On racism and its manifestations

April 07, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

“If someone speaks like a racist, talks like a racist, smells like a racist, chances are – they’re a racist.”

This is a sentiment oft-expressed – especially by self-anointed progressive outlets and writers: racism is clear, explicit, and conspicuous. You can smell it from ten feet away, and you wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. Racists are malevolent characters, folks who are of an unsavory character, who are inherently abominable or evil as a result of their upbringing, circumstances, or individual agency. The bottom-line is clear: racists are bad people, and we should condemn them.

So much for progressive “hot takes”. The trouble with this view – and indeed a view that I had once held for a rather significant volume of time – is that it doesn’t do justice to what racism truly is, or the range of possible manifestations and incarnations of racism that exist out there, or, indeed, the true ‘injustice’ underpinning racism. As with most things in life, racism is best interpreted not through the slogans and empty rhetoric of online slacktivists, but with a helpful pinch of perspective and modicum of nuance.

We must therefore begin with an exploration of what racism means. Some posit that racism maps onto racial discrimination – e.g. the differentiated treatment of individuals on the basis of their race, particularly where such treatment could result in manifestly distinctive and divergent socioeconomic or political outcomes. For instance, the Apartheid was racist, for it transformed South Africans into subjugated subjects exploited by the white Afrikaan minority.

Yet such a definition seems to overlook instances where racial segmentation is embraced as a norm – cultures, races, and ethnic groups celebrating their heritage and histories, founded upon a shared basis of imagination that is, incidentally or otherwise, defined by the pigment of their skin. Black solidarity, Asian pride, Hispanic nationalism in the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant-dominated United States. Surely, we want to be able to acknowledge and tolerate, even, certain forms of racial segmentation that yields benign outcomes for disenfranchised minorities or communities.

So perhaps the litmus test rests with harms – that if racially driven differentiation of individuals causes harms, then we ought to be able to castigate such phenomena as instances of racism. Racism is not a value-neutral term, it is laden with negative connotations, and that’s the way it is. Racism is detrimental to the wellbeing and welfare of public discourse, inimical towards social integration at large, and undercuts the ability of migrants and ethnic minorities to participate in co-citizenship processes – e.g. voting and political dialogue.

A harms-centered view of racism is intriguing, albeit inadequate, still. Imagine a racist person who thinks of their Chinese neighbour as “inferior” as a result of their race; or someone who holds the view that people of particular ethnicity cannot be treated as in possession of normal intellectual capabilities (you may be surprised, but there are plenty of bigots out there who think such).

Indeed, here in Hong Kong, one may find ubiquitous racist beliefs and stereotypes about individuals from the Indian Sub-continent – the product of a curious mix of Islamophobia, racism towards persons of colour, and the residual, lingering colonialist soft bigotry that valourises whiteness and admonishes non-whiteness.

Such doxastic (“pertaining to or in relation to beliefs”) propositions may not result in concrete, physical harms. And it seems intuitive to some, perhaps, that our freedom of thought should extend to warranting our holding such beliefs. Surely, what we believe in is none of others’ business – stay away from my backyard!

Yet this is foundationally not the case. The espousing of irrational beliefs, unwarranted and unjustified by any decent account of practical knowledge, can also be subjected to moral regulation and normative critique. The attitudes we hold, the beliefs we opt to subscribe to, and the reality that we create or imagine through our actions and discourses, could well be fundamentally disrespectful towards others.

Consider, for instance, someone who holds deeply perverse thoughts concerning maiming or significantly harming others. Sure, we have no accurate or reasonable recourse to hold this person to account, yet this does not imply that we cannot at the very least judge them to be immoral. And here’s why: our beliefs could be disrespectful towards others (e.g. the subjects of our thoughts) even if they do not cause any corporeal harm.

We owe it to others to recognise their moral status and entitlement to basic respect. Respect requires more than just ‘respectful actions or behaviours’ – we would be disturbed by the thought someone who speaks and acts as if they respected us, yet in fact do not. Our uneasiness clearly has nothing to do with how these individuals behave towards us, but with their authenticity – i.e. do they really respect us, or are they merely feigning it disingenuously?

All of this is to say that racism is more than just about harming others. It also occurs – inheres, even – in instances where individuals harbour views about ethnicities or races that are a) factually unfounded and b) disrespectful towards the agency and status of these groups. Racism is therefore a phenomenon that straddles both spheres of action and thought, and to limit its domain to solely actions would be a short-sighted and confused move. We may not be able to see racism, smell racism, or hear racism – but that doesn’t mean racism is thus absent: it very well is alive and kicking.

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Assistant Professor, HKU