Race and racism in the ‘colour-blind’ West

…I’ve always been sensitive to race. I don’t support racism or racists. I’ve never considered myself racist and don’t think others would consider me a racist. How could I be one now? I never enslaved any one, prevented them from working or voting or living in my neighbourhood or joining my clubs. I don’t think there was any proof that George Zimmerman did either. – Sally Zelikovsky

The Million Hoodies Union Square protest against Trayvon Martin’s shooting death in Sanford, Florida. By David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

The acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin this month has once again brought questions about race to the forefront of US political and social discourse. The question as to whether or not Trayvon’s death was a result of racism has divided the nation and the debate rages on with rallies taking place across the United States. Meanwhile, in the UK, the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in April sparked discussion over the role of race in Britain today.

The continued debate over race on both sides of the Atlantic contradicts claims that the West has become ‘post-racial’ and its inhabitants ‘colour-blind’[1]. It is true that the overt forms of racism associated with ‘old racism’[2] have decreased, however, this does not mean that race is no longer significant or that racism has disappeared.

Racism is very much alive and whether is it discussed as such, or through the pretext of ‘ethnicity’ or ‘culture’, differences based on skin colour and origin remain significant. New forms of racism have emerged that are not all about segregation, lynching and calling people the “n word”. These ‘new’ forms of racism are generally more subtle than traditional racisms but they are no less significant and produce the same results: the subordination of non-white people and normalisation of white superiority.

Anti-immigrant racism

Immigrants have long been symbolic of the division between the rich (white) world and poor (black/non-white) world within Western society and they continue to be vulnerable to racism. Anti-immigrant racism is part of a ‘new racism’, which is rooted in culture. Rather than a person’s skin colour defining them and their position in the world, ‘culture’ is now the justifiable divider between human beings[3].

Popular discourses tell us that immigrants are “not like us” and their cultural tradition and values are “different” and unchangeable and diverse groups of people are reified into cultural communities that are considered to be natural. This tendency to categorise and group people is not racist in itself. However, it becomes racism when the assumptions and stereotypes relied upon to reify those groups align with ideas of inferiority and within an uneven power dynamic. For example, discourses that assume immigrants to be poor, scroungerscriminals, asylum seekers[4], infected/diseased, low-skilled or uncivilised people with exotic or backward practices are racist in the ways that they essentialise all immigrants as inferior.

Despite the crucial role of ‘culture’ in the new racisms, race remains an underlying theme and immigrants have been racialised to the extent that the mere word ‘immigrant’ conjures up a particular image of someone who is poor, non-white and (in the UK) probably an asylum seeker. The normativity of Whiteness means that white (especially Western) immigrants are rarely thought of as immigrants.

The problem of race

Nobody talks about race. It has become taboo to talk about it and those who do are either criticised for playing the race card or accused of being racist. Meanwhile, “racism” is banded around in the media, on twitter and facebook, without any precision. It has become a catch all term which is too often used as if it is synonymous with discrimination or prejudice.

Not engaging in a discussion about race will not take away its significance. Whether we like it or not, the legacy of race is buried deep within our societies. It exists in our gut reactions and assumptions and is embedded in our language in such a seamless way that racial stereotypes appear to be common-sense. People notice colour but do not feel able to talk about it so when someone tells us that race does not exist, and there is no racism anymore, we choose to believe it. It’s easier to believe it.

For Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, this is what makes colour-blind societies so dangerous. The suggestion that we are post-race means that contemporary racisms are not being taken seriously. Racism is being swept under the carpet, ignored and denied, and this has distorted society’s view of itself.

Moving forward

Differences exist in the world, but what matters are the systems of thought and language we use to make sense of the difference. (Stuart Hall, 1997)

The deaths by of Trayvon Martin and Stephen Laurence, almost 20 years apart, are to some extent symbolic of the changing nature of racism. While Stephen was racially abused and attacked because he was black, Trayvon was killed because he looked ‘suspicious’. It was not because he was black, but because of what his blackness meant. Just because Zimmerman didn’t call Trayvon the n-word or lynch him with a KKK hood on his head does not mean he wasn’t affected by racism.

In the quote at the start of this piece Sally Zelikovsky cannot understand how someone can be racist if they have “never enslaved any one, prevented them from working or voting or living in [their] neighbourhood or joining [their] clubs”. She is wrong. Racism is the assumption of inferiority (criminality, laziness, poverty etc.) that is made about others within a power imbalance. It is more than discrimination and is specific because it is rooted in the long history of White European domination. The historic nature of race and racism means that it is now so normalised within our societies that we don’t even know it’s there. We think we live in a world where racism is a thing of the past; we think it’s the hoodie, not the black skin, which makes a young black boy suspicious and we refuse to accept it could be otherwise.

Contemporary racism is not the problem of the few, or a cancer clinging onto the fringes of society; it is the problem of the masses. Zimmerman is not unique and neither were his assumptions. The “utter inability of much of white America to accept that race had anything at all to do with the [Trayvon Martin] case” proves this. Talking about race isn’t racist. We need to talk about race and recognise its continued hegemony within society if things are to change. This means looking at the systems of thought and language we use to make sense of difference, looking inwards at ourselves rather than blaming the cancer on the usual suspects.

Further Reading

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2010) Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 3rd Edition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: USA

Kundnani, A. (2009) The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain. Pluto Press, UK

Lentin, A. (2008) Racism: A Beginner’s Guide. OneWorld: Oxford, UK

Wise, T. (2010) Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.


[1] For example. Ted Nugent (National Rifle Association board member in the US) recently explained that, “racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late [19]60s”.

[2] ‘Old racism’ was characterised by the belief that humans are divided into a hierarchy of ‘races’ with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom and advocates claimed that the racial inferiority of black people was part of a natural order. These beliefs were generally articulated either in relation to human biology (naturalist racism) or progress and development (historicist racism).

[3] Culture, like ethnicity is sometimes used a short-hand for race since it is seen as a more acceptable way of talking about differences.

[4] Research by Migration Observatory found that “when thinking about immigrants, respondents were most likely to think of asylum seekers (62%)”.

3 comments

  1. […] Race and racism in the ‘colour-blind’ West (themigrationist.net) […]

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