Black Lives Matter - Racism exists

What is Racism? A simplistic introduction

It remains unambiguous that racism is still tenaciously clinging onto the back of society. Racism, discrimination and bigotry are woven so finely into the Western World’s structures, people can see them as things that are just there: a fact of life.

One of my favourite pastimes is to look at the comments section of news articles on social media platforms – I’m a pretty fun guy, I know. I believe it gives a great insight into how a variety of people understand a host of issues. With the Black Lives Matter movement being at the forefront of most news outlets, and rightly so, it has become clear that many people’s understanding of racism is muddled. Therefore, I thought I would take this opportunity to write an introduction to racism, a “racism for dummies”, if you will. A number of the following arguments are taken from Alana Lentin’s book, “Racism: A beginner’s guide”.

What is Racism?

Racism is the virus. A woman holding a sign expressing that view.
Racism is a virus!

The dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s race is superior”. This definition is relatively basic, and I would even go as far as to say it needs developing.

Racism cannot be reduced to a form of prejudice or an individual attitude. It has a much broader spectrum of actions and experiences, including violence, discrimination and everyday forms of abuse and depreciation. It is a form of domination, which shares analogies and intersections with class, gender, sexuality, etc. You could liken it to a disease that inexplicably spreads from the individual mind to attack unwitting societies. However, to understand racism, we need to study how and why we have come to live as citizens, defined on the idea of common ethnic and political heritages. To do this, we must first look at the concept of race itself.

Race – a European Invention

The term “raca” emerged in the context of the Spanish Reconquista (early 15th century). In case you didn’t know, the Spanish Reconquista was a series of Christian states’ campaigns to recapture territory from the Muslims (Moors). The Moors had occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century. Consequently, Christians forced Muslims and Jews to convert or face expulsion from Spain. The idea of race was further developed during the Enlightenment and European Colonialism. Then, by the time of the first European overseas expansion in the 16th Century, Africans and animality were commonly associated. Since then, those in power have used race as a tool of control and population measurement.

Sociology has moved away from the ideas that race is a descriptor of identity, a category of difference and a biological fact. It is racism itself that makes race. American Anthropologist, John Relethford, stated that race is a culturally constructed label. This label crudely and imprecisely describes natural variations. It is a label that continues to classify populations and only has value as an analytical category to grasp various inequality dimensions. The understanding that race is a discursive construct means that race works similar to language.

A Floating Signifier

It would seem incomplete to talk about race without quoting Stuart Hall, a sociologist who understood race as a “floating signifier”. So, what does that mean? Well, all attempts to locate race scientifically have been untenable. Therefore, we must be labelled socio-culturally. Race’s meaning is relational, and it is always subject to redefinition in different cultures, different moments. Examples of these regional and historical variations of race are colonialism, the Third Reich, and post-WWII immigration, to name but a few.

Race is a Discursive Language

“But how can race not exist?” I hear you ask. Race does not exist from a biological point of view. People look different from one another; I’m not going to sit here and dispute that. However, what matters are the systems of thought and language used to make sense of our differences. Myths and stereotypes are embedded in our language and often detached from their source. Consider, for example, the stereotypes about black male sexual potency or athleticism. Race quickly disappears between the lines to the extent that it becomes impossible to point out the racist origins of jokes and stereotypes. Instead, they are a seamless part of our language and culture. To better understand this, I thoroughly recommend “Beyond a joke: the limits of humour” by Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering.

An example of segregation using counters

Stereotypes and otherness

We look at people we don’t know and infer things about their personality based on their appearance. Tell me something I don’t know, right? There are stereotypes for all kinds of people, which in some cases may seem juvenile. However, in terms of race, physical characteristics have often been associated with invisible negative attributes such as intelligence and potential danger. You know, that gut reaction that might lead you to cross the street at night when we see a black man approaching. Or those stories of people who became scared when a man with a turban enters the aeroplane.

Race works as a means of justifying these fears of otherness, of “strangeness”. However, it also creates and embellishes these fears. There is a discourse that connects those who are different from ourselves to the idea of a “threat”. We may fear a particular group of people whether or not we have ever come into contact with them. Yes, most Western politicians today decry the existence of racism and even fund initiatives to combat it. However, to curb the numbers of “illegal immigrants”, they create a stereotype of immigrants as criminals with potential terrorist links that do little to dispel common racist stereotypes. A “bad hombres” speech comes to mind.


So it is clear that race is a social construct that has no scientific value. It persists because of the political power of racism. Consequently, this has led to it becoming institutionalised in the structures of our societies. Referring to race in descriptive terms can only be of value if it takes account of racialisation. Racialisation is the process through which the construct of the supposed inferiority of non-whites and non-Western people. Today’s global racism divides the rich and the poor worlds and is no longer a simple black-and-white issue.

Racialisation involves endowing others’ characteristics, appearances, traditions, and lifestyles with negative signifiers that people deem natural. This discourse, in turn, justifies people’s discrimination. A contemporary example of this is the persistent Islamaphobia that exists within the West. The paranoia and fear caused by the image of the “Muslim terrorist” mirror the antisemitism of 1930s Europe, which saw Jews as responsible for the economic and political problems that plagued the continent. Racialisation is a vital understanding of how race is signified.

The Experience of Racism

So, how is race then translated into racism, experienced by individual people in everyday situations? The relationship between skin colour and the subjugation brought about by racism is epidermilization. Following the previous example of Islamaphobia, an excellent contemporary example is a Muslim headscarf (hijab) and the face veil (niqab). Because many religious Muslim women wear these, they are easily recognisable as Muslim. However, accompanied by this is the discourse about Muslim women being unemancipated. The headscarf and veil become symbols for a host of negative attributes associated with Muslims generally. In the case of a Muslim woman, or a black-skinned person, they become reduced to that single aspect of their outward appearance. Muslim women may even be referred to as “letterboxes”, but surely that wouldn’t be said by anyone with half a brain.

Three muslim women looking out underneath a tree.
Three women enjoying one hella view!

These signifiers of difference, such as skin colour and dress, are intimately linked with the process of “naturalisation”. Stuart Hall argues that naturalisation is closely related to fetishism. We become transfixed by a particular aspect of one’s outward appearance. The Muslim woman’s whole being is reduced to that one aspect. Her wearing of the veil is understood as being inseparable from her very nature. Even though it can be taken off, it is no longer seen as dissociable from her character.


To sum up: race is not a biological point of view. Europeans invented the term race in the 15th century as a technology of power. Racism is a disgusting and vicious virus that exists within our world. However, to finally be rid of it, education is required to understand its complexities. Unfortunately, it is not possible to unveil every truth about racism in a single blog post. I hope to have touched on a few ideas which all help introduce racism. How, after 213 years since the abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, racism is still such a relevant topic and has shaped so many people’s lives in profound ways. I will be writing several articles surrounding this topic, gaining a better understanding of how and why racism continues to thrive globally.

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