4. Race and Crime

4.4 Race and Racialisation Today

Dr. Michael Ma

In addition to the history and practice of colonialism, we can also examine race as an everyday operation or as a common mental shortcut whereby a person’s physical appearance becomes a stand-in for appraising how they act, think, feel or exist in society. We can understand such mental shortcuts as stereotypes or unconscious biases that are used to arrive at an assessment based on appearance (e.g., skin colour, facial features, and/or hair texture). We can understand these judgments, opinions, and actions as things that people “do” to others.

Race as an Action

First, we can understand “race” as a verb or an act that is “done” to someone in that people or subjects can be “racialised” by a person, an act, or a system. This act assigns an individual, based on observed or assumed somatic, phenotypical differences, to a particular racial category that operates in a society. In this regard, race is a practice. For example, in the context of Shereen Hassan’s experience of being denied entry into the United States, we can understand that she was racialised by a system of border control (e.g., post-911 Homeland Security or the United Nations’ no-fly list) that uses race as a form of identification. Although Hassan’s first problematic encounter with border officials was before the events of 911 and before the establishment of heightened American security and border control, we can still understand her ongoing identification as a person of interest as being related to her racialised identity; the post-911 environment just increased the scrutiny. Her name and description are forms of identification that match another name and description of a person of interest to American border security services. In this regard, her matching name and description are not racist in nature because they are simply a match. However, we can understand that the reason for the production of such lists and databases is the outcome of a racialised post-911 heightened security and border control culture that specifically targets names that have a Middle Eastern, non-Western, and/or Islamic religious connection. “Hassan” as a proper noun racialises a person because of its non-Western linguistic origins. It is in this regard that Shereen Hassan was racialised. She was not denied entry because she was not White, but rather because she has a specific kind of non-Western name that was of interest to border security in the context of heightened post-911 securitisation. She was denied entry because border officials were now using a race-based system of screening. It should be noted that the Canadian passport has no specific racial identification except for the photograph and place of birth. In this regard, the passport is not specifically racist nor racialising, but it does provide information that allows for negative or harmful racialisation on the part of post-911 border security operations and practices (Amery, 2013; Chebel, 2012; Cole, 2005; Nagra, 2017; Dua et al., 2005).

Secondly, people get racialised not because of desire, want or intention, but rather in spite of their own agency. Individual people become racialised because race and racial identity is such a strong component of contemporary society. People are born into conditions not of their own choosing, and “race” is one of those conditions. Shereen Hassan did not choose her conditions of birth, while history chose to racialise her as non-Western and non-White. Other seemingly benign institutions also participate in systems of racialisation. For example, Statistics Canada’s surveys of Canadians always include a question regarding race. The word “race” is not included in the question, but the categories cannot be understood as anything but race based. The Statistics Canada National Household Survey (Long Form) asks the respondent to self-identify as these possible choices: (1) White, (2) South Asian (e.g., East Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.), (3) Chinese, (4) Black, (5) Filipino, (6) Latin American, (7) Arab, (8) Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, etc.), (9) West Asian (e.g., Iranian, Afghan, etc.), (10) Korean, (11) Japanese, (12) Other — specify. Some scholars would point out that the offered category and choice of “White” is not a racial category at all in so far as the other non-White categories are biologically and racially coded. That is, few White people would self-declare they belong to the White “race” because of negative White supremacy overtones, whereas it is accepted to understand non-White identities as legitimate races or ethnicities.

The survey asks participants to self-declare their race or racial identity. It does not ask for proof, but merely asks you to examine yourself and declare. Sometimes the question is posed with the terms “ethnic or cultural identity” instead of the word “race.” In this regard, the terms “ethnic,” “cultural identity,” and “race” can be understood to be somewhat interchangeable. This is further complicated by other studies that state the top three self-identified ethnic groups in Canada are Scottish (13.9%), English (18.3%), and Canadian (32.3%). The concepts of race and ethnicity in this regard are interchangeable, and yet we can acknowledge that to be ethnically English or Canadian is a radically different self-identification than Black, Chinese or South Asian because “English” or “Canadian” are not actual denotations of race. Herein lies the beginnings of the problematic definition and use of the term “race.”

In the context of the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), the RCMP helps maintain a central database whose information is served and used by municipal and provincial police services across Canada. The CPIC specifically requests users (e.g., police officers) to enter racial information into the database. Any entry regarding a wanted person or an accused must include racial information. Municipal police services may also maintain their own racialised databases. For example, the Vancouver Police Department uses the categories of Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Other and Unknown (see the Street Checks Report to the Vancouver Police Board [PDF]).

Practices that force participants and users of a survey/database to assign race to subjects constitute systemic racialisation because they compel the user to understand that society is racially divided and that people are members of distinct and separate races. Systems of racialisation (e.g., police databases) can also become amplified when they combine with other actions and practices—institutional or individual—that can be negative or harmful towards racialised persons. Forms of racialisation that have negative or harmful effects are what many scholars are referring to when they speak about “racism.”



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Michael Ma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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