Sandew Hira, June 7, 2017
In previous contributions I offered an analysis of two theories of liberalism that are popular among anti-racist activists: one on intersectionality and its application in decolonizing the university and one on the concept of white privilege. This article takes a critical look at another popular theory of liberalism: the theory of everyday racism. This theory was developed by Philomena Essed.
Neglecting the tradition of black thought
There is a rich tradition of decolonial thought that has looked into many aspects of racism. Moreover, there is a wide range of black thinkers from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas that have developed concepts about how racism impacts the daily life of blacks. There is an oral tradition that have produced icons like Bob Marley who explains how to emancipate from mental slavery.
There is a huge literature by black thinkers on the mechanisms of racist institutions and practices that impacts the daily life of blacks and many have of them have now an iconic status. Their analysis is used by radical anti-racist activists today. From Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman to Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X and millions of black activists across the African Diaspora. They have made contributions on how black lives are shaped by racism every second of the day.
Essed just shoves these contributions away and repeatedly claims that she is doing something unique (my emphasis in bold): “This study examines crucial, but largely neglected, dimensions of racism: How is racism experienced in everyday situations? How do Blacks recognize covert expressions of racism? What knowledge of racism do Blacks have, and how is this knowledge acquired?”
“Many studies have identified the mechanisms of racism at a societal level, but few have revealed its pervasive impact on the daily experiences of Blacks.”
“The lack of intellectual interest in micro manifestations and experiences may also be due to intellectual bias against the “ordinary” and the underrating of the insights of “laypersons.” It is not surprising that so few people have engaged in systematic analyses of how racism permeates everyday life.”
Apparently she is unaware of all the studies by major black thinkers that have dealt extensively with how racism has impacted the daily lives of black people. Just to name a few.
- Marcus Garvey and his million-members Universal Negro Improvement Association had weekly meetings, newspapers, 1,000 branches. What did they discuss, if it was not everyday racism? Their daily experience was the basis of their analysis of racism and reported in their speeches and articles.
- Frantz Fanon analyzed the mechanism of racism in the daily lives of black people: the superiority complex of whites and the inferiority complex of blacks; the use of language and culture, the role of gender and sexuality, the link to colonialism.
- Aimé Césaire has explained in detail how the French policy of assimilation impacted the everyday life of blacks in Martinique and how Pan-Africanist thinkers developed the concept of negritude to combat racism.
- The powerful speeches of Malcolm X covers many themes of how racism impacted the daily lives of blacks, from the speech on “who taught you to hate yourself” to the speech on how the press turns the victim into a perpetrator of racism and vice verse.
Essed is ignorant about these contributions. Even from a Eurocentric methodology you would expect that someone who claims to develop a new theory of racism would discuss what others have already done in this field. Not Essed. She just claims that hardly anyone before her paid attention to the daily experience of black people with racism and ignores other contributions from black thinkers.
The different contributions of black thinkers culminated in the concept of institutional racism. Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton articulated this concept. In the very definition of racism they take the daily experience of black people into account (my emphasis in bold): “What is racism? The word has represented daily reality to millions of black people for centuries, yet it is rarely defined—perhaps just because that reality has been such a commonplace. By “racism” we mean the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group.”
They don’t talk not about abstract sociological concepts. They link the daily reality of black people with institutional racism. They explain that whites think of racism in terms of overt and covert, but blacks puts the white covert concept in the context of institutional racism: “Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type.”
They provide an example to explain the difference between individual (overt) and institutional (covert) racism: “When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in the same city—Birmingham, Alabama—five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighbourhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn at least in words. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The [SH: white] society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”
Carmichael and Hamilton clarify how institutional racism operates in the daily practices and attitudes of whites: “Institutional racism relies on the active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes and practices. A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are “better” than blacks; therefore blacks should be subordinated to whites. This is a racist attitude and it permeates the society, on both the individual and institutional level, covertly and overtly. “Respectable” individuals can absolve themselves from individual blame: they would never plant a bomb in a church; they would never stone a black family. But they continue to support political officials and institutions that would and do perpetuate institutionally racist policies. Thus acts of overt, individual racism may not typify the society, but institutional racism does—with the support of covert, individual attitudes of racism.”
The analysis of Carmichael and Hamilton was not part of an academic thesis to get a degree at a Westernized university. It was an analysis for activists who were deeply involved in the struggle against racism. They articulated the relationship between institutional racism and how this shaped the life of blacks and the attitudes of whites. The social movements of which they are part have thousands of stories of how institutional racism impacts the daily lives of black people. It has been documented in books and articles, in songs and marches. Now comes an academic writing a dissertation who claims that nobody before her engaged in this type of thinking. It is amazing how arrogance can be presented as science.
Carmichael and Hamilton make a profound link between institutional racism and colonialism. They write: “Institutional racism has another name: colonialism.”
They explain: “One normally associates a colony with a land and a people subjected to, and physically separated from, the “Mother Country.” This is not always the case, however; in South African and Rhodesia, black and white inhabit the same land—with blacks subordinated to whites just as in the English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish colonies. It is the objective relationship which counts, not rhetoric (such as constitutionally articulating equal rights) or geography… Black people in the United States have a colonial relationship to the larger society, a relationship characterized by institutional racism.”
Everyday racism and colonialism
The theories of black activists on racism is based on the experiences of millions of black people – and colonized people in general – for the past five hundred years. Where does Essed based her theory of everyday racism on? She interviewed 55 black women. Essed: “Two similar groups of women were interviewed: 27 in the US and 28 in the Netherlands. The selection was based on three criteria, of which the first was used most frequently: 1) references by interviewees, 2) references through my personal contacts and 3) and references through my professional contacts. Thus, diversity was obtained in different ways… Interviewees were requested to refer to other black women between 20 en 45… About one-third of each group are students and the rest are professionals. The level of education of the black American professionals is M.A. to Ph.D…. The level of education of the interviewed professionals in the Netherlands is slightly lower than the Americans; their degrees are comparable to BA and MA.”
What are the results if this is her basis to develop a new theory? She don’t understand the root of racism: colonialism. This is her understanding of colonialism: “In order to understand the impact of colonization on the development of knowledge of racism it is relevant to take into consideration at least the following factors. First, colonization is characterized by ideological domination.”
No, it is not. Colonialism is characterized by brutal occupation of land, genocide of indigenous people, massive enslavement of millions of Africans and other crimes against humanity. The ideology followed the practice, not the other way round.
Essed: “The colonizers present themselves as a positive identification model and ignore the relation between colonialism and racism.”
Not at all. She does not know basic historical facts about colonialism. The colonizer did not present himself as a positive identification model. There was no need for it. Enslavement meant that black human beings were regarded as cattle. They were bought and sold. They were not free men and women who could emulate the example of the white model of human being. They were registered in the bookkeeping of the whites along with the pigs and the chickens as cattle. What books did Essed read about colonialism? Surely not the book by black activists on colonialism.
Essed: “Second, the majority of the colonized population has little or no experience with whites on a level of day-to-day interaction.”
On the contrary. Every morning the enslaved blacks were summoned for the morning report where the whites told them who would be flogged as punishment for disobedience of the previous day. They would hear from the whites what their tasks of the day would be. During their work whites were present with a whip and a gun to ensure that they would work without pay. Blacks were doing the cooking and cleaning of their house. The blacks had massive experience with whites on a daily basis during colonialism. How is it possible that Essed does not know these basis facts?
Essed is from the former Dutch colony in Latin America: Suriname. Slavery was legally abolished in 1863. In 1948 Suriname achieve a limited form of self-rule, where the people could elect a government, but a governor from Holland was the head of the colony. The white elite was replaced by a light-skinned elite. Suriname became independent in 1975. Many Surinamese migrated to Holland in the sixties and seventies of the 20th century.
Essed: “Third, it appears that the experiences in the Netherlands, after migration, contradict previous expectations blacks had about life in the Netherlands. Fourth, it follows from these factors that blacks when they arrive in the Netherlands, are not ready to deal effectively with racist situations.”
Here is a curious argument of Essed that shows her limited understanding of racism. What is the origin of racism? It is in the interaction between black and white. If there is no interaction, then there is no racism. Because most people from the white elite had left Suriname, there was no daily interaction between whites and blacks. In her theory this means that blacks in Suriname did not know what racism was, because that knowledge is derived from the experience of interaction. Only when they migrated to Holland they got to know racism but were “not ready to deal effectively with racist situations.”
Like in other Caribbean countries Suriname also had a black nationalist movement after 1948 that had produced ideas about racism and colonialism. Based on their daily experience in Suriname they argued that racism existed in the superiority-inferiority complex that shaped the attitude and behaviours of blacks. Racism was in the educational system that promoted the concept of white superiority. It was in the culture that saw black as inferior. It was in the language policy that prohibited blacks to speak their own language and use Dutch instead. It was there in thousands of acts in the daily lives of the people. There was no need for a day-to-day interaction with whites for this system of racism to be in place.
In Europe in the nineteenth centuries there were hardly any blacks, yet racist theories were devised in that period and influenced policies of governments. Essed’s theory of racism can not deal with these crucial pillars of racism.
The new theory of everyday racism
Essed’s claims to develop a new general theory of racism. She does not claim to have developed a new theory for racism in the USA or the Netherlands) in the late 20th century. Her ambitious claim is that she has developed a new general theory on racism. Hj
“The central place of experience in my approach to racism suggests an agenda for another kind of research,” writes Essed. “It is my aim to demonstrate that the concept of everyday racism has a more general relevance in race relations theory.” She claims to “presents a new approach to the study of racism based on the concept of ‘everyday racism’.”
It is a general theory of racism that can help us understand the phenomenon of racism in general, which means racism in its historical development, from the enslavement of Africans in the Americas to the Apartheid system in South Africa. She does not limit her claim to a specific historical period or country. If she would, then obviously she would ran into trouble. If you say this theory holds for racism in the USA and the Netherlands in the period 1970-1980 for 58 black women, nobody would even take the effort to look at it. So she must declare it to be a general theory. But then you don’t need to be a genius to see the nonsense in talking about everyday racism during slavery in the USA or Apartheid in South Africa.
In order to make a case for the uniqueness of her concept of everyday racism Essed makes a caricature of the concept of institutional racism.
Essed’s main critique of institutional racism is this: “Many studies that implemented racial oppression as institutional discrimination are problematic because they ignored the role of ideology in the structuring of discrimination… most of these studies also have the usual problems of macrosociology. Manifestations of contemporary racism have not been studied in detail in a systematic, theoretical, and analytical way.” She continues: “One major thesis of this study is that the traditional distinction between institutional and individual racism is misleading and insufficient to explain the (re)production of racial inequality in society.” 
The studies by black activist definitely deals with the role of ideology. Just read Garvey, Fanon, Césaire of Malcolm X. They don’t talk about macrosociology. But then, she does not take these black thinkers into account when she developed her new theory.
Essed does not understand the theory of institutional racism. Carmichael and Hamilton explained the concept of covert racism. It is “covert” for whites. Carmichael and Hamilton write: “This is a racist attitude and it permeates the society, on both the individual and institutional level, covertly and overtly. “Respectable” individuals can absolve themselves from individual blame: they would never plant a bomb in a church; they would never stone a black family. But they continue to support political officials and institutions that would and do perpetuate institutionally racist policies. Thus acts of overt, individual racism may not typify the society, but institutional racism does—with the support of covert, individual attitudes of racism.”
They are referring to white people who would never plant a bomb in a church. They are not talking about black people when they talk about covert racism, because every black person experiences racism. For them every racism is always overt and naked.
Covert racism is not an object that needs to be discovered. It is a state of mind of white people who are in denial of their racism. But Essed uses this concept as a object of knowledge, something that need to be discovered … by black people. That is why her research question is formulated in those terms: “How is racism experienced in everyday situations? How do Blacks recognize covert expressions of racism? What knowledge of racism do Blacks have, and how is this knowledge acquired?”
The methodology of everyday racism
Taking the Eurocentric positivist tradition as her methodology Essed develops a method to detect racism based on individual experiences, not on collective experiences. Collective experience brings you to institutional racism, because a collective is already an institution. Eurocentric liberalism takes the individual as the actor in social processes. Eurocentric Marxism takes class as the actor. Essed is grounded in the Eurocentric liberal tradition of individualism.
She writes: “Individuals are actors in a power structure. Power can be used to reproduce racism, but it can also be used to combat racism. This study shows how power, operative in everyday situations, perpetuates racial and ethnic oppression. Note, however, that I focus on racist practices, not on individuals. To talk about ‘to be or not to be a racist’ simplifies the problem. Although individuals are the agents of ,racism, my concern is practices and their implications, not the psyche of these individuals.”
Apparently power has no colour in Essed’s theory of everyday racism. This is a naïve view of power in racist societies There is no white power, just a neutral power in general that can reproduce racism, but it also can combat racism. Which power is that schizophrenic that is both reproducing and combating racism? The theory of institutional racism holds that power has a colour. White power exists. And white power does not combat racism. Black social movements build power, sometimes in alliance with whites.
Essed says that she focuses on practices, not on individuals, but she means practices of individuals. She shows that by declaring that she is not interested in the psyche of these individual but in their practices. Here whole research is about interpreting the individual experiences of the 58 women.
There is no discussion about institutions that produce and perpetuates racism: economic, social, political or cultural institutions. It is all based on the interpretation of individual experiences.
She has even developed a procedure for the assessment of the individual experiences. Essed: “The comprehension of racist acts was defined as the ability to explain specific experiences in terms of situational knowledge and in terms of general knowledge of racism. The comprehension of racism in everyday situations can be conceptualized as a ‘strategic’ process following a specific sequence.”
The sequence consists of five steps in detecting whether a specific experience can be labelled as racist:
Step 1: Acceptable or not?
Step 2: Acceptable excuses for unacceptable behaviour?
Step 3: It is because I am black?
Step 4: Is the specific event excusable?
Step 5: Is the event socially significant?
An event could be something like this: “S19, aged 43, recalls an occasion in a Dutch shop when she was obtrusively being watched by one of the saleswomen.”
Or: “C28, aged 21, has problems with learning French. She is the only black student in class. Her difficulties with the language are much increased when her French TA (teaching assistant) appears very impatient with her. The situation grows worse with each lesson, until one time C28 has become so nervous that she cannot quite understand a specific question addressed to her in French and subsequently responds quite of line. The TA gets at her.”
These are examples of everyday racism. It is about experiences that any black person can have on any given day. That is why it is called everyday racism.
You won’t find an example like this: Trayvon Martin had visited his father’s fiancée at her townhouse at The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford. On the evening of Sunday February 26, Martin was walking back alone to the fiancee’s house after purchasing some items at a convenience store. He was followed by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman shot the unarmed Martin dead after an argument.
How does the theory of everyday racism deal with this event? To be fair, it happened in a weekend and not everyday, so maybe it is not everyday racism but weekend racism. Posing questions like “is it acceptable, excusable, significant” in the case of Travon Martin would make you look like a fool, at least with people who have an anti-racist consciousness. In order to comprehend this, you need to understand how the institution of police violence operates in a racist society. Everyday racism brings you nowhere.
Implications for social struggle
There are major differences between the theory of everyday racism and the theory of institutional racism for the struggle against racism.
Institutional racism focuses on the institutions that produce and perpetuates racism: economic, social, political or cultural institutions. It identifies these institutions, analyses the way it works and devises strategies to bring them down or change them.
Institutional racism addresses the question of power. White power is embedded in the above mentioned institutions. To confront white power institutional racism tackles the question of black power. How to empower black people, how to fight mental slavery, how to organize black people to build economic and political power in social movements and confront white power.
Institutional racism links the struggle against racism to the struggle to decolonize the world. Racism is framed in the context of colonialism and its legacy.
Everyday racism takes the individual experience as the basis for its analysis. Therefore it limits its policy towards individuals and does not address the problem of institutional racism, white power and black empowerment. Its main focus is convincing white people to open their eyes for covert racism and acknowledge that it is there. Its strategy is to promoting non-racist interaction between individuals.
Essed provides a list of problems that need to be tackled.
Here is the list. As you can see the overwhelming majority addresses white people and what they need to do to change their attitude. It is not about black empowerment and how to build power to forces changes.
- Cognitive detachment
– withdrawing altogether
– lack of responsibility for race relations
– Ignoring the problem of racism
– Whites as the norm group
– Passive tolerance
– To define one black as the good exception
- Obstacles impeding equal participation
– Avoiding or withdrawing from social contact
– Failing to facilitate black participation
– Not acknowledging contributions/qualification
– Inflexibility/additional requirements
– To give less/secondary facilities
– Excluding from position of authority
– Reserving menial work for blacks
– To lower the standards
– To withhold relevant information
– To fire
- Denigration of perspective/personality
– To attribute unreliability
– Attributing oversensitivity
– To pathologize
- Cultural denigration
– To define as uncivilized
– To define or treat as backward
– To attribute Happy-go-lucky mentality
– To attribute language deficiency
– To attribute laziness
– To attribute insensitivity
- Biological/cultural denigration
– To define as overly fertile
- Biological denigration
– Race purism
– To attribute sexual pathology
- Denial of racism
– Failing to take a stand against racism
– Reluctance to deal with racism
– Refusing to admit racism
– Anger against blacks who point out racism
– Claiming to mean well
– Pveremphhasizing black against black conflict
– Acknowledging only extreme racism
- Management of ethnic difference
– Overemphasis on difference
– Majority rule
– Ethnization of jobs/tasks
– Cultural non-recognition’
– Rejection of ‘ethnic’ behavior
– Mistrusting/unity among blacks
– Ethnic registration
– Expressing gratitude
– To keep close control
– To give pity/charity
– Creating/reinforcing dependence
- Denial of dignity
– Sexual harassment
– Petty harassment
– Ridicule/jokers/racist talk
– Name calling and verbal threats
– Authoritarian behavior
– Opposing/punishing assertiveness
The theory of everyday racism presents itself as a new analysis of racism. In fact, it is an old analysis that has been propagated since the days of slavery by black people who are colonized in their mind and have learned to wait for the white men and women to acknowledge their everyday racism in order to change society.
 First in her dissertation: Essed, Ph. (1989): Understanding everyday racism. An interdisciplinary theory and analysis of the experiences of black women. Diss. University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam. Later she developed it further in: Essed, Ph. (1991): Understanding Everyday Racism. An Interdisciplinary Theory. Sage Publications. Newbury Park.
 Essed, Ph. (1991), p. vii.
 Idem, p. 1.
 Idem, p. 8.
 Carmichael, S. and Hamilton, Ch. (1967): Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. Vintage Books. New York.
 Idem, p. 3-4.
 Idem, p. 4.
 Idem, p. 5.
 Carmichael, S. and Hamilton, Ch. (1967), p. 5.
 Idem, p. 6.
 Essed, Ph. (1989), p. 48-49.
 Essed, Ph. (1989), p. 69.
 Essed, Ph. (1991), p. 294.
 Idem, p. 2.
 Idem, p. vii.
 Idem, p. 7.
 Idem, p. 288.
 Idem, p. 5.
 Essed, Ph. (1991), p. vii.
 Idem, p. viii.
 Essed, Ph. (1989), p. 60-61.
 Idem, p. 65.
 Idem, p. 64.
 Idem, p. 133a-b.