Racism and Anti-Racism

By Balibar, Etienne | UNESCO Courier, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Racism and Anti-Racism


Balibar, Etienne, UNESCO Courier


The strangely ambiguous relationship between two incompatible ideas

The term "racism" seems to have been introduced into the English language in 1938 in a translation of a book by the German writer Magnus Hirschfeld which had appeared in German four or five years earlier and described the "racial theory" that underlay Hitler's conception of a war between races. The word thus seems to have been coined in Germany to describe the racism of the Nazi state, which was targeted primarily against the Jews but also against other "sub-human" peoples and groups and was based on the Aryan myth. In due course it came to acquire its internationally accepted meaning as a prejudice based on belief in the congenital inequality of human groups.

Pierre-Andre Taguieff, a French philosopher who has made an exhaustive study of the question, has discovered what he calls two "totally distinct appearances" of the word "racism" in France. The first, relatively episodic use of the word occurred between 1895 and 1897 and was connected with the founding of the authoritarian ultra-nationalist organization, Action Francaise, and of an extreme right-wing nationalist newspaper, La Libre Parole. The supporters of this movement, which actively propagated anti-semitism in France and also had close ties with colonial circles, described themselves as "racists", representatives of a "French race" that was to be preserved from degeneration. Then, between 1925 and 1935 the terms "racisme" and "raciste" made a come-back in France but this time were used in a broader sense to designate the doctrine of German fascism, and to translate its key adjective, "volkisch".

After the Second World War this second meaning and the accepted English usage of the word racism came to overlap. But in France the reference to nationalism was still of decisive importance, for attempts to stigmatize German-style "racism" were entirely organized around its difference from French-style "nationalism". The latter was presented as "universalist" and was regarded as having a "cultural" basis that was quite alien to the Germanic "naturalist" tradition, propped up by belief in the supposed biological immutability of "races". An ideology based on xenophobia and essentialism may thus lie at the roots of antiracism in France.

An ambivalent doctrine

This reasoning, which I have here simplified to an extreme degree, has shown up the ambivalence which may to some extent be characteristic of both anti-racist and racist thinking. The ambivalence of racism is manifest in the fact that it is based both on idealization of oneself ("master race") and on denigration of others as "degenerate", "sub-human" or "primitive". It also appears in the relationship of racism to universalism. Racism which heightens in a quasi-mystical fashion the illusion of the absolute uniqueness and superiority of a nation or group of nations that believe themselves to have been "chosen" paradoxically coincides with universalism when it attempts to set this supremacy in a context of universal history or natural evolution of all humanity.

It should not be surprising, then, that anti-racism, which also exists in the context of nationalism - the dominant state ideology of our era - should sometimes manifest a similar ambivalence. What is true of the French condemnation of "German racism" in a climate of nationalistic revenge is equally true of the condemnation of Nazism by the victors of the Second World War and of the condemnation of colonial racism by certain national liberation movements.

The notion of "race" has such a wide range of meanings that it can be used in many different contexts. …

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