What is racism as a relational concept?

Preliminary thoughts for a conceptual and ethnographic approach

by Manuela Bojadžijev & Serhat Karakayalı (Humboldt-Universität)



Developments of a critical research on racism have ever since been confronted with the fact that racism constructs hierarchical identities that seem irreducible/irrefragable for a political praxis. Lived realities, historical experiences, traumata and subjectivisations serve as foundations for the politics of anti-racism. Such politics partly transform to elements of policies of diversity management and multiculturalism and partly lead into a differentiation of political languages and milieus. While approaches of a universalistic kind seem unable to bridge such real differences, debates in which the concept of the multitude or approaches of intersectionality have been advocated attempt to think of heterogeneity in productive way.

But in the meantime the situation in Europe has been further complicated. When Etienne Balibar spoke of “racism without races” in the late 1980s this implicated a floating of the signifier (‘race’, or ‘ethnicity’), and influenced a further shift in the struggles against racism increasingly moving onto the terrain of culture. In the past decade this has lead to a trend, among others, that advanced racism to operate on the terrain of religion. We can think of this problematic in three following steps: a. Antimuslim statements are increasingly combined and articulated within progressive discourses, evoking questions, formerly coded under the term secularism, about where to draw the line between religion as practices of everyday life vs. religion as a political project; b. this raises questions of how to analyse those political projects and to determine the relation between them; c. and on a more general level this situation demands the conceptualisation of social relations: How do we understand the concept of a social relation, given our understanding of racism as a relational concept, under conditions in which no longer race is the floating signifier (as Stuart Hall once famously said) but the very concept of racism has begun to float. Shall we resort in the notion of latency in analysing contemporary racism? What do we turn our ears to to listen to the floating sounds of racism in a Europe in crisis?