Discursive Psychology and the Function of Race Talk

What this important criticism of taking ‘race’ categories at face values clearly demonstrates is that social categories are employed flexibly to perform social actions. Hopkins, Reicher and Levine highlight the necessity of focusing on language use because ‘race’, like all social categories, is constituted through the use of language. This view is shared with discursive psychologists. Where discursive psychologists diverge from SCT’s understanding of language use is that in DP, there is no additional cognitive or behavioural element because the talk is the behaviour. DP (Edwards & Potter, 1992) is an approach that argues that talk (and texts) performs social actions. Discursive psychologists have argued for the application of discourse analysis to talk about race to identify exactly what constitutes race talk and what race talk is used to do.

A key study applying discourse analysis to race is Wetherell and Potter’s (1992) Mapping the language or racism, in which they addressed the ways in which White New Zealanders talked about the Maori indigenous people, which constitute different ‘racial’ groups according to the traditional understanding of race. Wetherell and Potter (1992) demonstrated the varying ways in which White New Zealanders talked about race, stating that instead of focusing on a realist notion of race (such as that used in the traditional explanations of race discussed earlier), ‘our concern is with how a particular discourse produces the world and how it involves a realm which for the participants is real’ (Wetherell & Potter, 1992: 120). They show how implicitly racialised categorisations of Maori people are presented as based on race, which in turn is based on biology, often through references to physical origins, genes or ‘blood’. Further, they argue that there ‘is an inevitability about race summed up in the notion of instincts and inheritance. Race is not something that can be easily shrugged off (Wetherell & Potter, 1992: 122). This means that race talk is used to present group differences as biologically based and therefore unable to be changed, which has the implications of meaning that people from particular backgrounds will always be expected to act in the same ways. They also show that descriptions of other ‘races’ are not always negative, with some examples of praise of Maori people in their data. However, even when the race talk can be positive, it nevertheless reifies race as real and gives further credibility to the wider idea that races are inherently different and that some are better than others, which, it can be argued, is racist.

A consistent finding within discursive research on race talk is that it is overwhelmingly used to present speakers as not racist. Billig identified a ‘cultural norm against ‘prejudice’’ (Billig, 1988: 94) in which appearing to be prejudicial (including racist) can bring about negative connotations for speakers, most likely due to the association of prejudice with irrationality (Edwards, 2003) and also Nazis (see Burke & Goodman, 2012), the most extreme example of what happens when prejudice remains unchecked. Indeed, in Hopkins et al.’s (1997) analysis of the police officer above, the police officer was dealing with potential accusations of racism in such a way as to deny that he, and the police force more generally, are racist. As a direct result of this norm against prejudice, disclaimers have been shown to be an extremely common feature of race talk. Disclaimers are ways that speakers attempt to deny that what they are about to say (or may have already said) is racist. Billig et al. show that the most common type of disclaimer takes the simple form ‘I’m not prejudiced, but...’ (Billig et al., 1988: 112) which works to deny that what follows is an example of prejudice. For example, in Goodman and Rowe’s analysis of race talk about Gypsies, they identified clear examples of disclaimers, albeit amongst some overtly prejudicial talk: ‘there is no racism here’ (Goodman & Rowe, 2014: 39) and ‘But it is NOT racism’ (Goodman & Rowe, 2014: 41).

While disclaimers such as these can work to deny that racism is at play, they also create something of a paradox because they simultaneously highlight that what is about to be said may be understood as prejudicial (van Dijk, 2000), otherwise there would be no need to make a denial in the first place. A more effective way to deny that any talk about race is in anyway prejudicial is through what Augoustinos and Every describe as ‘discursive deracialisation’ (Augoustinos & Every, 2007: 133), in which the potentially racial element of the talk is removed and replaced with a non-racial explanation. Augoustinos and Every (2007) and Wetherell and Potter both point to the move away from talk about race towards talk about culture and nationality instead: ‘whereas once race seemed to be the most effective and prevalent legitimating tool, the ideological baton has now been handed to culture and nation’ (Wetherell & Potter, 1992: 119).

Goodman and Burke (2011) focused on the process of discursive dera- cialisation in talk about asylum seekers and identified race being removed as a possible explanation for opposition to asylum seeking in favour of explanations based on financial arguments, religion and a lack of integration on the part of the asylum seekers. While financial concerns sit outside of cultural and national explanations (and are particularly pertinent, given common talk about asylum seekers and immigrants more generally), religion (which was always assumed to be Islam) and issues of integration certainly fit the cultural explanation that, as Augoustinos and Every and Wetherell and Potter claim, has replaced race as a common way of opposing people from different groups. However, as will be seen shortly, this certainly does not mean that the concept of race has been abandoned altogether; instead, it means that race can be a particularly unpalatable reason for opposing outgroups and so when the context requires it, non-racial arguments can be made regarding a topic that may appear to have a racial element.

Discursive psychological studies of race talk have not just shown how race can be denied or removed from such talk, they have also shown how talk can be presented so that it ‘sustains and legitimates social inequalities and ... injustices’ (Wetherell, 2003: 21), including those between groups of different backgrounds. Wetherell and Potter (1992) ultimately showed how the talk about Maori people in New Zealand justifies and explains away the inequalities between the dominant ‘white’ and the indigenous Maori New Zealanders in ways that ignored the ongoing impact of the European colonisation of the country.

Goodman and Rowe (2014) addressed debates about Gypsies in internet discussions and found that while many of the comments contained clearly prejudicial arguments (indeed, some of the posts were explicit that they were prejudicial), the contributors to the forum were careful to make a clear distinction between what counted as racist and what was prejudicial. In doing so, some of the posters were clear that Gypsies do not constitute a ‘race’ so that any opposition to them could not be attributed to racism. This provides further evidence of the ways in which talk about race (including what race is and is not) can be used to further prejudicial ideas about minority groups, once again sustaining social inequalities (Wetherell, 2003).

The discursive approach to race, however, is not without its critiques. Verkuyten (Verkyuten, 1998) makes three specific criticisms. First, he claims that the discursive approach is in fact realist because ‘The existence of racism and dominance are treated as a priori . whereas other assumptions are deconstructed’ (Verkyuten, 1998: 149). Second, Verkuyten claims that in this approach, speakers are viewed as passively recreating society-wide arguments, rather than having personal agency, and third, he claims that identifying race talk does not allow for an analysis of the effectiveness of such talk. Others, however, would disagree with this, claiming instead that discursive psychologists cannot make claims about whether particular views are ‘necessarily ‘racist’’ (Augoustinos, Tuffin, & Every, 2005: 318) but instead how such arguments can be made in ways that present the speaker as reasonable and not racist. This suggests that speakers are creative and flexible users of language (and of society-wide ideas around race and other ideas) who manage their agency so as to bring about very specific outcomes (such as denying their own racism and/or holding Maori people to account for their own low social status). Further examples of the possible outcomes and effectiveness of race talk are addressed in the following section.

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