Racism without race and ‘the disease of thinking in essences’

There’s a fascinating and powerful essay by Yasmin Gunaratnam on Media Diversity UK exploring the contemporary politics of race and strategies for avoiding ‘the disease of thinking in essences’. It discusses “the appetite to make things easier, with minimal thought and effort” which animates contemporary currents of race and race sensibility, embodied quite dramatically by Culture GPS, which is  “A Global Positioning System to navigate through intercultural differences” (no, really). I thought the section below was particularly good but you should read the essay in full here:

As well as reactivating the past through our use of language, a more mundane danger that most of us are trying to avoid is what Roland Barthes, a grand master of semiotics, called ‘the disease of thinking in essences’ . Essentialism traps a person/group into a cage of unchanging characterisations from which they cannot escape – if you like opera you are not really black or Indian Muslim women can’t have enjoyable, playful sex lives. Racism and other isms work by slotting us into preconceptions where we must stay put, pinned down and unable to move like one of those poor lifeless insects suspended in amber. The paradox is that while we are immobilised, racisms are constantly morphing.

Race used to be thought of as connoting immutable biological difference, but in what has been called ‘neo’, ‘cultural’ or ‘second degree’ racisms, identities such as those related to immigration or religion, are the fodder of contemporary race thinking. In these cases it is a fundamental incommensurability of lifestyles that substitutes for, or perhaps augments, notions of biological difference. This is ‘racism without race’ as the writers Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein have put it . Like an inventive but fickle Casting Director, racism is always open to new lead characters and plotlines. It could be religion today, who knows what will be centre stage next? But whatever is mobilised in race thinking, be it biology, culture or immigration status, what we lose sight of is our common humanity. One of the most powerful descriptions of racism comes from the British novelist Doris Lessing. For Lessing, racism is ‘atrophy of the imagination’.

So how do we negotiate the risks of essentialism and this withering away of the imagination? I used to get het up about this in my writing and teaching. I have tried various strategies in the past such as herding terms into scare quotation marks when I write or using language that is deliberating jarring such as ‘minoritised’ – to problematize the word ‘minority’ and to show it as an active racialisation (I didn’t want the term to roll off the tongue without thought in the way that the facile ‘BME’ does).

The excruciating bind is that without race terms and categories it is difficult, if not impossible, to challenge racism or to name and share experiences. I still remember the knot of anxiety and confusion in my stomach as a child when I heard or witnessed banal racism in the playground or on TV and I didn’t have the words to decode and to name what was happening. Regardless of the political and academic debates about language, whether we are talking to each other or writing, racial signifiers continue to have currency and traction. And good people do amazing things with bad language. A couple of weeks ago I listened to doctors and nurses talking about an initiative to increase access to hospice care for ‘BAME’ groups. I may have been wincing inwardly throughout, but it was a wonderful project, skilling local people and demystifying illness, disease and death. It will make more of a meaningful difference to lives than I ever will.


Categories: Rethinking The World

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