Methodologies of critical psychology: Illustrations from the field of racism


Thomas Teo

York University




Published as: Teo, T. (1999). Methodologies of critical psychology: Illustrations from the field of racism. Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 1, 119-134.


This web-based version is based on the final pre-publication manuscript that is not identical with the published version. For access to published version please contact your library or contact author.


Address: Thomas Teo, Department of Psychology, History and Theory of Psychology, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3, Canada. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to





It is argued that critical psychology can be discriminated meaningfully into critical theoretical psychology, critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention, critical empirical psychology, and critical applied psychology. According to the differentiation of the general methodologies of critical theoretical psychology into deconstruction, reconstruction and construction, the uses of these methodologies in the field of racism are illustrated. Thus, some of Immanuel Kant's anthropological statements are deconstructed as racist. In addition, they are reconstructed as part of Euro-American cultural-historical identity. Finally, a psychologically useful concept of racism is constructed, one that allows for a differentiated application of the term in communicative contexts and one that is formulated in the interests of the oppressed. Traditional racism, neo-racism, diffuse racism, and reactive racism are defined. Some consequences for critical psychology are discussed.


Forms of critical psychology


It is useful for an exposition and reflection on methodologies of critical psychology to discriminate at least four forms of critical psychology: (a) critical theoretical psychology, (b) critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention, (c) critical empirical psychology, and (d) critical applied psychology. Within and among forms, which are not mutually exclusive, one detects a variety of frameworks on which to base critical psychology.


Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) criticized natural-scientific psychology and challenged the “explanatory” approach to the psyche as unable to grasp the specificity of human mental life (Dilthey, 1961). His analyses must be considered part of critical theoretical psychology. However, Dilthey did not base his reflections on a practical emancipatory viewpoint. Thus, critical psychologists who demand that the political-emancipatory perspective should be a core concept of critical psychology might not consider him a critical psychologist. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that many critical theoretical studies without an emancipatory background are significant for practically and politically interested psychologists.


The critical work of Klaus Holzkamp (1927-1995) provides a good example of a critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention. His historical-theoretical analysis of psychological categories (see Teo, 1998a) should help individuals to understand societal and personal dependencies, to realize restrictions and solutions, and to allow them to improve their quality of life through informed practices. Similar to Holzkamp, many academic psychologists who work and publish in the area of critical psychology can be subsumed within this branch of critical psychology.


Moreover, some psychologists base their empirical studies (in its narrow psychological meaning) on a critical framework and thus work towards a critical empirical psychology. Many clinical, community or social psychologists and practitioners who apply psychology within the contexts of different institutions are still guided by an emancipatory perspective, and therefore perform critical applied psychology. The important distinction, however, is one between theory and practice (i.e., critical theoretical psychology vs. critical applied psychology). This factual division of labor within the community of critical psychologists is conflict-laden.


Critical applied psychologists accuse critical theoretical psychologists (both forms) of living in an ivory tower and producing irrelevant reflections. Critical theoretical psychologists, on the other hand, suggest that many critical practices have been unsuccessful, that they support the status quo, or that they are often on the wrong side of the political spectrum. Critical theoretical psychologists also suggest that critical practitioners or empiricists do not understand the significance and function of theory, nor the dialectics of the theory-practice problem. Because of the theoretical weaknesses and ideological functions of traditional psychology, and because recent theoretical developments at the margins of mainstream psychology (such as postmodern psychology) have gained widespread attention -- despite their theoretical weaknesses (e.g. Parker, 1998; Teo, 1996) -- it becomes particularly crucial to emphasize that there is not only a place for critical theoretical psychology but a necessity for it.


The division of critical labor is understandable in the context of the contemporary Euro-American organization of academia. The idea of a unity of theory and practice (e.g., Gramsci, 1971) is part of a utopia that may motivate the practical emancipatory intentions of critical psychologists. However, there exists no reasonable argument why practice (in its everyday meaning) should determine the activities of critical theoretical psychologists. Indeed, there is a place for theory in and for itself in critical psychology, and "interpreting" a problem in a new way is a justifiable objective of critical theoretical work (especially in the Western world). This perspective contradicts traditional demands for practice stemming from radical philosophy. Marx's (Marx & Engels, 1983, p. 7) thesis that the goal of philosophy is not to interpret the world but to change it still occupies huge parts of the critical superego.


This perspective also contradicts the Zeitgeist of Euro-American societies, according to which theory alone has no value. Conservative politicians and members of research funding agencies increasingly demand that research proposals have practical implications for society. Only practical or practice-promising projects receive public consent, whereas purely theoretical endeavors, and among them critical analyses, are considered obscure and unworthy of funding. It is strange that both the market-oriented Zeitgeist and critical applied psychologists demand practice. However, one must point out that critical applied psychologists' understandings of practice differ from system-supporting understandings of practice. For the former, critical practice often implies social change.


Obviously, the term practice requires critical reflection. The concept of practice is not self-evident, and an everyday understanding of it is not sufficient to do justice to the problem. On some perspectives, theory is a form of practice, while on others practice does not require theory.  In my view, critical theoretical psychology is a necessary part in this dialectics, while mutual learning processes may take place. Feedback from practice is significant for critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention, while theoretical analyses may inspire practices. Critical psychologists should consider the idealistic notion that if theory does not work in practice, then it is too bad for practice (not for theory). In addition, although I agree with Gramsci (1971) that knowledge as a result is not a form of doing, I also believe that the production and dissemination of knowledge is a form of practice.


The goal of this article is to present general methodologies for critical theoretical psychology (both forms). It does not attempt to outline a methodology (or methods) for critical applied psychology or critical empirical psychology. In order to achieve this, the distinction suggested above, as well as a reflection on the theory-practice issue, is important. It is also critical to point out that the theory-practice problem is not a static dilemma that can be discussed beyond specific cultural-historical contexts. Thus, the formulation of theory as revolutionary theory and of practice as revolutionary practice in the 19th century cannot be translated simply into contemporary issues of oppression.


Indeed, the theory and practice problem assumes a different character in the politics, philosophy, or psychology of Latin-America as compared to Euro-America. In Euro-America, to be critical could mean, for example, to distance oneself from the traditional practices of the mental health care system even when one is not able to provide concrete alternatives. It could mean to resist the compromising of radical theories for the sake of a status quo that does not allow for radical interventions. On the other hand, in the context of Latin America, one might agree with Martín-Baró's (1994) concept of liberation psychology, his criticism of the ivory tower, and his demand for the primacy of practice.


The problem becomes even more tangled if one takes Dussel (1985) seriously when he suggests that a critical framework should provide theories and practices for the oppressed. I agree that a critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention should provide theories for the oppressed. However, given the plurality of subjectively expressed feelings of oppression in Western societies, questions are raised regarding who should be counted “objectively” as oppressed. Class, gender, and "race" must be considered core categories for identifying oppression in critical psychology. However, there is oppression related to sexual preference, physical and mental disability, age, body size, food preferences, attractiveness, and so on. Power, oppression, and even terror can also be experienced by white, male, upper-class professionals: Medical doctors who provide abortions in North America (and who may fall within these categories) risk their life and are threatened by anti-abortion activists.


Habermas (1987), who differentiated social movements in terms of their emancipatory, resistance, or withdrawal potential, provides only a rough scanning device to make adequate decisions about this issue. My own view is to consider claims of oppression in terms of classism, sexism, and racism as relevant to critical psychology, but not to consider claims of individuals who feel oppressed because they pay too much income tax as falling within this category.


Although classism, sexism, and racism are central concepts for analyzing psychology, I do not think that these issues determine the character of critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention. Further, it is inappropriate to apply the term critical psychology to only one approach, such as German Critical Psychology (see Teo, 1998a). From a factual point of view critical theoretical psychologists have studied many issues from within many different paradigms. They have analyzed theories of mainstream psychology and have pointed out the epistemological, ethical and political shortcomings of psychology, and how it serves the interests of powerful groups. They have focused on topics such as exploitation and alienation, and on concrete issues such as unemployment, poverty, and abuse of power in schools, prisons, and the psychiatric establishment (cf. Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997).


I suggest understanding critical theoretical psychology (with or without a practical emancipatory intention) not by the topics covered, nor by specific research programs, but by the three general methodologies of deconstruction, reconstruction, and construction. I hope to show that critical theoretical psychology, especially with a practical emancipatory intention, occupies a rightful place within a critical worldview.


Deconstruction, reconstruction, and construction as critical methodologies


Critical psychology is an essential branch of knowledge production in psychology. As a theoretical discipline critical psychology produces critical knowledge that monitors and challenges traditional psychology, but also provides alternative views on psychological topics. Critical psychology as a theoretical discipline has used the methodologies of deconstruction, reconstruction, and construction (cf. Teo, in press). The term methodology, which refers to a general way of studying an object or event, is used here, as opposed to the term method, which refers to a specific set of techniques (such as discourse analysis).


Deconstruction is a widely used general methodology in critical theoretical psychology. It takes a psychological-theoretical or practical construction apart and lays open its elements. Deconstruction refers to a pure critique of psychology, and provides, for example, concrete evidence of psychology's racism, sexism or classism. Critical theoretical psychologists (without a practical emancipatory intention) have nourished the literature on the crisis in traditional psychology by using many deconstructive arguments (see Teo, 1993). Deconstructive works explicitly criticize areas of traditional psychology such as social psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and cognitive psychology. A sophisticated body of criticism has focused on traditional and non-traditional methods, psychology's basic methodology, psychology’s assumptions regarding human nature, the mind-body relationship, and psychology's epistemology, philosophy, and ethics (see Teo, in press). Deconstruction may be based on philosophical or meta-theoretical paradigms, and critics of psychology may adopt a Marxist, feminist, post-structuralist, hermeneutic, anti-racist, or eclectic perspective for the deconstruction. In terms of psychology's racism, which is used as an example in this article, the methodology of deconstruction identifies and describes those biases.


Reconstruction is a general methodology that critically reconstructs psychological theories, methods, and concepts by theoretical, logical, or historical means. Essential for a critical reconstruction of contemporary psychology with a practical emancipatory intention are critical historical works. Issues such as how gender, class, race, or more generally power, influences psychological theory and practice are part of critical reconstruction. Reconstructions also focus on the impact of society, culture, or modernity on the psyche. Other works attempt to translate critical concepts into specific areas of psychology, or to analyze pseudo-empirical research in psychology (see Teo, 1997; Teo, in press). Reconstruction as a general methodology of critical theoretical psychology renders events in psychology understandable. With regard to racism, the methodology of reconstruction has as its purpose the understanding of racist bias.


Construction as a general methodology of critical theoretical psychology refers to the development of critical theories, methods, and concepts. Traditionally, emancipation, liberation, alienation, oppression, and exploitation have been considered significant concepts that require further development. Analyses that allow for a new perspective on racism, sexism, and classism are subsumed within this category. A critical construction of traditional concepts such as learning, perception, cognition, and emotion are also included within this methodology, as is the goal of rehabilitating the ethical domain in psychology under the broader objective of an emancipatory psychology (see Teo, in press). With regard to racism, the methodology of construction may provide concepts that help subjects to identify racism.


Construction often accompanies deconstruction and reconstruction, and several works have used all three simultaneously (see books in Routledge's Critical Psychology Series; Parker & Spears, 1996; Prilleltensky, 1994; Sloan, 1996). A good example of the critical construction of a concept is Holzkamp's (1993) theory of learning. Holzkamp deconstructs mainstream learning theories by identifying their weaknesses; he reconstructs traditional learning theories by showing their limitations and by suggesting which elements of existing learning theories should be incorporated. Finally he constructs a new learning theory by providing a framework that explicates the meaning of learning from the standpoint of the subject.


Obviously, the division of theoretical critical psychology's methodologies into deconstruction, reconstruction, and construction is idealtypic. This division represents a conceptual scaffolding that allows one to grasp the investigative practices of critical theoretical psychologists. Although critical works suggest that critical psychologists use deconstruction, reconstruction, and construction in a parallel mode, it is also possible to identify the dominance of one of the three in specific works. This division should make critical psychologists conscious about their work. It constitutes a heuristic for reflecting upon the theoretical activities of critical psychologists in academia, and it should guide one's own critical studies. However, it does not provide a framework for labeling a critical psychologist as deconstructionist, reconstructionist, or constructionist.


In my view, critical psychology (with a theoretical or empirical focus) has no inherent connection to qualitative methods or to any other method for that matter. Indeed, deconstructive and reconstructive studies (that include empirical work) can use either quantitative or qualitative methods. For example, to determine whether women workers in a factory or women faculty at a university are paid less than their male counterparts, quantitative analyses are necessary; to document women's perceptions, thoughts, and feelings regarding their workplace environment, qualitative methods may be essential (see also Febbraro, 1997).


Deconstruction, reconstruction, and construction may not only reflect general methodologies of critical theoretical psychologists, but may also represent a developmental pattern. Some critical psychologists, myself included, began critical endeavors with deconstructive arguments, identifying eagerly the many weaknesses of mainstream psychology and its role in serving the interests of the powerful. With the acquisition of more critical knowledge, reconstructive studies that allowed for a more historically and theoretically sophisticated understanding of the problem became possible. And last but not least, I have tried to use construction as a methodology (see Teo, 1998b). 


From a perspective that is concerned with the future of critical psychology, it must be emphasized that critical psychologists should strive not only for deconstruction and reconstruction but also for construction. It seems that the constructive part has been largely neglected in critical psychology. It is my hope that critical psychologists will attempt more profoundly to contribute to the constructive part of critical theoretical psychology and thus contribute to the progression of critical thought in advanced industrialized countries. Although the suggested distinction may deepen our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of critical psychology, readers may ask for concrete examples of these methodologies. Thus, I have selected some examples to illustrate these methodologies in the field of racism.


Deconstruction illustrated: Kant’s racism


Several critical theoretical studies have identified psychology’s racism in the past and present (e.g., Cernovsky, 1995; Gould, 1996; Guthrie, 1998; Richards, 1997; Winston, 1998). For an illustration of deconstruction I have chosen the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) whose racism is typically not mentioned in psychology. Kant is one of the most important figures of modern Western thought. In his epoch-making critiques, critique of pure reason (Kant, 1977, WA III/IV), critique of practical reason (Kant, 1977, WA VII), and critique of judgment (Kant, 1977, WA X), he covered epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics, and demonstrated that all three domains are located within the authority of human reason.


Although a pure deconstruction would be limited to a description of Kant’s racist statements, I have included contextual information which requires reconstructive research but which provides information useful to the reader. However, the deconstructive parts should be identifiable easily. Textbooks on the history of psychology often mention Kant as a pioneer of psychology (e.g. Watson & Evans, 1991). Historians of psychology are mainly familiar with Kant's philosophy of mind, according to which concepts make certain perceptions or experiences possible. Kant is also known for articulating the view that psychology will never be a true natural science.


Kant co-constructed different races and discriminated among the White race, the Negro race [Negerrasse], the Mongol race, and the Hindu race in his anthropology (Kant, 1977, WA XI, p. 14). He evaluated these races and associated certain characteristics with them. For example, in analyzing emotions of beauty, Kant (1977, WA II) concluded: "The Negroes of Africa have by nature no emotion that would transcend the foolish," (p. 880). The "Blacks are very vain, but in a Negro way, and so chatty, that they have to be scattered by using clobbers" (p. 880). Kant (1977, WA XI) further identified a "strong smell of the Negro which cannot be avoided through any hygiene" (p. 79), and stated that "all Negroes stink" (p. 22). He co-constructed the prejudice that the "Negro" is "strong, fleshy, agile, but under the rich supply of his motherland, lazy, indolent, and dallying" (p. 23). Indeed, can we still agree with Habermas (1997) who suggested that Kant is "the only philosopher in the German tradition who is truly devoid of ambiguities" (p. 84).


Kant as quoted here is the same Kant who examined the conditions and limits of knowledge and who advocated treating humans as ends, not means. But it is even possible to deconstruct Kant as a master of epistemology when considering his explanation for the skin color of the Africans, which he based on phlogiston theory. This theory was popular in the chemistry of Kant's time and was used to explain why certain materials burn while others do not. The theory suggested that all combustible materials contain a substance called phlogiston. Materials with a large quantity of phlogiston burn well, whereas materials that do not burn do not contain any phlogiston (cf. Bernal, 1969). Kant used this theory to explain the dark skin of Africans. According to Kant, blood that is loaded with phlogiston turns black. He further added that one can see this blackness at the bottom of blood pudding. Due to the environment of the Africans, the skin of Africans must remove a great deal of phlogiston from the blood. Since blood that is laden with phlogiston turns black, and the skin is translucent, the skin of the Negro appears black (Kant, 1977, WA XI, p. 79). Kant was also against the intermarriage of nations "which gradually extinguishes the characters, and is, despite any pretended philanthropy, not beneficial to mankind" (Kant, WA XII, p. 671).


A deconstruction of Kant’s anthropological statements has no immediate applied consequences. However, a critical theoretical deconstruction of Kant, who interestingly never left his immediate environment of Königsberg, may have a practical emancipatory significance when people oppressed by racism and people who fight racism challenge Kant as a general universal mastermind. On the other hand, a deconstruction that results in (among other things) an inventory of Kant's racist statements should not be used to disclaim Kant’s significance in other areas of study. The issue of whether or not Kant changed his views over time, of whether or not he put his constructions into practice, or of how he influenced Europeans and European-Americans (who based slavery upon such constructions) is already, however, part of reconstruction.


Reconstruction illustrated: Why was Kant a racist and what are races anyway?


A reconstruction aims at understanding the reasons for Kant’s racism. Such reconstructions start with research questions: How is it possible, from an epistemological point of view, that Kant, who asked about the possibilities of the conditions of the mind to achieve knowledge, did not see the epistemological limits of his anthropological statements? How, from an ethical point of view, could Kant, the founder of an ethical system, not see the practical implications of his statements? Why did he not attend to the racist context of colonialism in which the anthropological research of his time was conducted? Why did Kant not hesitate to teach his racist ideologies to others, despite a lack of information and evidence on different ethnic groups? How is it possible that Kant wrote many of his racist remarks while simultaneously writing about human emancipation?


These questions require detailed reconstructive answers; here I can provide only a general perspective. As far as my own reconstructions go, Kant did not have an immediate racist agenda. Kant did not deliberately promote something that had horrendous consequences on those who were constructed as inferior. He did not understand his own role as an academic ideologist, as a person who taught something that was epistemologically and ethically wrong. In my view one can reconstruct Kant as possessing a cultural-historical identity that is unreflective and unconscious when it comes to the cultural-historical mediatedness (cf. Holzkamp, 1983) of the mind. Kant's individualistic conception of the mind did not allow him to reflect upon the cultural-historical limits of the mind, including his own mind. He never questioned his intellectual identity, an identity that saw the European mind as superior to the minds of the other "races."


The often heard counter-argument in defense of racist remarks, that such ideas reflected the Zeitgeist and that only a very few individuals in Europe were able to transcend such thinking, confirms the hypothesis that the construction of the other as inferior was -- and I think still is -- central to European and North American identity and practice. Zeitgeist and Ortsgeist, an identity of superiority, and an inappropriate understanding of the mind have co-contributed to the inhuman practices of domination and exploitation in Asia, Africa, Australia, and America (see also Dussel, 1995). Given that racism is a large part of the Euro-American cultural heritage, it is not surprising that racism was and is part of psychology's repressed identity. It is possible to reconstruct psychology as an Euro-American invention, and as an indigenous psychology of Western culture.


Kant's statements on the skin color of Africans are psychologically enlightening as he obviously tried to cope cognitively and emotionally with the unknown. The dark skin of Africans presented a research problem for Kant, and thus he theorized and rationalized difference in terms of a scientific theory. Obviously, the "other" must be constructed by all means, even when only insufficient and inadequate information to construct the other is available. The example of Kant demonstrates that racism has nothing to do with good personal intentions, as Kant might have had good intentions in his writings.  Nevertheless he acted irresponsibly, even through the lens of his time.


Again, I must emphasize that such a reconstruction has no immediate applied consequences. However, there should be no doubt that a practical intention motivates my own studies, even if this intention is simply to support people oppressed by racism in being able to handle such statements. Thus, I think that an a priori evaluation of critical theoretical reflections as lacking practical consequences is inappropriate. This does not mean that theoretical analyses should not benefit from anti-racist practices, from experiences derived from anti-racist projects, or from critical empirical studies reporting how racism is experienced and expressed.


Before I move to the methodology of construction in the field of racism, let me address some deconstructive and reconstructive thoughts on the term racism, and on the relationship between racism and race. People oppressed by racism, and also critical psychologists, should prefer the term racism to concepts such as xenophobia or ethnocentrism (see Teo, 1995). If we talk about identities (which is of course not sufficient to understand the complexity of racism), the concept of racism is more appropriate in describing the Euro-American reality than is xenophobia or ethnocentrism. Both contain naturalistic connotations; they suggest that racism is part of our nature and that it may be vain to eliminate these tendencies. However, racism cannot be explained or excused by reference to a biologically functional hostility towards foreigners. These terms neglect who was constructed by whom as inferior and who held the power to support these constructions.


The conceptualization of the relationship between race and racism has lead to some confusion. Some critical researchers avoid the term race and prefer the notion of racism without races because biologists have been unable to provide a scientifically sound definition of race (see Kalpaka & Räthzel, 1990). In this case, the avoidance of the term race emanates from an emancipatory interest or from a critique of biological essentialism. Some right-wing intellectuals, especially in German-speaking countries, avoid the term race [Rasse] due to the historical connotations of the term within this particular context. They hope that by avoiding the term race, the critics who might expose and challenge racism will be silenced. But avoiding the term race does not end the fact of racism.


The morphological discourse in biology suggests nearly as many race systems as there are theorists. Indeed, biological systems theories suggest anywhere between 2 and more than 200 races (Teo, 1995). The genetic discourse in biology is also controversial; respected contemporary geneticists have rejected the idea of human races because of an arbitrariness of systems and because of the inability to distinguish human groups genetically, as the variance within any particular group is greater than the variance between groups (Levin, 1991). The geneticists Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza, for example, argue that the concept of race is absurd when applied to humans (see Cavalli-Sforza & Cavalli-Sforza, 1995).


But for a deconstruction and reconstruction of the term race, one must leave the biological discourse. More interesting is the question of why, within the context of particular cultural-historical and economic formations, race systems were developed, and how these constructions were used to promote exploitative interests. An examination of the context of discovery of the concept of race shows that race systems have never solely focused on the phenotypic diversity of humans. The biological discourse on race cannot be separated from historical, political, economic, and military discourses (see Banton, 1987). On the contrary, an understanding of racism requires an understanding of the social construction of biological races. The modern concept of race was constructed pseudo-scientifically within the context of European colonization and conquest in order to justify, within a systematic ideology, inhuman practices (Geiss, 1988; see also Mosse, 1978).


From a biracial perspective (Teo, 1994) it is worth mentioning that the concept of race is formalized as an exclusionary category: Black and White are alternatives, but not additive or continuous. Thus, biracial people often have no political or cultural representation, and the biological discourse often constructs them as "exotic" and problematic cases (Root, 1992).


Construction illustrated: Concepts of racism as tools for the subject


I cannot give an example of construction in the context of Kant. Based on the idea of a critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention, and on Dussel's idea of critical theories for the oppressed, I intend to construct concepts of racism that are useful to individuals who experience racism or think that racism is an important concept for critical psychology. As a visible minority person, I am interested in racism as a social phenomenon, but I am also interested in a concept of racism that fulfills the following needs:


A critical concept of racism should be able to challenge frivolous statements in which the prejudice and the practice of racist perpetrators are put on the same level as those of victims of racism. In a postmodern world, one finds a conceptual (ideology-laden) chaos within the mass media, politics, academia, and everyday interactions. Users and supporters of affirmative action are labeled racists in the same manner that Ku Klux Klan members or Neo-nazis are considered racists. Thus, I require a concept of racism that helps me to differentiate between the racism of perpetrators and the "racism" of victims. I also want to be able to identify differences and similarities between contemporary racism and racism as it was expressed in the 19th century. I want to be able to realize differences between an ideologically saturated racism and diffuse forms of racism expressed by individuals who would not consider themselves racist. Finally, I want to be able to use a tool that allows me analyzing and reflecting upon historical and contemporary texts of racism.


Construction in the field of racism should begin with needs of individuals confronted by racism. The goal of my conceptualization of racism is not to specify the essential nature of racism (i.e., ontology or social theory of racism), or to argue that racism is a set of beliefs in contrast to a set of practices (or vice versa), but rather to provide a heuristic that helps people who are oppressed by racism (including myself) to identify and understand racism within written and oral texts. The conceptualization of racism is a tool for identifying different forms of racism in various texts as well as for understanding aspects of the racist mind and behavior. This construction is inspired by what Holzkamp calls the perspective or standpoint of the individual (cf. Holzkamp, 1993). A subjective or psychological perspective does not imply that racism should not be linked back or understood in its connection to society, culture, institutions, history, and lifeworld. On the contrary, individual racism cannot be understood without an understanding of societal racism or racism's embeddedness in daily practices and effects. Racism must be analyzed, for example, in connection with the implementation of laws, in daily communications and practices, in popular culture, and in systems of power (see Mecheril & Teo, 1997). But the goal of the following construction is not a sociological analysis of racism but a conceptualization that is helpful for subjects confronted with texts of racism. In this meaning, the suggested constructed concepts are not right or wrong, but useful or useless. Persons oppressed by racism provide the final criterion for this decision.


The concepts of racism articulated here did not descend from heaven. They have been nourished by my own experiences and by the literature in this field (e.g., Jones, 1997; Kalpaka & Räthzel, 1990; Kleinpenning & Hagendoorn, 1993; Memmi, 1987; Miles, 1989). First, I wish to distinguish between a discursive-ideological and a behavioral part. Some individuals have promoted the first part (e.g., Kant), others the second, and still others have combined theory and practice by applying their racist ideology in concrete actions. As the focus of the construction are written and spoken texts emphasis will be put on the discursive-ideological part.


I have heard the argument that to label someone a racist is to mirror essentialist thinking and personalize a societal problem. Although I tend to agree with such a theoretical position, I must also point out that it may be psychologically adequate for a victim of racism to employ such labels. In my view, it is inappropriate for critical academics to lecture victims about the correct usage of terms. This does not exclude the claim that reflections on the embeddedness of racism in the socio-cultural context are also necessary. The proposed four forms of racism reflect the development of my thoughts on racism, which are based on Teo (1995).


Traditional racism. Traditional racists (a) construct an ensemble of differences or meanings of uniformly constructed human races with a constructed or a real shared origin. (b) They evaluate this ensemble of differences or meanings in terms of superiority or inferiority (as members of the dominant "white race" they considers themselves as belonging to the superior race). (c) They naturalize the ensemble of differences or meanings (i.e., they are convinced that differences are due to the different nature of races). (d) They use or apply this discursive-ideological part of racism to legitimize, to recommend, or to enforce actions on dominated races or members of dominated races. A precondition for accomplishing this practice is that they are members of the dominant race and thus they have the power to use or apply these discursive ideologies.


(a): When members of a dominating ethnic group co-construct an ensemble of differences or meanings of uniformly constructed human races, they have entered traditional racism. The construction of an ensemble of meanings includes the notion that real or imagined physical features are associated with certain intellectual, moral, or behavioral characteristics. In the construction of meanings, unspoken differences are imputed. For example, when Kant argued that Africans stink, which is a construction of meaning, he also implied that they stink in contrast to him as a member of the "white race." Moreover, human races such as Blacks, "Gypsies," Jews, Asians, and so on are constructed as uniform groups with a shared origin.


(b): It is a very short distance from the construction of an ensemble of differences or meanings to the evaluation of these differences or meanings. Kant's statement that blacks are lazy implies that they are lazy in contrast to the "white race." This is not just a report of difference but also a statement of evaluation. The statement that Africans are lazy sets the "white race" as the standard against which to measure the real or imagined activities of other races. Members of the dominating race propose the evaluation of differences or meanings in such a way that they are members of the superior race while the other is member of the inferior race.


Understanding that an ensemble of differences or meanings is important to this definition can easily be demonstrated. Single constructions might be made in favor of the other race but the ensemble might not be. Someone might say: "I am not a racist. I believe that African-Americans are the best basketball players in the world." This single statement is not racist, but it is based on a stereotype.  Moreover, the ensemble of constructions and meanings might include the idea that Blacks as a race are good athletes but nothing else. Similarly the statement: "Orientals are very industrious and not lazy" might be part of an ensemble of constructions that imply that East Asians are industrious but not creative. Positive statements are not racist per se, but thinking in terms of naturalized positive differences turns easily into the contrary when an ensemble of differences or meanings is concerned.


(c): Naturalization is an important part of traditional racism. The constructed ensemble of differences and meanings is attributed to biological nature (including God, morphology, genes, evolution, etc.). Thus, real (cultural-historical) or imagined differences or meanings are founded upon the biology of the races. Of course, differences in the economic development of nations or individuals are interpreted as natural rather than cultural-historical. Naturalization is often not clearly expressed but is an unspoken substantive assumption. Kant's statement that Blacks are vain is simultaneously a construction of meaning, an evaluation, and based on a naturalization.


(d): Kant clearly fulfilled the criteria of the discursive-ideological part of the definition of racism, and although he did not have the chance to use his constructions for exploitative purposes, he certainly contributed to exploitative practices. Racist discursive-ideological constructions have been and still are used for legitimizing, recommending or enforcing actions against certain ethnic minority groups. One may look at the colonial practices of European states, slavery in North America, or German anti-Semitism that led to the Shoah. Of course, the destructive use of action is not always as obvious as it is in the Shoah. Actions might include not only physical harm to human life but also psychological damage. The ongoing verbal devaluation of minority groups that allows the minority individual to assume an identity that has negative connotations in mainstream culture is part of such actions, as is the fact that members of the dominant group are given advantages and privileges denied to the dominated group.


Neo-racism: Although traditional racism can still be found in contemporary society, more subtle forms of racism have also emerged. Neo-racists construct an ensemble of differences or meanings of uniformly constructed groups. Such groups may no longer be labeled as races but as cultures, ethnicities, peoples, nations, foreigners, immigrants, and so on. Neo-racists evaluate this ensemble of differences or meanings while attributing superiority to themselves/their group and inferiority to others. In neo-racism the naturalization of the ensemble of differences or meanings takes on a different look.  They might not argue that these differences or meanings could be found in the biology of "these people," but in their culture. In neglecting the historical dimension of culture, however, they naturalize the concept of culture. Thus neo-racists employ the concept of culture in the same manner as the concept of race has been employed. They do not refer to racial purity anymore, but to the dangers of a multicultural society. They do not consider a particular race but the unemployed immigrant as parasitic. These neo-racist ideological-discursive constructions are used to legitimize, recommend, and enforce actions over other ethnic groups. The power might be expressed in the denial of political rights for immigrants, for example, that are routinely enjoyed by members of the dominant culture.


Diffuse racism: It is important to point out that racism is not an ideology stemming from the so-called bottom of society. On the contrary: Elite groups, including politicians, scientists, and journalists, are extremely important to the dissemination of racism as an ideology and practice (cf. van Dijk, 1993).  Diffuse racism is displayed when people construct differences and meanings of ethnic groups. This is less a cognitive process than an affective one. Diffuse racists do not support an ideology or think about an ensemble of differences or meanings. Rather, they focus on superficial differences and meanings. However, they still evaluate these differences and meanings such that they feel superior to the other constructed ethnic group. They no longer refer to an ideology of genetic or cultural differences, but somehow they believe that these differences and meanings are unchangeable. Finally, they use this diffuse racism to legitimize, to recommend, or to enforce actions, such as demanding their daughter to never marry a member of a particular "other" ethnic group.


Reactive racism: Groups and individuals oppressed by racism may regain a positive concept of their race and may construct the oppressors as a race, too. The power of thinking in races shows that victims of racism are not beyond racism themselves. Yet, I want to emphasize theoretical caution here, as there might be good reasons to challenge reactive racism as a concept. Conceptual caution is required as one takes the societal power of construction and action into account. Who, within a given society, has the power to propose constructions and meanings that gain acceptance? Who has the power to evaluate these constructions? Who has the power to put these constructions into practice? Victims of racism rarely have the cultural or political power to make their constructions dominant.


Moreover, the phenomenon of reactive racism has been abused to render everyone equally a racist, so that the victims appear no better than the perpetrators. If everybody is racist, then why should there be a special effort to challenge the racism of any one group? However, this political strategy is used to maintain structural and societal forms of racism. Of course the basic error in such thought is the individualistic neglect of societal power. Yet, despite the danger that the dominant group imposes reactive racism as a concept, it seems appropriate -- from a psychological point of view -- to include this type of racism, while being aware of the problems associated with this concept.


Reactive racism can be identified when I, as a victim of racist constructions and acts, construct an ensemble of differences and meanings of uniformly constructed human races with a constructed or a real shared origin. In reactive racism, I evaluate this ensemble of differences and meanings in favor of my own oppressed race against the other, the perpetrator race. Moreover, the victim race is constructed as superior while the perpetrator race is constructed as inferior. In reactive racism I naturalize these differences and meanings by suggesting, for example, that Whites will always be racists. In reactive racism I use and apply these constructions to legitimize, recommend or enforce actions against perpetrators. The power in this case is not societal or cultural, but sub-cultural and interpersonal, and must cope with the full counter-power of the mainstream.


The proposed conceptualizations are, as I pointed out, a tool for understanding certain textual situations of racism. However, it must be emphasized that the definitions do not constitute a mechanism that renders reflection useless. On the contrary, a great deal of reflection is required beyond this heuristic in order to classify textual written or spoken statements as racist. One needs to reconstruct the latent ideology, the context, and the person to understand the racist statement. For example, caricatures can be racist by emphasizing a prejudice, but through their comical appeal might be able to challenge racist ideologies. In any case, victims of racism must be consulted. In this sense the definitions suggested here serve as basic tools that must be explicated through concrete case examples and should be modified where necessary. Again I want to point out that individual racism can only be comprehended in connection with societal, cultural, and institutional racism. Racism is no trait or disease of the individual, but is a result and dimension of Euro-American culture. Racism is the objective mind of Western societies. Further, critical psychologists may ask about the functionality of racist thinking for different subjects (Holzkamp, 1995), or explore the narcissistic dimension when the other is devalued and left outside.




The methodology of construction was performed within the ivory tower of academia. It raises once again questions about the relationship between theoretical critical psychology (with a practical emancipatory intention) and applied critical psychology. Is it justified to use the term applied or practical when an individual uses the suggested conceptualization of racism as a tool to identify racism in historical writings? Is it a practice when persons begin to ask themselves, based on the proposed concepts of racism, if they construct differences between ethnic groups, if they evaluate these differences, if they attribute these differences to nature, and if they base actions upon such constructions? In my view, a reflection of that type is a form of practice, not in a narrow sense -- nor in a revolutionary or political sense -- but in a sense that might be captured by the idea of a “practical emancipatory intention.”


There is a place and necessity in critical psychology for the utilization of critical theoretical methodology. Critical psychologists should be careful not to submit themselves to the logic of an ideology that measures results in terms of their exchange value, or assume that, because psychology has become a huge commodity, reflections must be marketable. Further, the use value of critical theoretical psychology with a practical emancipatory intention should no longer be measured in terms of its revolutionary impetus (in Euro-America). The use value of these methodologies is much more modest, and perhaps should be so, considering the mistakes that have been made in the name of radical thought. Alternatively, the use value of deconstructive, reconstructive, and constructive methodologies may be measured in many ways. Such methodologies may illuminate the pathologies of the status quo; inspire further analysis; provide an heuristic for challenging the mainstream or a means for mediating one’s own behavior; or constitute a tool for analyzing a problem. Ivory is something precious. It may be worthy of protection.







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