Strategies of Denial of Racism

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by Neil Godfrey

Dijk, Teun A. van (Wikipedia)

Speaking of denialism, . . . . or rather, painfully thinking back on the unpleasant experience of sitting in a plane for three hours next to a racist jerk who clearly assumed a fellow Aussie would love to be “entertained” with racist jokes and anecdotes against aboriginal Australians and Muslims (of any country). . . .

The painful part of the experience was that it was evident that my “guest” could not see that he was a racist or all-round ignorant bigot. In his mind he was simply acknowledging what he considered to be the “unfortunate realities” of the world. It’s the old line, “I have nothing against blacks, but . . . ”

(Were such persons willing to make the effort to check the full story, the facts behind the assertions, the other perspectives, then they would, I think, learn that their perception of “reality” has been very blinkered and that there are other “realities” — especially from the perspective of the minorities — that are worthy of appreciation and acceptance.)

It turns out that there is a vast scholarly literature on this very thing — denial of racism by those who speak and act racism. I’ll discuss just a small portion of one 33 page article that I have found cited in several other works:

  • Dijk, Teun A. van. 1992. “Discourse and the Denial of Racism.” Discourse & Society 3 (1): 87–118.

It is not appropriate or even moral in this day and age to be thought of as racist. We have laws against racist acts and even some forms of racist speech. Besides, it’s just not socially acceptable to be accused of racism. A decent person, it is assumed, abhors racism.

Would that the human race can just turn off bad attitudes like a tap. After how many centuries of slavery, genocides, race-riots, ethnic cleansings, can we really have suddenly moved into a utopian wonderland where we are all anti-racists? I don’t think that’s a likely reality.

Therefore, even the most blatantly racist discourse in our data routinely features denials or at least mitigations of racism. Interestingly, we have found that precisely the more racist discourse tends to have disclaimers and other denials. This suggests that language users who say negative things about minorities are well aware of the fact that they may be understood as breaking the social norm of tolerance or acceptance. (Dijk, 89)

There are two forms of denial identified by Teun van Dijk, individual and social. Individual denial happens in informal, everyday conversations. Social denial is expounded by public institutions — media, educational, corporate, political. As long as the latter public discourse can plausibly deny racism then individuals are not likely to sense any need to reevaluate their own views as part of the larger society.

We naturally and rightly seek to promote positive images of ourselves:

Face-keeping or positive self-presentation are well-known phenomena in social psychology, sociology and communication research, and are part of the overall strategy of impression management . . . . (many supporting citations are listed here).

When we talk we don’t want to give the impression that deep down we harbour some very anti-social attitudes, so if we comment on a negative behaviour of a darker-skinned person we will be sure our audience understands that we are only addressing that one behaviour of one person, and not a broader attitude denigrating an entire race. “I am not a racist, but….” Or in more technical language,

What such disclaimers try to do, thus, is to block inferences from this particular instance to a more general impression. After all, a specific negative opinion about a particular ethnic group member or a particular act, may well be found to be justified, whereas a more general negative opinion about ethnic minorities might be seen as constitutive of a racist attitude. (90)

Negative attitudes towards minorities are justified, then, when the comment is clearly directed at a particular characteristic or assumed action of a group:

In the latter case, a negative attitude may be found acceptable only when pertaining to a specific characteristic of a group, for instance when someone assumes that refugees often enter the country illegally, or when blacks are seen as insufficiently ‘motivated’ to get a good education or to get a job. In that case, the judgement may be warranted with references to (alleged) negative actions or attitudes of the outgroup. It is not surprising, therefore, that when such negative judgements are qualified as ‘racist’, racism is emphatically denied. (90, my emphasis)

Of course, to suggest that the above person making such a complaint is expressing racism is to incur the reverse accusation, that one is being oversensitive, exaggerating, distorting, and even being “racist against whites”, imaging racism where there is none.

Accusations of racism, then, soon tend to be seen as more serious social infractions than racist attitudes or actions themselves, e.g. because they disrupt ingroup solidarity and smooth ingroup encounters: they are felt to ruin the ‘good atmosphere’ of interactions and situations. Moreover, such accusations are seen to impose taboos, prevent free speech and a ‘true’ or ‘honest’ assessment of the ethnic situation. In other words, denials of racism often turn into counter-accusations of intolerant and intolerable anti-racism. (90)

Types of Denial

Those who deny that they are racists usually imply that they comply with the general, official group norm that prohibits racism, and that, therefore, they are decent citizens. Such individual disclaimers often presuppose that the whole group is not racist. (91)

One type is the “transfer move”. This is rare since the person accused of racism accepts that certain culpable behaviour is found among members of his or her group. A member of a group distances him or herself from the group’s (business partners, neighbours . . . ) values or actions: Example

“I have nothing against them, but you know my customers don’t like to deal with black personnel.”

Then there are “intention denials”. Intention makes the difference between murder and manslaughter. Crimes motivated by a moment of being overcome with an emotion, or by a moment of carelessness, are judged less harshly than those performed with premeditated intent.

A “classical case of media racism” spotlighted by van Dijk is the newspaper that repeatedly and prominently publishes stories of minority crime but at the same time denies any racist intent on the grounds that it is simply telling “the truth”. Hence they claim to be acquited of being fueled by and feeding public prejudices and inciting racial hatred. But we are no longer infants and cannot seriously pretend to be so naive. We have the nous to understand when our words and actions can have consequences:

On the other hand, although intentionally committed crimes are usually evaluated as more serious, people are assumed to have control over their activities, and hence also over their intentions. This may mean, for instance, that people are responsible for the possible consequences of their actions, even when such consequences may not have been the actual purpose of such actions. That is, if it can be shown that people could have known that their acts have negative consequences, then they are at least partially responsible for such consequences, especially if these would not have occurred without their actions. For instance, a politician who gives an interview that criticizes welfare cheating by minorities, knows that such allegations will be published, and that such a publication may further confirm negative prejudices among the media audience. Such a politician may deny discriminatory intent or purpose, and claim that he or she only wanted to ‘tell the truth’. (92)

That leads to “goal denial”. This is simply a denial of responsibility. (I think of those “apologies” which say, “I apologize to anyone who was offended or hurt by my remarks” — implying that those offended or hurt were responsible for their offence by being so thin-skinned.)

Another form of denial is through mitigations. Think of using euphemisms to describe one’s bad actions or words:

‘I did not threaten him, but gave him friendly advice’, ‘I did not insult her, but told her my honest opinion’ . . .

These mitigation strategies are likely to occur where the social norms condemning racism or other negative attitudes are particularly strong.

Do not even accuse! The very idea of bringing up accusations of racism may be taboo in certain contexts.

If used at all in public discourse, for instance in the media, it will typically be enclosed by quotes or accompanied by doubt or distance markers such as ‘alleged’, signalling that this is a, possibly unwarranted if not preposterous, accusation, e.g. by minorities themselves or by (other) anti-racists. Acts in which racism is undeniable tend to be described in terms of ‘discrimination’, ‘prejudice’, ‘stereotypes’, ‘bias’, ‘racial motivation’, but not as ‘racist’. Generally, the notions of ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ in European and US public discourse are reserved for others, for instance, extremist, right-wing, fringe groups and parties outside of the consensus. Also, the notion of ‘racism’ may be used to describe racism abroad or in the past, as is the case for apartheid in South Africa or the period of slavery, reconstruction and segregation in the USA. As a general term denoting a whole system of racial or ethnic inequality, exclusion or oppression in western societies, racism is used primarily by minority groups or other anti-racists. In other words, the use of euphemisms presupposes the denial of systemic racism of the ingroup or dominant society. This is also the case in much scholarly discourse about ethnic relations (Essed, 1987).

Racism denial in part arises from thinking of the term racism in its “classical, ideological sense, of seeing other ethnic or racial groups as being inferior” — or of thinking of the word as pointing to overt, institutional practices such as apartheid.

The more ‘modern’, subtle and indirect forms of ethnic or racial inequality, and especially the ‘racism’, or rather ‘ethnicism’ based on constructions of cultural difference and incompatibility, is seldom characterized as ‘racism’, but at most as xenophobia, and more often than not, as legitimate cultural self-defense (Barker, 1981; Dovidio and Gaertner, 1986). (93)

I have just added those two volumes to my “wish list” to pick up from a library when I return to Australia.

The Dijk article next sets out a number of “cognitive and social strategies” that are not strictly forms of denial but are closely related to it.

A close relation to denial is justification. If this particular black person did burglarize someone’s house or this particular Middle-Easterner did come here by paying people smugglers then they really are guilty and it is only in the interests of our own defence that we point out these facts. That is, such claims are claimed not to be negative but are in fact justified. Another form of justification is heard when the politician declares that no new refugees can be accepted into the country for fear of worsening racial tensions in communities where they would settle. In other words, the decision is not presented as a negative one at all but as one motivated by a concern for everyone’s welfare.

Other strategies are provocation and blaming the victim. The victim of harsh treatment was an “out of control drug addict”, for example. These people have “failed to integrate”, are “too lazy to find honest work”, and so forth.

Unemployment, lacking success in education, miserable housing and welfare dependence, among other things, are thus routinely attributed to negative characteristics of the ‘victims’ themselves. Note that such stronger strategies usually imply a denial of own failing policies. (94)

And the strongest form of denial in Dijk’s view is reversal.

“We are not guilty of negative action, they are”‘ and “We are not the racists, they are the real racists.” This kind of reversal is the stock-in-trade of the radical Right, although less extreme versions also occur in more moderate anti-anti-racism (Murray, 1986). The British tabloids, as we see later, thus tend to accuse the anti-racists of being intolerant busybodies, and the real racists. Similarly, the French Front National typically accuses those who are not against immigration of non-Europeans as engaging in ‘anti-French racism’. More generally, anti-racists tend to be represented as the ones who are intolerant, while lightly accusing innocent and well-meaning citizens (i.e. us) of racism. We see that reversals are no longer forms of social defence, but part of a strategy of (counter-)attack. (94)

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Strategies of Denial of Racism”

  1. I certainly hope you didn’t just sit and listen to your companion on the airplane. Good manners is one thing, but no one should be forced to listen to such blather merely because of proximity.

    1. After he ignored my efforts to sleep I was forced to be “rude back” and happily he avoided eye contact with me when we left. (I see the way I wrote of the experience was the way I felt — still feel — and I should admit I did not listen for a full non-stop 3 hours to shit.)

  2. I grew up in the Midwest of North America, and I would call out racist speech when I heard it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of “I’m talking about n*****s, see? There are black people, and there are n*****s. I don’t hate black people, I hate n*****s.”

    Most often, these were people who rarely if ever had any contact with African Americans. (Where I’m from is very homogeneous, with Native Americans and Latino/a people being the only prominent minority communities. Racism against native folks was consequently even more prevalent.)

  3. I grew up in a war-scarred family but good Methodist family that expressed denial and abhorrence of racism but at the same time made it clear that they considered Asians, especially Japanese, as having some sort of in-built “cruel streak” in their nature. Asians were also hard to trust because they were “inscrutable” — they did not show others what they were really thinking or feeling. (Images of smiling dragons evoked shudders, unlike the reassuring comfort that came from the crucified man.)

    As for aborigines, it was only a Christian duty to separate children from their parents and bring them up in church-run homes). Interracial marriage was wrong because the children would be rejected by both races.

    In school we were taught that the primary reason for the White Australia Policy had been economic. If there was violence against Chinese who had come in the gold-rush days it was because they were willing to work for lower wages and accept a lower standard of living.

    (Another interesting perspective we picked up at school: the invasions of Huns, of “smelly” Germanic tribes, brought about the collapse of the Roman empire, but the influx of Anglo-Saxons and then Normans laid the basis for “British/our greatness”.)

    It was only after leaving home that I began to acknowledge and deal with the racism that had become a part of my makeup. But I continued for some time to struggle with some of those beliefs I had taught throughout school years: we are not racist, our concerns are economic; we don’t want to aggravate racial tensions in communities by bringing in too many refugees; …. I had little trouble, though, in seeing through the hypocrisy of the claim that we had to be “firm” in order to “protect” refugees from risk of drowning in unsafe sea crossings.

    I like to think that anyone who sees us all as sharing the same humanity, that we are all the same flesh and blood and basic genetic makeup, would suspend judgment or think there is something wrong when one section of the human race denigrates another as misfits or unworthy or lesser in some way or whatever, or finds ways to justify treating some people in ways that hurt them, and that they would make the effort to find out the facts behind the stories, the anecdotes, the more outrageous claims, etc. and also get to know how those “others” think and feel, to learn something of their heritage, of other “realities”, so we can understand them and us and everything a little bit better.

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