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The Language of Racism

This page was created by three social work students at St. Thomas University.


We have all seen Racism, many of us have experienced it and been directly and indirectly impacted by it. What we do and what we say may be rooted in various levels of rationalization. We ask that you consider the following avoidance strategies that people use and how they operate in daily life.

1. DENIAL – The refusal to accept that racism exists, especially in its cultural and institutional forms. People using denial strategies ignore research evidence indicating the widespread prevalence of cultural and institutional racism and at best think of racism as personal prejudices held by a few extreme and irrational individuals.

2. OMISSION – The racial dimension of social interaction is ignored. Individuals subscribing to this view do not see the relevance of ‘race’ in most situations, and relate to others as if racism did not exist. Asocial worker’s comment of “There is no racism here”, in describing a district office located in an area with a high proportion of black people living in it, but employing no black workers, depicts a situation which reflects the failure to acknowledge the existence of racism, particularly in its institutional form. It also contains elements of denial.

3. DECONTEXTUALISATION – Persons decontextualise racism by accepting that it exists in general terms, ‘out there’, for example in South Africa under apartheid. However, they refuse to believe it permeates the everyday activities they undertake. The crucial feature in this strategy is that it denies black people’s individual experience of racism.

4. COLOR-BLIND APPROACH – Black people are treated as if they were the same as whites. People holding this position negate black people’s specific experience of racism. The statement, “I treat everyone the same” is a common formulation of this statement.

5. DUMPING APPROACH – The responsibility for creating racism and getting rid of it is placed on black people. Individuals acting on this basis blame the “victims” for what happens. Thus, black people are held responsible for racism. Expecting black employees to deal with all issues to do with racism is indicative of this approach.

6. PATRONIZING APPROACH – White ways are deemed superior, but black people’s ways of doing things are tolerated. Black people are considered to be entitled to their “quaint ways”. Multi-culturalism which does not address unequal power relations and structural inequalities typifies this strategy. In other words, there is a superficial acceptance of cultural difference.

7. AVOIDANCE – There is an awareness of “race” as a factor in social interaction, but opportunities for confronting it are avoided. This usually means flinching at racist behavior but keeping quiet about it. For example ignoring racist diatribes with colleagues or clients might make.

8. EXAGERATION – This entails an awareness of the existence of racism in everyday life and an acceptance of the necessity if doing something about it. However, it involves exaggerating or magnifying the value of even minimal (from the point of view of those at the receiving end of racism) steps taken to address it, for example thinking that racism can be eradicated simply by introducing an ‘equal opportunities’ policy.

Source: Dominelli, L. Anti-racist Social Work. 2nd edition. (1997). London: MacMillan Press Ltd. (pp. 72-73).

Anti-Racist Social Work at St. Thomas University “is designed to enable students to gain greater knowledge about the sources, manifestations, and consequences of racism in contemporary Canada and to develop commitment and skills to practice social work in culturally competent and antiracist manner. Students will evaluate different perspectives on race and ethnicity and consider the ways in which racism permeates traditional social work ideology and practice. A structural approach to social work in a multicultural context which links racism to other forms of oppression will be explored.” Dr. R. Clews. Anti-Racist Social Work Course Outline. September 2001.

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. Douglas Adams

According to CASSW (1991). Social Work Education at the Crossroads: The Challenge of Diversity:

Race- refers to an arbitrary classification of populations conceived in Europe, using actual or assumed biologically determined traits (e.g. skin colour and other physical features) to place populations of the world into a hierarchical order, in terms of basic human qualities, with Europeans superior to all others.

Racism- refers to the belief or ideology that races share distinctive and immutable cultural and behavioural traits, and are equally endowed with human qualities such as intelligence, morality, and industriousness, by virtue of genetic heritage.

Language is influenced by social values and beliefs and is reinforced through the words and images used to convey information and messages that ‘political correctness’ alone cannot address. The language of people, media and policies perpetuates racism. Media filters to us what we hear and read and see. Presenting only one side of a story influences what we think and believe – this perpetuates racism. We need to think about what we see on television and read in the newspapers and challenge those messages that present only one side of the story. We must be cautious of the use of ‘expert knowledge’ and question on what basis does this person claim to possess ‘expertise’ – who has assigned this title, and whose interests are being served. Restrictive government immigration policies, which have recently been amended, have become increasingly more restrictive, punitive and serve to legitimize ethnic, cultural, racial and religious discrimination. The language of Racism is both overt and covert.

According to Kivel (1996), “ Because concepts of whiteness and race were developed in Christian Europe, references to whiteness are imbued with Christian values. We have ended up with a set of opposing qualities or attributes which are said to define people as either white or as not white. The tendency to see the world in sets of opposites, either/or categories, is in itself a core pattern of thinking developed in elite settings in Western Europe and [North America]. Many other cultures do not divide the world into opposing camps. The English phrase “black-and-white” reflects our desire to divide things into opposites even though everyday reality is rarely clearly defined or neatly categorized.” Kivel identifies some of the good/bad set of value pairings that influence how people think and speak. “Dark” qualities compared to “White” qualities may include: superstitious/scientific, tainted/pure, abnormal/normal, evil/benign (p.20).

Kivel also notes that racism is imbedded in our everyday language. A ‘white lie’ has a much different meaning than a ‘black deed’ and in this case, color is the primary indicator of degree of wrongness. “Good Guys wear white hats and ride white horses and the bad guys wear black, the same racially tainted values are passed on and the development of images of darkness to convey danger and to provoke white fear.” (pp.26-27).

Racism affects us all, we need to actively work together to end racism. Rev. Martin J. Niemoller said in 1945 :

"In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist.Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."

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