Preamble: Since it seems necessary, I would like to point out that I do not feel hatred against white people for the colour of their skin or any other reason. I don’t really hate white people. I hate the institution and the power they have – the privilege they have. This distinction is important.
The largest argument I seem to have with white colleagues is on whether it’s possible to be racist to white people. Their natural reaction (especially if they’re male and heterosexual) is that it obviously is. The argument often stems down into the gutter, without a real discussion of the core subject: what is “racism” and in fact, what is “race”?
What is race?
A history of racism can only be stemmed back to Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines – the first real argument for scientific racism. But the origins of this essay start from Aristotle’s need to categorise and define phenomena, and then institutionalized by Darwin’s Origin of Species. From then on, “race” becomes directly linked to biological features. Essentially – while humans were generally recognised as of the same species (they could, afterall, reproduce together) the distinctions in their features could only be attributed to being of different ‘race’ – or so the argument ran.
But deeply embedded in race was an interpretation of evolution that supported a hierarchy of “progress” or “civilisation”. Indeed, Marx argued that although Asians were once advanced, they become “stuck in history” and therefore remained inferior. As I’ve said before:
[This] 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.
This system of social ranking matched a previous interpretation of societal order used by the clergy and the royalty. Their theory, called the Great Chain of Being, argued that God was supreme, then the royalty, the Clergy, the peasants, animals, etc. This order generally allowed for the oppression of people seen as less “pure” – specifically in the sense of Faith. And it was under this banner that other peoples could be oppressed (like the Welsh and Irish and Scottish). It was also the banner under which the crusades were launched. After all, God was supposedly on your side.
The crucial difference between these types of oppression was the frame in which they were rationalised and accepted. Both saw the oppressed as lesser than human – but the narrative separates there.
The industrial revolution came with a price – and that price was resources. Resources were expensive for mass production, so it was easy to use the excuse of “helping the savages become civilised” to gain access to the trade. Our economy was justified by “science” that had its origins in misinterpretation! The actors in perpetuating this myth were not only the English, but the people they repressed too – the Welsh, Scots and Irish were active participants in the anhilation of indigenous populations.
To argue simply – the Englishman saw himself as superior to the Irishman, but next to an African, they would band together. More complexly, the cultural similarities between “white” peoples meant that the black peoples were Othered. If Heart of Darkness can represent thoughts of the time – the black man was not only seen as looking back on our history, but also as exoticised, as simple-minded fools or as blood-loving savages. These feelings were not of fear, but of denigration. reading Mungo Park, for example, it’s so clear what he sees is not something which is terrifying, but something that makes him internally writhe!
Race, as we know now, does not biologically exist. What it is now is a politically charged term that defines how power works – but it cannot and will not escape its origins.
Who are the culprits?
All of us. Within our society, as far as we accept them, the fact is that racism is ingrained into our behaviour. If you think of science, for example, we accept it as truth without pausing to think about the cultural assumptions that it is based on. John Gray covers that beautifully in Straw Dogs when he highlights the overly Christian universalising narrative that overflows into every aspect of physics. We have grown so accustomed to hearing our own cultural narratives, that they have been normalised for us. We stand on grounds of institutionalised racism, blind to what lies beneath us.
That’s not to say we can’t change this. Bourdieu once argued that we continually re-enact the actions of our ancestors for culture to survive. He called this the habitus – these are the structures that shape the way we think, act and behave. If you’d like – the habitus is the pair of sunglasses you’re wearing, but don’t even know you have. But circumstances (like someone shouting out “Look, you’ve got sunglasses on!”) can change that. We can become aware of our perspective and try to correct its flaws.
Can you be racist to a white person?
The answer is still murky – as the definition of race has changed somewhat. The politics of race are not as firm as they were, but there is still a coherent deep root of racism that has not been removed. I believe that you can be prejudiced against someone who is white, but being racist means that it’s institutionalised within a culture. As far as I can tell, xenophobia (as seems to mark anti-white immigrant attitudes) is more prevalent, but there is no scientific basis for this hatred.
Things defined as ‘racist’ to white people is barely scraping the surface of a long historically entrenched battle for equality. Mark it down as an issue of privilege if that makes you feel more comfortable, but there are still advantages of being white.
You can look at Shiv Sena, anti-white bombers, and give me a million different examples of the racism against white people argument, but more often than not that hatred stems from a history of facing racism themselves. It is a natural reaction (though I do not condone it) that people act violently in response. It is far to simple to see any anti-Western action as racist because that makes racism not a unique thing. But in order to claim that, I suggest you first give us (People of Colour) equality of opportunity – stop placing ridiculous trade laws on our countries, stop your police harassing us on the street because of the colour of our skin, understand our cultures and the fact that perhaps we don’t see the world as clear-cut as you do.
I have often gone to interviews where they are expecting a male candidate because, as I have been told, “Well, it’s because of your name, you see. We couldn’t tell.” Or perhaps the most exciting of all, where someone speaks to you really slowly because you just may not understand English (I’ve also been asked if I can read on various occasions). Or perhaps it’s that fabulous time that you have when you go to the airport and you (and your 12 year old sister) and a couple of other brown people (plus the extra odd white person) are the only people stopped for a full body search.
But what’s important?
You can argue that being working class is worse, or that being homosexual is worse, but in the end it’s not a battle to see who is the least privileged. We are all guilty of privilege – racism or otherwise – and we need to recognise that this is a deeper embedded societal issue. Let’s not bicker over where, why and how, but notice how we can work together to try and tackle the causes of our oppression.