Many liberal mouths fell open as they watched the now famous tram woman loudly mouth, “You ain’t British, you’re black,” followed by the ever-so-common, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” Shock Horror! Could it be that a woman with a young child could actually vocally express the thoughts of the Daily Express out loud?! The outcry was enormous; people from all sectors of “middle Britain” were disgusted, scandalised that their society could breed such racism (even though the entire election campaign last year was run on an anti-immigration platform). Worse, many murmured how no-one said anything about it until that tram woman started swearing obnoxiously and a black woman wanted to protect her child’s ears.
But the tram women didn’t shock many People of Colour. Racism runs deep in British culture, its roots embedded into a tradition of scientific racism, Enlightment thinking and thus, social Darwinism. The institutionalisation of White superiority has a long trend in history, spreading from Christian myths of The Great Chain of Being to slipping into the scientific rationalist narrative of the Enlightment from the Gobineau’s famous essays Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) in 1855. The scientific paradigm splurged into a physical analysis of the inferior races – from Saartjie Baartman (the Hottentot Venus) to eugenics and the physical “ugliness” of the black man/woman.
Underlying all of these studies of the “natural sciences” was a metanarrative of cultural evolution. Although not all argued that evolution was progressive, the prevailing discourse of “civilisation versus barbarian” soon vindicated the progressives arguments. The time of Enlightment was being shaped, and thus, the origins of science as we know it. And within that soaring thirst for knowledge was a greater thirst for power. Europe grew competitive, bloodthirsty for new materials and minerals – all of which had to come from the lands asunder. And since the occupants of these lands lacked the desire to exploit their resources or, with the same appetite, it was justifiable to convert the “darkies” into slaves. Afterall, they were idiots, unlike the fine and civilised minds of the European.
In these tumultuous times, the left was being born. Following in the footsteps of Lewis H. Morgan, Auguste Comte and particularly, Herbert Spencer, Marx built his theory of change. Like his predecessors, he viewed change as a battle for materiality where sectors of society would compete for material ownership (and therefore, authority), resulting with the disenfranchised masses overcoming the weak and minority in power. Yet, these revolutions were based on a linear, hierarchical view of societal ‘progress’. Africans were at the very bottom of the revolutionary rungs, and the once civilised Asia, “fell asleep in history”.
In all the liberation movements since, little has been done to tackle the deep cultural imperialism that is rooted in our scientific, sociological and political structures. The language of the right dehumanises the Other, seeing them as unwanted leeches sucking away their wealth. The language of the left still resonates with concepts of ‘progress,’ with little (or no) revision as to what that actually means. So while People of Colour are allowed to work, to vote, and by law face the same ‘privileges’ of their ‘white’ peers, in actuality they are still seen as ‘backward’ and denied the same confidence and sense of belonging that goes along with being ‘white’.
An even larger problem is that many now believe the lie that they are perpetually told covertly – that they are lucky to be in such a civilised society, and they should bloody well be grateful. Is it any wonder that racism is a self-perpetuating narrative?
As a person of colour who has had the privileges of being middle class, I am able to morph into being perceived as white – I’m ‘brown’ but don’t ‘seem’ so, thanks to a ‘normal’ accent, a decent education and a distinct lack of strong garlic scent. Yet, many of my fellow ‘white’ colleagues dispute my judgement on these issues – seeking modernist (or at least positivist) concepts of progress.
As Beth says of patriarchy, they are so blinkered by their own “natural/neutral” cultural opinion, that they refuse to recognise that their entire understanding of the world is built on institutionalised racism. Even their belief in “the scientific method” cannot be disturbed by any form of analysis that shows the direct link between “rationality” and colonialism/capitalism. In fact, to merely point out that concepts of linearity or causation are not universal results is a recipe for being ignored. Daring to question the prevailing left-wing metanarrative means you are placed you in “postmodernist” or “cultural relativist” pigeonholes.
They have, of course, all come out loudly against the tram woman’s sentiments. Because, in their world, racism is not a discussion of cultural imperialism or social oppression through liberation politics; it is a moral position which creates unwanted difference, especially in the politics of utilitarianism. To state that everything they know and believe to be right is based on a history and ideology of social repression (and racism) would be to utterly blow apart their worlds. And for that reason, the racism continues.
In the meanwhile, People of Colour are ignored – forced to accept their naturalised inferior status.
This was initially published on Topsoil