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5 February 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 3:27pm

When debate about racism is reduced to sound bites, perhaps the word has outgrown its usefulness

The modern news economy thrives on argument, polarisation and shock value.

By Jonathan Liew

Last October, the actress Lupita Nyongo’o was interviewed on the BBC’s Newsnight. Ostensibly, the discussion was about colourism: a form of prejudice by which societies favour people with lighter skin and subtly discriminate against those with darker skin, even within the same race or community. For a few minutes, Nyongo’o spoke with candour and precision about a nuanced concept that was no doubt unfamiliar to much of the audience. But the interviewer, Emily Maitlis, had other ideas. 

“Let me ask you about Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, who was found to have blacked up four times,” she said. Nyongo’o brushed the inquiry aside. “I don’t care to make a public statement about that.” Undeterred, Maitlis pressed the issue. “Does it seem to you to be racist if you black up?”

“I really don’t care to make a public statement about that,” Nyongo’o replied. Maitlis, a little affronted, moved the conversation on. Without wishing to single out Maitlis – generally an extremely competent broadcaster – this exchange felt archetypal. It encapsulated the way the contemporary broadcast media frames and flattens issues of race and racism. At the centre of the frame is a single, pointed question: “is x racist?”

Is Justin Trudeau racist for blacking up? Is Alastair Stewart racist for appearing to compare a black Twitter user to an “angry ape”? Is the media coverage of Meghan Markle racist? Is Britain racist? On ITV’s This Morning, Phillip Schofield puts on his most serious face and grapples with 500 years of colonial legacy. On Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan launches a daily diatribe against “woke culture”. Racism, for so long taboo, has become a mainstream talking point, a popular wedge issue to be debated in handy ten-minute segments.

On one level, this is entirely understandable. The modern news economy thrives on argument, polarisation and shock value. “Is x racist?” ticks all the boxes. The word itself is powerful and emotive, a term designed to inspire small, involuntary gasps. And the issue, though often reduced to moronic simplicity, does at least have two clear sides. Stick Afua Hirsch on one end of the sofa and a Daily Mail columnist on the other, let them go at each other’s throats – drowning out any attempt at nuance by shouting questions about what else is racist – and then cut to the travel and weather.

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The result is a gradual trivialisation of the discourse. It becomes a minefield of absurdist distractions; the discussion is moved away from structures and towards individuals, away from the general and towards the specific, away from inequities and towards semantics. Because what’s habitually missing from debates about racism is the barest definition of what racism actually is.

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This is no small omission, nor is it accidental. For the right-leaning media – which is to say, almost all of it – racism must never be explicitly defined because it exists only in the negative. In the populist imagination, there are no racists, only not-racists. 

Take, for example, a blog on the Alastair Stewart affair by professional not-racist Brendan O’Neill on the not-racist website Spiked. “Are we seriously meant to believe Stewart loathes all black people?” he writes. “Despite there being no evidence whatsoever for this? Despite his never having expressed a single racist idea?”

Here O’Neill offers two revealing insights into the right’s vanishingly thin definition of racism. The first is that it necessarily springs from an active, conscious and total hatred. Thus, the only “real racism” is the racism of swastikas and excrement through letter boxes (although one suspects that were such behaviour to materialise, plenty would find a way of absolving it). The second is that racism is an essentially intellectual construct, one based on a cogent if pseudoscientific belief that other races are inherently inferior, and verified only through the expression of “racist ideas”.

This definition is deliberately the very narrowest possible, a bar that almost anyone in society could clear. The reason for this is manifest: if racism is not something that someone could plausibly repudiate, it follows that there is no such thing as an actual racist.

So who is racist? In this new, juddering world of post-truth and post-meaning, it’s simple: whoever your enemies happen to be. “The woke-ists, I think, are fundamentally a racist bunch,” the actor Laurence Fox muses on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s Talkradio show. When Hartley-Brewer asks why, he replies: “Because they are racist. And identity politics is extremely racist as well.”

This is the mantra of the not-racists: they’re not racist, you’re racist. Why? You just are. And if this strikes you as the logic of the playground, beware of where the discussion is headed next. Emboldened by Brexit, the election of Boris Johnson and the global march of populism, the right has spied a chance to achieve its ultimate goal: legitimising racism by stripping the word of all useful meaning. It can be converted from a lived reality into a theoretical construct, just another grenade to fling in the culture wars. 

Like its predecessor, “racialism”, the word “racism” dates back more than a century, a product of a society and ethics far removed from our own. What most people today understand as racism is probably better expressed as “white supremacy”: the unshakeable belief of a dominant group in its freedom to think, say and do whatever it wants, free of checks or consequences. On reflection, perhaps it’s time we cut loose a word that has begun to outlive its usefulness and become an unhelpful ambiguity that serves only the interests of those who want to destroy its power. 

This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit