CN: extensive discussion of the mechanics of racism and white supremacy; discussion of apartheid era South Africa, denial of racism, islamophobia, and racially motivated violence; mention of anti-Semitism.
All I have to say about today’s guest post is that I’m so glad that thanks Thandiwe I have an excellent resource to point to anytime I run into someone claiming that racism is a social construct. She’s going to break it down for all of us.
“The idea that race is biologically given was produced by modern science, which did not stand outside but rather was intricately shaped by the complex matrices of thought and culture, and by the politics of imperialism of the time. Rather than already there, race is a socio-historical and political construct that is culturally contextual and situation specific. Race is made and remade over time as a learned way of seeing ourselves and the world.” (Erasmus, 2008)
When I was first introduced to social theory on race as a social construct I was an anthropology tutor tasked with teaching this concept to my group of first-year students. Initially, intellectually, the social engineering of race made sense; however, personally, it did little to discredit the effects of racialization and its fundamental byproduct, racism, as a reality for my Black students as well as myself.
Thankfully, anti-racism teachings do not seek to diminish the realness of race and racism in everyday life. Rather, race as a social construct aims to make explicit the falsehoods in biological racism that were invented to make white supremacy defensible. Unfortunately, white supremacy has worked to misappropriate this education for its continuation.
How Race Is a Social Construct
Critical race theory asserts that race was constructed by modern science as given, found and rooted in nature, rather than created by white supremacists in the colonial context. Race, therefore, is not given nor does it exist biologically. Rather, race has been socially produced to justify colonial inequalities that benefitted Europeans and especially European men.
South Africa provides a useful example of race as a social construct with its ‘coloured’ racial category. While in the west, “coloured” is a racial slur directed towards Black people, in the South African context the same does not apply. The coloured racial category was a race created by the apartheid state which “used race to classify South Africans by law into a general hierarchy of ‘types’ with corresponding differential access to human rights and freedom”. It established the categorization of all South Africans as either Black African, white, coloured or Indian. Coloured, which can also be understood as ‘creole’; “ethnic groups which originated during the colonial era from racial mixing mainly between Africans as well as some other people born in the colonies, such as Europeans and sometimes South Asian [people],” is therefore distinct from Black African and embraced as a racial group, ethnicity and culture.
During the violence of racial categorization, coloured families were divided. The unpredictability of genetics meant that within the same family, depending on skin complexion and hair texture, individuals could be newly categorized as Black, white or coloured.
Similarly, while the west’s subscription to the racist ‘one-drop rule’ makes for the complete racial categorization of mixed-race people as Black, in South Africa mixed-race people —first generation as well as those who went through the generational processes of creolization—are often considered coloured and not Black.
Theoretically, the concept of race as a social construct seeks to dismantle notions of white superiority. These efforts can be found in academic anti-racism work as well as in more accessible online and social media outputs. There is, however, a practical problem that arises from an understanding of race as a social construct that lends itself to a racist misappropriation used to diminish, deny and perpetuate racism.
The Racist Misappropriation of Race as a Social Construct
Within global neoliberalism, there is a white, non-racial, “colorblind” dismissal of race that claims that “race is no longer politically significant and therefore any use or recognition of the concept is itself racist practice”. One can find this in the white liberalism and ally-ship that “do not see color” but is also vehemently against affirmative action policies and practices that seek to address inequalities brought on by the social construction of race. Moreover, the dismissal of race extends to a dismissal of racism. In a bid to protect the ‘invisibility’ of whiteness and refute racism, racism is incorrectly asserted as a social construct.
Australia provides a prime example of the racist misappropriation of race as a social construct within neoliberal white-majority societies. On 3 October 2019, The Australian published an article titled "Academics Spending Big in Search for Racism," written by Bella d’Abrera, with the unsavory caption; “If you were not already convinced that Australia’s humanities departments have truly lost their way, the latest research project from the faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of Sydney should get you over the line”.
Answering a much-needed call to uncover and analyze Australia’s intimate relationship with racism, academics in the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences have created a program, under the theme “Resurgent Racism” as a contribution to anti-racism research. Under this research theme, researchers aim to “address the emergence of new forms of racism manifesting as nationalist populism and far-right extremism. [As well as] to explain the logics of emboldened white racism in Western liberal democracies”.
D’Abrera, director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation program at the Institute of Public Affairs, disregards the Resurgent Racism anti-racism proposal to track changes in Australian racism, which include contemporary instances of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy. D’Abrera may as well be the Director of Racist Thought at the Institute of Public Affairs in her crass attack on anti-racism academics’ undertakings where she wrote: “That Islam is a religion, not a race, seems not to matter because a great many academics have shifted from focusing on what is real to what is not — in this case an imagined crisis of endemic racism”.
Racism Is Not One Dimensional
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” (The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims).
D’Abrera states the obvious in saying that Islam is a religion and not a race but what is also just as obvious are the white supremacist sentiments in Islamophobic discourses, structures, practices, and attacks. A 38-week pregnant victim of a ghastly assault in Sydney in November 2019 supplies a vivid example of the lived experience of the intersection between racism and Islamophobia dismissed by d’Abrera. The assault victim who was punched to the ground and then repeatedly kicked by a white man unknown to her, was clear when she stated that “the incident was racially motivated and the Muslim community was familiar with Islamophobia”.
Although denied by the likes of d’Abrera, the intersection between racism and Islamophobia is not unique to Australia. In actuality, Islamophobic racism is a common experience shared internationally amongst Muslims in the west as seen in definition of Islamophobia by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims listed above that highlights Islamophobia as a particular expression of racism. Effectively, D’Abrera’s shortsighted insistence on separating Islamophobia from racism upholds the white supremacist tone of her entire article which she concludes that “our university campuses[…] are no longer in the business of producing objective and impartial scholarship that will edify, inspire and educate future generations of Australians”.
A Racist Loophole in Anti-Racism Efforts
Though racial ignorance drips heavily from Bela d'Abrera’s piece, it, foreseeably, has garnished support from The Australian’s readership. The few who rightfully proclaimed that racism is as real as the kangaroos in Australia were overshadowed and silenced by the overwhelming majority of commenters who continue with the denialism of racism cemented in Australia society by also viewing endemic racism as “an imagined crisis”.
“Racism is a social construct, “ began the declarations, “it does not exist”. Race and its establishment of a racial hierarchy that created white supremacy is a social construct, yes. Racism, on the other hand, is not a myth. It is real and it exists everywhere, particularly in Australia.
Certainly, there appears to be a loophole in conceptualizing race as a social construct that serves to discredit the realness of racism that severely affects those at the bottom of the racialized ladder. This is a loophole that brings forth misconstrued claims in critical race theory.
White Liberalism: More Harm Than Good
One such inaccuracy has been in a white liberal assertion of racism as a social construct. White liberalism in online anti-racism lessons stresses that ‘reverse racism’ does not exist because “racism is a social construct”.
Using racism as a social construct is inaccurate, at best and to add to that, debunking the idea of presumed reverse racism by employing racism as a social construct is a dangerous intellectual strategy. It is absolutely correct that reverse-racism does not exist because racism is more than personal prejudices or attempts at addressing historic racial injustices. Racism is in overarching, globally interconnected systems, structures, institutions and ideologies that protect and benefit white people only. It does not include calls for affirmative action and social justice as believers of reverse-racism claim. Racism is a veridical result of white supremacy in the social construction of race and therefore cannot also be attached to the empowerment of marginalized people.
As reflected in Australian online commenters, white liberalism is doing more harm than good in propelling its proclamation of racism as a social construct by diminishing the tangibility of racism that is void in the concept of reverse-racism. By speaking- with unearned authority- on behalf of melanated experiences that they are exempt from, white liberals’ inappropriate and inaccurate use of racism as a social construct leaves the door wide open for- and contributes to- its misappropriation by racism denialists.
So good people, please understand the difference between race and racism. Yes, race is a social construct- it is neither rooted nor biological. Race was manufactured to create and justify white supremacy. Understanding race as a social construct does not negate the legitimacy of racism, especially for those of us who cannot escape its ever-looming presence. Racism does exist. It is neither opinion nor fantasy. It is fact. In effect, ignoring and denying this truth is not only discourteous but also intrinsically racist.
About the guest blogger: Thandiwe Ntshinga is a South African freelance writer. Her work employs intersectional analysis on social issues with a particular focus on race and racism. More on Thandiwe can be found on her website, thandiwentshinga.com or follow her on Instagram @blackwomxnrants.