To know and not do, is to not yet know (Confucius)

Race-ism is the elephant in the room few of western mainstream culture or society dare to mention except perhaps when speaking of the past – of history – not the present. To speak of race nowadays is okay when celebrating black achievements in sport or the arts, for example, but less so in reference to endemic or seemingly intractable racial inequality (Coram, 2007). That said, an important under recognised clarification is needed here. It is okay to mention race when referring to people so long as the meaning is not to disparage. In reference to policy, the fancy is for neutral words like disadvantage rather than the confront of discrimination. It is the stigma of racism (race-ism) that makes it difficult to acknowledge not the actuality of it. Racism is viewed as individual behaviour and is, as such, taken personally. A consequence of which is the rise of denial which then clouds the persistence of racism as social phenomena and therefore the need for structural or institutional change. If we think of Australia, a liberal progressive society, as educated and ‘anti-racist’ we are ahead of ourselves. We might be meandering in the direction of racial equality but we have a way to go. In fact, we might have put the brakes on to stop ourselves going backwards.

If this is so, how is it the case? The answer I propose is that we continue to misunderstand what constitutes race and racism. There is a lot of descriptive talk but little in the way of examination in terms of what we mean by race and racism. We think we know but not really. That is, we take meanings for granted and lack critical reflection as to what we mean by race and racism. In order to address this important shortfall, I propose the following preliminaries to try to clear things up a bit. In doing so, I am obliged to declare my preferred framing of racism drawing on critical race theory (CRT) of racial formation (Omi and Winant, 2002). Racial formation is a continual process composed of structural arrangements drawing on historical, political and economic forces and commonplace encounters that, collectively, mark the dehumanising experience of people defined by their ‘race’. Racial formation is not grounded on any intention to discriminate. Quite the opposite, it is founded on a disregard for the humanity of people defined by race (Williams, 1992). To neglect or look the other way when attention and action are so desperately needed.

Some people think that race and racism are independent of each other. They are instead inextricably linked. It is impossible to have racism without race. Some people seem to think for some reason that racism no longer exists. We only need to be open to understanding the lived experience of the racial or ethnic ‘Other’ to realise that is hardly true.

Some people think that race is biological. Yes and no. Race is a social construct for explaining biological or physiological differences. To refer to biological difference is not an issue so long as people are not treated unfairly or discriminated against on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Science did a rotten job here on the back of studies of anatomy that ranked the black body inferior and closer to the ape in origin. Demeaning stereotypes of blacks being ‘ape-like’ persist (Coram, 2007). That said, it is not necessary to do away with race because it is helpful for explaining the social world and because many people (of race) take pride in their race. Often, it is all they have, a form of pride and means for solidarity. Racial difference is not a problem so long as racial stereotypes are not relied upon to rationalise discriminatory behaviour.

Some people seem to think that to even mention ‘black’ or ‘white’ amounts to racism. The important distinction is the absence of judgment. To describe without rancour, dismissal, or denigration, is not problematic.

Some people seem to think that racism is limited to racial vilification. This is but one form of racism. In sport, there is racial segregation which ascribes positions on the basis of race. Blacks are predominately located in non-thinking instinctive positions whereas whites are predominately located in thinking leadership positions (Hallinan et al, 1999). There are other forms of racism such as inferred or inferential racism (Hall, 2000) and colour-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).

Some people seem to think that racism is one and the same. Not so. Allport (1954) tells us that the range of human conduct is collapsed into a single caption ignoring distinctions between thought (prejudice) and deed, an extreme example of which is genocide. In this sense, the ‘racist’ is a big problem because it treats extremes such as Nazism in the same light as unconscious racism of prejudice or bigotry.

Some people seem to think that racism can only be by intent. No. Racism can be about inaction: to not do something when needed. It is not just what is done or said that can be damaging but importantly what is not done or not said. Taylor (2004) refers to Patricia Williams’ notion of disregard to explain apathy toward the ‘Other’, to not do anything when something ought to be.

Some people seem to think that racism can only occur from negative intent. But it can also arise, unintentionally, from good intentions. Lots of community-driven research remind that notions of help are culturally constructed and or loaded with bias. It becomes a problem when those who help decide the kinds of help to be delivered without consultation.

Some people seem to think that to discriminate is negative only. Actually, discrimination can be positive when it is framed around provision of assistance or support for those in need.

Some people seem to think that racism does not exist because we are all equal. The reality, though, is that some people are more equal than others. They get the breaks, the second chances, where others fail even to get a look in. Dunn (2003) refers to the persistence and presence of “out-groups”. The indigenous people of Australia are a perennial out-group.

Some people seem to think that affirmative action (AA) policy is the measure of anti-white racism since AA seemingly provides unfair opportunity for blacks in the workplace that should have gone to more deserving ‘white’ applicants. The underlying assumption to this is that ‘whites’ possess more merit and are missing out accordingly simply because they are not black (Dyson, 2004).

Some people think that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (indigenous) people get assistance to the disadvantage of white people. But assistance is given on the basis of need not race. Indigenous peoples in Australia are more likely to die early or get locked up at unacceptable rates compared to the rest of the population. Many indigenous people live in appalling third world conditions.

Some people in Australia prefer indigenous people to stay out of sight and not bother them with their pain and despair. It is futile to educate such people out of their indifference to the plight of people less fortunate because they essentially do not give a hoot. For this reason, founding contributor to critical race theory, Derrick Bell (1992) draws on storytelling to argue the permanence of racism in the US in his classic Faces at the bottom of the well.

Some people seem to think they have a right to talk about or describe others in a demeaning fashion. Cartoons are a favoured means for hanging shit on indigenous people, all behind the mask of objectivity or worse humour. This is not the same as criticism in good faith.

Some people insist on their right to criticise indigenous people under a warped version of free speech and then rush to denounce critics as the misguided ‘politically correct’ – whatever that means. I suppose it means it’s okay to demean the powerless but not for those with a voice.

Some people cannot talk about indigenous people without distinguishing them by race, to the exclusion of alternative means of explanation. A form of racism in itself. Indigenous people cannot escape their race even if they wanted to. Sometimes, people just want to be the same as everybody else. Until the racial or ethnic ‘other’ see themselves as not being treated equally, their need to proclaim their difference will forever stand.

Some people mistake the ‘racist’ for racism. The ‘racist’ cannot and does not begin to explain the scope of racism. An adjective has become a noun – a permanent fixture for objectification, a modern-day means for public humiliation. The ‘racist’ means that the individual is the culprit, not the society within which the culprit is created. The ‘racist’ is problematic because it reduces a range of phenomena into a singular form. A descriptive is applied to explain everything within the spectrum of racism. Allport’s brilliant study of prejudice makes the case for identifying differing forms of racism: from prejudice (thoughts) to deed, an extreme example of which is genocide.

Some people seem to think that in order to be ‘racist’ they have to treat all black or people of ethnic origin the same. They don’t understand that to mistreat one person of colour, race or ethnicity, means to add to the collective experience of hurt of those within their community. Some people just seem to cop it day and day out, more so than others. This is a reminder that racism is not the same from one community to another.

Some people seem to think they reject racism – they are not ‘racist’.  They are happy to see blacks achieve. But they may be less happy to see a child of theirs partner with a person of colour. This is uncomfortable to grapple with but until bias is confronted, denial will have a life of its own.

Some people try to hide their racism through expressions of neutrality. To denounce a person a ‘green bastard’ instead of a ‘black bastard’ for instance does not pass muster. Put-down is not erased. It is simply conveyed differently.

Some people just cannot accept the truth of their own prejudice and so they deny or look the other way in the face of the obvious. Some people get annoyed when people talk about race and racism. In truth, they just wish those who do would shut up.

Some people seem to think that successful blacks share in the fruits of the mainstream. Yes, but almost always on condition that they keep quiet about race. They are unlikely to be tolerated otherwise. Blacks are supposed to be happy, grateful, and not complain about their lot.

Some people seem to think that racism exists in isolated pockets. According to Dunn (2003), racism is “everywhere but everywhere different”. He distinguishes between old racism based on separatism (differentiation), racial hierarchy (inferiorisation) and racial categories (racialisation) from new forms of racism grounded in ‘white’ privilege, the notion of racism as normal and ideologies of nation.

Some people seem to think that racism is overt, like it was in the days of racial segregation. Now, it is more likely to be covered up, masked, papered over with exhortations of good intentions or praise. Taylor (2004: 79) notes that racism can even be cloaked in neutral or anti-racist language. Similarly, for Hall (2000: 272-3), racial inequalities are inferred rather than overtly expressed which can often be embedded within notions of good. Inferential racism means that only tolerable notions of racism are permitted such as anti-racism championing advantage, belonging, opportunity and tolerance. Not the negative stuff.

Some people see the end of racism. A fine sentiment. But no. Ono (2010: 227-8) argues that such rhetoric is a strategy for erasing history. A language of neutrality is deployed to deviate attention from existing racism (Ono, 2010: 229). Ono (2010) sees the media as participants in the construction of the conditions in which racism is denied.

Some people try to limit the scope of racism. The label ‘racist’ fits the bill perfectly since the aim is to narrow down racism from society to individual racial hatred (Doane, 2006: 260). Focusing on the individual removes the burden of challenging the persistence and significance of institutional racism (Doane, 2006: 270). Accusation of the ‘racist’ sets up a bind requiring one to deny. No one of course wants to be accused of racism or to be called a ‘racist’. In this sense, Doane (2006) suggests that denial of racism is a tactic.

Some people try to turn it around by blaming the critic for raising the spectre of racism. According to van Dijk (2002: 308-9), a classic device is role reversal in labelling the critic labelled ‘racist’ (van Dijk 2002: 308-9).  Or counter attack: a new form of racism.

We can’t seem to get the balance right. Racism is either overstated where it need not be or understated when it ought to be. There must be space for cleared eye thinking; to not shut down so long as this is in good faith. No need for smack downs, ridicule, resentment, unsubstantiated accusations, simmering hostility or finger pointing. To speak calmly, clearly and concisely is another matter altogether. At the same time, there is no room for denial or weasel justifications to pretend it does not exist in the face of the obvious.

Some people seem to think race-ism applies to everyone. In other words, we are all ‘racists’ or at least capable of being ‘racist’ and that whites have been on the receiving end of black racism. Perhaps this may be true but even so it ignores the reality that people historically racialized hardly possess a position of privilege to act on their racial bias.

Some people think we are just a little bit ‘racist’. A society is ‘racist’ or it is not. Nothing confusing about that.


Allport, G. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice, New York: Perseus Books.

Bell, D. (1992) Faces at the Bottom of the Well, New York: Basic Books.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006) Colour-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the US (2nd ed.), New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Coram, S. (2007) The Real and the Unreal: Hyper Narratives of Indigenous Athletes and the Changing Significance of Race, Common Ground: Altona, Victoria.

Doane, A. (2006) ‘What is racism? Racial discourse and racial politics’, Critical Sociology 32 (2-3): 255-274.

Dunn, K. (2003) Racism in Australia: Findings of a Survey of Racist Attitudes and Expressions of Racism, Paper presented to the Challenges of Immigration and Integration in the European Union and Australia, February 22-3, University of Sydney.

Dyson, M. (2004) ‘Affirmative action’ The Michael Eric Dyson Reader, New York: Basic Civitas Books: 69-86.

Hall, S. (2000) ‘Racist ideologies and the media’ in P. Marris and S. Thornham (Eds.) Media Studies: A Reader, New York: New York University Press: 271-82.

Omi, M. and Winant, H. (2002) ‘Racial formation’, in P. Essed and D. Goldberg (eds.) Race Critical Theories: Text and Context, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers: 123-45.

Ono, K. (2010) Post-racism: ‘A theory of the “post” as political strategy’, Journal of Communication Inquiry 34 (3):  227-233.

Taylor, P. (2004) Race: A Philosophical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Williams, P. (1992) The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor, Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Van Dijk, T. (2002) ‘Denying racism: elite discourse and racism’ in P. Essed and D. Goldberg (Eds.) Race Critical Theories: Text and Context, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford: 481-5.