The following is part of a draft chapter for a revised version of my introductory book, Religion the Basics. A few years ago I was asked by the publisher, Routledge, to update the book and one of the suggestions (by an anonymous reviewer) was to include a chapter on race and religion. I have been working around the ideas of race, religion, ethnicity, and culture for nearly three decades, and so as soon as this was suggested I realised that there was something seriously missing in my introduction to the study of religion. It has taken me quite some time to work out what and how to say something on this introductory level about contemporary critical studies of race and the cultural study of religion. I am still working on this, and for a rather different approach you can also read various other writing I am doing around the topic (see the following link).
As you read the discussion below, please note that it is still very much a draft of the first part of the chapter. I will be adding more in due course, in particular, some discussion of how to relate the various approaches and theories to specific aspects of the study of religion. The next section that I will be adding is an overview of the concept of the ‘racialisation of religion’.
Draft Chapter on Race and the Cultural Study of Religion
by Malory Nye (for the new edition of Religion the Basics)
An analysis of race must be central to any study of religion. Indeed, within the study of religion and culture, race matters.
How we do this, however, largely depends on what and how the term race is used, and how we can understand both race and religion as very significant ‘things’ which are not really things.
There is a popular assumption that the idea of race is longstanding and pretty much universal, inasmuch as people across the world have often understood and expressed social differences in terms of skin pigment and/or definitions of shared (or not shared) ancestry. However, this does not help very much, since it simply expresses what this concept of race is often understood to mean on a popular level in the contemporary world.
It is important to turn this on its head, and start with a quite different perspective. That is, the contemporary idea of race is in fact a recent development which has emerged out of specific histories. That is, what is thought of as race is the result of the colonial history of western European nations, and in particular its use as an English language term (in Britain, north America, Australia, and elsewhere) is linked directly to British colonialism.
In other words, the modern concept of race only makes sense in relation to this history of empire and the ways in which that colonial history works out in the contemporary world. Indeed, the idea of race is the means by which the legacies of colonial history are worked out. As Patrick Wolfe has argued, ‘race is colonialism speaking’ (Wolfe 2016).
Related to this, it is also important to note that race is not an individual issue. Although it is common to hear people say ‘I am not racist’, the practice of the idea of race is something that works primarily on the social level. Many people may prefer it if the power dynamics of the idea of race were not so prevalent, and they may try to live lives where they do not directly cause harm to others on the basis of the categories of racial difference. However, the power dynamics go far beyond the level of the individual person, and in particular the social inequalities and indeed violence that are the result of these categories of race are all significant elements of the social worlds in which people live their lives. That is, race and racism are structural and systemic issues, they are not individual choices.
Here again, Patrick Wolfe has made an interesting point. That is, the idea of race works as a form of ideology that structures particular power relations. Indeed, this idea in itself ‘is a highly active and productive ideology’ (Wolfe 2002, 53). Thus, he argues:
‘In this sense, the term “racism” is somewhat redundant, since race already is an “ism”.’ (p.53)
What this suggests, therefore, is that the idea of race legitimates the unequal structures of power. And so if a person or group is structurally favoured and advantaged by such an ideology (that is, to be racialised as white) — without resisting or challenging that ideology — then this can be considered in itself to practice race-ism.
WEB Du Bois and the colour-line
In his book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, the writer WEB Du Bois argued that
‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of [people] in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea’ (Du Bois 1903, 19)
Du Bois himself was a pioneering writer, who played a very significant role in the foundation of the modern discipline of sociology (Morris 2015), although that role has largely been ignored. As an African American, he lived in a country that tolerated strict laws of social segregation, and where extra-judicial murders (lynchings) were used as a form of terror by white communities to control African Americans. In this early twentieth century America, it was quite straightforward to identify the ‘colour-line’ of Du Bois, often quite literally in the roads that divided segregated housing, or the signs that designated restaurants, cinemas, or bus seats as ‘whites only’ or otherwise.
In this respect, Du Bois’ words in 1903 proved to be apt prediction of the problems of the twentieth century — not only with respect to the ongoing attempts to address issues of race in the US, but also much further afield, with the horrors of genocide in Nazi Germany, Armenia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and other racialised atrocities of the century. But the colour-line also referenced the binary division of the world between colonisers and colonised, with European and American powers exerting control over much of the globe.
Indeed, Du Bois’ words remain apt as we now hurtle through the twenty-first century. Some of the points of reference from the world Du Bois wrote about in 1903 may no longer exist, such as overt Jim Crow laws of segregation or formal colonialism in Asia and Africa. But we still live within a world that is dominated by inequalities of power which largely map onto this line.
And very often we find issues related to religion forming a significant part of how that colour-line is understood and maintained. In obvious and also very complex ways, what we understand religion to be about is in itself defined by Du Bois’ colour-line.
What is race?
Although the concept of race is often assumed to be based on biology — or in particular genetics — this is not a good starting point. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European and American scientists and philosophers argued for genetic differences between the ‘races of men’, and they developed elaborate physiological methods for measuring and demonstrating such differences. Skull sizes and shapes were measured, and purportedly ‘neutral/scientific’ IQ tests were developed to measure differences. More recently, in the past fifty years or so, such a physiological account of race has been dismissed and discredited. Whatever differences there are between people across the world, the idea of genetically defined races is not an explanation.
So, if we leave aside the discredited idea of race as biological, why and how is the study of race so significant to the study of culture? Some people may assume that once the scientific approach to race has been debunked, then this means we now live in a ‘post-racial’ society where race does not matter. This is often expressed as race as a social construction — and from this often comes the mistaken assumption that if race is socially constructed then ‘race is not real’.
However, the opposite is the case: the scientific claims of racial difference have never been valid, whilst the idea of race (and its implementation) has been and continues to be a very powerful part of contemporary culture. The idea of race may be socially constructed, and so it is possible to imagine a society in which this idea of race does not have the power and significance that it has in Britain, America, and elsewhere. But such a social construction is very real in the contemporary world and it is very powerful.
That is, the study of race is not about classifying different people according to a ‘theory of race’ or physical ‘racial’ differences. Rather, the study of race is about trying to understand how such classifications of race create the real worlds in which people live. The study of race is thus a study of ideologies of race — how people and groups understand differences in terms of race, and thus live out relationships (and power) on the assumption that the idea of race is actually real.
Once we take this approach, we find that the idea of race has a particular history. There was a time when English speakers did not talk about ‘race’ in the ways in which the term is now used, and did not assume the classifications of difference that are prevalent in the twenty-first century. In fact, modern ideas of race are rooted, in particular, in the modern era from the late seventeenth century onwards, and were formalised and systematised as recently as the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that people did not talk about differences before those times. But before we can understand how people think about differences without the modern concept of race, we have to understand what has been packed into that modern concept. That is, how recent history (in the last two to three hundred years) has made English speakers understand a particular ideology of race as though it is natural and universal — even though it is not.
From a north American perspective — particularly in the US and to a large extent in Canada also — race is seen primarily in terms of a binary between black and white. Indeed, much of north American thinking about race focuses on blackness, which relates in particular to people who are seen as (i) descendants of Africans, and (ii) ‘not the same’ as the European settlers to America.
Carefully folded into this is the history of European settlement in north America, which largely obscures and forgets the displacement (and genocide) of the Indigenous inhabitants of the land which is now called America (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014). It also tries to forget the systematic, industrialised policies by European settlers (and later Americans) to kidnap, transport, and enslave people from Africa, to enforce these Africans to work in America for the material benefit of their ‘owners’, and to ‘breed’ these captive people to maintain a ‘supply’ of labour. Out of this system of enslavement developed the idea of race, based on skin colour (and other physical characteristics) that defined enslaved (black) Africans as physically and mentally different from (white) Europeans.
That is, the idea of race did not create the Atlantic economy of enslavement, and it did not exist in the form that we now know it before that enslavement became such a systemic powerful force for Europeans in north America. Instead, the idea of race was itself a product of the American society based on enslavement — Americans learnt to live within (as Althusser would say, interpellate) the ideology of race because of slavery. Or as Gramsci would say, the idea of race became hegemonic within the colonial society based on the enslavement of Africans.
Thus, even when enslavement was eventually abolished in English-speaking America (in 1834 in Canada and the Caribbean, and in 1865 in the US), the idea of race remained a powerful way of classifying social and cultural (and seemingly biological) differences. In the late nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, Jim Crow laws in the US created legal segregation between groups defined as races (between ‘whites’ and ‘Negros’) and further political power over those defined as black was exerted through the threat and use of extreme, violent terror in the form of lynchings.
It is through this recent history of ideas of race and difference that the contemporary American understandings of race still need to be understood. Thankfully, overt legal discrimination (in particular segregation) based on the idea of race was challenged by the US Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, but the ideologies of race and racial difference remain deeply embedded within much of American culture. This is clearly shown by how a movement to highlight the otherwise uncontroversial idea that ‘Black Lives Matter’ has faced considerable race-based resistance. When in the US the incarceration in prison of people defined as ‘black’ is five times higher than those defined as ‘white’, and also when the majority of people who are killed by police officers are similarly black, it is clear that the socially constructed idea of race has a powerful real-world impact.
Beyond America, however, the idea of race is not quite the same, and this is largely because of the different histories within which the idea of race has developed. Thus, in Britain, race is also related to a similar black-white distinction, but is further complicated by the experience of Britain as a former global colonial power, ruling over an empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that included not only Africa but also significant areas in Asia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean. Thus, British concepts of race have focused on a wider spectrum of differences, not only white and black, but also other ‘races’, such as what they called ‘Orientals’ (widely including Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and people of south-east Asia) as well as the Indigenous nations of Australia.
Although British colonialism ended in the post-WW2 period of the late 1940s to the 1960s, British ideas of race have subsequently developed in response to large-scale population movements during the post-colonial era. In particular, people from the Caribbean (mostly of African ancestry) and from South Asia (from the newly independent nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) migrated to Britain in the 1950s and 60s and thus transformed the ‘racial’ demographic of British society. Thus Britain, is now very much a ‘multi-racial’ (and multicultural) society, but in a different way to the multi-raciality of the US. Debates about race in Britain emphasise more than a simple black-white distinction, and instead put differences in terms of white, black, and Asian (or ‘brown’).
In continental Europe, ideas of race are further complicated by each country’s own particular history. France, for example, had colonies in West Africa and Asia, but its main experience was in north Africa, particularly in Algiers. Many north Africans are now settled in France, as French citizens. And so French ideas of racial difference focus a little less on the distinction with black/Africans (although this remains central) since they also rely heavily on the racial categorisation of Arab/Berber north Africans. The latter groups are in fact also identified racially and religiously as Muslims — this being one of a number of overlaps between race and religion which we will explore in this chapter. In Germany, the most significant racial group was formed out of migration from Turkey (who are again largely defined as Muslims, although in this case Turkish Muslims).
From these particularities we can perhaps build up a larger picture of racial categorisations, that exist on a higher scale than the main ideas of differences within specific contexts. Indeed, racial theorists have attempted to do so, either on high level classifications — such as the classical Caucasians/Black/Asian classification used in American popular culture — or to more localised differences, such as between sub-Saharan and north Africans, Arabs v Iranians v Turks, and many other attempts to define people into races based on perceived biological differences.
But all this comes back to the issue I have already highlighted. Although there are considerable cultural differences between Turks and Arabs (such as languages, clothing, identity, and much more) these are not necessarily ‘racial’, if we are expecting race to have something to do with innate genetic, biological differences.
As I have said, this is not a problem on the analytical level, we should not expect such ideas of difference to be provable and backed up by biological data. What we are looking at is how, in particular contexts, the people in those contexts understand their differences, and how those differences form the basis of relations of power and what people do.
In short, the study of race is studying how classifications of race matter within specific contexts, and in particular how power and control uses the idea of racial classification — together with other forms of classification, such as gender, sexuality, and religion.
One of the many ways in which this approach has been explored is called racial formation theory, associated in particular with Michael Omi and Howard Winant (Omi and Winant 1994; 2012). This approach takes the emphasis away from questions specifically about race (e.g., ‘is it real?’, ‘if it is not real does it matter?’) and instead it focuses on how race is talked about and put into practice.
They argue that we should see ‘race as a fundamental principle of social organization in the United States’ (Omi and Winant 2012, 304). There are many ways in which this works, and it is important even when ‘race’ is not considered ‘visible’, as I will discuss below.
In particular, for Omi and Winant racial formation is ‘the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed’ (Omi and Winant 1994, 55).
That is, when we explore race in a particular context, it is the process of formation that is central, and the racial categories that are formed by this process are contingent on their formation. Quite simply, race is not about what a specific designated ‘race’ are or do. Instead, racial formation theory explores and seeks to understand the processes by which a group has been designated as a race, and what impact that has on what they do (and what is done to them).
In many respects this is again exploring the concept of race as a particular form of ideology, in terms close to Gramsci and also Althusser. Thus, Omi and Winant point out that ‘social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and … they are in turn shaped by racial meanings’ (Omi and Winant 1994, 61).
Needless to say, those with power can determine racial formations. As we have seen, European slaveholding society in north America developed the particular racial formation of division between black (enslaved black Africans) and white (English Americans). This formation has been changed and transformed over the centuries, but in most instances it was developed by those who consider themselves as white (Americans) to control, segregate, and exert power over others (descendants of enslaved African).
A later racial formation was the basis for the Jim Crow policy of ‘separate but equal’, which enforced separation between those who were classified as white and those who were not — determining many aspects of activity, including education, voting, healthcare, public drinking fountains, shops and services, dining, and much more. At this point the boundary between races was defined in very clear legal terms — to be white required ‘racial’ purity, with no black (so-called ‘Negro’) ancestors. Anyone who could not meet such a definition was classified as black. And to further enforce this, many states also developed strict laws against ‘mixed’ marriages, between the designated races. In this sense, the boundaries between races were literally policed by those in power, with punishments enforced for those who violated the requirements of the racial formations.
Of course, racial formation in the US did not end with the Civil Rights movement and the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960s, and judicial rulings against segregation such as the US Supreme Court decision in 1954 known as Brown v Board of Education. As Omi and Winant have shown, their own analysis has emerged from within the specifics of recent and contemporary racial formations, which is still ongoing. In many respects, this highlights that race must be understood as a process — it is not static but develops historically. Hence they place their emphasis on the particularities of racial formations, rather than on the more static idea of ‘race’. As they have said in a 2012 reappraisal of their theory (thirty years on from their initial writing):
Racial formation theory should help us think about race and racism as continuing encounters between despotic and democratic practices, in which individuals and groups, confronted by state power and entrenched privilege but not entirely limited by those obstacles, make choices and locate themselves over and over in the constant racial “reconstruction” of everyday life. (Omi and Winant 2012, 327)
There are a number of implications of this racial formation approach, and it is a good place to start in the exploration of how to understand the ways in which the idea of race — and the implementation of such ideas — structures cultures, societies, individuals, and religions.
One particular implication of this approach, which I have already briefly mentioned, is that both race and racial formation are not an individual matter. The way in which the term ‘race’ is used in contemporary discussions is as though it is about lifestyle choices, inasmuch as we usually assume that some people choose to be racists whilst the rest are not, simply because they think (or say) they are not. Sadly there are frequent occurrences when a blatantly race-based offensive comment or action is made, only for the perpetrator to vehemently affirm that they ‘are not racist’ (or that indeed, they do not have a ‘racist bone in their body’).
The principle of racial formation draws attention to the issue that the groups formed out of racial categories rely on social, not individual forces — in particular, shared values and collective power. Although a person may feel that they are not racist, they can also be part of a social system that does disadvantage certain groups (and individuals within such groups) through the power exerted through racial categories. This is often called structural or systemic racism. In short, a person can exert racialised discrimination without the intention of doing so. Our behaviour is shaped by the sociohistorical processes of racial formation, and indeed much of what we might assume to be normal and acceptable (that is, the ideology by which we live) may in fact be heavily structured around power relations based on racial distinction and inequality.
Thus, the experience of race (and particularly the experience of racial disadvantage and disempowerment by those who are racialised as being outside the dominant racial group) are not based on subjective experiences. It often does not matter whether I feel that I am non- or pro-racist, if in fact it is possible to measure in concrete terms issues of race-based inequality, such as access to wealth and resources, education, housing, employment, and healthcare, along with many other aspects of social capital such as representation in corporate life (such as on company boards) and in politics, and so on. Where there is such measurable disparity which is linked to groups considered as racially different, then there is structural racism. By all of these measures, both Britain and the United States (along with many other European and English speaking countries) have very widespread and structural (or systemic) racism.
A common way of talking about race is the term ‘racialisation’ (or racialization). This is a term used by Omi and Winant in their discussion of racial formations, but it has been used by a number of other writers — often in quite different ways (a discussion of this can be found in Barot and Bird  and Murji and Solomos ). It is useful, then, to explore how the term has been developed over the past two decades to describe the idea of racial formation.
At its most simple, perhaps, the term racialisation is used to describe the process by which the idea of race becomes ascribed to a context in which race is not immediately apparent, or which is otherwise not necessarily ‘racial’. Thus Howard Winant says:
‘the concept of racialization signifies the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group’ (Winant 1993, 59)
This implies it is making (extending) a racial classification where it previously had not been made.
This becomes rather problematic, inasmuch as it is not necessarily easy to say whether this act of racialisation is actually extending the racial meaning, or if it is making obvious a reference to race that was previously in existence. Thus we may say that an education system has been racialised, but it is not clear whether the racialisation has occurred recently or if race has always been a significant factor in the way in which education is provided, but previously it was not explicit or referred to. I would argue that when we talk of racialisation it is usually the latter. There are few (and perhaps no) aspects of society that are not racialised, but not all of these may be overtly so. Thus, when racialisation happens, it is not adding a racial aspect to a previously non-racial issue, instead it is putting a spotlight on and emphasising the already implicit aspects of race.
There is, however, another way in which the term racialisation is used that differs from this approach, whilst also using similar assumptions. Thus, most people are familiar with the designation of certain groups of people in terms that refer to racial identities, for example as black, or white, or Asian, etc.
Thus, the former US President Barack Obama is widely known as the first Black American President. If we follow the approach that race is not based on any real biological principle, then there is nothing about any particular person (Obama or otherwise) that makes them ‘black’ (or some other racial category). A person is only black according to social construction, or racial formation. In fact, as is also well known, Obama’s father was also ‘black’ (from Kenya) and his mother was white (from Kansas). It has been a social choice for Obama and others to consider him as racially black. Or to put this in another way, Obama is racialised as black — due to a number of factors, including his parental background, his upbringing, and interpretations made about his skin colour, identity, and behaviour.
But this is not limited to Obama. Everyone is racialised in a certain way, according to particular social criteria based largely on issues of power. The criteria often make use of skin colour, but also interact with class, culture, power, gender, and other issues. In addition, the potential categories of classification are often limited, and can depend very much on context. In some cases it can be a simple racialisation between ‘black’ or ‘white’, or there may be other more hybrid categories such as ‘mixed-race’.
What is most important, though, is that the process of such racialisation is social not individual, and there is only very limited scope for the individual to try to defy or challenge the racialisation that is made of them. Examples of this include those who would otherwise be racialised as black choosing to ‘pass’ as white (and thus be racialised as such), and the notorious case in the US of Rachel Dolezal who choose to racialise herself as black (successfully for a number of years until 2015), even though she was otherwise racialised as white by the society in which she lived.
In this sense, the term ‘racialisation’ is put to use to emphasise that all identities based on race are social constructions, which are designated according to powerful criteria that operate beyond the level of the individual and are policed by society, very often with severe consequences for who are ‘caught’ transgressing their racialised identity and designation. In some cases, such racialisation is not only marked out by perceived markers of skin pigmentation, but also — as in apartheid South Africa — in state documentation, such as pass books or identity cards.
Therefore, by referring to race in terms of racialisation, it makes it clear that a black or white person is not black or white, but rather they are racialised as such. That is, race is not a thing that people have, but rather it is a categorisation that is put onto people, not only as a particular label, but also in terms of the expectations and discourses that are part of the racial categories that get applied through this process of racialisation.
This is then related to how the sociologist Robert Miles defined racialisation as
‘a social process in which humans articulate and reproduce the ideology of racism and engage in the practice of racial discrimination, but always in a context that they themselves have not determined’ (1982, 177)
For Miles, such ‘racial’ characteristics may often be considered ‘biological’ or ‘genetic’, but they are not necessarily visible. Thus, although race is often thought of as primarily a visible or ‘somatic’ issue (being based on appearance, such as skin pigment or other bodily characteristics) the process of racialisation most usually imputes and assumes other less-visible characteristics. In this sense, there is the racialisation that imputes certain social groups as behaving in certain ways (for example, those racialised as ‘Asian’ are stereotyped as ‘hard working’, particularly in relation to those racialised as ‘African American’).
Most simply, this is the act of categorising the social behaviour of a person/group on the basis of physical/bodily characteristics (as racial due to skin appearance). When any person is thus racialised, their behaviour is defined, and social and power relations are thus based around that racialisation.
For example, an athlete racialised as black may be expected to have a particular physical ability, whilst a man standing in the street who is racialised as black may be seen (by someone who racialises themselves as white) as being a potential ‘threat’. A man working in a company who is racialised as Jewish may be expected to be proficient at finances, whilst a person boarding a plane who appears to be racialised as Arab may be feared (by other passengers who racialise themselves as white) as a possible ‘terrorist’. Thus racialisation is the process by which large scale and powerful social and cultural assumptions (often stereotypes) become manifest in the everyday encounters between individuals.
A further use of the term racialisation is rather distinct from this, and works in a way that does not explicitly draw attention to the racial identity that is being highlighted. That is, racialisation can also refer to the use of references to racial categories that are implied or implicit, without directly mentioning ‘race’ (or the idea of race). For example, politicians may use what appear to be inclusive or non-racial terms, which are clearly understood (implicitly) to make points of reference to specific, racialised groups. These are phrases such as ‘our culture is being swamped’ (Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron in the UK), ‘take back control’ (Nigel Farage and other Brexit campaigners), and references to crime being an ‘inner city’ issue (Donald Trump in the US).
Each of these phrases are racialised, and in particular refer to the racialisation of the audience as the powerful white majority, in contrast to racialised others (foreigners in general, refugees from Syria or Africa, or African Americans). This is often called ‘dog whistle’ politics — that is, saying the racialised issue without it being audible. In general, when this happens, the process is described as the racialisation of particular policies or politics, on the assumption that such politics is not normally racialised.
In summary, we can concur with Patrick Wolfe, who argued that
‘Racialisation is an exercise of power in its own right.’ (Wolfe 2002, 58)
And with Garner and Selod for whom
‘racialization is something the powerful do to the less powerful… [while] racialization can also be used as an act of resistance, as well as a demonstration of power’ (Garner and Selod 2015, 14)
Although the term racialisation may be used in a variety of ways, it most often refers to the processes through which a dominant group mobilises an ideology of racial difference on particular subjects — both material (such as people or things) and abstract (concepts, ideas, categories) — to exert power (through control, domination, exclusion, and/or exploitation).
He is the editor of the Routledge journal Culture and Religion.
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