Micro machismo, micro plastics, micro racism… It seems that we are living in the era of all things micro. These words refer to a small scale, but sadly affect us all at the macro level. Philosopher Adela Cortina already demonstrated the need to create new terms to refer to the existing realities that, until they did not have an appellative to refer to them, or to the point, to decry them, it was as if the problem didn’t exist. She was referring to aporophobia, a neologism she herself coined to describe the rejection of the poor, whom we exclude from society (Cortina, 2017). It can be said that a similar neologism for micro racism is needed. But are we really facing a new reality in which subtle racism is overtaking overt racism? Has racism changed all that much over the course of history? In the text below, I briefly discuss the origins of racism and focus on the new manifestations that prove how these discriminatory behaviors are more deeply-rooted in our everyday lives than we think.
The sociologist Giddens defines racism as the practice of wrongly assigning characteristics inherent to personality or behavior to individuals with a certain physical appearance (Giddens, 2010). The adverb “wrongly” must be stressed here as it is an arbitrary attribution, a social construct that has been used as an argument to provide a biological explanation for the inferior traits allegedly held by people with one physical make-up or another. One cannot say that the obsolete term of race has been replaced by the politically correct term ethnicity, which also includes cultural background in addition to the blood ties that define identity.
Broadly speaking, the explanations of the origins of racism can be divided into two large blocks. On the one hand are those that underscore the biological and psychological causes, while the other focuses on the sociological reasons.
Starting with the biological side, there is the theory of the existence of “natural racism,” mainly linked to a series of personal prejudices and beliefs on human nature that can be considered innate (Allen, 2002). From the psychological perspective, Turner and Tajfel explain that the creation of stereotypes is something necessary when categorizing and classifying the stimuli we take in, as if it were to save cognitive energy (Turner and Tajfel, 1979). Other arguments along the biological line include a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that the hormone oxytocin boosts ingroup favoritism: “The results suggest that oxytocin has a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence” (Carsten K. W. De Dreu, 2010). Although it does not focus on solely racial aspects, this may be another explanation for these kinds of attitudes, as preferential treatment toward an ingroup and ethnocentrism go hand in hand. Traditionally, the closing off of a community is linked to the process by which individuals reaffirm the boundaries separating them from other groups through the mechanisms of exclusion. Social fear has also been used to justify the appearance of racial stereotypes (Meyer Lindeberg et al., 2010).
Now moving to a merely sociological, and probably more convincing explanation, it can be said that racism is associated with power structures and mechanisms of deprivation directly related to the birth of modern capitalism and the origin of governments: “Racism also had its uses as a justification for class and caste hierarchies; it was a splendid explanation of both national and class privilege. It helped to maintain slavery and serfdom; it smoothed the way for the rape of Africa and the slaughter of the American Indian” (Harris, 1996, 92). In the book Brief History of Racism, Christian Geulen states that “it is neither natural nor universal, nor metahistorical, but rather a product, a creation of the culture and human thought, a form of behavior and therefore a totally historical phenomenon” (Geulen, 2010, 8).
Contrary to popular belief, racist discourse based on skin tone was not the first form of discrimination as it originally focused on separating people with and without religion, a practice that expanded after the conquest of America. This debate goes back to the theological arguments occurring during colonization, when the humanity of native peoples was questioned in the representation of said peoples. The theses of Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda are well known. The former believed that the indigenous people may have a soul, while the latter did not believe in their humanity. The soul offered up the right to Christianize and, therefore, assimilate the indigenous people into Western culture; a lack thereof gave the colonizers a very different right: to enslave them. As UNAM professor García rightly said, “the differences are assumed, but only on the condition of being subsequently integrated into a whole, in this case, Christianity. The management of the other therefore consists of assimilating or converting the alien into the familiar” (García Ruiz, 2004). This was the origin of the appearance of the two preponderant discourses of Western imperialism that have reigned into modernity: biological racism and cultural racism, which will be discussed in depth below.
It should be emphasized that there were two key factors when determining the success of racism: on the one hand, the invention of the concept of race by Gobineau in the 19th century, and, on the other, the use of racism as a justification for colonial domination allowing for the sale of slaves as they were considered practically subhuman, as mentioned above. That is why the discussions of slaves’ humanity or lack thereof did not cease, but rather intensified in the 19th century, and were used by slavers and abolitionists alike in the first anthropological societies, which debated the monogenism and polygenism of human kind. Do we come from the same species or different species? A scientific answer to this question was required, as accepting the inferior position of black people legitimized their exploitation without contradicting the Christian moral principles that dominated the time. Darwin and evolutionary anthropology also had an influence, as the latter set the civilized white man at the top of the pyramid, justifying racial hierarchy and lower intelligence being associated with “less advanced” non-Caucasian technological development.
Moreover, within the context of the creation of modern nations, racism was the perfect tool for the social construct of national identities, through processes of homogenization and exclusion, in addition to consolidating the elites, legitimizing inequality. In his Genealogy of Racism, Foucault highlights how a government of racism arose to defend a super race, which was in charge and had to fight against any subraces that may threaten the biological heritage of the nation through persecution, ethnic cleansing, and segregation (Foucault, 1996).
In case of Spain, see the assimilation, extermination, and expulsion of Jews and Muslims during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs to make the state’s identity coincide with a single national identity. The interest in defending racial purity is also present when groups are made invisible in the national public image set forth by a country out of a false belief that culture must always be uniform and not a product of diversity. This obsession with the integrity of lineage can be found in expressions used in our language, which praises anything de pura cepa [pure strain], castizo, full-blooded; in contrast to the stigmatization of the bastard, the mestizo, the hybrid, filling split identities that do not fit the official discourse with negative connotations. There are thousands of examples to be cited, but one that has gained momentum in the last few years comes from the Afro-Uruguayan community, a minority that has been totally silenced in that country so as to build a national identity based mainly on European heritage. This interest in pure-bloodedness continues to be found and is a recurring theme in discussions on different modern platforms of supremest ideology, including Stormfront, the top Neo-Nazi forum in the world, from which we have compiled comments from the Spanish section. Latin Americans clearly disparage anyone with a diverse ethnic background:
- Real Indians have more important things to do than these people who are the result of the mixing of God knows how many races.
- Latinos fell under Germanic control more than a millennium ago.
- These are American Indians, many of them are mixed mulattoes. That’s just how it is.
- The name “Latino” is just another excuse to not talk about the reality of race. A white South American is not the same as a mulatto.
- I should say that I consider myself a white supremacist and I am very concerned with the invasion that we’ve been facing of late. I think that the races shouldn’t mix and we have to do everything we can to protect our racial purity, the same way they try to protect the Iberian lynx. (Stormfront, 2018-2019)
Obviously, racist attitudes are also inherently linked to the idea of stigma, a term used by sociologist Goffmann in the 1960s and that emphasizes the dehumanization applied to anyone considered to be different, someone perceived as the bearer of “a stain” to be labeled and despised.
- While the stranger is present before us, evidence can arise of his possessing an attribute that makes him different from others in the category of persons available for him to be, and of a less desirable kind – in the extreme, a person who is quite thoroughly bad, or dangerous, or weak. He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. (Goffman, 1998, 12).
Black people, Muslims, Roma, and a long etcetera of social groups are all stigmatized. Whoever is to be dominated, eliminated, or excluded is stigmatized, leading them and others in their group to be objectified through a number of stereotypes and caricatures (RAXEN, 2018).
Culturally speaking, the stranger has always been classified as barbaric, strange, or morally and mentally inferior. That’s how the majority of civilizations have perceived the members of minority cultures, which has led to the development of innumerable ethnic struggles over time (Giddens, 2010). The other is conceived as a separation of a native identity that must be suppressed or reincorporated. Therefore, the construction of otherness falls on the perversion of the dominant culture having the power to depict the image of the dominated. That is how the vision of the savage proliferated in encyclopedic descriptions, ethnographic prints, and photo reports of popular magazines. In fact, a self-satisfaction of exoticism was recreated through images, but also through zoological and anthropological shows and exhibitions that emphasized these peoples’ primitiveness, mysteriousness, and picturesqueness (Sanz, 2017). A clear modern example of this is National Geographic, which recognized the implicit racism loaded with stereotypes that it disseminated, since for the majority of its history, black people were presented as primitive people not associated with technology, who often appeared unclothed or were otherwise depicted as savages. One of the most resounding examples is a 1916 report on Australia which included a photo with the caption: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings” (Víctor, 2018).
Another key factor that promoted the increase in racism is the human tendency to see the world in pairs of opposites: everything is either white or black. Structuralist anthropologist Levi-Strauss proved how the human mind tends to organize reality and knowledge around on binary opposites: good/bad, black/white, us/them. Therefore, we can see how the word black is associated with a number of negative connotations that have shaped our cultural heritage. In this sense, Hering Torres conducted a historical analysis on the perception of human skin tone:
The Medieval symbolism of color operated as a cultural undercurrent to relate values, colors, and human beings. Back then, colors were not objectively observable pigments; color was above all associated with religious and moral ideology and values. Since antiquity, the color white has been associated with good, beauty, and divinity; black with amorality, perversion, and diabolicalness. The strength of these symbols clearly had an impact on Linnaeus’s taxonomy. (Hering Torres, 2007, 21)
Along the same line, there is the Spanish case, where of the 20 definitions of the word negro in the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary, half of them have that negative connotation: “Referring to a negative feeling: black sorrow, very dirty; that which does not contain the corresponding whiteness; unhappy, hapless, unfortunate; very angry or irritated; bad luck; referring to certain rites and activities that invoke the help or presence of the devil; referring to a novel or film that is set in a criminal and violent setting” (RAE, 2001) The term denigrar, etymologically goes back to the Latin denigrāre, meaning to “make black” or “stain.”
According to a number of authors, the way in which this traditional view of racism has transformed over the course of a few years is notable, indicating that we are shifting away from traditional biological racism, based on the belief in the superiority of certain races over others, to another more subtle mechanism, known as postmodern racism or cultural racism (Welsch, 1999). This latter kind of racism does not provide arguments based on inferiority or race, but rather it is bolstered by the idea that there is an unresolvable cultural difference rendering dialog between ethnicities impossible, almost akin to a clash of civilizations, stymieing the possibility of coexistence within a single territory (Huntington, 1996). Social psychology has studied these kinds of racism where prejudice is hidden and we are barely aware of it. In 1986, two social psychologists, Samuel L. Gaertner and John F. Dovidio coined the term aversive racism to define the racism of those who did not profess to have negative feelings toward members of the discriminated group, but who, nevertheless, condemn them for their situation, due to questions not related to race, such as criminality, theft, drug trafficking, and not behaving in accordance with the values accepted by the majority.
What is happening in Spain in this regard? The myth that Spain is not a racist country is out there. In fact, the responses given to the CIS [Sociological Research Center] in Attitudes on Immigration (CIS, November-December 2016) show that a high percentage of the population believes they are not racist. According to the data available from the 2017 survey, only 0.4% of the population considers themselves to be racist, compared to 62.5% that considers themselves to be not at all or very slightly racist. Only 0.6% of the population gives importance to a foreign person having white skin when considering whether to allow them to live in Spain. Almost 27% claim to interact with immigrants normally, the same way they would with Spanish people. With regard to the groups with which they have more in common, 16% named Latin Americans, while only 4% said Africans. Finally, the field of social relationships is where the answers are much more tolerant, with 72.2% of the population stating that they would not have any objections to their child marrying an immigrant.
This apparent negation of racism directly clashes with the data available on the number racist incidents reported every year. In 2016, SOS Racismo registered 309 claims of acts of racism in Spain, with 82% referring to institutional racism and 51% to racist altercations and aggressions. The 2014 CIS study entitled The Profiles of Discrimination in Spain indicates that 49.1% of foreign people claim to have been the victim of discrimination over the course of their lives. Moreover, in 2018 the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its Mission in Spain decried that this group of people is the victim of “racism” and “racial discrimination” in all domains of society: “from schools to the job market, to housing, healthcare, and other social services.” The group also demonstrated the high degree of institutional racism with the use of racial profiles as a criteria used by security forces to make arrests and carry out random stops. (UN, 2018)
In order to determine the actual existence of micro racism, I will compile some of these testimonies extracted from various sources. The sheer number of examples of racism in our cultural artifacts is well-known, from the polemic blackface at the Three Kings’ Day parade in Alcoy, to film titles such as El negro que tenía alma blanca [The Black Man With a White Soul], a musical from 1934. For most of the white population, the majority of these manifestations do not seem at all problematic and are even difficult to identify since they are rooted in our cultural memory. It is not shocking to hear expressions like “flesh-color crayons” or to see ads for chocolate products featuring “negritos del África Tropical” [black men from Tropical Africa] or “Conguitos” [Little Congolese]. Curiously, when some minorities report these sorts of issues, they are labeled as tending to view themselves as victims and dramatic.
More cases of this kind of everyday subtle racism can be found in abundance on many platforms that take it upon themselves to share these stories, including Afroféminas and SOS Racismo. These behaviors are mainly found in the image Spanish people have of black people, a depiction fraught with stereotypes. The excuse is usually the same; Spain is a country with a very short history of immigration, as there was not contact with the other. As a result, the other is treated contemptuously, as exotic, and, in the best case scenario, as invisible.
Some of the comments made that gloss over that unconscious racism in Spain include: asking black people if they can get sunburned, congratulating a person of another ethnic group for speaking Spanish well, assuming that it cannot be their native language, although they were born in Spain; calling a black person morenito [tan person] or negrito, thinking that negro is an offensive term; touching a black person’s hair out of curiosity. Maisha Z. Johnson, an author at Everyday Feminism, discusses the importance of respecting personal space that seems to be lost in these cases involving the habit of touching black women’s hair: “The objectification of Black bodies has been part of US culture since slavery, and it’s still going strong as one of our everyday struggles” (Johnson, 2015). In the testimonies mentioned above, a few of the phrases obtained from different activism associations reflect the kind of comments frequently leveled at these groups in Spain:
I’m Latin American. But you’re tall and white!
You’re very handsome for a black/Asian/Latino man.
Hey, don’t you think that skirt is a bit short for a North African?
Are you full Gypsy? No, I’m a halfbreed. Oh, of course! That’s why you speak so clearly.
Do black people usually make it to this grade?
Antoinette Torres, the creator of the Afroféminas project was the target of another case of micro racism and recounted the story thus: “A man from the lecture circuit came to my home because we were members and he asked me if I could fetch the lady of the house.”
As seen here, often the extermination of the “other” is not physical in nature, as we often see it revealed through a symbolic annihilation, i.e., through the lack of representation or the building of a discourse in which they are repeatedly nullified (Pineda, 2016). This is the case in the lack of ethnic diversity in Spanish fiction and when Spanish media tends to stress the nationality of a criminal. It should be noted that in most Spanish television shows, the presence of other ethnic groups is associated with negative and conflictive clichés as seen in the case of the Moroccans on El Príncipe, the Africans on Mar de plástico, and the black prisoners on Vis a Vis. One only need recall the immigrant named Machu Picchu on Aída, to find the exemplification of an immigrant character on Spanish television, a character who tends to be used in comedies as ignorant or subservient. Surprisingly, a person of African descent said to the newspaper Eldiario.es: “Black actors should never use African accents… I’m from Móstoles!” (Gutiérrez, 2017). Diversity, therefore, cannot be considered in a standardized fashion if it does not always fit with the eternal image of the poor and criminal immigrant. Black actresses often play prostitutes, cleaners, and abused women, and if there is a role in which a non-white person goes to university it must be explained and justified in the script. It is also notable that when black people give interviews with a media outlet, a high percentage of the time it is to discuss racism, thereby sending the subtle message that they have nothing else to contribute to other areas. As stated above, nationality is also commonly pointed out in crime reporting in the media. An emblematic case of this is the media’s portrayal of Ana Julia Quezada, who murdered a child named Gabriel. A high percentage of reports stressed that she was Dominican and black. There were so many expressions of hatred for the color of her skin and the fact that she was an immigrant that SOS Racismo, put out a press release stating that no case, however painful, should give free reign to the most vicious racism and misogyny. On social media, comments about her like “slut, black chimpanzee, and immigrant” were used as a way to explain the crime (Cáceres, 2018).
We have therefore all been witnesses to how the presence of these manifestations of hate proliferate not only on far-right discussion boards, but constantly on any digital platform, from YouTube comments to tweets and forums on a wide array of topics. Online, oblique racism has given way to openly intolerant statements that are increasingly radical. When some comments on forums are analyzed, the profusion of these widespread prejudices is laid bare. The platform Forocoches.com is one example. There discriminatory remarks frequently backslide into criminalization, degrading treatment, and the alleged abnormality of black people. Below are a few discussion threads dated from 2006 to present.
Why are almost all black men bald or have shaved heads?
To run faster than the police [sic], like swimmers.
They prefer having nothing over having that shriveled up hair that can’t get wet.
With that shit hair, the further away, the better.
What do you think of black people?
You don’t often see them driving a motorcycle or car, and if they have one they’re drug dealers.
Well sometimes they let their unusual ideas go too far.
There must have been a reason it took so long to “prove” they had souls (Forocoches.com, 2006-2019).
These examples prove the ease the Internet offers to spread offensive language, since the moderator of the forum never intervened in response to these kinds of posts. On social media, blogs, forums, and racist and xenophobic websites, a climate is being created that normalizes intolerance and violence toward anyone that cannot be classified as Aryan. Cyberhate is defined as speech that “includes all forms of expression that propagate, incite, promote, or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of hate based on intolerance, including the intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility toward minorities, immigrants, and people with immigrant backgrounds.” (Council of Europe Recommendation 97.20).
One of the most active networks in Europe to combat this is INACH, which is just one among many different NGOs including Movimiento contra la intolerancia. The main problem of digital racism lies in that the servers of these websites are hosted abroad, making it difficult to pass laws on this issue. The most recent annual study by the Simon Wiesenthal Center calculated that 10,000 websites promote hate around the world, while in Spain the RAXEN Report estimates that there are more than 400 with a special impact on the Spanish-speaking world.
In response to this alarming situation, the European Council called for citizen action with the campaign No Hate Speech, which was especially aimed at young people, who were asked to join the cyber movement against this speech.
Humor is also often a way to convert attacks into a simple chat, the basis of the proliferation of discriminatory memes. A simple search for racist memes yields upwards of 6,980,000 hits. Most of these gifs are hard to control, like the one that went viral on Instagram entitled Nigger crime death counter, which was able to slip past controls, because, according to the people responsible for the platform, the filtration system failed. The meme is nothing more than a means to an end, as racist satire and jokes existed long before this kind of image.
Further examples of digital racism have been found recently with the group of users that attempted to sabotage the pro-tolerance social media campaign #EstadoEspañolNoTanBlanco [#SpainNotSoWhite]. Their attack was to post pejorative comments based on skin tone. Some of them were worded as follows: “If they come dewormed and with a veterinary certificate, I’ll give you 1,200 euros.” “If I can set him loose in a field and hunt him, 1,400 euros.” Thankfully, these kinds of comments can have legal consequences, as occurred with an individual in Palma accused of posting hundreds of racist tweets who was sentenced to 11 months in prison for a hate crime: “Blacks attempting to reach Spanish soil on a rickety boat should be machine-gunned at sea and their bodies should become shark food,” he posted.
Delving deeper still into Stormfront, the Neo-Nazi forum mentioned previously, one can find even more cases that lead to the animalization of the discriminated group, criminalization, and a demonstration of the atavistic fear of the idea of eliminating racial purity by way of mixing:
Have you guys noticed that there have been a lot of black people in commercials lately? What do you make of that?
Sometimes instead of putting a black that has a bit of white, that is, a black that looks less like a monkey, they put a banana-eating simian blacker than King Kong’s ass with a blond with blue eyes. It’s ridiculous and so obvious.
A lot? I’d say it’s a plague. All the space is given to blacks and not whites, interracial couples making fools of themselves popularizing crossbreeding. There are commercials and ads online all the time with these couples and their mulatto friends.
I don’t get it… It should truly be banned. We live in Spain so Spanish people should obviously be in the commercials. That’s the first thing. And then I don’t get why they are promoting interracial relationships and crossbreeding. The only thing we haven’t seen is a jihadist with a blond!!! Fucking disgusting.
Chinese celebrating new year… in MY neighborhood…
The Chinese invasion is now a reality: they invade us, they take over the economy, dirty up our race, and to top it off they hang lanterns in our trees. I think it’s fine that they celebrate their new year; it’s all grand as long as they do it in China, the place they should never have left. I’m boycotting immigrant stores. Are you?
I’ve never talked to them, but people say they are trash “mobsters.”
There is also the notorious fact that bands like Batallón de castigo, for whom the state’s attorney is requesting a prison sentence of five to 11 years for some of its members for disseminating Nazi ideology in its lyrics and promoting violence, can continue to have its videos active on YouTube without any kind of legal repercussion. The bands lyrics on Muslims go: “Their lives are a fight against the invader/Settling on our land by treachery/May their blood saturate the soil of our Nation/Relentlessly we will fight till their expulsion” (Batallón de castigo, “Campeador”, 2010).
Finally, to close out this journey through the arbitrariness of racialization, I’d like to discuss Angélica Dass’s photography project, in which, through photos of people of different ethnicities, she aims to redefine the meaning of race and show a color wheel of humanity. Her project Humanae, in which more than 4,000 volunteers participated, paired thousands of skin tones with Pantone cards to show how absurd racial classification can be. “I was born in a family full of color. Even if I appear black I am also white and native Indian too. (…) the Pantone system was a neutral scale, where no color has any more importance than another (Dass, 2018).
This paper has proven how the inconsistent categorization of people resulting from the concept of race has spread as a criterion paramount to the distribution of the population of the world into hierarchical power structures.
We can call it micro racism, subtle racism, everyday racism, cultural racism, aversive racism; it can have a thousand names, but what is clear is that all of these racisms refer to the same fact: the unjustified discrimination present in all aspects of society. We should not trivialize the use of the qualifier micro, as ordinariness is nothing more than a reflection of institutions; and in turn, institutional thinking is a mirror of society, as it is a structural phenomenon.
It is said that racism based on skin tone as such has waned, that other racisms abound, but, nevertheless, our day to day lives remain afflicted by these kinds of situations. Discriminating based on the color of a person’s skin is as absurd as classifying people by the color of their eyes of the texture of the hair. Therefore, in addition to the politically correct discourse, there are other, increasingly openly racist confessions to be found both in Spain and internationally, not only in everyday life, but also in public speeches and in the media. Our identity should have little to do with the tone of what’s on the outside; in a global world there is no reason to view our society as a frozen reality that sees subversion in transformation, diversity, and blending. Perhaps the issue lies in pondering the extent to which we have internalized racism such that we cannot even give it the importance it deserves.
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