So, some of you might have noticed a recent discussion in the comments on my last post. I visit another site from time to time to try and get inspired about philosophy of language (which I admit is much more stimulating there than in my actual class… sad but true). The site is: The Language Guy, and the author is a specialist in the subject. One recent discussion there involved the sexist use of language. It drew a lot of comments, including a couple from me, and admittedly contentious stance on oppression was challenged. I outlined my view briefly for a blogger who stopped over to ask me directly about it, but I thought it would be best to post an excerpt of a recent paper I wrote on the subject. The paper was a reaction to a specific article I had to read for the course, but it is fairly well-outlined in the paper. Here it is:
RACISM, RACIALISM, AND RACIAL SOLIDARITY
This paper is a critical analysis of the concept of racism described by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his work “Racisms”, using the framework of oppression as described by Marilyn Frye in her piece “Oppression”. I will first describe the positions of both authors, then move into a critique of one of Appiah’s claims that I find particularly contentious: the claim that racial solidarity is a form of racism.
In his work entitled “Racisms”, Kwame Anthony Appiah claims that what lies at the heart of racism is a doctrine he calls racialism, and that racialism false, thereby making all forms of racism morally erroneous. Appiah describes racialism as the belief that “there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, that allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race” (pg 199). These traits constitute a racial essence (pg 199) that is seen by racists as the basis for making moral judgements regarding members of racial categories.
Appiah goes on to describe two forms of racism based on the doctrine of racialism. Extrinsic racism is the belief that racial essence entails certain morally relevant characteristics, and that these characteristics warrant differential treatment of members of racial groups. Opposing evidence in the form of positive moral characteristics belonging to members of racial groups could change the minds of extrinsic racists, but a continuation of extrinsic racism points to a “cognitive incapacity” (pg 200). Intrinsic racism is the belief that each race has a different moral status, regardless of positive moral characteristics exhibited by members of “inferior” racial groups. For an intrinsic racist, “the bare fact of being of the same race is reason for preferring one person to another” (pg 200). Intrinsic racists maintain their views in spite of evidence to the contrary, no matter how extensive. Appiah claims that racialism is itself false, and therefore anything built on its foundation is also false.
My conception of racism is informed by the work of Marilyn Frye in her piece entitled “Oppression”. Frye describes oppression as a systematic social structure the purpose of which is the subjugation of various groups of people in relation to a dominant group. She says: “The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction” (pg 4).
Frye uses the very instructive analogy of a birdcage to describe oppression. An examination of a birdcage one wire at a time might not show how that one wire is restrictive or harmful; it seems as though it would be easy for the bird to fly around that one barrier to freedom. However, when you step back and view the whole cage, “it is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon” (pg 5). On this view, oppression is not one specific barrier, but a series of interlocking barriers that restrict the movement of members of oppressed groups so they are constantly being trapped by “double-binds”, where options are limited and oppressed people are subject to penalties no matter which way they move.
In his article, Appiah claims that racial solidarity is a form of intrinsic racism based on racialism, and is therefore morally wrong. I find this claim to be contentious. Firstly, the examples Appiah uses to support this claim are Pan-Africanism and Zionism. Both of these examples are socio-political movements that are responses to a history of persecution and racism experienced by these specific groups (people of African descent in the case of Pan-Africanism, and Jewish people in the case of Zionism). Neither of these movements is necessarily based on the belief that the group in question is morally superior to any other group, as would be the case in intrinsic racism; these movements are based on specific contexts of struggle against systematic oppression.
Appiah’s definition of racism is very different from Frye’s. For Appiah, racism simply is prejudice on the basis of racial difference. For Frye, racism is a form of oppression, which is a systematic social structure of interlocking barriers that serve to restrict the social movement of groups. Looking at the broad claim Appiah is making – namely, that marginalized groups articulate racism through expressions of solidarity – through the lens of Frye’s account of oppression, Appiah’s view is flawed. Frye’s oppression does not allow room for those who are marginalized to oppress their oppressors. For Frye, those who are bound by oppression simply do not have the power to inflict oppression on those who are oppressing them. The barriers that hold oppressed people in place are the same barriers that systematically support the oppressors.
What then are we to make of Appiah’s claim? While his examples are unconvincing, we can imagine there exist groups of traditionally oppressed people who fit the description of intrinsic racists. Do we call this racism? I do not think we can call this racism, because it is not harmful to the traditional oppressor group as a group in the way racism is harmful to traditionally oppressed groups. It may be harmful to an individual member, or several members, of the oppressor group, but overall, there is no system of subjugation in place that would bring harm to all members of the oppressor group by the oppressed group. I would call this a case of racial prejudice, but not of racism. Perhaps some might say that I am splitting hairs, but I believe the distinction is an important one.
Other related questions are more complex in my view. What about situations in which the traditional oppressor group is the physical, numerical minority – could we then say that the majority, who is the traditionally oppressed group, can exhibit racist behaviour toward the traditional oppressor group? Also, is it possible for one oppressed group to oppress another, since all oppressed groups do not share the same restrictions and barriers?
To discover answers to questions such as these under Frye’s framework of oppression, Frye recommends looking “at the barrier or force and answer[ing] certain questions about it. Who constructs and maintains it? Whose interests are served by its existence? Is it part of a structure which tends to confine, reduce and immobilize some group? Is the individual a member of the confined group?” (pg 14) In the cases portrayed by the above questions, there are likely to be contextual issues at play that require examination; a simple answer is not appropriate considering historical factors such as colonialism, slavery, or the Holocaust.
In conclusion, I believe Appiah’s claim that racially oppressed groups commit intrinsic racism through expressions of solidarity to be false, because this claim fails to account for both contextual issues experienced by oppressed groups and the fact that oppression is a form of systematic social constructs that bind those oppressed by them and support those who are the oppressors. This cannot be the final word on questions of whether oppressed groups can ever become oppressors, however; context must always be considered, which is exactly why I disagree with Appiah on the subject of racial solidarity.
1. Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1990). “Racisms”, in C. Koggel (Ed.), Moral Issues in Global Perspective (pp. 199-208). Toronto: Broadview Press.
2. Frye, Marilyn (1983). “Oppression”. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (pp 1-16). Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, 1983.
* please note: this paper may not be used in any form without the express permission of the author *
Comments? let me know… sorry I couldn’t provide a link to Appiah’s article online, couldn’t find one. Frye’s article is linked above.