Tuesday 17 September 2013

A Brief Note on Racism

Just lately I have heard the words 'racism is power combined with prejudice', although the word 'privilege' is sometimes used in place of 'power'.  Often, it is expressed thus:


as though making it look like an equation will somehow make it more convincing.  Certainly, it seems to be repeated like a mantra, as though many repetitions will turn a trite soundbite into a truism.

There is, of course, one problem with this little phrase:  it's a load of old bollocks.  Let me explain why.

I could invoke the dictionary definitions of racism at this point, which define it as being discrimination against a person on the basis of their race.  I'm not going to do that, though, as it is often the sign of a weak argument, not to mention being a logical fallacy of the argumentum ad verecundiam sort. No, no.  I shall leave such floundering to those that can manage no better.

Let us instead take a look at the thinking behind this sentence.

The idea is that to be racist, one must be in a position of power over the one against whom one is discriminating.  I have actually seen the belief expressed that it is 'impossible for black people to be racist', although this has had to be hastily amended to 'impossible for black people to be racist against white people', and then to 'impossible for black people to be racist against white people in Western countries' when it is pointed out who wields the power in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa.

But this whole idea, this way of thinking, is utterly flawed.  Let us presume that we are talking about the UK.  If a white person espouses opinions to the effect that all people who are not white are inferior and should be treated as such, that white person would be called racist, and their ideals held to be vile and execrable.

That's fine - I can get right behind that.

But if a black, Asian, etc person were to say the same thing about white people, that apparently would be fine and dandy.  Because white people, you see, have the power.  All of them, without exception. Yes.

You can see where the wheels are starting to come off this argument already, can't you?  If all white people are in a position of power, why are so many of them poor and disregarded by successive governments?

Well, now we must look at just what we mean by 'power'.  Being the majority, perhaps?  No, that won't work - no-one would have said that black South Africans under Apartheid had power, despite being the majority by a very long way.

Does it mean being in government?  Well it could; again, looking at South Africa under Apartheid, the government was drawn pretty much exclusively from the white population.  By definition, then, black South Africans now all have power.  All of them.  Even those that live in the townships and can barely scratch a living.

Seems pretty flimsy to me.

Is it perhaps a combination of the two?  Being of the demographic that forms the majority and forms most or all of the government?  It might do. It might well do.  But that's the norm in most countries, isn't it - that the indigenous population forms its own government?  I thought that this was a good thing?  Power to the people and all that.

Perhaps 'power' means being socially dominant?  Isn't that the same thing as being the majority?  Cultural dominance - same thing again.  Oh dear.  We have attempted to grasp what power means in this context, and it's like trying to grasp smoke.  It evaporates like faerie gold at sunrise.

Maybe it means not being subject to the same laws as other demographics within the overall population?  Yes, that might be it!  It would fit the word 'privilege' well too.  I think that we are onto something here.  A person who is part of a group, race or sub-culture - within a larger population - that is accorded greater rights and less responsibility than everyone else.  A group that is not required to observe certain laws that nevertheless pertain to the rest of the population.  A group that cannot be called racist or be prosecuted for racism when they actively discriminate against other races in that population?

Sounds like power to me.  The kind of power that a man on the street might have.

So, if a member of one race can discriminate against people of another race and not face censure of any sort, that person can be said to have power.  Which combined with their prejudice, makes them racist.

So if we examine the original equation-like argument above:

If you say that black people cannot be racist against white people, you are saying that black (or insert any non-caucasian race here) people are exempted from the laws, mores and manners of society with regard to discrimination.  Which means that black people have power.  Which, if one them exhibited prejudice, would by your very own argument make him racist.

If, on the other hand, you say that only white people can be racist, you are saying that they cannot escape censure for discrimination, which would mean that they lacked power.  Which would mean that they were not being racist.  Which would mean that they could not be accused of any wrongdoing.  Which would mean that they had power.  Oh dear.  What a very circular argument.

All of which is to say - the argument that racism equals power plus prejudice is bullshit.  Racism really is discriminating against people on the basis of their race.  Their race, mind - not religion (but that's a subject for another time).  Just that.  Doesn't matter what the make-up of the population is, if you discriminate against someone solely on the basis of their race, you're a racist.

Oh, before we go, two other things.

Firstly, isn't it racist to refer to black people as though they were a single homogeneous race?  You know, given that only 100,000 people originally left Africa to form the population of the rest of the world, and everybody else stayed in Africa.  Which is why there is far greater genetic diversity within Africa than outside it, and that there is therefore no such thing as 'the black race'.  There are a lot of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples in Africa - lumping them all in together is orientalism, and arguably racist.

Secondly, please do bear in mind also that, if you wish to say that any ethnic minority or minorities within a country cannot ever be considered racist; if those minorities should be better represented in government to a degree disproportionate to their size within the general population; if you wish to grant any those minority groups greater power and control over the country - you are arguing in favour of Apartheid in South Africa. Doesn't matter if you are talking about the UK - you are saying that the principles of Apartheid are sound.

It also means that if you claim that 'black people can't be racist' - you are arguing in favour of Apartheid.  Either that, or you are saying that Apartheid wasn't racist.

Just saying.

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