issue 260 - October 1994
Nonsense flies thick and fast when the subject is race and racism.
But is the idea of race itself a nonsense? Dinyar Godrej sets about trying to
dismantle one of humankind’s most damaging devices.
Here is a story of pollution. Once when I was very little – little enough not to remember how little - I got into a temper with my best friend. Running out of appropriate words of abuse and suffering under the blazing afternoon sun while he kept his cool and smirked, I was close to letting my fists do the talking.
Regrettably my brain offered one final jibe it thought might work. Before I could consider, it had tumbled from my mouth: ‘Nigger lover!’
‘Tumbled’ is perhaps inappropriate. The words stuck like fur on my tongue long after I had uttered them. My entire being felt soiled by the filth I had brought to aid my now insignificant anger. It made little difference that my friend remained unshaken by this ultimate missile. It had devastated me.
It was also ridiculous. We were two schoolboys in the heartland of the Malwa plateau of central India – ‘nigger’ should have been a useless word for us. My friend, returned for his schooling from the Indian diaspora in Zambia, should have been infuriated. And how can ‘loving’ someone be reason for hatred?
The guilt returns every time I remember the incident. And with it comes a different kind of anger, deeper and more durable. It is an anger against everything that had colluded to prompt those words to a child. The insidious learning of racism which comes about through our friends and families, the films we watch, the stories we hear, the education we get, the line our politicians peddle.
Come to think of it, reading about Sandy and Sue Smith every day from our British English textbooks didn’t do wonders for my own self-image either. One study has indicated that children as young as three learn to perceive overt ethnic differences and by seven the smallest details of ethnic variation are recognized.1
Those of us with a less than cosy vision of childhood wish there was a way of knowing, before rather than after, the myriad ways by which our racialization occurs; before we are carrying our burdens of pain, guilt and – in the case of ‘out’ racists – hatred.
Because racism affects both offender and victim, albeit unequally. Racist societies are literally sick societies. Their myopia will not let them see that their economic woes are due to economic policies rather than scapegoats: they bear the ulcers of violence, mistrust and inequality. The racist is chained to hatred; it defines and controls. For the person subject to race hatred, every social interaction can be a reminder.
PENNY TWEEDIE / PANOS PICTURES
But what exactly do we mean by race and racism?
Many of us automatically think of the continued disadvantage and persecution wrought on people of colour by whites. However, the idea of race is not just about the colour of one’s skin but also about ethnicity which takes into account physical features, language, religion, ideas of nation and culture. These are the things people use to define themselves as a group. Often when people refer to different races they use now one criterion, now another. Academics are increasingly putting the word ‘race’ in quotation marks to show that it is an ill-defined and misleading term.
More clear is how the notion of race is used. Racism is about people from dominant groups exerting their power unjustly over others. The only justification they can offer for their behaviour is that they belong to a ‘superior’ race.
In the past racist science attempted to prove this. Many of us have, lurking at the back of our minds, the idea of four distinct races with specific physical characteristics: Negroid, Caucasian, Asian and Mongoloid. I had the misfortune to be taught this in Geography class at school. Despite the staying power of such pseudoscientific mumbo, the facts are very different. The genetic differences within such so-called ‘races’ are greater than those between them. All people on our planet come from common genetic stock.
It is not surprising that such racial classification flourished in the colonial heyday when ‘inferior’ races were exploited in the most inhuman way possible. Nineteenth-century scientists were busy trying to prove the similarity between Africans and apes. At least 30 million Africans were killed as they were brought to the New World packed in chains into the holds of slave ships.2 That’s about the number of African Americans in the US today. Denial of their humanity was an important justification for this slaughter. The marked difference in skin colour was used to support this excuse.
But skin colour and physical features have no meaning in themselves. They gain importance when society loads them with social and cultural significance. The idea of race has always been a social construct. Once it takes root it permeates not just into our minds but into our governments, judiciaries, economies, media and education systems. It carries on relentlessly trailing disadvantage in its wake.
Turning the screw
Consider how racism lives on in former colonies. The South American continent, especially Latin America, is a case in point. Black descendants of African slaves are on the lowest rungs of social and economic hierarchies, often segregated in distinct geographical areas. Blacks can only move up in society through a process called blanqueamiento or ‘whitening’. This involves black people internalizing the racism they experience and marrying ‘up’ along the colour line so that their children may have a better chance.
But it doesn’t end with colour. Racism directed against Jews has never been about colour and it is alive and well in South America – as in several other parts of the world. By a perverse misreading of the Bible it is claimed that the Jews are a distinct race because of their ‘tainted’ blood. Such theories caused widespread persecution of Jews in medieval Europe. The Nazis killed six million Jews in a racial holocaust when the real issue was German nationalism. Today in South America anti-Semitic propaganda is the safety valve for regimes with discontented populations. In Argentina rumours are circulating of an Israeli plot to use parts of mountainous Patagonia as a gigantic freezer for Jewish produce.3 The Government turns the screw on the population at large, the population blames Jews, the status quo is maintained.
But if the Jews were all one race in this sense, they should be one big happy family. Instead recent Israeli news reports have drawn attention to Jews of Ethiopian origin encountering racism from white Jews.
Race continues to mean now one thing, now another because it has no meaning in itself. To make sense out of the nonsense one has to look for the real reasons behind the racial ones. We need only look at the changing face of racism in Europe. Banding together in prosperous nation states, Fortress Europe is hostile not just to non-white people but to poor whites from Eastern Europe as well. ‘Foreigners’ are the victims of this new super-nationalism. Culture replaces skin colour – something the Irish in the UK have always known. Ethnic discrimination and racial discrimination become the same thing.
Nott and Gliddon, Types of Mankind (sic), 1854.
Links in the chain
The visible face of all this fractiousness is the racist on the street spraying graffito on a wall or pushing excrement through a letter box. But racism is not just about bad behaviour on a personal level; it percolates into all our social systems. The largest of these systems are the state and governments. In the West state racism is well documented. During the recent European recession politicians have blamed immigrants and refugees, pitting poor people against each other when the economy, not race, is the real problem. Far-Right politicians fuel far-Right hate groups and racist violence erupts to no-one’s great surprise.
In the Majority World the racist state is often the nation state – which itself is a Western concept. The rhetoric is of building ethnic unity within a single strong nation. The practice is that the dominant group’s values take over ‘national’ values – difference gets punished.
Since World War Two around 40 ethnic groups have been the victims of state-sponsored mass murder. The death toll exceeds the combined deaths in international, colonial and civil wars. The news media calls it ‘ethnic conflict’. But the conflict is usually about political, economic or social power between people who have come to identify each other in ethnic terms.4
The nation state is particularly unfriendly to minorities that live on its margins, as the world-wide crisis of indigenous peoples testifies. If they are not being subjected to genocidal repression they are being bludgeoned into servitude to dominant groups. In the case of the Nuba of Sudan, their identity is threatened with obliteration. The Nuba are being forcibly moved to labour camps or to households of Sudanese Arabs to work as servants by the Government of Kardofan State. In 1992 tens of thousands were being moved monthly. Their traditions are forbidden and their languages and dialects – over 50 in all – will probably fall silent. At present the Nuba Mountains are sealed off to all outsiders.5
If states and governments are racist then it is no surprise that other social institutions are as well. At a recent people’s tribunal against racist violence in London I heard a string of nightmarish accounts of wrongful arrests, unequal sentences, beatings and abuse by the guardians of the law. All this was coupled with lethargy in acting upon serious crimes where the victim had a dark skin or was a ‘foreigner’.
In the workplace minority communities get the worst jobs, have the highest rates of unemployment and may even be enslaved – in Mauritania out of a total population of two million about 90,000 black people live as slaves to Berbers.6 Minority groups have worse access to state services – like the old Maya woman in Guatemala who told a foreign aid worker there was no point in going to the hospital, the doctor wouldn’t see her.7 They are caricatured by the media or rendered invisible – if Neighbours were Australia you could be forgiven for thinking only white people lived there. In education anti-racist teaching is low on the agenda and the barrage of the dominant culture continues.
The cumulative force of all this corrodes the conscience, makes it acquiesce, until you are left with the absurdity of an Indian child shouting ‘Nigger lover!’ across a playground.
PETER MOSYUSKI / PANOS PICTURES
You and I might not consider ourselves personally to be racists. But racism is about much more than personalities; it is about privilege. In a racist society all our social structures become polluted, privileging dominant groups at the expense of all others. Therein lies its rationale. Building our societies around competition rather than co-operation we continually reinvent racism. It’s not some primitive remnant; we are continually learning and teaching it. So it’s not enough to be against the racist on the street – though that helps. We have to push for change at every level. Societies and systems are changing all the time and ordinary people are changing them.
We may be involved in political action without being aware of it. Usually we grab hold of one end of a vast system that’s troubling us and pull it in the direction we’d like it to go. If we are to be committed to anti-racism, we cannot let ourselves be disempowered by the magnitude of the problems or languish in guilt. It’s a question of pulling from our own corner – telling local politicians what we think about them, complaining about biased reporting in the paper we read, protesting against tokenistic or culturally insensitive education, helping to improve the atmosphere at our workplace, supporting local campaigns against racial injustice.
Some countries are setting examples too. In Mauritius, which has several ethnic groups, the job market is moving from being segregated along ethnic lines to getting the best person for the job. Its numerous languages and peoples are heard and seen on television. Education is free. Interethnic marriages and relationships are growing. But growing ethnic equality doesn’t mean everyone shares the same culture now. Cultures in Mauritius remain distinct and yet reasonably integrated.
Integration is about equality and not sameness. Attempting to dismantle the idea of race in society involves seeking out the reasons why race gets used to disguise other problems. It does not mean flattening out difference but creating equity at every level of society. It means being able to see through racial lies and treating cultural and other differences equally. It also means being able to criticize cultural baggage including that of our own culture.
All too often in the name of integration minorities are required to deny their entire way of life and conform to the majority culture. They are browbeaten for not trying hard enough. They are told to ‘fit into’ a society that may be openly hostile to them and gives them scant respect. Such ‘integration’ is like trying to press rocks through a sieve.
If we are to talk of integration we must recognize that the race problem is created and maintained by those privileged by racism even though the disadvantaged are usually blamed. The challenge then is to look squarely at this unfair privilege – especially if it benefits us – and to make the effort to understand how it affects people across the divides of colour, culture, language and religion. This means tackling not only racist inequalities within societies but also those between countries, for economic colonialism today carries on the racist traditions of imperial colonialism, binding people of the majority world with the shackles of unfair trade and debt extraction.
Only then can we start unlocking the device that does us all such physical, emotional, social and moral damage.
I am Rwandese
I know people are interested in knowing whether you are a Tutsi, Hutu or a Twa. I happen to be a Tutsi. I prefer, though, to be called Rwandese.
When the German and the Belgian colonizers came, Rwanda had one nation – one people sharing the same language, the same political system and the same religion..
The Belgians found a system of highly-organized local communities and explained it to themselves in terms of what they were familiar with – the framework of lords and servants.
They said: ‘Whoever has more than 10 cows is Tutsi, whoever has less is a Hutu.’ As to defining a Twa: ‘Well a Twa is a Twa. Full stop.’
Because Tutsis were seen to be like the lords of medieval Europe the Belgians thought: ‘We can work with them. We can put them in a position to rule.’ They created the gap and then reinforced it by schooling sons of Tutsi chiefs for leadership. The Hutu ‘peasantry’ were schooled for priesthood. There was no education for women...
Physical stereotyping took place too. The first missionaries wrote things like: ‘We met Tutsi who are tall...’ People came along with instruments to measure nose length and width. This was nonsense – but the stereotyping persists today. A report from the recent war describes it as ‘a war between the tall and the short people’.
When the Tutsi and the Hutu élite started asking for independence the Belgians told the Hutus: ‘Look, the Tutsis have reached a good level of wealth and education. now they want us to leave the country to them. They will exploit you.’ In 1958 a very pro-Hutu party called Parmehutu was created with the help of the colonialists. Tutsis and pro-independence Hutus were killed and the first wave of refugees left.
Reporters say there have been generations of hatred between the two, which is totally wrong. I saw it start in 1959. From then to the present day there have been many conflicts.
After independence in 1962 a communal kind of government was set up. Those who were excluded by the Parmehutu came back from exile in 1963, 1964 and 1967. And every time there were massacres. I remember going for Christmas holidays from my school in December 1963. In my class there were six children from Gikongoro. Only one of them came back. All the others were killed.
The 1973 coup brought President Habyarimana to power. ‘National unity’ was his aim – but he soon forgot this. He started the politics of exclusion again, privileging Hutus from the North. The West chose to ignore this.
After the plane crash killed him, reporters talked about the Hutus and the Tutsis and referred to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as a Tutsi organization, ignoring the fact that it includes Twa and Hutu officers.
The UN said: ‘Let’s take our people out, we don’t want them dying in a tribal conflict’. So the killers went on killing with impunity.
What is happening in Rwanda needs to be addressed not in terms of ethnicity but in terms of who the killers are. Ethnicity is a part of the problem because it has been created to be part of the problem. Because of brainwashing, it has taken on an independent life.
The big challenge for the Government is to kick out the racism that simplifies the whole situation to one equation – the Hutu and Tutsi, always forgetting the Twa. If the Government is clear that the political problem is about maintaining peace and justice for all then it can succeed.
We need to teach people how to read and write; to get them informed so that they can learn about democracy, human rights and respect for minorities.
Joseph Mutaboba studied and now teaches Information and Communication studies at the University of North London. He is consultant on Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire to NGOs and commentator on those countries for the BBC World Service.
1 The Working Group Against Racism in Children’s Resources Newsletter, No 3, Summer 1991.
2 Center for Democratic Renewal, When Hate Groups Come to Town, CDR (Montgomery, Alabama, 1992).
3 Judith Laikin Elkin, ‘Colonial Legacy of Anti-Semitism’, Report on the Americas, Vol 25 No 4, February 1992.
4 See Rodolfo Stavenhagen, The Ethnic Question, UNUP (Tokyo, 1990).
5 Human Rights Watch/Africa and Survival International.
6 International Herald Tribune 14 July 1994.
7 Indigenous Guatemalans are not numerically a minority but their share of power makes them one.