by Jean-Jacques Weber
Since the 2008 election of President Obama in the United States of America, we are increasingly told that we are witnessing the end of racism. I would argue, on the contrary, that racism is still all-pervasive but that it has been normalized.
Racism has become such a part of everyday common sense that we often do not even notice it any longer. We do notice it at certain times, as when in Europe and elsewhere, Far Right parties score electoral victories, with increasing numbers of people voting for them and their elected representatives sitting in the European Parliament, or in national parliaments and local communes, whether in Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland, or many other countries.
It is easy, at times like this, to construct those who vote for such parties as the racists and us, by implication, as non-racist. In fact, however, these seemingly opposed views actually exist on a continuum, on which it is easy to slide from softer to harder forms of racism. None of us is immune from racist views and in particular the language racist views that our Western societies are steeped in. Language racism refers to the manifold ways in which language is increasingly used nowadays as a proxy for race in order to exclude people.
Before I discuss some examples, there are two important points that we need to keep in mind about racism. First, racism is not only cognitive but also structural and institutional. Racism is not just a matter of individual beliefs, which can be abolished by changing these beliefs. There are also structures and institutions that are bolstered by the racial ideology and that help to maintain and reproduce racial privilege and inequality. Secondly, the biological racism built around a distinction between superior and inferior races has nowadays metamorphosed into a cultural racism focused on cultural differences, which can be linguistic, religious, etc. In this way, many racial discriminations are also about religion, language, social class or gender. The point is precisely that different types of discrimination overlap, and that race, class, gender, religion and language issues intersect in all sorts of ways.
However, mainstream contemporary discourses are marked by what is usually referred to as ‘colour-blind racism’, which consists in the denial (or erasure) of race and racism. An illustration of this would be the August 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, a small town located within the metropolitan area of St Louis. Long-standing spatial, economic and cultural segregation in Ferguson has involved a high level of distrust between the largely black community and the mostly white police force, which culminated in the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on 9 August 2014, which in turn sparked off massive protests on the streets of Ferguson and all over the USA.
One widely reported comment after this tragic event was that of the white Republican mayor of Ferguson, who insisted that we need to ‘blame poverty, not race’ (Guardian, 23-08-2014). In this way, he attempted to shift the blame away from white supremacy and the structural racism of the social system, and upon poor people, who could then be looked upon as responsible for their own poverty. Thus the erasure of race and racism involves a number of factors:
- an emphatic assertion that we, or a particular individual (Darren Wilson), are not racist;
- an inability – or unwillingness – to see the wider picture of structural racism in the social system;
- a mistaken belief in the one factor that explains it all: ‘it’s about poverty, not race’.
Language racism works in a similar way. A recent example of it occurred in Luxembourg, the country where I live and work. Luxembourg is a highly multilingual country, with three officially recognized languages (Luxembourgish, French and German). It has a high number of foreign residents (45.3%), with the largest immigrant community being the Portuguese. Many foreign residents speak French (as well as other Romance languages such as Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Cape Verdean Creole). As a result, French, which used to be the language of prestige and of the educated elite, has now become associated with migrants and is being viewed in an increasingly negative light by many locals. They fear that the rapid spread of French may endanger the small Luxembourgish language and, concomitantly, the Luxembourgish ‘nation’ itself.
On 7 June 2015, the Luxembourgish citizens were asked in a referendum to decide for or against extending the right of vote in legislative elections to foreign residents. The government campaigned in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, as a way of reducing the ‘democratic deficit’ in Luxembourg, where only about half of the population are allowed to vote in legislative elections. However, the motion was rejected by 78% of the voters. In the aftermath of the referendum, many of these ‘no’ voters felt the need to defend themselves against possible charges of xenophobia and racism, by arguing (in online comments, letters to the editor, etc.) that theirs was not a vote against foreigners but against the French language. In the following letter to the editor, for example, it is claimed that the sole aim of the ‘no’ voters was to defend the Luxembourgish language against an encroachment by French:
The 80% against voting rights for foreigners is not a vote against foreigners. It was a vote against the further ‘Frenchification’ of the country … That proves: we are not hostile to foreigners. (Luxemburger Wort, 17-06-2015)
Here we have another instantiation of the ‘denial of racism’ strategy (‘it’s about language, not race’), and we are reminded that multilingualism does not automatically tally with tolerance and open-mindedness. Even more worryingly, this form of language racism underlies widespread societal discourses which are ostensibly about language but are often tied up in more complicated anxieties about race, for example the politics of integration in Europe and the English Only movement in the United States. Anybody interested in this topic will find further examples and analyses in my new book Language Racism.
Jean-Jacques Weber is Professor of English and Education at the University of Luxembourg. He has published widely in the areas of discourse analysis, multilingualism and education, including Language Racism (Palgrave, 2015), Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First (Multilingual Matters, 2014) and Introducing Multilingualism: A Social Approach (Routledge, 2012).
© Jean-Jacques Weber 2015
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