Liquid Racism

Increased ambivalence has an effect on the appearance and structure of racism. I label the racism of postmodernity ‘liquid racism’, rather than ‘post-racism’, because post-racism would imply that we have moved beyond racism in this social formation, that it no longer exists. The term ‘liquid racism’, on the other hand, gives the impression that racism still exists but that we are now faced with a racism whose structure has changed. In adapting Bauman’s notion of liquidity for a definition of racism, I define liquid racism as one that does not produce a monolithic reading as racism but is experienced as racism in particular circumstances. Because of the ‘volume’ of sign-slippage in liquid racism, there is no straightforward way of establishing or asserting any semantic superiority of interpretation, and critique becomes more challenging. It has a structure that is constructed with far more potential for ambivalence.

Bauman has described the meeting of strangers in liquid modernity as a mismeeting because the encounter has no past referent and no future expectation (Bauman 1993, 2000a: 95). This signifies a relationship that exists without bonds and emerges from a semantic void. It is this void that fuels anxiety towards the ‘other’ and represents the construction of the area of ambivalence. Emerging from and being quite similar to the experience of ambivalence surrounding cultural racism, the view of the ‘other’ shifts as society moves away from the fixity of modernity. Importantly this suggests liquid racism, a fluidity of interactions, is one within the home territory, or at least, inside the present territory or social space of the social actor, and is a highly contextual racism. Liquid racism is constructed through the referents of cultural racism and embodied racism, but the increase in the volume of the assemblage creates many more potential readings. It exists in an increased state of ambivalence of semantic expression, which would affect the definitions of the ‘other’ that ‘are now as unsteady and protean as one’s own identity; as poorly founded, as erratic and volatile’ (Bauman 1997a: 54).

The principal difference of an increase in ambivalence in liquid racism suggests that it may be difficult to define, or that its definition will shift. This does not mean that such a formation is not felt by the social actor as racism, as older forms of racism are. In many instances its impact may not be taken seriously. This structural ambivalence is not visible from certain perspectives, and will lead to the development of some immunity to criticism.

The discussion of liquid racism presents two questions: First, is liquid racism really a new racism or just older racisms hiding themselves better? Second, if liquid racism is genuinely more open, then the argument surely suggests itself that it is not racism at all, or is a weakened and challenged residue of racism? On the first question - liquid racism can use both embodied and culturally racist signs but it is more ambiguous, and contains more semantic layers. It is new in terms of structure but not new in terms of content. On the second question - liquid racism should not be seen as a weakened or challenged residue of racism but rather as an ambiguous form that is encouraged nowadays and one that weakens various defences against claims of racism. To explain this more clearly, I describe liquid racism as a racism that is promoted and encouraged by the mass media. Ali G is presented as an example of a character that exhibits liquid racism, and the Danish Prophet Muhammad cartoons also have a liquid dimension. Both are ambiguous, but more importantly, this ambiguity has, in part, encouraged media interest. Put simply, in an age of interactive and polyvocal media, liquid racism generates a ‘debate’, providing more material because it is ambiguous. Traditional monosemic racism fails to provide this potential and so is less media friendly or malleable and less open to exploitation for media content. Liquid racism also leads to the staging of the proteophobic and proteophilic oppositions in media debate - and all social actors need do is take a side. Of course, it remains that many social actors do not ‘read’ liquid racism in this way, and so, is as much reader interpretation and (lack of) reflexivity, as well as the expression of liquid racism, that is in need of critique.

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