Multiracism: Rethinking Racism in Global Context

Polity Press, Cambridge, 2022

(Japanese edition, Akashi Shoten, Tokyo; forthcoming)

… provides and provokes a new, international and post-Western vision of racism for the twenty-first century.

‘Elegantly written with a breath-taking level of global reach, this highly readable account draws on a varied and engaging set of examples to articulate and elaborate the fundamental argument about global multiracism. This is a central paradigmatic challenge to mainstream positions in the field of racial and ethnic studies which fail to recognize and account for the huge range of racisms operating across the planet.’ Professor Ian Law, University of Leeds

‘Covering many non-Western societies where the binary White/non-White is absent, this book provides an incisive, insightful, and important contribution to the understanding of the specificities, practices, and consequences of “world racism”. Highly recommended for specialists as well as general readers.’ Professor Zaheer Baber, University of Toronto

Excellent and ground-breaking, makes is a niche topic racisms outside the West, into a mainstream one. Professor Tariq Modood, Bristol University

Racism is a world problem. From Morocco to China, Brazil to Indonesia, racism is being debated and contested. Multiracism broadens the horizon on this global blight, showing that racism has a diverse history with multiple roots and routes.

Drawing on examples of racism from across the globe, with particular focus on cases from Asia and Africa, Alastair Bonnett rethinks the origins of racism and the connections between racism and modernity. Arguing that plural modernities are interwoven with plural racisms, he explores the relationship of racism to history, religion, politics, and nationalism, as well as to anti-Black prejudice and discourses of whiteness. Empirically rich, with numerous in-depth case studies, Multiracism equips readers to understand racism in a multipolar world where power is no longer the sole possession of the West. It provides and provokes a new, international and post-Western vision of racism for the twenty-first century.

Polity Press link


Introduction: Reframing Racisms

Chapter 1 Explaining Racisms Beyond the West: Roots and Routes

What is Racism?
Racism is Not Just Black and White
The Western Gaze
Organizing Multiracism

Chapter 2 History and Nostalgia: Ruptures, Racism, and the Experience of Loss

Experience of Loss
Ruptures and Racisms
Uses of the Past: Nostalgia and Racism
Conclusions: Modern Trouble

Chapter 3 Religion’s Furies: Racism in Fundamentalism, Casteism, and Islamophobia

Radical Islamism and Racism
Casteism and Racism
Anti-Muslim Politics and Racism in India and China

Chapter 4 Political Sites of Racist Modernity: Communism, Capitalism, and Nationalism

Communist Modernity and Racism in the USSR
Capitalist Modernity and Racism in Indonesia
Racist Nationalism
All of the Above? The Intersection of Capitalism, Socialism,
Nationalism, and Religion in Apartheid South Africa

Chapter 5 Shifting Symbols: Whiteness in Japan and Blackness in Morocco

Globalizing Consumerism: Globalizing Whiteness
Anti-Black Racism in North Africa



‘Many people with foreign roots stopped by police in Japan: survey’, Nikkei Asia, 15 September, 2022, [includes interview]

Bonnett, A. ‘Asia Has Its Own Strands of Racism. It’s Time to Take Them Seriously’, 9 June 2022, The Diplomat,

Interview, Alastair Bonnett (discusses his new book ‘Multiracism’) Endeavours, 339, February 2022,—Alistair-Bonnett-e1eo3p2

‘Multiracism: why we need to pay attention to the world’s many racisms’, The Conversation, 6th January 2022,

Seminar, Centre for the Study of Ethnicity, University of Bristol, 28 April 2022. See

Introduction [draft text, extract]

This book argues that racism has a diverse history with multiple roots and routes. It draws on examples of racism from across Asia and Africa in order to interrogate the connection between plural racisms and plural modernities.

Ethnic and racial studies is dominated by studies of racism in the West. Many of these studies assume that racism is a uniquely Western, European, and White practice and ideology. This assumption reflects the experience of racism in Western countries. However, one of its consequences is to allow racism to be ignored, downplayed or denied completely across the majority of the world and, hence, to make the pursuit of equality more difficult. Thus, for example, China’s former ‘paramount leader’ Deng Xiaoping could be confident that ‘since New China was founded in 1949, there has never been any ethnic discrimination in the country’.1 It was a point later elaborated by Premier Zhao Ziyang when he explained that racism is common ‘everywhere in the world except China’.2 A related and officially endorsed position is that ‘foreign instigation’ is the cause of racism and ethnic tensions in China.3 Yet, racism is better characterized as widespread in China than as non-existent. Dikötter suggests that the denial of this fact is a ‘rhetorical strategy used to delay the intro- duction of clear definitions of racial discrimination into the country’s legal system’.4 A similar pattern of denial in the face of overwhelming evidence can be found in many countries. One can read both that racism is ‘rampant in India’ and that it does not exist in India, for ‘“racism” is thought of as something that white people do to us’.5 In some cases the existence of discrimination is denied by a refusal to acknowledge the existence of ethnic or racial differences. The Government of Pakistan’s position, as stated in their 1977 report to a UN Committee, is that, in Pakistan, ‘there are no racial or ethnic minorities but only religious minorities’.6 Since ethnic tensions are a central feature of Pakistani politics, this claim may appear bizarre. In part, it reflects the supra-ethnic role of Islam in the founding of the Pakistani state, but it also indicates a legacy of denial of inconvenient truths.7 This kind of denial is often laced with populist political agendas. The genocide of Armenians in Turkey in the early decades of the twentieth century has been met by successive Turkish govern- ments with rabble-rousing counteraccusations of ‘Turkey-bashing’. When, in 2003, the Swiss Federal Assembly recognized the genocide of the Armenians, Doğu Perinçek, an influential left-nationalist Turkish politician, flew into Switzerland, along with a retinue of 160 academics and state officials, to give a series of speeches arguing that the Armenian genocide was ‘an international … [and] imperialist lie’ and connecting its dissemination to ‘racist hatred’ of his country.8 In other contexts, racism has been acknowledged but defined in such a restricted way as to diminish its significance. In Japan, for example, Takezawa argues that ‘the discourse around racism has been framed narrowly’ to address a particular set of troubling but limited issues such as ‘discrimination against foreigners’, thus allowing a widespread belief in Japanese racial purity to go unchallenged.9

The identification of racism as being a uniquely Western project and, hence, as having a single geographical and political source, is explicable by reference to the world-changing power of Western colonialism, as well as to the conceptual elaboration and global enactment of European supremacy from the seventeenth century onwards. Although my focus is on Asia and Africa, this book shows how, globally and in many specific contexts, racism emanating from Western nations and empires caused and created the expression and practice of racism elsewhere. Moreover, although different racisms can be compared, in terms of their impact they are not equivalent. Western racism has mattered because the West has been more powerful than other places. Yet power shifts and so does the power of different racisms. To explain what I mean we can return to the example of China. In the early twentieth century what might be termed a ‘racialized Chinese modernity’ can be identified (albeit problematically, for China did not have a unique, discrete or homogeneous form of racism or modernity any more than the West), but its power to influence societies far beyond China’s borders was small. China was poor and disunited. Today China is a superpower. China’s ‘belt and road’ infrastructure-led trade initiative, which is building roads, ports, and much else besides across Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe, is impacting the lives of the majority of the world’s population.10 The past forty years have witnessed a major shift away from Western dominance, and the Washington-Moscow axis of political rivalry, and towards a polycentric distribution of global influence. Moreover, the majority of the world’s population now live in middle or high-income countries.11 The dawn of an ‘Asian century’ is convincingly evidenced by a comparison of the vigorous economic growth seen in East, South East, and South Asia with the minimal growth rates typical of many major Western countries. I doubt that many people, flying from the spectacular new skylines of urban China to, for example, my home town – the rather battered, post-industrial city of Newcastle in the North East of England – would conclude they have journeyed from the ‘Third World’ to the ‘First World’. It would be better framed as a journey from a newly risen to a residual part of the world economy. Power has shifted and the familiar model of a ‘rich West’ and ‘poor rest’ has become an anachronism, perhaps even a ‘nostalgic fantasy’.12 We can rephrase and expand this observation: a singular focus on Western power and non-Western submission or resistance is not just dated, it is Eurocentric.

A ‘post-Western’ turn in global studies appears inevitable but it is also ripe for misuse.13 Registering the new reach of non-Western power, Friend and Thayer, writing about China, articulate one Western response, which I suspect we will hear more of in the years to come; namely to point the finger at ‘the rise of a superpower where bigoted views are accepted as a legitimate part of discourse’.14 Friend and Thayer’s argument is that Chinese power is a problem because Chinese racism is a problem. Even more pointedly, they claim that racism is more ‘their’ problem than ‘ours’ and that Western superiority is evidenced by the West’s anti-racist, multicultural, and critical culture:

the fundamental question for the future of peace and stability in inter- national politics is how China sees the rest of the world and whether the norms that the West has created, particularly against racism and exploitation, could be maintained under Chinese hegemony. Knowingwhat the Chinese think about race, the answer is not positive for maintaining a global culture of antiracism.15

These ideas register a new narrative of cosmopolitan supremacism, in which international legitimacy is tied to possession of the capacity, supposedly uniquely Western, for interrogating racism. I have taught a university course on international perspectives on racism for over three decades and one of the first things I tell students is not to use phrases like ‘how China sees the rest of the world’ or similar constructions (other examples might include: ‘what Kenya thinks’; ‘what Japan does’). Such anthropomorphic national generalizations can be hard to avoid but they become problematic when they sit at the heart of one’s argument. Another temptation I try to steer students away from is ranking nations by how racist they are. The important point is not whether China is ‘more racist’ or ‘less racist’ than anywhere else but that what China does matters more, including its traditions of discrimination and social justice.

The concept of multiracism employed in this book is built on two major interests, one empirical and one theoretical. The empirical interest is the regional, national, international, and transnational study of ethnic and racial discrimination in Asia and Africa. I approach this material thematically, organizing it into chapters that focus on historical, religious, political, and economic expressions of racism. Comparative global scholarship on these topics is not new but it remains disparate and marginal to the mainstream of ethnic and racial studies. Relevant early studies include two major comparative statements, both published in 1948: Cox’s critique of the idea that ‘race relations’ in the USA have a caste rather than a class character, and Furnivall’s colonial administrative studies of ‘pluralism’ in South East Asia.16 Later decades brought a number of post-imperial overviews.17 However, all these works were focused either on European and US contexts and/or White actions and non-White reactions. In 1967 Pierre van den Berghe noted that over ‘the last three decades’ the literature on ‘race relations’ had been dominated by American studies and added that the ‘scarcity of sociological literature’ on ‘important multi-racial or multi-ethnic societies’, such as Indonesia, ‘is disheartening’.18 The next fifty years saw little change.

Asia and Africa account for about 80 per cent of the world’s population. They are neither a periphery nor a ‘Third World’ but culturally, economically, and politically central and primary. The need for an internationalization of ethnic and racial studies is set out by Suzuki as follows:

race scholars are in dire need to move beyond U.S.- and Europe-based models and paradigms of race in order to (1) objectively analyze the realities of racial and ethnic phenomena of the non-Western world without a presupposed white supremacy lens and (2) create a constructive feedback loop to encourage self-reflexivity on the current dominance of the U.S.- and Europe-based approaches in the era of transitional migration in which the world is afflicted and conflicted by different kinds of racial ideologies and ethnocentrism.19

The spatial diversity of racism is widely recognized. In 1990 Goldberg urged a shift away from singular notions of racism and towards an interest in racisms, arguing that ‘the presumption of a single monolithic racism is being displaced by a mapping of the multi- farious historical formulations of racisms’.20 Yet this geographical turn was not designed to challenge the idea that racism is ‘a European invention’ and a ‘European phenomenon’ but to empirically elaborate it.21 Indeed, even purportedly international works in ethnic and racial studies frequently fail to include Africa or Asia. Thus, for example, none of the thirty-four chapters in the Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Racisms looks  beyond  the  Americas or Europe.22 This is also true of Bowser’s edited volume Racism and Anti-racism in World Perspective.23 In other ‘international’ collec- tions, we find the inclusion of just one or two essays on racism in Asia or Africa.24

Such is the enduring strength of this West-centred view of racism that we can call it a paradigm. A paradigm is a worldview that sets out the borders of a debate and deals with counter-evidence by ignoring it, situating it as extra-ordinary, or marginalizing it as supplementary. In ethnic and racial studies the ‘Western racism paradigm’ remains resilient in large part because of the way racism is theorized: it is understood as a product of modernity and modernity is understood to be a creation of the West. Before I address this theory directly, I need to give a flavour of some of the new empirical work that is throwing it into question. The past few decades have seen the publication of a clutch of studies of racism in regions and countries, as well as in historical periods, previously neglected. This body of work often shares the conclusion that a sole focus on Western forms of racism is myopic. Law calls the idea ‘that racism is a purely European invention’ an example of ‘supreme arrogance’.25 In similar vein, Berg and Wendt tell us that ‘the notion that Westerners simply imposed racism on the rest of the world in a top-down fashion may well reflect a Eurocentric interpretation of a Eurocentric ideology’. Dunaway and Clelland call for an approach that ‘decenters analysis of global ethnic/racial inequality by bringing the nonwestern semipe- riphery to the foreground’.26 Dikötter worries that the ‘Eurocentric bias’ in ethnic and racial studies means ‘ignoring the persistent power of moral and cognitive traditions in Asia, Africa, America and the Middle East’. In this way, he writes, people in the majority world are portrayed

as mere passive recipients of ideas and things foreign, when instead we should recognize the importance of human agency, as historical agents around the globe interpreted, adapted, transformed and possibly even rejected racism in their own specific ways.27

The ‘dearth of literature on issues of racialization and racism in non-white settings’ is widely acknowledged but little attended to.28 Introducing his edited collection on international ‘racial and ethnic systems’, Spickard wrote that his ‘main impediment’ was that ‘it has been hard to gather expertise on enough places’.29 In another edited collection, on race and racism in East Asia, Dikötter makes a similar point and tells us that ‘the current state of the field and the available expertise on these issues is dangerously underdeveloped’.30

Dangerously ‘underdeveloped’ but also, sometimes, just dangerous. In many countries writing about racism can result in harassment, imprisonment or worse. ‘Disappearances’ of activists and scholars critical of discrimination against minorities are common, whilst other researchers have been forced into exile.31 Even in traditionally more open countries, such as India, Turkey, and Malaysia, critical schol- arship is currently being squeezed out of the academy.

Dikötter noted of his The Discourse of Race in Modern China, published in 1992, that it was ‘the first systematic historical analysis of a racist belief system outside Europe’.32 Similarly, the ‘Mapping Global Racisms’ series edited by Ian Law (which includes studies of racism in Russia, China, and India) is billed as ‘the first attempt to present a comprehensive mapping of global racisms’.33 Kowner and Demel’s weighty two-volume collection, Race and Racism in Modern East Asia, is offered as another first.34 These studies intersect and, in part, build on regional literatures on ethnic history and minority rights and, although they tend not to be framed as post-colonial studies, they can be aligned with post-colonial work that has sought to parochialize Western history and/or which has focused on the negotiation and creation of new ethnicities in non-Western settings.35 Empirically rich, complex studies such as Verkaaik’s ethnography of ethnic exclusion in urban Pakistan, Ergin’s history of racism and modernity in Turkey, and Hansen’s study of ‘naming and identity’ in ‘postcolonial’ Bombay, are examples of a new genre of post- Eurocentric scholarship that reorients the geography of ethno-racial discrimination.36

Any encounter with the diversity of racism is also an encounter with the diversity of diversity. What I mean by this is that what ‘diversity’ means – what it is called, what it looks like, and what its impacts are – is not the same everywhere. For example, people from the USA and, increasingly, Europe, who have become accustomed to thinking of diversity in terms of skin colour, may have trouble seeing the kind of diversity that exists in Asian and African countries. I have heard, more than once, White British people describe China as ‘homogeneous’, and even India – the latter because its people are ‘all brown’. These representations are not just an embarrassing faux pas but a fundamental misreading. To understand racism across the planet it is necessary to realize that difference looks different in different places.

The central theoretical argument of Multiracism is that to pluralize our understanding of racism we need to pluralize our understanding of modernity. Modern practices of thought and action, such as the mass categorizing and fixing of humans into advanced and primitive peoples, the valued and the disposable, elemental outsiders and insiders, lie at the root of racism. Although the link between modernity and racism is complex it is compelling. Ethnic massacres and ethnic slavery have an ancient history but only the modern world could have produced industrialized, bureaucratized, and intel- lectually justified mass racist atrocities such as the Holocaust and the Atlantic slave trade. Drawing on recent historical and sociological work contending that modernity is not singular but plural, I argue that just as there are diverse modernities so there are diverse racisms. What this implies is that in order to understand multiracism we need to rethink the geography of both racism and modernity. The picture I present is of cross-hatching and intermingling sites of modern racism; a fluid landscape in which origin points are confused and borderlines always in doubt. Modernities and racisms do not exist in isolation; an observation that further reinforces and explains why – although the empirical focus of Multiracism is outside of ‘the West’ – we will be encountering Western racial and ethnic ideologies and practices at every turn.37 Western- and White-identified racisms and modernities have shaped, provoked, and enabled other forms of racist modernity. But they have never been all-powerful and, increasingly, they must be understood in the context of, and in dialogue with, other roots and routes of racialized and ethnicized modernity. At present, the experience of racism by numerous ethnicized and racialized groups across the world is rarely registered in the international media and receives meagre and haphazard acknowledgment in the academic field of ethnic and racial studies. These experiences range from everyday acts of marginalization to genocide and slavery ….

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