KAMPALA – Modern racism is a phenomenon that is increasingly harder to talk about. Like bigotry, it has gone underground, and emerges often in the forms of habits, expressions, subconscious associations, and internalised superiority or inferiority, which in turn find their source in institutionalised racism. We think of the Racist as a white hillbilly spouting racist nonsense, muttering about the Civil War. The Racist is the Neo-Nazi with the swastika tattoos on his arm. The uneducated, uncompromising idiot who passes judgement based on hopelessly out-dated stereotypes.
Widespread sentiment is that we are in post-racist times. Sure, there are some racists out there, but what they spout is based on individual expression, not on institutionalised or structural discriminatory mechanisms. We, as liberal and open-minded people, are not racist. I am sensitive to the few racist traditions still in place; the few small expressions of race-based stereotypes, but me, a racist?!
Reality couldn’t be further from these sentiments. Grotesque racism was not eradicated after the Civil Rights Movement. Although legal-institutional racism is not existent in its extreme forms in most modernized and democratic societies anymore, implementation of this principle is far from perfect, or even acceptable standards. All are treated the same in the face of the law, but in practice this is not the case whatsoever. It reminds me of George Orwell’s: all pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others.
Race is widely recognized as a social invention. Its supposed scientific-empirical basis as been disproven and discredited long ago. The genetic variation within the human race cannot be categorised in sub-races. There is no Black race, no Asian race, no Caucasion or white race. Period. End of discussion.
Skin colour is just another genetic variation, like eye colour, or hair colour, or a genetic disposition of colon cancer. To state that Black people form some sort of unity because they’re black is like saying all people taller than 1.80m meet up for tea, or that everyone with brown eyes go bowling weekly. It’s non-sensical.
Race as a social construct, however, still very much exists. For centuries, we assumed race was real. We categorised people accordingly and attached value-judgments to each of these categories. Westen-European countries justified the conquering and division of Africa by saying that the Black man was uncivilised, barbaric, and uncapable of governing himself or his fellows. For civilisation to come to these outlands, we as good Christians should govern them. In exchange for this altruistic and grand gesture, we reserve the right to exploit their labour, extract their resources, and move their bodies (across the Atlantic, mostly).
Social cohesion and in- versus outgroup identification works in such a way membership is usually completely arbitrary. Just think of football fans: is there really a difference to be found between the supporters of club A versus club B, or are these differences result of projection (of negative characteristics) upon the other group, and self-praise of one’s own? Nationalism works the exact same way. Self-fulfilling prophecies can give rise to actual differences, which are in turn used as a justification for the projection of negative characteristics.
And so does race. If people have insisted for centuries that you are a member of any group or unity, at some point, that reinforcement (and rejection by others) makes you behave accordingly to that insistence. Black people (or African-Americans in the U.S.) are a group because we made them into one. Insistence of other social groups and their subsequent rejection, increased the social cohesion amongst Black people.
In the case of Black people, race often overlaps with socio-economic indicators, class-based thinking, and social-economic stratification. In the U.S., “urban neighboorhoods” are often predominantly black or Hispanic, a phenomenon observed with most (migrant) minorities. The banlieues in Paris are predominantly occupied by Northern-African immigrants. These minorities are often marginalised (because of their immigrant status, culture, or race), and because of this marginalisation, are often found amongst the lower ranks of society, with low income, inadequate education, without many opportunities for social mobilisation.
This also means that class warfare, discussions on benefits or social security, unemployment, education, immigration (often, though not always), and healthcare have racial components. These are often overlooked or ignored by people who do not want address the fact that discussion on these issues is inevitably a proxy-discussion on race. The insistence of some people that we are not talking about race also makes it difficult to identify or deal with racism when it comes to, let’s say, social security, or education. Being anti-immigration, or nationalist, or part of a rally to “reclaim Australia” (as the gentlemen at the top of this page) does not automatically mean that you are a racist. It also does not mean that you’re not one.
To refer back to my introduction, it is important to realise that racism is still institutionalised, although people who are not discriminated against may not even be aware of this institutionalisation. We may have overcome struggles, but racism is still a serious social issue. Saying, however, that we have come *this far* is a form of undeserved self-praise since there was no reason for us to be that far out in the first place.
We need to acknowledge that the problem is not that old geezer or that extremist asshole. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lets her main character Ifemelu in her novel Americanah say: The Modern Racist is a reasonable, nice person, with a decent job. The Modern Racist might be male, female, might be highly educated or not. The Modern Racist might have a family, have lots of friends he or she is very compassionate towards. Racism is permeated through our entire cultures and societies, and is not isolated or restricted to those few individuals everyone loves to loathe.
Author’s note: this series is about race and racism, and will include one or more guestblogs of a good friend of mine. To be honest, I am not as well-versed in modern racism as a social issue as I’d like to be, so bear with me, or tell me why I am wrong. Although I’d like to describe myself as a generally aware and sensible person, privilige undoubtedly colours my perspective.