What is racism?

Race is a product of racism, and not the other way around

Racism can be defined in different ways. Our working definition proceeds from the observation that racism includes ideas, ideologies, and discourses as well as actions, processes, and practices: racism is a construct that is both thought and done.

That we propose a working definition of racism means that it is not carved in stone but may change when new knowledge about racism makes a yet more precise conceptualization possible.

Research shows that racism is not a universal phenomenon that has always existed everywhere, but that it has a history. Racism is dynamic, changing across time and space. Racism is not an abstract problem, but rather has a concrete impact on history, society, and the individual.

We therefore suggest that racism can be seen as a technology. By “technology,” we mean the combined material and immaterial methods, processes, activities, techniques, skills, knowledges, constructions, and tools that form and transform social life. Technology is that which achieves, produces, and are, according to Ursula Franklin’s definition, “the way things are done around here”.

Racism as a technology:

  • Classifies people in distinct kinds (varieties/races/cultures/peoples/ethnicities) each bestowed with an assumed inherited essence and positioned between the poles of worthy and worthless life

  • Produces “the People” that “belongs” to a certain place (where it has the right to feel “at home”) and whose wellbeing shall be protected at the expense of the those excluded from “the People” who may be killed or left to die to secure the welfare of the valuable life.

  • Achieves and maintains an unequal distribution of status, privileges, opportunities and death to people on the basis of the classificatory kind they are presumed to belong to

  • Situates people according to the logic that every kind should be in its proper place,

  • Naturalizes the power structure that has been created and guards the borders and flows that the technology creates and privileges

As such, racism can be seen as a technology that produces and maintains inequality. Racism therefore conflicts with the fundamental democratic principle that all people are  equal in rights and value.  

Racism is socially maintained, reproduced, and justified through practices, mutable ideologies, and discourses, through institutional and everyday praxis, and through different forms of violence.

Professor Mattias Gardell and Professor Irene Molina
Directors of research, CEMFOR.

Last modified: 2021-10-25