are classified in ways that reinforce inequalities benefiting majority groups. Hence “race” is understood differently across nations, depending on history and culture. White people have a tendency to see racism in subjective and relativist views: White Canadians think that racism is less of an issue in their country than in the USA; White people in Aotearoa New Zealand think racism in Australia is far worse than in their own backyard; and Australians think racism in Australia has “gotten better,” and that we are better off than the USA. These comparisons are one way in which White supremacy is maintained locally. Individual observations about so-called “worse” racism in other countries only serves to maintain racial injustice. Let’s now see how this plays out in everyday discussions of racism.

Race and culture

“Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?,’ regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country.” – Latina American USA Supreme Court nominee Judge, Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Colonialism and racism give rise to different narratives about nationhood in different nation states. History, culture and social context are important. Race works differently in Australia than in other English-majority nations. Other than poorly framed discussions about Black/White relations, Australia doesn’t talk about “race” much, and when we do, discussions lack proper, scientific understandings of the social construction of race and its impact on social justice.

In the Australian social sciences, since early 1980s, the concept of “race” (social categories built around perceived biological differences) is used less frequently than the concept of “ethnicity” (ideas of culture, ancestry and belonging). But there are lots of articles about “racism,” framed around “ethnic” and “migrant/ refugee groups,” which unevenly apply critical race analysis.

For example, “Muslim” and “non-English-speaking migrants” are used as proxy terms for groups seen as “not White.” Young, migrant people of colour are stigmatised as being deviant. They bear the brunt of racial discrimination on the basis of culture or religion or race, but often a mixture of all (especially in the case of Muslim-Australians). Conflating race, ethnicity and religion means racism is able to continue unperturbed, because White people constantly change racial categorisations to suit their interests.

Media and public debates about “African youth,” often intertwine ethnicity and race, ignoring the cultural differences amongst different Black African migrants. African in this sense removes White people from discussions of “African migrants,” even though South Africa is the eight largest overseas-born group in Australia according to the most recent Census of 2016. Half of those who arrived in the mid-1990s were estimated to be White South Africans, in a phenomenon known as “packing for Perth,” with many of these more affluent White people leaving in response to Nelson Mandela’s presidential election. In 2018, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, tried to fast-track visas by White South African farmers, at the same as he was whipping up a moral panic about “Black African gangs” (that is, Black Australian youth of African backgrounds). He was thankfully defeated. White South Africans (“Africans”) are more desirable to Australian policy-makers than Australian Black Africans (also “Africans”).

As we see,  racial hierarchies within and between cultural groups largely goes unexamined in a critical way. This slows Australia’s progress on racial justice.

Subjective national comparisons

Race scholars in Australia understand the strong impact of racial constructions on discourses in academia, social policy, media and society. As a race scholar and policy worker, I actively work on issues of race and disadvantage, and it is from an informed position that I make public commentary. Yet White people from the USA often jump into my social media threads arguing about race from USA-centric perspective. They are often unaware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are both Indigenous and Black and therefore face multiple forms of racial discrimination (compounded by ongoing dispossession and place-based intercultural trauma). Instead, these White people will impose Indigeneity and Blackness as separate categories when they respond to my threads.

White Canadians also show up to defend how “less racist” something is, from their perspective. White Canadians have a tendency to downplay racism in their country, because they are comparing their perspective to what they subjectively understand to be the situation in the USA. This ignores how Indigenous and other people of colour see racial oppression in Canada and in the USA. Even in places with high intermarriage between First Nations people and others, White Canadians retain a superior social position. The reduction of less overt prejudice does not mean racism is “better.” This false equivalence ensures that little progress is made on racial justice, because

“whiteness continues to be understood as neutral—and nice.

Similar patterns emerge when I speak with White people from Aotearoa New Zealand (Pākehā), both online and in events where I presented on equity and diversity. They are quick to express their horror at Australia’s immigration policies (which are horrendous), and our treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (also exceedingly unjust). But then again, they defend their sense of race relations advancement from a perspective of whiteness, because their relative sense of racial justice is in their subjective comparison of how they see New Zealand and Australia. In so doing, they ignore the writing, activism and experiences of Maori, Pasifika and other people of colour from New Zealand who see racial justice in their country in far less progressive terms.

Australia

One of the key ways that Aotearoa is distinct from Australia is that “at least they have a treaty.” This is not insignificant, however, Maori people have continually protested to defend the Treaty, from the 1800s to the present-day, feeling that racial justice needs urgent redress. While treaty provides a formal mechanism to contest breaches, Pākehā measures of progress about racial justice in comparison to what other countries are not doing, effectively lets them off the hook about what they should be doing in their own country.

Similarly, in Australia, White people jump to defensive mode when they see discussions of race and racism, claiming that Australia is “less racist” than the USA. This perception can only be sustained by people who don’t “see” how race works in Australia. Australia inflicts the highest per capita incarceration rates onto Indigenous people in the world. There is a higher rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody today since the Royal Commission in 1991,  and Aboriginal children are removed from family at four times the rate since the Bringing them Home report, which documented the Stolen Generations. What happens in America does not make this any better, but in and of itself, these statistics are damning.

White people see themselves as adjudicators of race, judging some expressions of racism as “less bad” than others. The negative pushback on my research about racial microaggressions is a case in point. In other cases, White people have an overly optimistic idea of progress, despite the fact that studies consistently show racism is just as pervasive today as in the past. It simply takes on new forms in public discussions and in institutional contexts.

For example, in 1969 (just two years after the referendum that finally recognised Aboriginal people as citizens), 28% of non-Indigenous people believed White culture is “more advanced” than Aboriginal cultures. (That’s a direct measure of White supremacy.) In various studies in the mid-2010s, up to one-third of non-Indigenous Australians were still against a family member marrying Aboriginal people (a measure of social distance). Around one-fifth of non-Indigenous Australians hold other prejudiced attitudes against Indigenous people (that’s excluding any unconscious biases people may hold but are not immediately recognising as an issue).

That’s actually not a lot of progress. If the litmus test for racial justice is non-Indigenous people’s subjective notions of racism in their own nation versus other countries, this effectively maintains the status quo. Little needs to change if other countries are seen as “worse.” If the litmus test for racial justice is non-Indigenous people’s subjective positivity about some arbitrary point in history to the present-day, then racism is still the default. Without sovereignty, truth-telling about our history, and the vision for the future outlined in the Uluru Statement, then we are actually no less advanced in our racial relations than the point of invasion in 1788.

Non-Black people and White women

Migrant people of colour contribute towards Aboriginal discrimination, which is in itself a way to enforce racial categories (keeping Indigenous people at the bottom of the social ladder). More broadly, racial minority groups maintain the logic of racial inequality when they give into White supremacy’s promise of attaining a degree of social mobility in exchange for inaction on racial justice.

White people love to use examples of racism, or disputes about race, among and between racial minority groups. This is still an outcome of White supremacy. Similarly, White women will downplay the impact of race in discussions of gender equity, even if they are a White woman from a minority group (due to disability, LGBTQIA status and so on).  They will compare other forms of inequality (ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ageism) to racism as a way to minimise the impact of race. White people do this even as they profess to be using intersectionality. This is how White supremacy continues to be normalised. One can succeed under White supremacy, to a point, so long as they’re prepared to juxtapose, explain away and ignore the racial oppression of others.

Impact on racism

Racial categories are hierarchical. They position White people as superior, whether White people want to acknowledge this or not. Race categories are also imposed on minority groups, forcing racial minorities into subordinate relations to other racial minorities. That’s White supremacy:  the values, conscious or unconscious beliefs, and formal social structures that maintain the ideology that White people are superior to people of colour.

In Australia, research consistently shows that a sizeable proportion of non-English-speaking-background migrants in Australia (up to 40%) routinely experience racism, especially in public places. At least one-third of recent experiences of racism happen at work and in places of education (Challenging Racism, 2017 p. 10). Different migrant groups will experience greater rates of racism depending on current policies and public discourses (including in the media). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face between 25% to 50% the rates of everyday racism, in comparison to other minorities. This includes name calling, disrespect, distrust and discrimination (pp. 10-11).

And all that’s just “individual-level” racism. Institutional racism is not measured by how much interpersonal racism individuals experience. It is about official policies and systemic barriers

Everyday racism is the connection between individual and institutional racism. It’s how routine patterns (e.g. speech, behaviour) reflect systemic racial discrimination.

Each nation has its own racial hierarchies that position White supremacy differently for Indigenous people, migrants from various ethnic and racial backgrounds, and White settlers. Comparisons of nations are only useful to highlight how the social construction functions in different environments, not in establishing a false barometer of “less bad” racist systems. Black American actor, Samuel L. Jackson, deployed this thinking when he argued British Black actors experience less racism than Black Americans. Is the UK actually “less racist” according to the people impacted? A White woman journalist spent a little time in Australia and us “more inclusive”.  According to whose criteria of exclusion?

You can see case studies on my Sociology of Race to learn about the differences of other local and national contexts when it comes to individual/institutional/everyday racism. Remember what we subjectively take for granted as “normal” about race is very different for other groups depending on place, history and their social position.

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