Cultural racism

A poster in Wroclaw expressing opposition to multi-culturalism, the idea that people of different cultures can reside in the same state; this stance is described by some theorists as "cultural racism"

Cultural racism, sometimes called neo-racism, new racism, or differentialist racism, is a concept that has been applied to prejudices and discrimination based on cultural differences between ethnic or racial groups. This includes the idea that some cultures are superior to others, and that various cultures are fundamentally incompatible and should not co-exist in the same society or state. In this it differs from biological or scientific racism, meaning prejudices and discrimination rooted in perceived biological differences between ethnic or racial groups.

The concept of cultural racism was developed in the 1980s and 1990s by West European scholars like Martin Barker and Étienne Balibar, who were influenced by American critical race theory. These theorists argued that the hostility to migrants then evident in Western countries should be considered racism, a term that had been used to describe discrimination on the grounds of perceived biological race since the 1930s. They argued that while biological racism had become increasingly unpopular in Western societies during the second half of the 20th century, it had been replaced by a new, cultural racism that relied on a belief in intrinsic and insurmountable cultural differences instead. These scholars, for instance, argued that while the notion of a white race that was biologically superior to other races had fallen out of favour, its place had been taken up by a belief that Western culture was superior to other cultures.

Three main arguments as to why beliefs in intrinsic cultural differences should be considered racist have been put forward. One is that hostility on a cultural basis can result in the same discriminatory and harmful practices as belief in intrinsic biological differences, such as exploitation, oppression, or extermination. The second is that beliefs in biological and cultural difference are often interlinked and that biological racists use claims of cultural difference to promote their ideas in contexts where biological racism is considered socially unacceptable. The third argument is that the idea of cultural racism recognises that in many societies, groups like immigrants and Muslims have undergone racialization, coming to be seen as distinct social groups separate from the majority on the basis of their cultural traits. Influenced by critical pedagogy, those calling for the eradication of cultural racism in Western countries have largely argued that this should be done by promoting multicultural education and anti-racism through schools and universities.

The utility of the concept has been debated. Some scholars have argued that prejudices and hostility based on culture are sufficiently different from biological racism that it is not appropriate to use the term "racism" for both. According to this view, incorporating cultural prejudices into the concept of racism expands the latter too much and weakens its utility. Among scholars who have used the concept of cultural racism, there have been debates as to its scope. Some scholars have argued that Islamophobia should be considered a form of cultural racism. Others have disagreed, arguing that while cultural racism pertains to visible symbols of difference like clothing, cuisine, and language, Islamophobia primarily pertains to hostility on the basis of someone's religious beliefs.


Étienne Balibar's concept of "neo-racism" was an early formulation of what later became widely termed "cultural racism"

The concept of "cultural racism" has been compared with Martin Barker's concept of "new racism",[1] Étienne Balibar's notion of "neo-racism",[2] and Pierre-André Taguieff's idea of "differentialist racism".[3] Another term used has been "the racism of cultural difference".[4]

The term "racism" is one of the most controversial and ambiguous words used within the social sciences.[5] This academic usage is complicated by the fact that it is also common in popular discourse, where it is often employed as a term of "political abuse".[6] It was coined in the 1930s, primarily to describe the anti-Semitic policies enacted in Nazi Germany.[7] These policies were rooted in the Nazi government's belief that Jews constituted a biologically distinct race that was separate from what they believed to be the Nordic race inhabiting Northern Europe. This differed from earlier forms of anti-Semitism, which rarely regarded Jews as a distinct race.[7] During the mid-20th century, this "classical" understanding of racism as being rooted in the biological differences between races was associated not only with Nazi racial doctrine but also with the apartheid system in South Africa and the racial segregation found in southern areas of the United States.[8] Following the Second World War, when Nazi Germany was defeated and biologists developed the science of genetics, the idea that the human species sub-divided into biologically distinct races began to decline.[9]

From the 1980s onward, there was considerable debate—particularly in Britain, France, and the United States—about the relationship between biological racism and prejudices rooted in cultural difference.[4] By this point, most scholars of critical race theory rejected the idea that there are biologically distinct races, arguing that "race" is a culturally constructed concept created through racist practices.[10] These academic theorists argued that the hostility to migrants evident in Western Europe during the latter decades of the twentieth century should be regarded as "racism" but recognised that it was different from historical phenomena commonly called "racism", such as racial anti-Semitism or European colonialism.[11] They therefore argued that while historic forms of racism were rooted in ideas of biological difference, the new "racism" was rooted in beliefs about different groups being culturally incompatible with each other.[12]


The scholars Carol C. Mukhopadhyay and Peter Chua defined "cultural racism" as "a form of racism (that is, a structurally unequal practice) that relies on cultural differences rather than on biological markers of racial superiority or inferiority. The cultural differences can be real, imagined, or constructed."[13] Elsewhere, in The Wiley‐Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory, Chua defined cultural racism as "the institutional domination and sense of racial‐ethnic superiority of one social group over others, justified by and based on allusively constructed markers, instead of outdated biologically ascribed distinctions."[14]

An important characteristic of the so-called 'new racism', 'cultural racism' or 'differential racism' is the fact that it essentialises ethnicity and religion, and traps people in supposedly immutable reference categories, as if they are incapable of adapting to a new reality or changing their identity. By these means cultural racism treats the 'other culture' as a threat that might contaminate the dominant culture and its internal coherence. Such a view is clearly based on the assumption that certain groups are the genuine carriers of the national culture and the exclusive heirs of their history while others are potential slayers of its 'purity'.

—Sociologist Uri Ben-Eliezer, 2004[15]

Balibar, a philosopher, linked this new racism to the process of decolonization, arguing that while older, biological racisms were employed when European countries were engaged in colonising other parts of the world, the new racism was linked to the rise of non-European migration into Europe in the decades following the Second World War.[16] He argued that "neo-racism" replaced "the notion of race" with "the category of immigration",[17] and in this way produced a "racism without races".[16] Balibar described this racism as having as its dominant theme not biological heredity, "but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which, at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but 'only' the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of lifestyles and traditions".[16] He nevertheless thought that cultural racism's claims that different cultures are equal was "more apparent than real" and that when put into practice, cultural racist ideas reveal that they inherently rely on a belief that some cultures are superior to others.[18]

The geographer Karen Wren defined cultural racism as "a theory of human nature where humans are considered equal, but where cultural differences make it natural for nation states to form closed communities, as relations between different cultures are essentially hostile."[19] She added that cultural racism stereotypes ethnic groups, treats cultures as fixed entities, and rejects ideas of cultural hybridity.[20] Wren argued that nationalism, and the idea that there is a nation-state to which foreigners do not belong, is "essential" to cultural racism. She noted that "cultural racism relies on the closure of culture by territory and the idea that 'foreigners' should not share the 'national' resources, particularly if they are under threat of scarcity."[20]

The sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel noted that "cultural racism assumes that the metropolitan culture is different from ethnic minorities' culture" while simultaneously taking on the view that minorities fail to "understand the cultural norms" that are dominant in a given country.[21] Grosfoguel also noted that cultural racism relies on a belief that separate cultural groups are so different that they "cannot get along".[21] In addition, he argued that cultural racist views hold that any widespread poverty or unemployment faced by an ethnic minority arises from that minority's own "cultural values and behavior" rather than from broader systems of discrimination within the society in inhabits. In this way, Grosfoguel argued, cultural racism encompasses attempts by dominant communities to claim that any marginalised communities are at fault for their own problems.[22]

Alternative definitions of "cultural racism"

In 2008, Mukhopadhyay and Chua noted that the concept of "cultural racism" originated in Europe and had made less of an impact in the United States.[13] They noted that not all scholars who used the term did so in the same way.[13]

Referring specifically to the situation in the United States, the psychologist Janet Helms defined cultural racism as "societal beliefs and customs that promote the assumption that the products of White culture (e.g., language, traditions, appearance) are superior to those of non-White cultures".[23] She identified it as one of three forms of racism, alongside personal racism and institutional racism.[23] Again using a U.S.-centric definition, the psychologist James M. Jones noted that a belief in the "cultural inferiority" both of Native Americans and African Americans had long persisted in U.S. culture, and that this was often connected to beliefs that said groups were biologically inferior to European Americans.[24] In Jones' view, when individuals reject a belief in biological race, notions regariding the relative cultural inferiority and superiority of different groups can remain, and that "cultural racism remains as a residue of expunged biological racism."[25] Offering a very different definition, the scholar of multicultural education Robin DiAngelo used the term "cultural racism" to define "the racism deeply embedded in the culture and thus always in circulation. Cultural racism keeps our racist socialization alive and continually reinforced."[26]

Cultural prejudices as racism

Theorists have put forward three main arguments as to why they deem the term "racism" appropriate for hostility and prejudice on the basis of cultural differences.[12] The first is the argument that a belief in fundamental cultural differences between human groups can lead to the same harmful acts as a belief in fundamental biological differences, namely exploitation and oppression or exclusion and extermination.[12] As the academics Hans Siebers and Marjolein H. J. Dennissen noted, this claim has yet to be empirically demonstrated.[12]

The second argument is that ideas of biological and cultural difference are intimately linked. Various scholars have argued that racist discourses often emphasise both biological and cultural difference at the same time. Others have argued that racist groups have often moved toward publicly emphasising cultural differences because of growing social disapproval of biological racism and that it represents a switch in tactics rather than a fundamental change in underlying racist belief.[12] The third argument is the "racism-without-race" approach. This holds that categories like "migrants" and "Muslims" have—despite not representing biologically united groups—undergone a process of "racialization" in that they have come to be regarded as unitary groups on the basis of shared cultural traits.[12]


Several academics have critiqued the use of "cultural racism" to describe prejudices and discrimination on the basis of cultural difference. Those who reserve the term "racism" for biological racism for instance do not believe that "cultural racism" is a useful or appropriate concept.[27] The sociologist Ali Rattansi noted that "cultural racism" could be seen to stretch the notion of "racism" "to a point where it becomes too wide to be useful as anything but a rhetorical ploy."[28] He suggested that beliefs which insist that group identification require the adoption of cultural traits such as specific dress, language, custom, and religion "might more properly be subsumed under the ideas of ethnicism or ethnocentrism" and when incorporating hostility to foreigners "may be said to border on xenophobia."[28]

[C]an a combination of religious and other cultural antipathy be described as 'racist'? Is this not to rob the idea of racism of any analytical specificity and open the floodgates to a conceptual inflation that simply undermines the legitimacy of the idea?

—Sociologist Ali Rattansi, 2007[9]

Similarly, Siebers and Dennissen questioned whether bringing "together the exclusion/oppression of groups as different as current migrants in Europe, Afro-Americans and Latinos in the US, Jews in the Holocaust and in the Spanish Reconquista, slaves and indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquista and so on into the concept of racism, irrespective of justifications, does the concept not run the risk of losing in historical precision and pertinence what it gains in universality?"[29] They suggested that in attempting to develop a concept of "racism" that could be applied universally, exponents of the "cultural racism" idea risked undermining the "historicity and contextuality" of specific prejudices.[30] In analysing the prejudices faced by Moroccan-Dutch people in the Netherlands during the 2010s, Siebers and Dennissen argued that these individuals' experiences were very different both from those encountered by Dutch Jews in the first half of the 20th century and colonial subjects in the Dutch East Indies. Accordingly, they argued that concepts of "cultural essentialism" and "cultural fundamentalism" were far better ways of explaining hostility to migrants than that of "racism".[31]

Baker's notion of the "new racism" was critiqued by the sociologists Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown. They thought it "problematic" because it relied on defining racism not as a system based on the belief in the superiority and inferiority of different groups, but as encompassing any ideas that saw a "culturally defined and constituted group as being a biological or pseudo-biological entity". Thus, Miles and Brown argued, Baker's "new racism" relied on a definition of racism which "eliminates the distinction between racism" and concepts such as nationalism and sexism.[32] The sociologist Floya Anthias critiqued early ideas of the "neo-racism" for failing to provide explanations for prejudices and discrimination towards groups like the Black British, who shared a common culture with the dominant White British population.[33] She also argued that the framework failed to take into account positive images of ethnic and cultural minorities, for instance in the way that British Caribbean culture had often been depicted positively in British youth culture.[34] In addition, she suggested that, despite its emphasis on culture, early work on "neo-racism" still betrayed its focus on biological differences by devoting its attention to black people—however defined—and neglecting the experiences of lighter-skinned ethnic minorities in Britain, such as Jews, Romanis, the Irish, and Cypriots.[35]