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Perhaps the most interesting thing about racism is that no one wants to be accused of it. Even fascist political parties such as the BNP go to preposterous lengths to ‘prove’ that they are not racist, which is peculiar given that they clearly are. In their 63-page report into the year-long John Terry-Anton Ferdinand race saga the FA stated that though John Terry “is not a racist” his defence against the charge of racial abuse (that he was simply repeating what he believed he was being wrongfully accused of) was “improbable, implausible and contrived”. Which raises the question: if a white man who verbally abuses a black man by calling him a “fucking black cunt” isn’t a racist, who the hell is?

I think that this confusion about racism is widespread and, combined with the fact that ‘racist’ is apparently one of the worst things that any one can be called, it is quite dangerous. It means that we often feel comfortable enough to thoroughly condemn any reference to race, ethnicity, or culture as racism, but rarely feel confident enough to engage in a discussion about what racism actually is. Racism, it seems, is just too scary – both to tolerate and to unpick.

Sometimes incidents occur which highlight this problem and force us – or should force us – to reflect on what we mean by racism. The bullying of Shilpa Shetty on Big Brother is a good example. At the time there seemed to be a debate about whether the terrible treatment the Bollywood star received at the hands of Jade Goody et al did amount to racism. (This was before it emerged that Goody’s boyfriend Jack Tweedy actually referred to Shetty as a ‘Paki’ in footage not aired by Channel 4.) Many people criticised Big Brother at the time for presenting bullying, racist or otherwise, as entertainment. But I thought that this incident highlighted an often forgotten fundamental role of the media: to hold a mirror up to society and encourage us to reflect on who we are.

The seemingly never-ending race storm currently engulfing the Premier League does something similar. Of course ‘football’ is not racist (can a game be racist? I suppose it could but it be an odd game indeed), it simply reflects the prejudices in wider society. The controversy does, however, give us good opportunity to think deeply about what we mean by racism. This thinking should take the form of an ongoing conversation, but I would like to make two points of clarification to get us started.

The first thing that we should note about racism is that it has a socially constructed meaning – essentially because race does. The reason that Anton Ferdinand is offended by fact that the word ‘black’ was included in an insult addressed towards him is that his society understands him to be black. This might seem obvious but some people actually find it quite peculiar. They find it strange that someone who has a black father and white mother is uncontroversially referred to as black. ‘He is just as much black as he is white’, they might say. This response would make sense if you conceived of someone’s race as the result of some kind of generations long genetic equation. (I have argued elsewhere that this isn’t how we should think about who we are.) It doesn’t make sense because the term ‘black’ actually has a socially constructed meaning: it means whatever the society in question has defined it to mean. Historically the term ‘black’ has been used in the UK to refer to anyone of non-white British origin (including south Asian, Latino, and Irish – yes, Irish), but nowadays it commonly is used to refer to anyone who is (even partly) descended from African, Caribbean, or ‘other Black groups’. I’m sure that the way that we use the word ‘black’ will soon change once again, and it is interesting to note that in South Africa many of those understood to be black in this country would instead be described as ‘coloured’.

The point I’m making here is not that we should all understand ourselves principally in terms of whatever shade our skin happens to be. I personally think that we should stop trying so hard to categorise people according to this and other arbitrary facts in the first place. The point I am making is that if we are going to continue to view the world through the prism of race – which we clearly are – then we should understand that race is not some immutable transcultural, transhistorical fact, but something that together as a society we construct and impose.

The second thing to note also follows from the fact racism is socially constructed: it doesn’t affect all races equally. Again this seems obvious, but it’s actually quite controversial depending on who you speak to. Sometimes you hear people say things like ‘How come you can only be racist to black or brown people?’ or ‘Why isn’t there a music of white origin awards or a White History Month? Isn’t that a bit racist?’ Hilarious as the idea of a MOWO awards might be, these kinds of questions aren’t actually that stupid and only serve to show what happens when you propagate the idea that something is the worst thing ever but fail to carefully explain what it is. These sorts of questions would make sense if you simply defined racism as something like: ‘any kind of discrimination on the basis of race’. But they are confused because that isn’t really what racism is. Instead, you might say that something is racist if it systematically fails to take the interests of a certain race or races into account, or systematically privileges the interests of one race over another. The same is true of sexism.

This second definition means that you have to look to the context before you can decide if something is racist – to see if the prejudice and discrimination is systematic or not. This explains why it is not racist for a society to set aside a month to celebrate one race’s history if that race’s history and contribution has typically been marginalised (for the record, I actually think it is nonsensical to think of history in this way). It also explains why it might be racist if a society arranges itself so that half of the young male population of one race is unemployed or so that the members of one race are grotesquely overrepresented in the prison population.

And more generally it means that a society or person can, like John Terry, be racist even if they don’t think they are or mean to be.

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