Race and RacismSome Concepts Defined

by : Glenn Murray

Despite adamant claims to the contrary, racism continues to plague many peoples around the world. The first step toward resolving issues of racial intolerance and prejudice is to develop an understanding of the underlying concepts and their labels.

This (rather long) article touches on the following topics:

  • Stereotypes, Race, and Racism
  • Culture and Cultural Imperialism
  • Nationalism and National Imaginary
  • I hope you find this article helpful.


According to Stroebe and Insko (1989), the term 'stereoptype' originated in 1798 to describe a printing process that involved casts of pages of type. The term was first used in relation to the social and political arena in 1922 by Walter Lippman, referring to our perception of different groups.

Since then, the meaning of the term has been vigorously debated. Stereotyping was considered by some as the oversimplified, biased cognitive representations of 'undesirable rigidity, permanence, and lack of variability from application to application' (ibid, 1989, p.4). Others, such as Brown (1965), considered it a natural fact of life like any other generalisation; 'many generalisations acquired by heresay are true and useful' (cited in Stroebe & Insko, 1989, p.5).

Stroebe and Insko (1989) settle on a simple definition which sits somewhere in between these two schools of thought. They define a stereotype as the “set of beliefs about the personal attributes of a group of people' (p.5). They obviously accept that stereotypes are not necessarily rigid, permanent, or invariable, but they do still distinguish between stereotypes and other categories, claiming that stereotypes are characterised by a bias towards the ingroup and away from the outgroup (p.5).

Yzerbyt, et al (1997) attempt to explain the existence of stereotypes, suggesting that stereotypes provide not only a set of (often unjustified) attributes to describe a group, but also a rationale for maintaining that set of attributes. This allows people to “integrate incoming information according to their specific views" (p.21).


When used in everyday speech in relation to multiculturalism, the term ‘race’ has come to mean any of the following:

  • nationality (geographically determined) - e.g. the Italian race ethnicity (culturally determined, sometimes in combination with geography) - e.g. the Italian race
  • skin colour - e.g. the white race

The common usage of ‘race’ is problematic because it is esoteric, and because it implies what Bell (1986) calls “biological certainty" (p.29). When we talk about race, there is always a common understanding that we are also talking about common genetic characteristics that are passed from generation to generation. The concept of nationality is generally not so heavily tarred with the genetics brush. Likewise, ethnicity allows for, and gives equal weight to, causes other than genetics; race does not. Skin colour is just a description of physical appearance; race is not. The concept of race may masquerade as a mere substitution for these terms, but in actual fact, it is a reconstruction.

Further, there is the question of degree. Are you black if you had a black grandmother? Are you black if you grew up in a black neighbourhood? Are you black sometimes, but not others? Who makes these decisions?


Having established the problems associated with the term ‘race’, we can now discuss how these problems contribute to issues of racism.

Jakubowicz et al (1994) define racism as “the set of values and behaviours associated with groups of people in conflict over physical appearances, genealogy, or cultural differences. It contains an intellectual/ideological framework of explanation, a negative orientation towards ‘the Other’, and a commitment to a set of actions that put these values into practice." (p.27)

What this definition fails to address is the framework of explanation. Perhaps it should say “…framework of explanation based on various notions of race and racial stereotypes…". This would bring us back to our discussion of the concept of race.

Because race is almost impossible to define, racial stereotypes are even more inappropriate than other kinds of stereotypes. Racism is an infuriating phenomenon because, irrespective of this, behaviour is still explained, and actions are still performed, based on these racial categorisations.


“Culture" is a term we’re all familiar with, but what does it mean? Does it reflect your nationality? Does it reflect your race? Does it reflect your colour, your accent, your social group?

Kress (1988) defines culture as “the domain of meaningful human activity and of its effects and resultant objects" (p.2). This definition is very broad, and not particularly meaningful unless analysed in context. Lull (1995) talks of culture as “a complex and dynamic ecology of people, things, world views, activities, and settings that fundamentally endures but is also changed in routine communication and social interaction. Culture is context." (p.66)

As with other categorisation techniques, however, cultural labels are inherently innaccurate when applied at the individual level. No society is comprised of a single culture only. There are multitudes of sub-cultures which form due to different living conditions, places of birth, upbringing, etc. The concept of culture is useful because it differentiates between different groups of people on the basis of learned characteristics rather than genetic characteristics. It “implies that no culture is inherently superior to any other and that cultural richness by no means derives from economic standing" (Lull, 1995, p.66).

This last may be one reason behind the so-called “intellectual aversion to the idea of culture" (Carey, 1989, p.19) that has been encounted in America (probably the West in general, and, I would say, definitely in Australia). Other reasons suggested are individualism, Puratinism, and the isolation of science from culture.

Cultural Imperialism

In 1971, Johan Galtung published a landmark paper called “A Structural Theory of Imperialism". Galtung conceptualises the world as a system of centres and peripheries in which the centres exploit the peripheries by extracting raw materials, processing these materials, and selling the processed products back to the peripheries. Because the processed goods are bought at a far greater cost than the raw materials, the periphery finds it extremely difficult to find enough capital to develop the infrastructure necessary to process its own raw materials. Therefore, it is always running at a loss.

Galtung’s model is not limited to the trade of raw materials such as coal, metals, oil, etc. To the contrary, it is designed to incorporate the transformation of any raw value (such as natural disasters, violence, death, cultural difference) into a valuable processed product (such as a news story, or a tourism industry).

Galtung’s approach is inherently problematic, however, because it superimposes a centre-periphery relationship onto a world where no such relationship actually physically exists. In other words, it is a model which attempts to make sense of the intricate relationships between cultures, but by the very fact that it is a model, it is limiting. Admittedly, all theories are necessarily models, or constructions, of reality, but Galtung’s is potentially harmful because:

  1. it positions underdeveloped countries and their cultures in the periphery. In order for such countries/cultures to try to change their position, they must first acknowledge their position as peripheral; and
  2. it implies that the world will always contain imperialistic centre-periphery relationships; “A Centre country may slip into the Periphery, and vice versa" (Galtung &Vincent, 1992, p.49), but no allowance is made for the possibility of a world without imperialism. Therefore, if a country/culture wishes to change its position it must become an imperialistic centre.

In recent times, the term ‘Cultural Imperialism’ has come to mean the cultural effects of Galtung’s imperialism, rather than the process of imperialism as he sees it. For example, Mowlana (1997) argues that cultural imperialism occurs when “the dominant center overwhelms the underdeveloped peripheries, stimulating rapid and unorganized cultural and social change (Westernization), which is arguably detrimental" (p.142).

The issue of language decline due to imbalances in media structures and flow is often claimed to be the result of cultural imperialism. Browne (1996) theorises that “the rapid rise of the electronic media during the twentieth century, along with their dominance by the majority culture, have posed a tremendous challenge to the continuing integrity, and even the very existence, of indigenous minority languages… (p.60)"

He suggests that indiginous languages decline because:

  • new indigenous terminology takes longer to be devised, and may be more difficult to use, thus ‘majority’ terminology tends to be used;
  • media monopolies have historically determined acceptable language usage; schools have historically promoted the use of the ‘majority’ language;
  • indigenous populations around the world tend to rely quite heavily on electronic media because they have greater literacy problems. As a result, they are more heavily influenced by the ‘majority’ language than they realise;
  • the electronic media are inappropriate for communication in many indigenous languages because many such languages employ pauses as signs, and the electronic media remove pauses because they are regarded as “time wasted and as an indication of lack of professionalism" (Browne, p.61); and
  • television reinforces majority culture visual conventions, such as direct eye contact.

Similarly, Wardhaugh (1987) discusses how the majority of medical and scientific articles are published in English. “While English does not completely monopolize the scientific literature, it is difficult to understand how a scientist who cannot read English can hope to keep up with current scientific activity." (p.136) More books are published in English than any other language, and “much of higher education in the world is carried out in English or requires some knowledge of English, and the educational systems of many countries acknowledge that students should be given some instruction in English if they are to be adequately prepared to meet the needs of the late twentieth century." (Wardhaugh, 1987, p.137)

There are definitely uncounted instances of one culture suffering at the hands of another, but there are still problems with explaining this in terms of Cultural Imperialism. In addition to those outlined above with relation to Galtung, there are a number of other problems. The Cultural Imperialism approach:

  • does not allow for the appropriation or select cultural values by the ‘minority’ culture in order to empower, or in some other way, benefit, that culture;
  • presupposes some degree of natural change, it does not discuss where the line between natural change and imperialism can be drawn. (When is the change a necessary part of the compromise of living in a multicultural society?); and
  • overlooks the changes to ‘dominant’ cultures which necessarily occur as it learns about the ‘subordinate’ culture.

Atal (1997) asserts that “[f]orces of change, impinging from the outside, have not succeeded in transforming the [non-West] cultures into look-alike societies. Cultures have shown their resilience and have survived the onslaught of technological changes." (p.24) Robertson (1994) talks of Glocalisation, with the local being seen as an aspect of the global, not as its opposite. For example, we can see “the construction of increasingly differentiated consumers… To put it very simply, diversity sells" (p.37). It is his contention that “we should not equate the communicative and interactive connecting of… cultures with the notion of homogenisation of all cultures" (p.39).

This article does not suggest that we should be complacent about the effects cultures may have on each other. Rather, it suggests Cultural Imperialism is somewhat flawed as a tool for cultural and social criticism and change. Instead, each problem should be identified as an individual problem, not as a part of an overall phenomenon called cultural imperialism.


In his discussion of culture and identity, Singer (1987) argues that nationalism is a relatively modern phenomenon which started with the French and American revolutions. Singer asserts that “[a]s the number and importance of identity groups that individuals share rise, the more likely they are to have a higher degree of group identity" (p.43). Using this premise, he suggests that nationalism is a very powerful identity because it combines a host of other identities, such as “language, ethnicity, religion, and long-shared historic memory as one people attached to a particular piece of land" (p.51).

It’s not surprising then, that Microsoft’s Encarta Online (1998) defines nationalism as a “movement in which the nation-state is regarded as the most important force for the realization of social, economic, and cultural aspirations of a people."

National “imaginary"

Anne Hamilton (1990) defines national imaginary as “the means by which contemporary social orders are able to produce not merely images of themselves but images of themselves against others. An image of the self implies at once an image of another, against which it can be distinguished (p.16)"

She argues that it can be conceptualised as looking in a mirror and thinking we see someone else. By this, she means that a social order transplants its own (particularly bad) traits onto another social group. In this way, the social order can view itself in a positive way, serving to “unite the collectivity and maintain its sense of cohesion against outsiders" (Hamilton, 1990, p.16).

It seems, however, that the process can also work in the reverse direction. Hamilton suggests that in the case of Australia, there is a lack of images of the self. She asserts that the social order has appropriated aspects of Aboriginal culture as a result. In terms of the mirror analogy, this would be the self looking at another and thinking it sees itself.


Atal, Y., (1997) “One World, Multiple Centres" in Media & politics in transition: cultural identity in the age of globalization, ED. Servaes, J., & Lie, R., (pp.19-28), Belgium: Uitgeverij Acco.

Bell, P., (1986) “Race, Ethnicity: Meanings and Media", in Multicultural Societies, ED. Bell, R., (pp.26-36).

Browne, D.R., (1996) Electronic Media and Indigenous Peoples, Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Galtung, J., (1971) “A Structural Theory of Imperialism" in Journal of Peace Research (8:2, pp.81-117).

Galtung, J., & Vincent, R.C. (1992) Global Glasnost, Hamptom Press, USA.

Hamilton, A., (1990) “Fear and Desire: Aborigines, Asians and the National Imaginary" in Australian Perceptions of Asia (No.9, pp.14-35).

Jakubowicz, A., Goodall, H., Martin, J., Mitchell, T., Randall, L., & Seneviratne, K. (1994) Racism, Ethnicity and the Media, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, Australia.

Kress, G., (1989) Communication and Culture: An Introduction, New South Wales University Press, Australia.

Lull, J., (1995) Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. Polity Press.

Mowlana, H., (1997) Global Information and World Communication: New Frontiers in International Relations, Sage Publications Ltd.

Robertson, R., (1994) “Glocalisation" in The Journal of International Communication, 1,1, (pp.32-52).

Singer, M.R., (1987) Intercultural Communication: A Perceptual Approach, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Stroebe, W., & Insko, C..A., (1989) “Stereotype, Prejudice, and Discrimination: Changing Conceptions in Theory and Research" in Stereotyping and Prejudice: Changing Conceptions, ED. Bar-Tal, D., Graumann, C.F., Kruglanski, A.W., Stroebe, W., (pp.3-34), Springer-Verlag New York Inc.

Wardhaugh, R., (1987), Languages in Competition: Dominance, Diversity, and Decline, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford, UK.

Yzerbyt, V., Rocher, S., & Schadron, G., (1997) “Stereotypes as Explanations: A Subjective Essentialistic View of Group Perception" in The Social Psychology of Stereotyping and Group Life, ED. Spears, R., Oakes, P.J., Ellemers, N., & Haslam, S.A., (pp.20-50), Blackwell Publishers Ltd