Structural racism and privilege

This post is based on some ideas presented by Grosfoguel on racism. Would love to hear your thoughts!

Edit: the first part is a presentation of Grosfoguel’s argument, which I later problematize slightly. I don’t believe prejudice from marginalised -> privileged groups can be termed a racist system, but that doesn’t mean it is not problematic. I also don’t believe that racism can only be institutional; I believe it is both (and others) which is what makes it so complicated. Just wanted to clear this up 🙂


Racism is not just about having a prejudice against someone. This doesn’t count as racism if it doesn’t have the power to affect the person you have this prejudice against. Rather, it is racism when it’s institutionalised & has real effects on people. This is why “anti-white racism” is bullshit. If I have prejudiced views against whites, it affects them minimally since there are no institutions or discourses that turn my prejudice into real discrimination against whites. (So please, no more talk about reverse racism. Yes, brown people might have prejudiced and discriminatory views against whites. Women might have prejudiced views against men. But they do not have institutional and discursive power backing these views up, so it is not a racist system.)

I find his ideas very useful in the sense that he highlights structural and institutional racism and violence, which is often left out of debates on racism. As he siad, we are often told that modern societies have “some racists on the fringes” – the KKK, the neo-Nazis, Wilders, fascists. This automatically constructs racism as a small issue that exists within a minority of  “crazy Europeans and Americans” and automatically constructs the rest of society as not racist.

This of course ignores the fact that institutions and structures produce and reproduce racism. This is important also because even privileged people who do not necessarily hold prejudiced views still benefit from prejudiced institutions. The recognition of this prejudice is crucial. To give a more personal example, because I am half-white and half-Arab, I am often seen as white in Egypt, which brings a lot of privilege with it. Just because I may not necessarily hold prejudiced views that often come along with being European does not mean that I do not benefit from being associated with European-ness.

So my main question is: how can we theorise the complex linkages between racism at the individual level and the institutional and structural level? How does racism produced at both these levels interact and mutually reproduce each other? Can we speak of prejudice against privileged groups as racist if it doesn’t have any structural or institutional power backing it up? How to address institutional racism in countries such as the Netherlands where it has been invisibilised?

Finally: how to address the concept of privilege? We all have some form of privilege, whether it be class, racial, gender, etc. Can we use this privilege, as Spivak suggests, when she writes: “We cannot unlearn or undo our privilege, we can only use it on behalf of others.” But how to this without imposing our own narratives and frameworks on those we are trying to “help”? For example, if I want to use my class privilege on behalf of others, how to do this without being condescending and without having experienced or understood the lives of those with different class situations? How to even speak about this without being elitist?  Should those with privilege simply acknowledge it, recognise how it affects our lives, and realize that others do not have the same privilege?

In other words, how to act in solidarity? If we see racism as a product of institutions and structures, do those with privilege have the obligation to challenge these institutions and structures? For example, when Dutch people ask about how they can “help the Middle East” wouldn’t the best (and possibly only) solution be to focus on changing things domestically – challenge the ways in which the Dutch and European governments are implicated in perpetuating global inequalities that negatively affect countries like Egypt? (Although I have to say that Dutch people usually aren’t happy with this response, ahem.)

Lots of questions again. Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, and I hope I haven’t been too essentializing in using terms like white, race, class – these terms are of course complex and problematic, but also somewhat unavoidable.