Stop being racist: on articulating racial discourses

By Eloi Ribé (Contributor)

A new fashion is in town. It’s reminiscent of the trends of previous decades but it has something new; it’s catchy and being adopted by many: its racism!

In all honesty, racism is not a subject of any novelty. Neither is there any prospect of preventing it from being a recurring theme in our day-to-day lives. Overt concern over racism remains a vivid and pervasive individual and social discourse, with practices embedded in social institutions, language and minds. Racial discrimination is still markedly present in the job market (1), academia (2) and in interactions between tenants and landlords. It is there in public discourses articulated by elites, mass media and other forms of communication.

In May this year results from NatCen British Social Attitudes Survey indicated an increase in self-reported racial prejudice with 30% of Brits describing themselves as either “very” or “a little” racially prejudiced (3). This is not an isolated picture of racist attitudes. In the UK and Europe in general there have been a rise in political parties which make explicit racist comments or remarks. For example, early this year a candidate of the National Front in France called the minister of Justice a “monkey” (4), a UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) councillor called African migrants “scroungers” (5), and Members of the Lega Norte in Italy threw bananas at Cecile Kyenge (6), the former Italian minister for integration. These are only some among many other events that exhibit a common cause against the ethnically different others, with active and purposeful messages articulated and directed at, and about, other ethnically different individuals.

Moreover, this resurgence of racist comments is not exclusively limited to political parties. In April 2014, the LA Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling, told his girlfriend "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast, you're associating with black people" (7). And UK TV personality, Jeremy Clarkson, had to apologise after footage in which he used the N-word became publically available. In all these cases the defence issued was a claim to media that ‘they were not racists’. That’s it. Problem solved. We misinterpreted them. But it’s not all that clear. If we take what they claim as correct, that alleged racism is not as such and, in turn, we accept that they are not racists, then what are their claims all about?

Racism is widely conceptualised as an ideology of racial domination (8); a social system of ethnic or racial inequality (9). Racism entails negative implications and meanings. It is a “contested” concept (10): it can then be defined as a race-prejudice or discrimination, or as an institutionalised system of domination. This distinction is crucially important: do we understand racism as an individual attitude or belief, or as a systemic institutionalised ideology (ibid)?

Discursive practices of racism have long been studied. For instance, Van Dijk (11) explored the role of media and elites in the reproduction of racism through text and talk which, he argued, contribute to the construction of ideological racial frameworks. The structure of the discourses and depictions of other ethnicities are parts of a social system of dominance legitimised on the grounds of differences ascribed to others. Ashley Doane reminds us “vocabularies and discursive frames reflect ideologies and cultural understandings” (11, p.270). In short, words matter.

So when we read or hear a racist comment or remark we could well interpret it as an expression or articulation of a racist ideology or framework. However, more than often our dearest celebrities will protest loudly, ‘I’m not a racist!’ and, therefore, whatever they said shouldn’t be conceptualised as a form of racism. Many examples come to mind. Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, claimed that the party “is not racist” after members of the party made racist remarks (12). He also complained and issued an open letter in a newspaper after being caught in a radio interview expressing his worries about Romanian families moving in next door. Similarly, Marie Le Pen claimed that the Front National was not a racist party after members of the party uttered racial “slurs’. Denials abound. Certainly this is not a new strategy. This discursive strategy is a form of positive in-group presentation (9). Most importantly, this denial shows a conscious, rational use of language; users are somehow aware of breaking the social norm of tolerance and acceptance (ibid). Collective and individual claims denying accusations of racism are then well-established discursive strategies.

So we come to appreciate the logistics of branding the individual or the in-group (e.g a political party) as “non-racist”. We should now consider that although discursive practices of denial of racism are still in practice, they are combined with new strategies that no longer use only denial, but ‘hint’ racism and ‘empathise’ racism. It is similarly an in-group strategy, but this new strategy is mixed with denial and acceptance. We should ponder whether this discursive strategy is twisting the social norms on tolerance and normalising a racial discourse that has little to do with race, and much ado about “everything else but us”.


The UKIP is a perfect example of this new social discursive practice of racism. It is characterised as selective (some people not considered in-group are still somehow part of the group), multi-layered (it is not only about race, but also culture, religion and nationality), bipolar (admitting in-group racism but resenting it) and a sense of undeniable universal truth (connotations that we all share and think the same). This discourse, I argue, has something new which transcends the denial strategy and pervades the public discourse with something like “you know I am right”, “you can’t deny the facts”, “it’s not everyone, but we know who they are”. Examples might help illustrate this. Above I referred to Nigel Farage’s abrupt comments regarding his concerns about a Romanian family moving in next door and consequently denying accusations of racism. However, his denial was interwoven with an argument that he wasn’t wrong. He allegedly responded with “I didn’t use the form of words in response that I would have liked to have used” and “any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door” (13). In his words, he uses this sense of undeniable universal truth. Also, in the same radio programme he was asked about differences between living next to Romanian men and German; his response appealed to the selective aspect of racism when he answered: “You know what the difference is”, a selective and universal statement. And yet, there is a recognition of racists and racism when Nigel Farage admits there are idiots in his party who do not represent the party’s views.

So they are not racists but they quite openly articulate racist ideologies. Even other political elites, such as the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, refused to categorise Farage as a racist, and UKIP as a racist party (14). Being racist or being accused to be racist has clearly negative connotations and we all are very aware of the social norms that are breached when articulating racist beliefs or attitudes. Even a local candidate for the UKIP, Heino Vockrodt, allegedly said that the Brent council had “fear of being called racists, when, just like in all the other cases where Muslims are grooming children to be sex slaves under the eyes of the authorities, the council does nothing" (15). This twists racist discourse to a new level, acknowledging a social norm regarding racism, accepting that the comment is racist and even so articulating it as a universal truth.

The articulation of racism ideologies is, as Van Dijk (9) points out, a social practice. Calling someone racist has deep connotations of not only particular attitudes and beliefs but also behaviours, and, in addition, has a reductionist character - as it portrays everyone as the same. Most importantly, it conveys an idea of immutable character, a characteristic of people that cannot be otherwise or transformed. It is precisely this transforming and adaptive articulation of racism that contests this essential aspect of being racist. It is rather doing racism as part of a careful strategy ascribing differences about the others. So they are not racists per se, and they are not the same, they are purportedly identifying and defying anything else but them.

Within this ideological racial framework there is a perplexing lack of discursive anti-racist arguments shown by political and mass media elites. Racism discourse struggles have fallen into a mainstream tussle, highly dependent on the negative social and political connotations “racism” and “racist” have. Contesting accusations of racism has been overwhelmed and diluted in fear of generalising and categorising people with enduring characteristics. Accusations of ‘being racist’ have lost their significance as an anti-racism discourse and it has become a discursive tool for legitimising racist ideologies.

It would be unfair to say that dominant racist ideologies are expressed without contest. Anti-racism is a long established practice and I am not intending to argue otherwise. Doane (10) reminds us that dominant ideologies are challenged by “counter-ideologies”, a struggle in the political arena to change racial dogma. My point is that somehow the articulation of anti-racism discourse has reached a plateau, and little work has been done in the articulation and expression of anti-racism discourse to tackle new forms of discursive racism which holds that there are ‘no racists’.

Alana Lentin´s book (16) reminds us that anti-racism is not the strict opposite of racism, but rather a particular process and movement with its own socio-historical particularities. Political correctness should not ignore the racist problem. Ignoring or downplaying the importance of racial discourses in political and non-political elites is far from an efficient strategy. Also, claiming that only a few people are racist and they are all idiots is not facing the problem of the reproduction of racism. They might well be idiots, but I am unwilling to defer to this explanation as the only valid one available. More crucially, portraying individuals as idiots is naturalizing racist attitudes and beliefs, and certainly there is change and adaptation in doing racism. So it would seem sensible to start undoing racism.