What does racialization mean?

The killing of George Floyd hit the headlines internationally and brings more ‘visibility’ to topics as police brutality, structural racism, systemic racism. But racialization is much less addressed and remains under the academic loop. However, racialization structures our society and impacts all of us during our lifetime. If you wonder what does racialization mean and have no clue, it’s normal even though racialization is more familiar than one may think. 

The meaning of racialization

Racialization can be defined as a categorisation by the dominant group towards racialized people through othering. ‘Racialization refers to systemic and structural processes — social, economic, cultural, and political — that exclude, marginalize, inferiorize, and disadvantage certain groups and populations based on the categorization of biological features’. Racialization is fuelled by xenophobia, supremacism, ‘anti-migrants’ sentiments, racists prejudices and preconceived ideas.

‘Race exists as a social construct in which different races are hierarchized and rationalising races, racism, exacerbating relationships between the dominant dominant group(s) and the racialising group(s) and the resulting ‘contradictions of social space’: to “Whites”, “positivity” and “diaphanous and pure feminine beauty” (Laurent and Leclère, 2013b, p. 11), to “Blacks”, animality and naïve expressions of joy (Bancel and Blanchard, 1998). Those attributes associated with different groups underscore how people are treated differently and going through multiple discriminating processes. Racialization is not insignificant and can be very violent through social segregation, lynching and genocide.

The theorization of race and racialization came during slavery and colonial times. The white man’s civilizational project is asserting itself in many territories through various forms of violence such as rape, genocide and forced labour. Thus, racialization justifies exploitation of racialized people, being assigned demeaning tasks and precarious jobs based on what is socially acceptable.

The stereotype of the Latina housekeeper in the United States or the African descent cleaning lady in France became the norm.

Catalina Saavedra,  in The Maid 

I experienced it personally during my student years. When I couldn’t find summer jobs, I applied as a cleaner. I thought I had a good chance since the majority of the employees are racialized women.  The manager thought I had years of experience and assumed there was no need for him to show me how it works since “I’m used to it”. However, no, I had never been in this role before. 

Through different stages, we internalize the racialization process and how we are considered as ‘Other’. The process will be exemplified through a French social and context and my own experiences as an African descent growing up in France. 

Race, a social construct of the racialising group(s)

Racialising group(s) and racialised group(s) do not have the same racialization process. For the racialising group(s), the aim is to keep their domination and subordinating through different steps.

You’re not born black, you become black. The first steps in socialization are usually taken in kindergarten, ‘you become black first in the eyes of others and especially in the eyes of the majority’. These first steps can be shaped by the first racist experiences, where one faces the first forms of rejection from the majority group

I experienced rejection as a three-year-old child living in Corsica, an island in the south of France, in the Mediterranean Sea. I was the only black person and none of my classmates wanted to hold my hand because of my skin colour.

From a very young age, racialized people are exposed to othering, defined as a ‘set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities’. By consequences, many racialized people are ascribed to a specific ethnic group and supposed to conform to stereotypes associated with. For instance, being used of warm weather, loving hip hop music or having grown up in Africa, belong to the assumptions are associated with black people.

By being aware of ‘representing’ a specific ethnic group, one start to put their experiences into different perspectives and vocalizing them within the group they are ascribed. This awareness takes place in the public sphere as well as in personal relationships. 

Through awareness and each others’ experiences, people going through racialization learns to adapt to the role of ‘subordinate’. In a discriminatory situation, the racialized person may face the majority group’s reluctance by minimizing the discriminating experience(s) or doubting one’s words. Lacks of humour, exaggeration or overthinking could be some reasons to fall the racialized person. Thus, denial of one’s experiences tends to underline, ‘rejection of any opposition to the relations of domination established between the racializing group and the racialized group’. The disregard of racialized people’s voices is a learning process. Unless they get used to racist violence, racialized persons must learn to “deal with” it. This is how the deafness of the discriminator ends up making the discriminated voiceless’. (Poiret et Vourc’h, 1998).

The denial of racialized peoples’ voices in France takes also place in the political space, space where civil rights and civil liberties should be guaranteed to everyone. Racial discrimination and racialization are substituted terms for more politically correct ones:  l’égalité des chances (equal opportunities), la Charte de la diversité (French diversity charter), l’égalité d’accès à l’emploi (equal opportunity in employment). In no instance, french politicians take their responsibilities regarding racialization, racial discrimination and addressed the topics openly.

Thus, the denial of racialized people’s voices may lead to ‘racial conflict’, theorized by Sadri Khiari, a founding member of the ‘Les Indigènes de la République’, a political antiracist and decolonial party based in France. The expression ‘racial conflict’ is not used in a literal way. In this context, it’s about social relations between the racialising group(s) and the racialized group(s). On one hand, the racialising group aims to keep their dominant role. On the other hand, racialized people willing to free themselves from this domination and creating safer spaces. Take, for example, a racialized discriminated person, suing the racializing and discriminating company. The denial of racialized people’s voices lead also to create Black, Indigenous, People of Color collectives, safer spaces to express anger, frustration, hope and gathering together. Collectives such as Afro-feminists, Muslims, collectives and other BPIOC collectives are often accused of being self-centred, communitarian and anti-white. Such a willingness to come together and exchange, excluding the white predominant group, is also a way for racialized people to survive in this structure of social relations in which they are usually forced to subordinate themselves.

Racialization is not necessarily targeting the people we think. It affected Italians (mostly from Sicily and the dark-skinned one) in the United States, who for decades were categorized as racialized people. ‘They were sometimes shut out of schools, movie houses and labor unions, or consigned to church pews set aside for black people. They were described in the press as “swarthy,” “kinky-haired” members of a criminal race’. 

Two Italian immigrants hanged for an alleged shooting without any investigation or trial

Because they were exploited, they held difficult and dangerous jobs, also held by black Americans, and because socialize Black Americans, they diverted from whiteness. Irish migrants in the XIX century when through the same process of racialization.

Racialization evolves with changing social environment. Over time a group categorized as racialized may become part of the dominant group and not going through the racialization process anymore. It is a process that we familiarize within the course of our lives and takes other forms depending on the economic and social context of each country. The process of racialization will not be the same for a person of Senegalese descent in France as for a person of Senegalese descent in Australia. 

In this article, racialization was taken in a Western context, yet it could very well be applied in a non-Western context, such as African descent living in Latin America. It is important to understand the concept of racialization to better understand in the social structures we live in, how this racialization feeds racism and impacts social relations between the various racial categories seeking to free themselves from each other. Through racialization, privilege is maintained, especially white privilege, by ignoring, denying, minimizing the experiences of racialized people, but also through other privileges, such as colourism, where lighter skin or white-passing may grant privilege, or socio-economic privilege. A retrospect and analysis of our position in a hierarchical racial structure is more than needed, for the fight against systemic and pandemic racism. 


A., founder of POC Stories, sharing various people of color experiences and news. You can follow me on Instagram.

What does racialization mean?

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