Cultural racism

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French far-right protesters in Calais hold banners saying "Reimmigrate" and "Diversity is a code word for white genocide"

Cultural racism, sometimes called neo-racism, new racism, or differentialist racism, is a form of racism encompassing prejudices and discrimination based on cultural differences between ethnic or racial groups. This includes the idea that some cultures are superior to others, and that various cultures are fundamentally incompatible and should not co-exist in the same society or state. In this it differs from biological or scientific racism, meaning prejudices and discrimination rooted in perceived biological differences between ethnic or racial groups.

The concept of cultural racism was developed by West European scholars influenced by critical race theory during the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, various terms were used for the phenomenon, such as Martin Barker's "new racism" and Étienne Balibar's "neo-racism". These theorists argued that the hostility to migrants then evident in Western countries should be considered "racism". They also acknowledged that it differed in various ways from older phenomena, such as colonialism or anti-Semitism, that had been labelled "racist" since the 1930s. They emphasised the idea that while older racism had relied on perceived intrinsic biological differences of various groups, the new racism relied on a belief in intrinsic cultural differences instead. A major example they used was the change that occurred in Western countries in the latter half of the 20th century; during the 1950s and 1960s, the notion of a white race that was biologically superior to other races had fallen out of favour, but was replaced by a belief that Western culture was superior to other cultures.

Three main arguments as to why beliefs in intrinsic cultural differences should be considered racist have been put forward. One is that hostility on a cultural basis can result in the same discriminatory and harmful practices as belief in intrinsic biological differences, such as exploitation, oppression, or extermination. The second is that beliefs in biological and cultural difference are often interlinked and that biological racist groups use claims of cultural difference to promote their ideas in contexts where biological racism is considered socially unacceptable. The third argument is that the idea of "cultural racism" recognises that in many societies, groups like migrants and Muslims have undergone "racialization", coming to be seen as distinct groups on the basis of cultural traits.

The utility of the concept has been debated. Some scholars have argued that prejudices and hostility based on culture are sufficiently different from biological racism that it is not appropriate to use the term "racism" for both. According to this view, incorporating cultural prejudices into the concept of "racism" expands the latter too much and weakens its utility. Among scholars who have used the concept of "cultural racism", there have been debates as to its scope. Some scholars have argued that Islamophobia should be considered a form of cultural racism. Others have disagreed, arguing that while cultural racism pertains to visible symbols of difference like clothing, cuisine, and language, Islamophobia primarily pertains to hostility on the basis of someone's religious beliefs.


The concept of "cultural racism" has been compared with Martin Barker's concept of "new racism",[1] Étienne Balibar's notion of "neo-racism",[1] and P. A. Taguieff's idea of "differentialist racism".[2] Another term used has been "the racism of cultural difference".[3]

Since the 1980s, there was considerable debate—particularly in Britain, France, and the United States—about the relationship between biological racism and prejudices rooted in cultural difference.[3] Most scholars of critical race theory rejected the idea that there are biologically distinct races, arguing that "race" is a culturally constructed concept created through racist practices.[4] These critical race theorists argued that the hostility to migrants evident in Western Europe during the latter decades of the twentieth century should be regarded as "racism" but recognised that it was different from historical phenomena commonly called "racism", such as European anti-Semitism or colonial racism.[5] They therefore argued that while historic forms of racism were rooted in ideas of biological difference, the new "racism" was rooted in beliefs about different groups being culturally incompatible with each other.[6]


Étienne Balibar's concept of "neo-racism" was an early formulation of what later became widely termed "cultural racism"

Balibar linked this new racism to the process of decolonization, arguing that while older, biological racisms were employed when European countries were engaged in colonising other parts of the world, the new racism was linked to the rise of non-European migration into Europe in the decades following World War II.[2] He argued that "neo-racism" replaced "the notion of race" with "the category of immigration",[7] and in this way produced a "racism without races".[2] Balibar described this racism as having as its dominant theme not biological heredity, "but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which, at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but 'only' the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of lifestyles and traditions".[2] He nevertheless thought that cultural racism's claims that different cultures are equal was "more apparent than real" and that when put into practice, cultural racist ideas reveal that they inherently rely on a belief that some cultures are superior to others.[8]

The geographer Karen Wren defined cultural racism as "a theory of human nature where humans are considered equal, but where cultural differences make it natural for nation states to form closed communities, as relations between different cultures are essentially hostile."[9] She added that it stereotypes ethnic groups, treating cultures as fixed entities, and rejecting ideas of cultural hybridity.[10] Wren argued that nationalism, and the idea that there is a nation-state to which foreigners do not belong, is "essential" to cultural racism. She noted that "cultural racism relies on the closure of culture by territory and the idea that 'foreigners' should not share the 'national' resources, particularly if they are under threat of scarcity."[10]

According to the media studies scholar Arun Kundnani, cultural racism "attaches to signs of cultural difference rather than visibly bodily differences".[11]

Cultural prejudices as racism[edit]

Theorists have put forward three main arguments as to why they deem the term "racism" appropriate for hostility and prejudice on the basis of cultural differences.[6] The first is the argument that a belief in fundamental cultural differences between human groups can lead to the same harmful acts as a belief in fundamental biological differences, namely exploitation and oppression or exclusion and extermination.[6] As the academics Hans Siebers and Marjolein H. J Dennissen noted, this claim has yet to be empirically demonstrated.[6]

The second argument is that ideas of biological and cultural difference are intimately linked. Various scholars have argued that racist discourses often emphasise both biological and cultural difference at the same time. Others have argued that racist groups have often moved toward publicly emphasising cultural differences because of growing social disapproval of biological racism and that it represents a switch in tactics rather than a fundamental change in underlying racist belief.[6] The third argument is the "racism-without-race" approach. This holds that categories like "migrants" and "Muslims" have—despite not representing biologically united groups—undergone a process of "racialization" in that they have come to be regarded as unitary groups on the basis of shared cultural traits.[6]


Several academics have critiqued the use of "cultural racism" to describe prejudices on the basis of cultural difference. Siebers and Dennissen questioned whether bringing "together the exclusion/oppression of groups as different as current migrants in Europe, Afro-Americans and Latinos in the US, Jews in the Holocaust and in the Spanish Reconquista, slaves and indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquista and so on into the concept of racism, irrespective of justifications, does the concept not run the risk of losing in historical precision and pertinence what it gains in universality?"[12] They suggested that in attempting to develop a concept of "racism" that could be applied universally, exponents of the "cultural racism" idea risked undermining the "historicity and contextuality" of specific prejudices; they for instance citing the example of an academic study in which a scholar attempted to import ideas about U.S. racism wholesale when studying Dutch racism.[13] In analysing the prejudices faced by Moroccan-Dutch people in the Netherlands during the 2010s, Siebers and Dennissen argued that these individuals' experiences were very different both from those encountered by Dutch Jews in the first half of the 20th century and colonial subjects in the Dutch East Indies. Accordingly, they argued that concepts of "cultural essentialism" and "cultural fundamentalism" were far better ways of explaining hostility to migrants than that of "racism".[14]


The European or Western Identity[edit]

The geographer James Morris Blaut noted that in Western contexts, cultural racism replaces the biological concept of the "white race" with that of the "European" as a cultural entity.[15] He noted that as a result of cultural racism, many white Westerners saw themselves not as members of a "superior race", but of a "superior culture", referred to as "European culture", "Western culture", or "the West".[15] For Blaut, cultural racism "needs to prove the superiority of Europeans, and needs to do so without recourse to the older arguments from religion and from biology". In his view, it does so by "constructing a characteristic theory of cultural (and intellectual) history" which maintains that "nearly all of the important cultural innovations which historically generate cultural progress occurred first in Europe, then, later, diffused to the non-European peoples."[16] He suggested that the idea did not hold that this cultural superiority was a new phenomenon but that it had appeared in the ancient world and had continued into the present; "cultural racism claims that a vast number of these European cultural causes of progress, cultural mutations, occurred, throughout history, one after another, each adding further impetus to the progress of Europe, each pushing Europe farther ahead of all other civilizations."[17] Blaut was of the view that most of those who held to culturally racist ideas were not personally prejudiced and he cautioned against referring to said individuals as "racists".[17]

Putting the matter in a somewhat over-simplified form, the dominant racist theory of the early nineteenth century was a biblical argument, grounded in religion; the dominant racist theory of the period from about 1850 to 1950 was a biological argument, grounded in natural science; the racist theory of today is mainly a historical argument, grounded in the idea of culture history or simply culture. Today's racism is cultural racism.

— J. M. Baut in Antipode, 1992[15]

Blaut argued that after the First World War, biological racism began to lose ground in the scholarly communities of many European countries.[18] One of the cause of this was the growth of egalitarian values, reflected in particular by movements like socialism which challenged longstanding ideas about the superiority and inferiority of different human beings.[19] Another contributing factor was opposition to Nazism, a far-right German movement which placed strong emphasis on racial hierarchies.[20] In the 1950s and 1960s, biological racism lost the respectability it had previously held in Western countries.[20]

Blaut argued that culturally racist ideas were developed by Western academics tasked with "formulating a theoretical structure which would rationalize continued dominance of communities of color in the Third World and at home."[20] He expressed the view that culturally racist ideas were devised so as to promote neocolonialism in the Third World. In his opinion, the sociological concept of modernization was developed to promote the culturally racist idea that the Western powers were wealthier and more economically developed because they were more culturally advanced. This argument, Blaut thought, presented "the path already trodden by Europeans as the only means of overcoming backwardness" and thus emphasized the idea that non-European countries needed to seek the help and advise of European and other Western powers.[20]

Building on these ideas, Blaut referred to the German sociologist Max Weber as "the godfather of cultural racism" because he provided later "social scientists with a theory of modernization, essentially an elegant and scholarly restatement of colonial-era ideas about the uniqueness of European rationality and the uniqueness of European culture history."[16] Karen Wren repeated Blaut's argument, stating that "the essence of cultural racism therefore is that Europeans are not racially, but culturally superior" to non-Europeans.[9]

Cultural racism in Western countries[edit]

Wren argued that cultural racism had manifested in a "broadly similar" way throughout Europe, but with specific variations in different places according to the established ideas of national identity and the form and timing of immigration.[21] Wren argued that Western societies used the discourse of cultural difference as a form of Othering through which they justify the exclusion of various ethnic or cultural 'others', while at the same time "glossing over issues of social and economic inequality" between different ethnic groups.[10] Using Denmark as an example, she argued that a "culturally racist discourse" had emerged during the 1980s, a time of heightened economic tension and unemployment.[22] Based on fieldwork in the country during 1995, she argued that cultural racism had encouraged anti-immigration sentiment throughout Danish society and generated "various forms of racist practice", including housing quotas that restrict the number of ethnic minorities to around 10%.[23]

Wren compared anti-immigrant sentiment in 1990s Denmark to the Thatcherite anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in 1980s Britain.[24]

In 1992, Blaut argued that while most academics totally rejected biological racism, cultural racism was widespread within academia.[15] The term has also been used in politics. In 2016, Germany's European Commissioner Guenther Oettinger stated that it was unlikely that Turkey would be permitted to join the European Union while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remained the Turkish President. In response, Turkey's European Union Affairs Minister Omer Celik accused Germany of "cultural racism".[25]

Cultural racism among the far-right[edit]

In 1970s France, the growth of the far-right Nouvelle Droite (ND) movement was met by sustained liberal and leftist opposition. In response, the ND accelerated away from biological racism and toward the claim that different ethno-cultural groups should be kept separate in order to preserve their historical and cultural differences.[26] During the 1980s, this tactic was adopted by France's National Front (FN) party, which was then growing in support under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen.[27] After observing the electoral gains of Le Pen's party, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a UK fascist group, the British National Party—which had recently come under the leadership of Nick Griffin and his "moderniser" faction—also began downplaying its espousal of biological racism in favour of claims about the cultural incompatibility of different ethnic groups.[28]

In Denmark, a far-right group called the Den Danske Forening (The Danish Society) was launched in 1986, presenting culturally racist arguments aimed largely at refugees entering the country. Its discourse presented Denmark as a culturally homogenous and Christian nation that was threatened by largely Muslim migrants.[29]

Islamophobia and cultural racism[edit]

Various scholars who have studied the English Defence League (demonstration pictured) have argued that its Islamophobia can be called "cultural racism".

Some scholars who have studied Islamophobia have labelled it a form of cultural racism.[11] For instance, a range of academics studying the English Defence League, an Islamophobic street protest organisation founded in London in 2009, have labelled it culturally racist.[30]

Kundnani suggested some difference between the two; he noted that while cultural racism perceived "the body as the essential location of racial identity", specifically through its "forms of dress, rituals, languages and so on", Islamophobia "seems to locate identity not so much in a racialised body but in a set of fixed religious beliefs and practices".[31]

In 2018, the UK's all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, chaired by politicians Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting, proposed that Islamophobia be defined in British law as being "a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness". This generating concerns that such a definition would criminalise criticism of Islam. Writing in The Spectator, David Green referred to it as a "a backdoor blasphemy law" that would protect conservative variants of Islam from criticism, including criticism from other Muslims.[32] The British anti-racism campaigner Trevor Phillips also argued against it was inappropriate for the UK government to view Islamophobia as racism.[33][34] While the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats adopted the all-party parliamentary group's definition, the Conservative Party government rejected it, stating that the definition required "further careful consideration" and had "not been broadly accepted".[35]

Opposing cultural racism[edit]

Balibar noted that in recognising that different human groups do not form biologically distinct groups, the new racism destabilized older approaches to anti-racist activism.[2] The cultural racist position argues that when ethnic groups co-exist in the same location it "naturally" results in conflict. They therefore argue that attempts at integrating different ethnic and cultural groups leads to racism. In doing this they seek to portray themselves as the "true anti-racism".[36]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Rattansi 2007, p. 95; Siebers & Dennissen 2015, p. 471.
  2. ^ a b c d e Balibar 1991, p. 21.
  3. ^ a b Rattansi 2007, p. 95.
  4. ^ Siebers & Dennissen 2015, p. 471.
  5. ^ Siebers & Dennissen 2015, pp. 471–472.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Siebers & Dennissen 2015, p. 472.
  7. ^ Balibar 1991, p. 20.
  8. ^ Balibar 1991, p. 24.
  9. ^ a b Wren 2001, p. 143.
  10. ^ a b c Wren 2001, p. 144.
  11. ^ a b Kundnani 2017, p. 38.
  12. ^ Siebers & Dennissen 2015, pp. 472–473.
  13. ^ Siebers & Dennissen 2015, p. 473.
  14. ^ Siebers & Dennissen 2015, pp. 482–483.
  15. ^ a b c d Blaut 1992, p. 290.
  16. ^ a b Blaut 1992, p. 294.
  17. ^ a b Blaut 1992, p. 296.
  18. ^ Blaut 1992, p. 292.
  19. ^ Blaut 1992, pp. 292–293.
  20. ^ a b c d Blaut 1992, p. 293.
  21. ^ Wren 2001, p. 145.
  22. ^ Wren 2001, pp. 150, 152.
  23. ^ Wren 2001, p. 146.
  24. ^ Wren 2001, p. 147.
  25. ^ Samuel Osborne (31 August 2016). "Turkey accuses Germany of 'cultural racism' over comments about country joining EU". The Independent. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  26. ^ McCulloch 2006, p. 165.
  27. ^ Bar-On 2001, p. 335; McCulloch 2006, p. 165.
  28. ^ Driver 2011, p. 142; Goodwin 2011, p. 68.
  29. ^ Wren 2001, pp. 153–155.
  30. ^ Copsey 2010, p. 5; Allen 2011, pp. 291, 293; Alessio & Meredith 2014, p. 111; Kassimeris & Jackson 2015, p. 172.
  31. ^ Kundnani 2017, pp. 38–39.
  32. ^ Green, David (19 January 2019). "A new definition of Islamophobia could be a recipe for trouble". The Spectator.
  33. ^ Phillips, Trevor (20 December 2018). "It's wrong to treat British Muslims as a racial group". The Times. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  34. ^ Maidment, Jack (20 December 2018). "Proposed new definition of Islamophobia could see teachers forced to allow full-face veils in classrooms, warns Trevor Phillips". The Telegraph. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  35. ^ "Government rejects Islamophobia definition ahead of debate". BBC News. 15 May 2019. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  36. ^ Balibar 1991, pp. 22–3.


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Balibar, Étienne (1991). "Is there a Neo-Racism?". In Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (eds) (eds.). Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso. pp. 17–28.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
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Giroux, Henry A. (1993). "Living Dangerously: Identity Politics and the New Cultural Racism: Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Representation". Cultural Studies. 7 (1). pp. 1–27. doi:10.1080/09502389300490021.
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Further reading[edit]

  • Clare Sheridan, "Cultural Racism and the Construction of Identity", Law and History Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Spring, 2003), pp. 207-209
  • Jones, J. M. (1999). Cultural racism: The intersection of race and culture in intergroup conflict. In D. A. Prentice & D. T. Miller (Eds.), Cultural divides: Understanding and overcoming group conflict (pp. 465-490). New York, NY, US: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Rebecca Powell, "Overcoming Cultural Racism: The Promise of Multicultural Education", Multicultural Perspectives 2(3), 2000, pages 8-14
  • Anthias, Floya, "Cultural racism or racist culture? Rethinking racist exclusions", Economy and Society 24, pages 279-301
  • Wacquant LJD (1997) For an analytic of racial domination. Political Power and Social Theory 11: 221–234.