The concept of ‘race’ has long been problematic. While the catastrophic racial superiority politics of the early-to-mid 20th century largely contributed to the term’s fall from favour, rapid developments in genetic research have also made it largely scientifically unviable. It is now generally understood that meaningful biological differences between human populations are limited to superficialities such as build and appearance; likewise, it is widely accepted that differences in behaviour across ethnicities are the result of socialisation. As this is so, what use could we have for ‘race’ as anything other than an archaism; a relic of a less sophisticated scientific milieu?
Despite the fraught status of the term, its most prominent derivative – ‘racism’ – remains in common usage. Whether it be applied to issues involving religious minorities, asylum seekers or Indigenous welfare, such language pervades a great many areas of public debate, serving as both an accusation and an assertion of a social problem. Racism, progressive activists argue, continues to be a significant cause of violence, discrimination and inequality; a harmful phenomenon that ought to be eradicated. This, however, creates a conundrum: if race is an outdated concept, what is racism? While it may be plausible that unfounded belief in racial difference persists, are such views really so common? And if not, why continue to use such terminology at all?
The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of racism is reasonably clear: it is either a) “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”, or b) “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. I think that, if pressed, most people would offer a similar explanation; I also think that it’s fair to say that such sentiments are rather uncommon in Western liberal democracies such as Australia. They exist on the fringes, in white supremacist groups and to some extent in nationalist movements, groups that in our cultural context are so marginal as to be practically irrelevant.
That is not to say that the prejudices anti-racism campaigners fight against do not exist – far from it. Although some suppress it better than others, prejudice is an entirely natural human state. It is within our evolutionary coding to be drawn to people who look like us, sound like us and behave like us; likewise, we are programmed to distrust those we perceive to be different. Although such fears can be – and often are – exploited, this is not generally a learned state; indeed, it is through education, experience and intellectual/emotional maturity that we are capable of looking past trivial differences.
It would be a mistake to see these preconceptions as mere ‘racism’. Even
in our most superficial prejudices – the kinds that tend to lurk in our subconscious – appearance only constitutes a part of the whole. Consider, for instance, the way our perceptions of a person can depend on language; the way accent or less proficient language skills can reduce communication avenues, or even subconsciously cause us to view a person as less intelligent or worthy of empathy. That, I’d wager, is a pervasive form of bigotry (albeit one that has little to do with ‘race’).
Some prejudices, however, are not entirely irrational. Xenophobia (that is, the fear of people we perceive as ‘foreign’) is a by-product of our natural desire for social cohesion. Those who practise different customs can be seen, reasonably or otherwise, as a challenge to the status quo, something that may subconsciously be
interpreted as a threat to one’s own safety. Not only is this anxiety at least somewhat understandable, it is also profoundly destructive: indeed, it is this reflex that causes the vast bulk of that which is usually described as ‘racism’, whether it be the brief success of the One Nation movement, social panic about refugees or post-September 11 Islamophobia. It is also present in slightly more benign (but still highly problematic) ‘othering’ phenomena such as stereotyping and exotification.
Recognising that xenophobia is a universal phenomenon should not reduce our ability to combat it. If we were to understand that a major motivating factor in, say, fear of Muslim immigration is the desire to preserve cultural purity, we could frame the argument in that manner. Rather than demonise the proponents as ‘racists’, we could make an effective case against; spending more time explaining that, for instance, migrant ethnocultural minority groups tend to be shaped by the dominant culture far more than they shape it. If, on the other hand, some form of cultural change is desirable, we could make that case too.
There are, of course, limits to the effectiveness of rational debate in the face of ignorance, but we win few converts through the current approach. Rather than fostering an open exchange in which such views can be critiqued and reasoned against, ‘racism’ rhetoric entrenches
them. That dynamic may be enough to hold prejudice at arm’s length so long as our country remains prosperous and economically stable; in a future climate of social unrest, however, it could have devastating consequences.
I have often thought that in order to successfully fight against an idea, one needs to understand it. By misrepresenting xenophobia and its proponents, by insisting upon treating them as caricatures, we risk losing that battle. We can ill afford to.