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This review appeared in Volume 4 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Gendered Racism

by Stephen Harold Riggins

Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. By Philomena Essed. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE, 1991, x, 322pp. ISBN 0-8039-4256-7.

Contemporary research has identified a variety of forms of racism. To simplify somewhat, distinctions have been made between two basic types of racism: firstly, overt and highly aggressive forms that are likely to involve institutional restrictions; secondly, covert forms conveyed primarily through the subtleties of face-to-face interaction such as hostile staring, silence, joking, and labelling. Because the increasingly multiracial and multicultural fabric of modern societies has created a political climate unfavourable to extreme expressions of racial and ethnic supremacy, racism today is thought to lie more in the realm of social interaction than in official institutional policies.

But it should not be forgotten that until recently the assessment of the relative visibility of racism has come primarily from the dominant majority. "Covert" racism has probably always been as visible as the "overt" forms for the social group which was consistently victimized by it, even though it may have been entangled in the ambiguous meshwire of a "commonsense" to which some minority members unwittingly assimilated. Nonetheless, it is logical to believe that racism has taken on some new characteristics because convincing evidence can be cited that ethnic relations, at least in North America, have improved over the last three decades (e.g., anonymous 1991).

A variety of terms have been applied to the "micro-inequities"(Rowe 1977) of modern racism: "enlightened racism" (Jhally and Lewis 1992), "aversive racism" (Kovel 1984), "intrinsic racism" (Appiah 1990), and "interactional racism" (Brandt 1986). Because of the absence of appropriate methodologies of discourse analysis, these covert forms have only recently become the object of systematic scrutiny.

The purpose of Philomena Essed's latest work is to focus on what she calls "everyday racism" and to untangle the various strategies of exclusion that it entails both in verbal and non-verbal communication. A revised Ph.D. thesis, Understanding Everyday Racism is a companion volume to an earlier work which she wrote for a non-academic audience (Essed 1990). In Understanding Everyday Racism, she scrutinizes 55 interviews with women of African descent in the Netherlands and the United States in which accounts are given of perceived discriminatory occurrences. The sample is restricted to highly educated interviewees, professionals, and college students. The choice of Black women for this study, who are currently the object of a double discrimination, provides a particularly revealing touchstone for her study. In addition, drawing from two different countries gives her the possibility of comparing her data from a social historical perspective. Her ultimate goal is to lay bare the racism which pervades everyday life, to denounce it, and to educate not only those who are commonly victimized but have been so alienated that they cannot identify the roots of the problem.

She writes that "the perspective of Black women is often dismissed as 'subjective' and, therefore, invalid. Radically breaking with this perspective I will show that accounts of racism are not ad hoc stories. They have a specific structure based on rational testing and argumentation"(120). Following Van Dijk (e.g. 1987) Essed uses a variation of the common categories applied in narrative analysis (setting, complication, and resolution) in tracing the structure of narratives of racial discrimination. She proposes that racist narratives consist of the following stable elements:

(1) context -- introductory comments about the situation in which the interaction took place, (2) complication -- remarks about what interviewees understood as disruptive or deviant in others' behaviour, (3) evaluation -- tentative explanations of the problematic behaviour, (4) argumentation --"proof" for the interpretations, and (5) decision -- a plan of action concerning the incident. The stages are illustrated in Essed's book with a variety of stories, but most convincingly with stories about iob interviews because individuals in such encounters are likely to evaluate each other on the basis of shared notions of proper behaviour.

The covert nature of modern racism complicates the process through which victims and perpetrators interpret each others' actions. Interviewees were puzzled as to whether their apparent rejection by Whites was due to personal animosity, class bias, gender bias, insensitivity, or to racism. Resolving such questions required subjective judgments about the consistency of the interviewees' experiences with those of other Blacks, judgments about whether other Blacks would agree with their inferences, and a comparison of Black and White experiences.

Essed argues that Whites in both the Netherlands and the United States tend to have a narrow definition of racism which -- for self serving reasons -- they restrict to the extreme, intentional belief in White supremacy. Thus, it is easy for Whites to deny prejudice as the opening move in a racist story ("I am not a racist but...") and then to accuse Blacks of being "overly sensitive" when they complain about the ethical implications of their actions. Ironically, the denial of racism becomes an effective instrument of repression. In the words of one Black interviewee: 'If you want to say something about racism, you've got to state your case very well otherwise (Whites) tackle you ... and they make you ridiculous' (147).

Blacks tend to have a much broader definition of racism that includes less extreme notions of superiority as well as actions whose implications may unintentionally convey an impression majority members believe in an ethnic hierarchy. In this version, racism refers not only to notions of White supremacy but also Eurocentrism, the avoidance of contact with other ethnic groups, underestimating the abilities of minorities, and the passive tolerance of racist behaviour by others.

Conflicting definitions are thought to arise out of the different levels of social power held by Blacks and Whites. Whites either perceive that they benefit from racism or that the topic is of little importance for their lives. Thus, Whites are comparatively uninformed about racism and have less incentive to question prevailing assumptions. Blacks are doubly victimized, first by racism itself; and secondly, they are rejected if they complain about White prejudice. Blacks who protest are pathologized and marginalized by Whites, their complaints defined as illegitimate and the result of psychological maladjustment. These contrasting perceptions have obviously played a role in a number of public conflicts in Canada such as the controversy over an exhibition about Canadian missionaries in Africa (Fulford 1991).

The irrationality that pervades common sense notions of race and ethnicity is a prominent theme in the scientific literature. Although Essed distances herself from this theme to some extent, it is still present in the obvious implication that White prejudice is irrational but correctly inferred by victims. Essed convincingly establishes the rationality of her interviewees. However, without detracting from the significance of her research, it is still true that there can be tragic consequences when victims of pervasive racism mistakenly attribute false motives to the majority. The process by which victims interpret evidence in the narrative structure she documents might have been clarified if she had included a greater variety of narratives, types of interviewees, and inferences by interviewees which have a high probability of being incorrect. A recent example of the latter might be the way that AIDS was initially perceived by some nonwhite minorities (anonymous 1992). There are also some excellent ethnographic studies documenting how the old racism was manifested in micro-inequities that might have been more fully explored by Essed to illustrate more comprehensively the differences between the old and the new racism. Braroe's (1975) Goffman-inspired study of native-white interaction in a prairie province is certainly one of the best Canadian examples.

In addition to the value of Understanding Everyday Racism as a study in narratology, readers will find in this volume a concise summary of the socio-economic situation of Surinamese immigrants in the Netherlands, as well as easily remembered stories that are ideal to use in classes on race and ethnicity in illustrating minority experiences. Covert racism -- in which the self-evident truth of one group is vehemently denied by the other -- is related to current theoretical debates in the social sciences about how different versions of the truth are grounded in everyday experience. In providing much information relevant to the issue, Essed's book is of broader theoretical interest than just the topic of racism.


Anonymous (1991) Racism in America: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.

Anonymous (1992) "The AIDS 'Plot' Against Blacks," The New York Times, May 12, Section A, P.14.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1990) "Racisms" In: David Theo Goldberg (ed) Anatomy of Rascism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1-17.

Brandt, G.L. (1986) The Realization of Anti-Racist Teaching. London: Falmer.

Braroe, Niels (1975) Indian and White; Self-image and Interaction in a Canadian Plains Community. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univershy Press.

van Dijk, T.A. (1987) Communicating Racism. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.

Essed, Philomena (1990) Everyday Racism: Reports of Women from Two Countries. Claremont, CA: Hunter House.

Fulford, Robert (1991) "Into the Heart of the Matter," Rotunda 24(1), 19-28.

Goldberg, David Theo (ed.) (1990) Anatomy of Rascism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jhahy, Sut and Justin Lewis (1992) Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Bolder CO: Westview Press.

Kovel, Joel (1984) White Racism: Psychohistory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rowe, Mary P. (1977) "The Saturn Rings Phenomenon: Micro-inequities and Unequal Opportunity in the American Economy." In P. Bourne and V. Partners (eds.), Proceedings. Santa Cruz: University of California.

Stephen Harold Riggins is Associate Professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the editor of Beyond Goffman. Studies in Communication, Institution and Social Interaction (Mouton de Gruyter, 1990), Ethnic Minority Media (Sage, 1992), and The Socialness of Things: Essays on the Semiotics of Objects (Mouton de Gruyter, forthcoming).

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