anti-racism universalist relativist pooyaka

Anti-racism: universalist or relativist

At the first glance, anti-racism is a positive act, plain and simple: there is an evil, racism, that you need to eradicate and feel like a saint. But when you get more involved with the issue, either by delving deeper theoretically or getting your hands dirty by working on the ground, you begin to realise that the approach you take can create problems. You might enforce racism through your anti-racism practice.

There are two general approaches to anti-racism: universalist and relativist. In this post, I briefly introduce these approaches, which shape the course of action you take or the line of argument you use to persuade others.

You might also like: 7 Arguments against Racism

Relativist approach

The relativist approach acknowledges and even celebrate the differences among cultures and at the same time, it tries to emphasise that difference does not entail inequality.

The emphasis on diversity is this approach’s main positive and negative feature. On the positive side, it shows that differences do not mean weakness or backwardness. However, on the negative side, the emphasis on “difference” can enforce the idea of “the other” and in practice lead to further discrimination and enforce the “us and them” rhetoric.

Universalist approach

The universalist approach views and treats human beings as equal and in some sense, the same. The emphasis of this approach is on the similarities rather than differences.

The emphasis on similarities is the main positive feature of this approach and makes it more powerful in establishing equal rights and treatment for all. The main weakness, and in fact, a potential danger, of the approach, is that it might be used to preach a single universal ideal for the human beings, a picture that everyone should try to become.

Conclusion: Which approach?

The choice of the anti-racism approach depends on your views, intentions and the social conditions. If the risk of the dominance of the racist discourse is low, the relativist approach can be adopted to give voice to the minorities. If the racist discourse poses a threat, the universalist approach is more effective, because it helps push back the racist agenda and strengthen the minorities.

It is worth emphasising that mixing the two approaches or using one in the wrong context can enforce the racist agenda, undermine the anti-racist movement, and weaken those it attempts to empower.

My own experience, as someone from a different cultural background living in Australia, favours the universalist view. The dominant relativist approach in Australia has always prioritised my background as opposed to my human qualities. I always felt a push towards the community of my background but I resisted it, no matter how hard it was. I believe prioritising cultural communities only reinforces racist stereotypes and undermines social unity.


If enjoyed this article and would like to read more, you can access the full version of this piece on my website, Dianoetic.


Photo credit: The Odyssey Online

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