Liberal Racism

What has become known as the "cult of individualism" has constructed people in the West in such a way that they find it very difficult to understand anything outside their own experience. They individualize situations rather than approach them with systemic analysis in mind (e.g., the preference for seeing racism as isolated, overt, or an extreme incident such as racial epithets, rather than an ongoing and often unintentional set of attitudes which lead to structures of domination). Individualism fosters a belief that everybody is free to choose, that their destiny is within their own control and that choice, determination, "pulling oneself up by one's boot straps," are all individually determined and ultimately achievable despite social, economic, racial and cultural circumstances.

"My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will" (McIntosh, 1997, p. 292).

"Canadians have a deep attachment to the assumption that in a democratic society individuals are rewarded solely on the basis of their individual merit and that no one group is singled out for discrimination. Consistent with these liberal, democratic values is the assumption that physical differences such as skin colour are irrelevant in determining one's status. ... While lip service is paid to the need to ensure equality in a pluralistic society, most Canadian individuals, organizations, and institutions are far more committed to maintaining or increasing their own power" (Henry & Tator, 2006, pp. 2-3).

Liberal Racism

There are several recognizable and frequently repeated strategies used in liberal racism that make anti-racism work difficult. Most of these strategies share common and overlapping processes: outright or masked denial, minimization, defensiveness and guilt. One such strategy is the Burden of Representation.

Representation and the "Burden of Representation"

The Burden of Representation manifests itself in the following ways: 

  1. One minority individual is assumed to represent his or her entire cultural/racial group, usually combined with the assumption that this individual/culture is 'traditional.'

  2.  A single creative (or critical) text (filmic, literary, etc.) is expected and assumed to represent an entire minority culture, or even to 'contain culture' (with culture vaguely defined but assumed to be 'traditional') 

  3. The expectation of dominant culture that minority groups or individuals 'teach' the dominant majority about the minority culture, the dominant culture's misperceptions and racism. [e.g. that Indigenous representatives should teach white people about all or specific Indigenous cultures and histories]

  4. The expectation of dominant culture to receive affirmation from minority cultures that they are 'not racist' or to ‘use' those in the less privileged position as proof they are not racist ("I have a friend who is ... therefore...")

From Ann Marie Baldonado, Fall 1996, "Representation" (with quotations from Shohat, 1995). 

”Representations, then can never really be ‘natural' depictions. ... Instead they are constructed images, images that need to be interrogated for their ideological content. ... If there is always an element of interpretation involved in representation, we must then note who may be doing the interpreting. Ella Shohat claims that we should constantly question representations: 

Each filmic or academic utterance must be analyzed not only in terms of who represents but also in terms of who is being represented, for what purpose, at which historical moment, for which location, using which strategies, and in what tone of address.” (Shohat, 1995, p. 173)

This questioning is particularly important when the representation of the subaltern [or marginalized] is involved. The problem does not rest solely with the fact that often marginalized groups do not hold the ‘power over representation' (Shohat, 1995, p. 170); it rests also in the fact that representations of these groups are both flawed and few in numbers. Shohat asserts that dominant groups need not preoccupy themselves too much with being adequately represented. There are so many different representations of dominant groups that negative images are seen as only part of the ‘natural diversity' of people. However, ‘representation of an underrepresented group is necessarily within the hermeneutics of domination, overcharged with allegorical significance' (Shohat, 1995, p. 170). The mass media tends to take representations of the subaltern [or marginalized] as allegorical, meaning that since representations of the marginalized are few, the few available are thought to be representative of all marginalized peoples. The few images are thought to be typical, sometimes not only of members of a particular minority group, but of all minorities in general.

"The denial of aesthetic representation to the subaltern has historically formed a corollary to the literal denial of economic, legal, and political representation. The struggle to ‘speak for oneself' cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard"  (Shohat, 1995, p. 173).

Strategies of Liberal Racism

There are several recognizable and frequently repeated strategies used in liberal racism that make anti-racism work difficult. Most of these strategies share common and overlapping processes: outright or masked denial, minimization, defensiveness and guilt.

  • Making invisible: Ignoring. Failing to recognize a person of colour or Indigenous person as a “regular” Canadian.

  • Claiming “reverse racism”: This term is sometimes used to characterize anti-racism initiatives, affirmative action, or equity policies which are actually designed to rectify the results of institutionalized racism by setting guidelines and establishing procedures for findings qualified applicants from all segments of the population.

    The term “reverse racism” is also sometimes used to characterize the mistreatment that individual whites may have experienced at the hands of people of colour. The inaccuracy here is that we should not confuse racial prejudice and other forms of mistreatment experienced by whites at the hands of people of colour with racism—the concentration of power and privilege in our society that leads to the systematic and institutionalized mistreatment of people of colour. (Sherover-Marcuse, 1988, p. 2). 

  • Fear of assertiveness: Hesitancy of white people to engage in confrontational or challenging dialogue with people of colour. The fear of making mistakes. Not holding people of colour as able. Fear of giving critical feedback to people of colour.

  • Denying differences: Comfort of white people with people of colour who talk and act most like white people, and who affirm dominant values by themselves minimizing the impact of racism.

  • Approval seeking: Being more “anti-racist” in the presence of people of colour. Wanting a pat on the back for positive action. “But special praise and rewards? For what? For recognizing people as equals and treating them like human beings?” ... Is applause due those white people who acknowledge [the existence of racism]? ...  I’m sorry, but that’s like giving a man the Nobel Peace Prize because he doesn’t beat his wife” (Burton, 1994, p. 2).

  • Assuming things are better: Failure to recognize the perceptions of people of colour about current racial inequity. The belief that racial oppression existed in the past, not today, or somewhere else, not here.

  • Comparing oppressions: Denying or minimizing the impact of racism by suggesting that some forms of oppression are worse than or analogous to others– "I’m more oppressed than you are." "As a woman, I identify with your oppression."

  • Colour-blindness: Premise is that sameness is a compliment. “I don’t even think of you as Black.” Espousing the liberal sentiment of “we’re all the same under the skin.”

  • Defining the other: Defining a person of colour and what their experience is. Inability to listen to and accept their experience.

  • Stereotyping: A fixed set of ideas often exaggerated and distorted. It is a mental picture which regards all members of a group as being the same. (Collins, 2006, p.39)