The Fine Line Between Nationalism and Racism

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Imagined Communities" by Benedict Anderson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the difference between nationalism and racism? In what ways are the two concepts linked?

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson claims that nationalism and racism are two completely different concepts, although they are often discussed together. However, since the book was written, some critics claim that nationalism and racism are inherently connected.

Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between nationalism and racism.

Nationalism vs. Racism

Anderson concludes by arguing that nationalism and racism—while often viewed as related and even complementary ideologies—are actually highly divergent phenomena. 

Within the nationalist framework, conflict and competition are between nations. This is the basis for history’s most famous nationalist rivalries, conflicts between largely monolithic, unified political communities—India vs. Pakistan, France vs Germany, China vs. Japan.

But, Anderson argues, racism is primarily concerned with internal racial purity. Thus, the biggest threat to the racist is not foreign aggression on the part of another nation, but instead, contamination or impurity from the enemy within. Racism tends to act as a catalyst not for foreign military adventure, but for domestic repression, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and segregation.

Anderson notes that the incompatibility between racism and nationalism can be seen in how racial propagandists downgrade and discount national identity in favor of racial identity. He notes that racial slurs like “gook,” “slant,” or “slope” exist specifically to deny the very existence of nationhood among East Asian peoples. These terms instead compress Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans into an indistinguishable mass. 

Some writers contest Anderson’s assertion that racism and nationalism are inherently different ideologies. In fact, some have argued that nationalism is inherently racist and by definition cannot be separated from racism. The experience of colonialism, according to this argument, shows the fundamentally racist character of nationalism. 

For example, even the most high-born Indian subjects under the British Empire could learn the English language, convert to the Anglican religion, and loyally serve the Crown, but they would never be considered fully “British” by the imperial authorities and would never be able to have the same opportunities of career advancement in London—no matter their qualifications. According to this view, being non-white barred one from full membership in the national community and exposed nationalism as a pseudo-intellectual veil for racial tribalism.
The Fine Line Between Nationalism and Racism

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Imagined Communities summary:

  • An exploration of the phenomenon of nationalism throughout history
  • Why the idea of "the nation" is purely a political innovation
  • How the rise in literacy and the printing of books fueled nationalism

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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