The flag of the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) has been called a racist symbol and is banned from public display in a number of countries. Similarly, in the past political advertising by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was banned in several Swiss towns with reference to public order. However, is it really possible to say that an object is racist?
When referring to an object, I here refer to physical objects, words, expressions, or images. I also draw a distinction between racism and racialization. Racialization is the (mental) division of the world into distinct races. Racism adds the view that there is a hierarchy between races. This hierarchy can be universal or specific to a context, and it involves prejudice of the other groups — an intent to discrimination. There is an active element in this intent. Accordingly, an image of a black person in itself is not racist; it may not even be racializing — although the object’s context may indicate this.
I argue that in their denotation, objects cannot be racist. The connotation can be racist because of the implied intention to discriminate.
In practice this means that the connotation of an object can “have racist overtones”, but we are unable to determine racism as such unless we can determine the intention to discriminate behind. This means that an object can be a symbol or manifestation of racist intentions, but this depends on the specific context and is not a universal property of the object.
It follows that when the same object is re-used, we cannot say it is (is not) racist unless we consider the new context and intention. What determines racism is the intention to discriminate. While often indeterminate, the specific context may render underlying intentions apparent — but ultimately interpretation is involved unless the intention is made explicit. For example, in a place where a certain symbol is banned for being racist, the intentional display of this symbol can be regarded as an instance of racism. It is not the symbol that is racist, but the act of displaying the symbol in the context where it is banned.
Without intention to discriminate, the use of objects can still be tasteless, inconsiderate, or offensive, but I’d argue it isn’t racist.