While the concept of race is today clearly recognized as fictitious, the term itself has taken an altogether new reality as a cultural denotation. More specifically, the culture of racism is largely influenced by geopolitical imagination and socio-political antagonism. The new political order referred to as “Empire” is a social frame work that posits “the inferiority of an “Other” based not in biology but in cultural differences and their insurmountability” (Semati, 257). Semati argues that ‘Brown’, once signified exoticism, but refers to menacing ‘Other’ today. The Brown in this case (in Semati’s article) refers to the Muslims of the Middle East. The author makes use of the category of culture to argue that the Muslim Other takes two forms. In its first form, the Muslim Other embodies “inferior civilizations and cultures”. In the second form, an effort is made to efface the difference with the goal to understand the religion and culture of the Other. However, in each case, according to Semati, the underlying politics that has artificially given rise to the category of the Muslim Other is conveniently left out.
The truth of the race, a fluid concept, according to the sociologist Stuart Hall has “specific connotations during certain moments in history”. Hall is actually discussing a new type of racism that he identifies as “cultural racism” which is culturally discriminatory in character. This form of racism emerges when a group of people believe that they are racially and culturally superior to some other groups of people. An example of this form of cultural racism is Islamophobia, according to Bobby Sayyid (Considine, 2016). However, Islamophobia is as irrational as it can be because the cultural symbols of Islam are projected as objects of threat and hate and in consequence an entire group of the followers of Islam irrespective of their diversity in geography, ethnicity, skin color, language, education, and political beliefs are vilified and victimized. As Semati writes, “Islam is not one thing; over a billion people from diverse societies with diverse traditions and cultures across the world practice ‘it’ in diverse ways with various degrees of commitment and passion. Just as there is not one Christianity, we should not speak of one Islam. Moreover, ‘Islam’ as a doctrine and a faith must be treated separately from the discourse of Islam” (Semati, 258).
The case of Omar Khadr captured by the U.S forces at the age 15, demonstrates the operation of cultural racism. Khadra was the only former child soldier and Western national (Canadian citizen) left in Guantanamo Bay. Khadr’s lawyer insists that he is innocent and his admission of guilt is just to escape any further torture. The media described “Khadr clan” as an “al-Quaeda” family and the narratives on “Khadr family” follow the broader trends in race thinking that casts aside identified families out of political community. For instance, the Canadian government did not seek Khadr’s repatriation. Culture thus becomes an equivalent and substitute for ‘race’ and are no longer distinct social categories. Culture racism casts Khadr as fundamentally culturally Other rather than as biologically inferior (Park, 48).
The politics of racism especially cultural racism while marginalizing some groups victimizes them in subtle ways with adverse psychological consequences for them. Racism related stress models highlight the adverse psychological and physical health consequences for the racial other. The experiences of racism tax their psychological resources resulting in stress with adverse physical and mental consequences. Racism induced stress has been shown to have direct links with mental health symptoms such as depression and poor quality of life among black individuals. The stress from cultural racism is caused by the perception of the affected group that their contributions are minimized and that they are consistently portrayed in a deficient manner. This form of racism is quite prevalent in society and is vicariously experienced through stereotypes, the mass media and through the perception that the mainstream society devalues their cultural behaviors (Case and Hunter, 412).
Hans Siebers and Majolein HJ Dennissen have attempted to explain the phenomena of hostility to migrants especially as found in Europe and specifically the hostile discourse in Dutch politics and media in terms of cultural essentialism and cultural fundamentalism rather than racism or cultural racism. The authors ask, “But how are we to assess the differences between biology-based and culture-based justifications? Is there a shift going on in postwar Europe from one variant of racism (biology-based) to another variant (culture-based) within the same category of racism, justifying ‘the same old acts’ of exclusion and oppression” (p.471). These authors argue that cultural racism is inadequate to explain exclusion and oppression experienced by the subjects of their study. The concept of race cannot be transposed from one country to the other such as from the UK to the Netherlands because of the differences in contexts and experiences. On the other hand, the authors found that cultural essentialism and cultural fundamentalism serve well as concepts to explain the dynamics of oppression and exclusion experienced by the respondents in their study (p.483). In other words, cultural racism may not find a universal application to explain the phenomena of oppression and exclusion experienced by certain groups of immigrants. Therefore, the migrant-hostile discourse is a field open to further research.
There are several other studies that have attempted to understand racism through categories other than culture. The pervasiveness of racism and marginalization of communities of color have been attempted to be explained by such theories as the critical race theory and the deficit theory (Palmer, 198).
According to the critical race theory, economic forces drive persisting racism and the marginalization of communities of color (Dixson and Rousseau 2006). Inequities will continue unless there is some form of economic revolution. Unless that happens, there will always be someone at the bottom. While an overt racism has faded away but those in power including the middle-class and white communities have ensured to maintain the power status quo. This is sought to be explained by interest convergence, a fundamental principle of the critical race theory. According to interest convergence, whites will allow change to take place only to the extent that doesn’t conflict with their own self-interest. In other words, change in favor of disempowered minorities is only apparently true as in truth the change is actually operating in the interest of the empowered (Donnor 2006; Morris 2006).
Deficit theory is the phenomenon known as “blame the victim”. This theory thus explains away failures of students of color and the failures of marginalized communities in terms of their cultural or genetic deficit (Ladson-Billings 2005). A study by Ladson-Billings (2005) found that a group of teachers methodically marginalized African American students in their formal instruction, while ignoring the issues of race in their conversation. The failure of black students then is directly linked to their low expectation or their deficit views of the children.
In context of the discussion above, we might legitimately ask if “Brown” understood through the lens of Islamophobia has emerged as a distinct racial category and whether it can be subjected to the same scrutiny as the “Black”.
Semati gives a series of examples highlighting the victimization of Muslims. Six Muslim imams were removed from a flight in 2006 because of their suspicious behavior identified as “spooked”, an irrational identification. In addition, in order to avoid a lawsuit from the discriminated passengers, an amendment was introduced in the Congress. The rhetoric of Muslim Other came to be further reinforced in the Post 9/11 context. The author specifically refers to Said’s works to explain the vision of Orient as “knowledge at the service of power” (Semati, 258). A series of Muslim negative images went on to shape and reinforce the discourse of Islam such as the 1967 Arab-Israel war, oil embargo in 1970s, the 1979 Iranian revolution and emergence of radical Islam, the Gulf War in 1990, the 1993 WTC bombing, the Oklahoma city bombing, and finally the events of September 11, 2001. While these events were seen as the signs of a weakened America, there was a resurgent call for projecting America as the global power with the aid of aggressive militarism. The popular media and the contemporary movies projected this new ideology of an evil Arab and facilitated the construction and intensification of the generic category of ‘Arab-Middle Eastern-Muslim’ Other especially after 9/11. The racial status of many white American changed overnight to Arab thus highlighting that race is not identifiable in biological terms but is a social and also a historical construct. The new geopolitical dimension has therefore given rise to the shift in our understanding of racism from biology to culture, which itself is a form of imperial racism.
However, Dennissen disagrees with the analysis that Semati offers. “But how are we to assess the differences between biology-based and culture-based justifications? Is there a shift going on in postwar Europe from one variant of racism (biology-based) to another variant (culture-based) within the same category of racism, justifying ‘the same old acts’ of exclusion and oppression” (p.471).
Critics of Semati maintain that all forms of racism have an underlying theme of migrant hostility and racism in diverse forms has something in common so that colonial racism and anti-semitism are together clubbed under racism. Balibar, for instance maintains that “the ‘new’ racism is ‘racism without races.’ The neo-racist takes into account the failure of the classical racism, which viewed the Other inferior according to ‘race’ based on biological differences. In the ‘neo-racist’ logic, the Other/self dichotomy is no longer explained in an inferior/superior framework. Instead, the Other is believed to be ‘different.’” (Semati, 266).
Some culture racism writers have gone on to argue that biology based and culture based arguments are related as all sorts of grounds for exclusion are highlighted “including
ethnicity, culture, biological traits, physical appearances, religion, origin, destiny” which belong to the same category of racism (Dennissen, 472). There are several studies to show that race and religion or ethnicity is entwined.
In conclusion, it may be yet too early to proclaim culture as a category to delineate the race. The attempts of culture racism scholars to apply the concept universally may possibly turn out to be counterproductive since the U.S inspired understanding of racism may not apply to other countries.
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