Anti-racism: universalist or relativist

The rise of Trump in the US and ultra-nationalists around the world reprioritised anti-racism on the progressive agenda. At first glance, anti-racism is simply a positive, altruistic act. There is an evil, racism, that you need to conquer and in doing so, feel like a saint. But if you delve further into the issue theoretically or get involved in the action on the ground, you begin to realise that the approach you take can cause serious problems.

There are two general approaches to anti-racism that shape the course of action you take or the line of argument you use to persuade others: universalist and relativist. If you unwittingly mix the two or if you choose the one contradicting your theoretical foundations, you may end up reinforcing, rather than erasing, racism. That is why it is worth spending a little time pondering over these approaches to decide the one that better fit your theoretical framework and your goals in the anti-racism practice.

Relativist approach

The relativist approach acknowledges the differences between cultures, ethnicities, and heritages. At the same time, it rejects the idea that difference negates equality. In other words, it endeavours to celebrate the diversity among races and cultures but to retain equal rights for everyone.

The key positive factor of the relativist approach is the value it places on diversity. By celebrating diversity, this approach attempts to prove that ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences are not signs of weakness or backwardness, but positive features of a progressive and evolving community. The relativist approach advocates the view that diversity nourishes beauty and creativity.

Emphasis on differences, the positive feature of the relativist approach, can also constitute its main weakness. The overemphasis on “difference” can embolden the idea of “the other” and in practice, lead to further discrimination. In other words, highlighting differences to the extreme, which is very probable to happen, can encourage and be abused by the “us and them” rhetoric. It widens the gaps between ethnically and culturally diverse groups and erodes the cohesiveness of the general community. The expanding gap between culturally diverse groups and the fading solidarity among the anti-racist activists leaves a void. By exploiting this void, the racist discourse can (re)gain its dominance in the society.

This approach has another political-theoretical weakness. The idea of difference carries with itself the notion of a reference point. In other words, there must be a vantage point from which the difference is perceived.

Historically, this vantage point belonged to the global north and specifically, to the imperial powers (Bonnett 2000: 13). The dominant discourse in those countries viewed other races, nations, and cultures as fundamentally inferior. This sense of supremacy rendered the need to study other cultures useless. However, a discourse eventually emerged in response and against the former view. The new discourse initiated the imperial attempt to know and interpret the cultures of the “others”, i.e., the colonised.

The new discourse constitutes the core of the current relativist approach to anti-racism. Despite its worthy goal of challenging racism, this approach still carries, subtly indeed, the notion of Northern supremacy and a western point of reference.

The relativist view can be traced back to the sixteenth century with Michel de Montaigne. Other historical figures with views close to this approach are Montesquieu, Goldsmith, Marat, and Voltaire (Bonnett 2000: 13, 17).

Universalist approach

For the universalist approach, all human beings are equal and thus, should be treated equally. It considers all people, first and foremost, as human beings with numerous common features and shared similarities.

Contrary to relativism, this approach focuses on similarities rather than differences. It views cultural and ethnical diversity and differences in the colour of skins as contingent matters. It denies any priority to these issues and rejects any possibility for them to get in the way of treating all equally. In other words, this approach does not prioritise cultural and ethnical differences and if possible, attempts to ignore them.

The core theoretical foundations of the universalist approach arguably stem from the Enlightenment (Bristow 2011) and the project of modernity (Habermas 1993). Its focus on similarity and equality of all humans stems from the belief in rationalism, humanity, and universal values.

It is due to such theoretical and rational roots that the attitudes of Enlightenment thinkers towards racism is commonly universalist. Some of the most prominent figures among those thinkers are Pierre Leroux, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels.

Marx and Engels did not address the problem of racism in much detail. However, their very few comments relevant to the matter of race reveals their universalist tendencies. Marx considered as artificial the antagonism between worker of different races and ethnicities, e.g. between British and Irish workers or the “poor whites” and the Negros. In his view, the purpose of creating and propagating this antagonism was to serve and reinforce the power of the ruling classes (Marx & Engels 1975).

Personal experience

I prefer universalism when it comes down to challenging racism. Living as a cultural minority in Australia, I found the dominant relativist approach restricting, demeaning, and ironically racist. People, from the left or right, racist or anti-racist, have usually treated me first as a minority and maybe later as an equal human being. Most of them probably did it, not to offend me, but on the contrary, to defend me and to counter a dominant racist preconception against my cultural background. By doing so, they tried to use me as a counter-example to the racist stereotypes.

The outcome of this method, however, is not aligned with their good intentions. The collective use of this approach increases the divergence among people, eventually forcing the minorities into forming their exclusive communities. This is a force I have always felt since I moved to Australia. It has frequently, explicitly or implicitly, pushed me towards communities of my cultural background.

I never stopped resisting this pressure because of individual and collective reasons. On the individual level, it reduces all my human qualities to the place I was born. On the collective level, the presence of exclusive culturally and linguistically diverse communities, in many cases, is a sign of the failure of the minorities mixing with or being accepted by the larger community. It reinforces the racist stereotypes and demonstrates the defeat of anti-racist efforts.

Which approach?

The choice of the anti-racism approach depends on the ideology and the goals of the anti-racist practice. It also depends on the risk that racist discourses pose. If the probability of racist discourses dominating the public sphere is low, the relativist approach can be adopted. This approach provides an opportunity for minority groups to demonstrate their exclusive features, add diversity to the public culture and help the community evolve.

However, if the racist discourse posits an imminent threat and if the anti-racism movement and the minorities are weak, the universalist approach is more appropriate. It provides the means to push back the racist agenda, protect the minorities, and strengthen the anti-racist movement.

However, it is worth emphasising again that mixing the two approaches, using one in the wrong context, basing the practice on inconsistent fundamentals, or adopting incompatible intentions can lead to unexpected outcomes. It can cause results in radical contrast to the initial goals. It can further reinforce the racist agenda, undermine the anti-racist movement, and weaken those it primarily attempts to empower.


Bonnett, A (2000), Anti-racism, London, Routledge.

Bristow, W (2011), ‘Enlightenment’, In Zalta, EN (ed), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 ed), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Habermas, J (1993), ‘Modernity—an incomplete project’, Postmodernism: A reader, pp. 98-109.

Marx, K & Engels, F (1975), ‘Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York’, In, Selected correspondence, Progress Publishers, pp. 220-224.

Photo credit: The Odyssey Online