Skip to content

On relationality in race research

This is the third contribution to the Race Critical and Decolonial Sociology blog series. In it I look at the argument advanced  by David Theo Goldberg (2009) that a relational approach to the study of race and racism reveals more than a comparativist approach does. I propose, however, that before being able to discuss the relative adequacy of either approach, we must have a good understanding of what is being researched when we centre race in accounts of historical or contemporary social, political and economic processes.

In 2014 I published an article, Postracial Silences: The Othering of Race in Europe, in a book I co-edited with Hamburg sociologist Wulf D. Hund, Racism and Sociology.

I examined work by mainstream ‘migration, ethnicities and minorities’ (MEM) scholars in Europe. Through institutes and departments often aligned with policy-making, these scholars often receive the lion’s share of the funding to research issues which, from a race critical perspective, are wholly about race. Yet their work mainly tends to neglect, elide or even deny the salience of race. In my view there are three main reasons for this:

First, European social scientists are in the main epistemically predisposed to turn away from analyses which centre around race as key to any history or sociology of contemporary Europe. This is because, secondly, their subject positioning orients them towards equating racism with irrationality and, therefore, race critical analyses with hysterical or knee-jerk reaction. Understandings of modernity that consider race as central rather than marginal are looked upon with scepticism. This is associated, thirdly, with the fact that there is little reward for foregrounding race, as to do so to its full extent would be to see it as internal to the logics of European modernity, rather than, as is more acceptable, as an external, pathological, often individualised attitude or set of time-limited behaviours of specific regimes or persons (Lentin 2014).

A talk in which I discuss this work at greater length can be listened to here:

The triad ‘migration, ethnicities and minorities’, following a well-trodden path in European discussions of what could be summed up, from its central protagonists’ perspective, as ‘the problem of difference’ in postcolonial or post-immigration societies, often serves as a euphemism for race which, in the European context, with perhaps Britain as an exception, is thought of as taboo. In the article, retracing the steps I have taken in several works over the last ten or so years, I briefly discuss how race as a central analytical tool is replaced by other more purportedly neutral terms, primarily ‘ethnicity’, as a way, it is suggested, of refusing the naturalisation of a false and dangerous category. I argue, following key authors such as Barnor Hesse, David Theo Goldberg and Nicholas De Genova that to merely replace race with terms that appear more explanatory of difference is to paradoxically take 19th century ‘racial science’ on its own terms and to accept that there was once this widely accepted belief in biological ‘racial’ hierarchies which, for good reason, was, after the revelation of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, justly debunked and discredited.

However, as Barnor Hesse sums up in several works, notably his 2007 piece on ‘Racialized Modernity’, reducing race to its nineteenth century variant is to ignore the much longer history of race as it emerges, primarily within the adjudication over purity of blood (limpieza de sangue) in the Spanish context, and later within the context of the conquest of the Americas and the debate about the humanness of Indigenous peoples which unleashed the first murmurings of the possibility of polygenism, the different origins of groups from different parts of the world. Race is ultimately a product of colonialism. Any explanation that is  not attentive to the ways in which the colonial practices that institutionalised race were later re-inscribed in the taxonomies of racial hierarchy that were then used in the development of eugenicist ideas and their application, for example, to the racialisation of the poor and the disabled, is de facto incomplete.

In his debate with the philosopher of race, Charles Mills, Hesse insists that to understand race we must divorce our discussion of it entirely from any conception that ties it literally and solely to the discussion of biology and ‘phenotype’. Not because race is not perceived as being carried by/in the body (particularly the Black body) but because explaining why this continues to be the case today can only be done by retracing the historical evolution of what he later calls ‘raceocracy’ or racial governmentality in situations of colonial rule. Race, he explains, does not ever refer uniquely to the corporeal, to genetics or biology. Rather it is what he calls a colonial assemblage of a range of concepts – religious, cultural, geographical and, later, biological – which become the basis for the more effective governance of colonial and enslaved populations to be dominated. Race is primarily material, not biological or identity-related. Examining its origins, trajectory and effects teaches us about how the idea of Europeanness versus non-Europeanness becomes the primary demarcation of domination in the modern era.

It may be argued that part of the reason for which this global imbalance of power continues to define interactions on a planetary scale today is because there has been a trend from within the heart of dominant/western social science to foreclose the significance of race and relegate it to a relatively brief, certainly misguided period in the 19th-20th centuries.

David Theo Goldberg, in his 2009 discussion of the contrast between a comparativist and a relational approach to the study of race and racism proposes that ‘comparativism misses deeper and larger issues about the workings of race and racism fuelled by the relations between racial configuration and racial conditions across times and places.’ I shall discuss the implications of his methodological approach later on. First, relating to my aforementioned article, it appears to me that before we get to a discussion of whether comparativism or relationality is a more effective approach, we have to deal with the fact that so much research that ostensibly deals with matters racial refuses to name it as such. Now, it could be said, this is not a problem in itself. Scholars have a right to differ in their opinion as to what the best theoretical framework for analysing a phenomenon is. But, my response would be that, quite apart from the worrying fact that, in many cases the active denial of the continued significance of race represents, quite bluntly, a refusal to face head on the continued fact of racism and attendant discriminations, the conceptual worry is that we continue with a wrongheaded analysis of what we think race is, or as several scholars have preferred to put it, what race does.

Sara Ahmed has discussed how naming racism is perceived as bringing racism into existence, so that the person calling an experience or event racist becomes the problem, rather than the racism itself. As she puts it straightforwardly,

“the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism.”

‘When racism is how a world is seen,’ she says, ‘racism is not seen.’ In my article I discussed the refusal to engage with or accept that racial logics continue to govern contemporary (im)migration regimes, or Eurocentric relations to Islam and Muslims, or the persistence of anti-Black violence, as in part due to ‘epistemic racism‘. The fact that much research in the ‘MEM’ field is not done by racialised researchers is exacerbated by the fact that,

“the epistemic orientation of the scholarship reproduces hegemonic white frames by not engaging with race critical scholarship, and the work is set within an institutional context that emphasises normalising goals such as integration or even migration control” (Lentin 2014).

But this is added to a further and worrying trend not touched on in my article but evident in Ahmed’s discussion. Not only is race as a key form of governmentality – to use Hesse and Goldberg’s formulations – not considered a central or indeed a viable explanation of migration, ‘integration’, discrimination, or inequality in a range of contexts, but centering the discussion of these social phenomena around a theorisation of the significance of race is seen as damaging to the research. For example it is often proposed that ‘forcing’ a race critical analysis onto a research question blinds the researcher to other dynamics that may be in play. Secondly, it has been proposed that centering race racialises the actors concerned, thus enacting racism against them. Evidence for these two critiques are not only apparent in some of the works I analysed for ‘Postracial Silences’ but are reiterated in the apparent irritation expressed by some scholars in interactions with myself and other race critical colleagues.

In response to my article, I received an unsolicited email from one academic. In it they wrote,

“I can only assume that your discussion of Nazis and Auschwitz here is a further way of dragging everyone mentioned in the pages above through the same ‘epistemic racist’ mud…. It is in any case correct to observe and ‘obvious’ in terms of the established literature that post-war continental European discussions of race  were indeed changed and rendered very cautious by the experience with Nazism – given also the strongly rooted philosophically ‘idealist’ fears that naming the concept produces the phenomenon: a constructivism still emphasised in France, Germany – much less so in the ’empiricist, realist, pragmatic’ UK and US where race categories can mean anything and everything over time (cf. ‘how the Italians  became “white” in the US, or the ‘Irish became “black”‘ in the UK).”

This passage of the correspondence already reveals a preference for comparativism which is revelatory of David Goldberg’s discussion of the limitations of such an approach for a holistic understanding of race and racism. I shall return to this.

However, before we get there, it is clear that, for the author, to state things in terms of race is an over-stating, yes, but not in all cases. So, the reticence in France and Germany to refer to race given the ‘experience with Nazism’ is ‘obvious’. But the application of a race critical lens onto processes of racialisation vis-a-vis the Irish or the Italians is beyond the pale. This is interesting. Classically, the ‘understandable’ refusal to use the language of race in the French and German, and one may add Dutch, Italian, Belgian, etc. contexts, is entirely predicated on the assumption of a position of victimhood which is not borne out. The Shoah here is rewritten as a national tragedy – ‘the experience with Nazism’ – rather than a regime of annihilation participated in by many of the members of the nation for whom race now becomes too painful to discuss. When juxtaposed with, for example, the refusal to consider how colonialism and slavery continue to affect the lives of those racialised as Black  in these countries, for example, it is interesting how race is also denied, but for an entirely different purpose.

In matters concerning the Holocaust, the orthodoxy among mainly white scholars and opinion-makers in ‘continental Europe’ is that to invoke race would be to endorse the ideas that gave rise to the camps and retraumatise those for whom the Shoah has been re-written as their national tragedy. On the other hand, those who seek to centre the continuities that link the colonial to the postcolonial within the context of contemporary European immigration societies are told that race is only partially relevant to any understanding of their situation. A host of other explanations are proffered, for example cultural or religious incompatibility, failures of ‘integration’ and ‘social cohesion’, or even intergenerational patterns of ‘deviance’. All of these accounts are, from my perspective, wholly racialised ones; from an historical perspective they also build on and mirror argumentations that were already applied in racial/colonial contexts to explain ‘African laziness’ or ‘Jewish deviousness’ etc. Nonetheless, the mere refusal to use the terminology of race serves as a proxy for a non-racist account. Beyond the problems that this gives rise to – most obviously that merely not using the language of race does not preclude the racism of a scenario – the theoretical foundations of such a position are laid upon a misreading of what race does, what function it performs.

This returns us of course to Hesse’s critique, particularly that which he lays out in his 2011 paper, on the ‘postracial horizon’, ‘Self Fulfilling Prophecies’, that the dominant conceptualisation of racism in Europe is a Eurocentric one. Hesse explains,

“The Eurocentric concept of racism has generally focused critiques on the representation of race, its codified articulation in philosophical texts, scientific discourses, legal stipulations, and popular culture, as forms of knowing and knowledge. These critiques, largely centered on ideology in construing racism as the textual, the visual, or the legislative, have routinely foreclosed from their accounts what could not be construed in these terms” (Hesse 2011: 164).

What could not be construed are the ‘social and political practices that governed the deployment of these representations and were not themselves strictly expressible as ideological forms of representation’ (ibid.). They are the elements of what Goldberg would call ‘racial rule’, that which underwrites race as performative practice. What Hesse, using Ida B. Wells’s discussion of the unwritten laws condoning lynching in the US, for example, demonstrates is that, contra the Eurocentric reading of race which draws a direct line from ideological pronouncement to discriminatory or annihilatory practice (i.e. this is a racial taxonomy and our regime has made laws to discriminate on that basis), ideological racism is the the exception to the rule. Most racisms occur, have always occurred either in spite of ideological commitments (i.e. liberal democracy, progress, etc.) or legal arrangements or as a result of them. Therefore, being attentive to how race works means going far beyond the tendency in a given national or intellectual community to name race with reference to a given context.

The counter-attack from those critics for whom a race-attentive lens often hides more than it reveals is that everything and anything thus becomes raced/racialised/racist (note the comments from the correspondence cited above about How the Irish became White). If this were a warning about the postracial tendency to generalise racism as a universal phenomenon giving rise to ahistorical invocations of ‘reverse racism’, that would be one thing. Miri Song has written importantly of the need to be mindful of the dangerous tendency for ‘almost any form of racial statement’ to be seen as racist (Song 2014, 109; see also) and calls for a definition of ‘what exactly constitutes racism, and who or what can (or cannot) be racist’ (ibid.). However, that is not the intention of these critics. Rather, while Song’s appeal is for a more truthful account of racism that would tie contemporary manifestations to its roots in coloniality and slavery, tracing its development up to the present day, those who deny the significance of race in their work on ‘MEM’ open the door to precisely the forms of universalisation that Song warns against.

Denying the significance of race in a range of contexts pertaining to migration and minoritisation and prioritising ‘nationalism’ or ‘ethnicisation’, ‘religious discrimination’, etc. is, to follow Hesse, to entirely misunderstand the purpose of race as ‘raceocracy’ and, paradoxically, to naturalise it in the precise way that such critics say they wish to avoid. So, returning to the email I received cited above, the author writes

“If you knew this literature better you would understand the ambiguities of placing Latinos in a ‘race’ frame (somehow analagous to conflating all ‘Islamophobia’ or ‘xenophobia’ with racism).”

To propose that it would be better to frame the socioeconomic problems facing Latinos in the US for example, or Islamophobia against Muslims, as more properly ‘ethnic’, ‘national’ or ‘religious-based’ discrimination is to suggest that one believes that biological racial categories exist, and that only some groups are aligned with them. It is precisely to fall into the trap of considering the discussion of race to be organised along a Black-White axis that ignores the disciplinary functions of race as a form of governmentality that persists because it refuses to be contained within foreclosed dimensions. The precise power of race, as Les Back and John Solomos have noted is the fact that it is a ‘scavenger ideology’ (Back and Solomos 1996: 220) that fails to fall within predetermined frames. My correspondent proposes

“guarding against analytical moves which reduce all forms of differentiation, exclusion, border-drawing, othering of foreigners or ‘minorities’, etc to ‘racialisation’.”

However, this proposal is a confusion of terms which is an excellent example of Goldberg’s warning about the mis- and overuse of the term ‘racialisation’ in matters pertaining to race. It is worth quoting Goldberg here at some length,

“The usage of ‘racialization’ so broadly in the literature is at the very least ambiguous, and may sometimes be vacuous. One cannot always tell, either explicitly or contextually, whether it is being invoked as a merely descriptive term or with deeper normative, critical thrust. Quite often it is put to work simply to suggest race-inflected social situations, those informed or marked by racial characterization. But lurking beneath the descriptive is often an implicit, unexplained and almost invariably theoretically unmotivated critical rejection of the normative insinuation in the seemingly neutral description of the social arrangements being characterized as racial or in racial terms. The lack of specificity, the emergent ambiguities, blurs the line and so presupposes an answer to a question not even posed: namely, is racial characterization inevitably racist? All too often the use, if not the very conceptualization, of ‘racialization’ determines an answer in the absence of analysis” (Goldberg 2006: 332).

In this 2006 article, reproduced as the chapter on ‘Racial Europeanization’ in his 2009 book, The Threat of Race, David Goldberg begins to outline his proposal for a relational approach to race. He suggests that

“the force of race assumes its power in and from the thick contexts of the different if related geopolitical regions in which it is embedded, the specific conditions of which concretize the notion of race representing them” (ibid.).

So, he is not proposing that something other than race better explains dynamics that are at play in different situations of ‘racial rule’. Rather, building on his proposition that all modern western states are ‘racial states’ (Goldberg 2002), he nonetheless wants to develop on the idea that different regional manifestations of racism:

“Each represents a significance that is historically resonant and perhaps politically dominant at specific global conjunctions but also, and perhaps more pressingly, a logic of historical interaction” (ibid.: 333).

So, it is not that, as once again my correspondent suggests, ‘the excessive focus on race/racialisation in the Anglo-American literature would decline as different tools of analysis and concerns arose through comparative and transatlantic (im)migration studies.’ Rather, the search for alternative explanations of what race does across different locations or in relation to different populations (i.e. Muslims or Eastern European migrants), is predicated on a lack of will to seriously examine the historical interactions between, for example, European/non-European colonial relations of domination and their remapping back onto European populations in modes that mirrored colonial forms of governance (e.g. in relation to the ‘underclass’) or how processes of racial inclusion or ‘whitening’ operated at a second level to include those populations formerly excluded  from the ‘race nation’.

To observe these processes is not to say that things remain the same always and because, in the nineteenth century, eugenicist ideas were applied to the white poor in Europe that such groups remain thought of racially in the present day. I also thoroughly reject the implication that a class-based analysis offers more than a race-based analysis because to make such a separation is to propose that each enforced categorisation were not predicated upon the other; as though class were not forged in relation to race (cf. Robinson 2000). However, to reject out of hand the historical connections and continuities that bring to the fore the modes through which techniques of racial rule travelled and were applied with reference to a variety of groups over time, who moved in and out of whiteness/Europeanness, as a function of their assumed utility to the project of governance (cf. the inclusion of the working class in the race-nation for the purposes of mass mobilisation in the First World War, as Neil MacMaster explains) is to ignore the precise reasons for why race as rule emerged in the first place and why it persists despite the generalised agreement on the bogus nature of any invocation of biological taxonomical hierarchy.

An excellent example of the workings of this pertains precisely to the situation faced by Eastern Europeans in the wake of Brexit. The suggestion by many migration scholars is that a race critical lens does little to explain the forms of discrimination faced by these migrant groups to Britain (or elsewhere in Europe) not least because of the reproduction of racism against Black people for example by these migrants (as was suggested in an article I recently reviewed for publication). However, following Brexit, the sharp rise in attacks on Poles in the UK for example, including the murder of Arkadiusz Jóźwik in Harlow, revealed the ways in which A. Sivanandan‘s invocation of the idea of xeno-racism as a framework for explaining discrimination against Eastern European migrants was and is highly pertinent. It precisely shows the ways in which ideas of race infuse other related categories such as nationalism with a disciplining function.

It is here that an engagement with David Goldberg’s proposal that a relational approach to the study of race and racism can benefit our work and solve the pitfalls proposed by comparativism is vital. Another criticism waged by European scholars irritated by what they see as an overemphasis on race by British and US-American researchers is that a better understanding of the particularities of a range of national European societies would reveal the varying significance of a race lens to each context. However, in contrast, Goldberg proposes that over-reliance on comparison has narrowed the possibilities for a more complete account offered by a relational and interactive account of racism. In particular, he points to the problem that a comparative approach has tended to place examples of states conceived of as racist historically alongside each other for comparison. The result has been the creation of the impression a) that it is possible to look at states in isolation as though the development of ideas and operations of race were not always reliant on the colonially travelling trajectories of ideas of race from the outset; b) it implies that there are ideal typical examples of racist states that can be compared to each other leading to an account that excludes the much further reach of racial formations beyond what Hesse has described as the prototypical triad of Nazi Germany, Jim Crow and Apartheid. In Goldberg’s words:

“These dominant examples of compared racisms are taken to indicate either that their differences are not so extreme as first thought or to reveal, at least tentatively, that there are a limited number of different models for state-based racisms. So the United States and South Africa have been repeatedly placed besides each other to reveal their similarities.”

The campaign against the racist Dutch figure ‘Black Piet’

So, politically speaking the perhaps unintended aim of a comparativist account is to minimise the global effects of race as a central organising principle of European colonial modernity and to make it appear as though it applied in some cases but not in others. Practically speaking this has led to the denial of even the most egregious forms of racism past and present because ‘this was not our story’, or so it is claimed. The claim of non-racism is here collapsed into the refusal to speak about race as politically significant historically and in the present day. However, as a wide range of examples reveal – for example the fact that the refusal in France to elide race has not meant and to the reproduction of the among the world’s most severe cases of institutionalised racism and Islamophobia – to not see/speak race is not the same as to not do race and enact and reenact racism.

Scholars who play down the significance of race in the face of the historical and contemporary evidence to the contrary, while often receiving the lion’s share of the funding and institutional recognition for their work, have to take epistemic responsibility for their role in participating in the perpetuation of ‘postracial silences’, a silence which is arguably all the more deafening in our times.

Alana Lentin